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Time to gamble

Way back in 2006, in what seem like prehistoric times now, Ross Sturley wrote a piece for us focussing on the future of B2B publishing. “I’ve seen the future” he declared, before setting out an apocalyptic view of collapse into chaos. Five years on, Ross thought it was time to dust off his crystal ball again.

By Ross Sturley

I began that article by noting that one of my racing tips had come in, and I’m delighted by the symmetry that this year, I’ve just collected all my winnings from the Grand National – Ballabriggs at 14:1, never in doubt. My ability to pick a gee-gee seems, if anything, improved. How about my vision of the future of magazines?

In 2006, we didn’t even have iPhones, let alone iPads, and the concept of the ‘app’ was unknown. Twitter was a baby, just eight months old. The Large Hadron Collider was a construction site, Saddam Hussein was still alive, Tony Blair was Prime Minister, and the UK economy was enjoying something of a boom. Blimey. Sounds like a different world, and it was.

Obviously, I left my predictions of all these things out of my article as they weren’t specifically relevant to the publishing business. Honest.

It’s about Community

What I did say was that those publishers who connected and engaged most effectively with identifiable communities would be the ones who thrived. *tick*. But that shouldn’t be a shock – after all, those characteristics have been the key components of success in business to business markets for over a hundred years.

I also said that controlled circulation titles would find the future challenging. *tick*. Most are now attempting the difficult path to paid-for, going web only, being sold or closing down. Reed has closed historic titles like Contract Journal, and sold ones like Computer Weekly (to Techtarget, who promptly went web only) – and they are not alone. Other major publishers with controlled circulation titles are following suit. With recruitment advertising – the mainstay for most CC titles – all but disappeared from print and heading online at significantly lower yields, this is all unsurprising.

No launches?

No new magazines, I said. Well, that’s not strictly come true. Global Blue launched as I was writing this article. And BBC History launched into Sweden just a few weeks ago. There have been B2B launches too, but it was (I would say this) more of a poetic prediction – I meant that print launches would be seriously reduced, and that digital launches would take over. In fact, according to PPA numbers quoted by Ben Dowell in a recent Guardian piece, trade magazine numbers have fallen from 5,108 to 4,733 in the last five years. *tick*.

I said publishers would seek to generate value from websites, or to add value to print, by bundling the two together; that subscription yields would not improve; that paid subscription volumes would fall under pressure from free-to-air websites; and that the Royal Mail would accelerate their own demise. Half marks? Two out of three?

My end conclusions were that larger B2B media companies would be “challenged”, would find themselves closing more than launching, and would probably be being sold and / or broken up; that engaging communities would be the key to success; and that a whole new set of competitors would emerge – aggregators, search companies, hobbyist bloggers, and a new tier of nimble entrepreneurs.

Since then, Emap’s been sold, and Reed put up for sale. Both they and UBM have closed magazines and launched digital product. There are an amazing number of specialist blogs. Some are hugely popular. The Huffington Post, now the world’s third most popular news website, started as a blog. It was recently acquired by AOL for $315m. Are there new entrants in the media space? I should say so.

So what’s going to happen now? Well, I’ve identified a series of key trends that will influence business information consumption in the medium term, and therefore the economics of its publication and distribution.

1. Journalists take control

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge is the trend for journalists to take control of their online ‘brand’. Twitter has pushed this to the fore. Typically journalists, led by @peston, @krishgm and others, tweet in a personal capacity. They have realised, perhaps by watching Oprah Winfrey, that if they can generate significant personal brand equity, there are fortunes to be made.

This trend can only grow, and we can expect the journalists, rather than the media owners, to own the brand equity that derives from readers’ trust. Gradually they will develop their own ways of extracting value from their positions.

This will place most media owners in a supportive rather than leading role. While media brands with global reach, like the BBC, will continue to be places journalists want to be seen, the more specialised, less well globally known, like the B2B brands, will struggle to cut through. They may become mere aggregators of content, no different in principle from the subscription agents, or from Google. This would turn out to be a seriously unprofitable business on anything less than a global scale, and would result in the exit of most, if not all, of the current players, and the demise of many century-old business information brands.

2. Bloggers come to the fore

Successful bloggers attract large audiences by doing precisely what the publishers seem most afraid of – talking about and linking to other resources on the internet. It’s this activity which gives them large numbers of users looking for a signpost in a bewildering information landscape, and which propels them up the search rankings.

Tools such as Storify and allow anyone to create their own “online publication”. So when everyone can do it, who will be special? How will users choose which to visit, and which to trust?

Bloggers are, to at least some extent, journalists without a parent brand. Since, in the near future, the value of the parent brand will decline for all but the most global – Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and so on – the user distrust of those not allied to a brand should lessen. Those bloggers able to build a following, and keep themselves high in the search results for keywords relating to their subject focus, could find themselves in the same position that editors of nascent B2B titles did in the early years of the 20th century. A new generation of publishers may be born.

3. A failure of ingenuity

Technology is failing the publishing industry. Well – not strictly true. Technology is delivering to the publishing industry the solutions it thinks it wants. Actually, it is wrong.

Publishers are finding comfort in online publishing tools like Yodl and Zinio which replicate the page-turning experience of their historic paper models. They reason, I imagine, that what they need to do is preserve the way that people browse printed magazines in an online environment, and this will magically preserve the value delivered by placing traditional page advertisements in the middle of interesting editorial. Either that or they still can’t get their heads around the new dimensions.

Sadly, they ignore several things:

* That the browsing experience for these “print-replicator” tools on a typical landscape PC screen is poor. We haven’t all got iPads, and probably won’t ever do so, as the mobile phone is a much more effective way to access information on the move. iPads will go the way of the video cassette recorder. You heard it here first.

* That with people increasingly moving to mobile technology, and staying with small, easily carried devices, this format is quite simply unworkable. Download speeds, utility, search capability – #fail.

* That these tools fail to enable the “web” bit of www. They perform poorly in search. And the joy of linking off to other resources in other places which the internet makes easy is largely prohibited, partly by publisher choice, as they try to trap their reader.

* The ads are less viewed than in print as users generally apply the internet mindset, zeroing in quickly on what they want, and ignoring pretty much everything else.

This last point will, probably, kill the business model behind the print-replicator tools, as readers gradually realise there is little of specific interest to them in their weekly magazine-lookalike, and resort to Google to find their news and information. The point of reading a magazine is that much of what you consume is not of specific relevance right now. Browsing works in print, and not on the internet.

This inability to see the best applications of the “new” technology will put publishers at a considerable disadvantage over those new entrants who can provide that which the modern business information consumer wants, and gradually, the new entrants will take over.

4. Localism wins

It’s a trendy sort of word, particularly in political circles, but here I’m using it to describe the focus on local or specialist issues that is likely to bring success.

The term ‘browser’, when applied to the internet is misleading. On the web, business users are focussed. They generally want to use Google to get to the specific piece of information they want, read it, then go away and do something with it. This is ‘localist’ in the extreme, and clearly favours those who focus very specifically on the shared needs of a tight community.

B2B media brands have become more generalist as media companies have acquired portfolios of related titles and either folded them in, or looked to position them as related or sub-brands to some sector-killing umbrella-brand. This generalist spread does not suit the specialist information seeker, or the way information is evaluated and used unless the trust in the umbrella is so powerful that it will be held by a vast audience. Most B2B titles do not have such widespread trust, and will find their authority usurped by a selection of niche-focussed “localists” with more energy and commitment to their community than a large overhead-challenged B2B media company can afford.

The end of publishing?

The issues may be changing, but the theme is not. The technological and social issues relating to the publishing, dissemination, finding and using of business information are likely to be better exploited by a nimble new entrant with no overhead legacy than any of the incumbents in the B2B media space.

That some of these new entrants have been given their platform by the very people they will replace is an irony, but such a thing has happened many times before. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, it is by standing on others’ shoulders that people get ahead.

If B2B publishers are to avoid being trodden down by this process, it may be time to take a leaf from the horse racing industry, and gamble on embracing the changes, ditching their baggage, and behaving like those who may otherwise take their place.