Business Media's Digital Agenda: Quick Change

America's business media is getting the double whammy. It struggles with the digital transition, just like other media, while being expected to guide its readers and advertisers through complex issues and hammering out new business models on its way to interactive prosperity.

Media business is a broad category that has come to encompass the traditional generalist and niche print brands extended to the Net, new online publishers, professional bloggers and drill-down data depositories. However, this unwieldy sector is falling short of the challenge of making inventive and bold online initiatives that reach beyond the simple transfer of their print franchise to a stagnant Web site or simply engage in aimless blogging. That's not to say that business media players have been shy about trying their hand at new media platforms. A recent joint survey by the Association of National Advertisers and B2B, conducted by Guideline, found that nearly one-third of responding B2B marketers allocate 20% more of their total media budgets to new media platforms, compared to only 5% of B2C marketers, although both intend to increase future allocations on collaborative deep vertical use of viral video, wikis, RSS feeds, blogs, email, webinars, widgets and social networks.



For advertisers, the prospect of detailed profiling and real-time user metrics means exceeding the confines of conventional impressions and pitches. The print reader has become not just a targeted consumer, but an actual transaction and long-term relationship--all of which should command premium price tags for business media companies. The key is engaging and interacting with users on multiple levels.

Early indications are that the payback can be huge. Digital media costs for B2B companies are about 49% on a 51% profit margin, according to Bear Stearns. Opportunities abound in connecting with and serving the needs of narrow vertical audiences. Clearly, it's anything but business as usual. B2B digital ad revenue will top B2B print revenues by 2009, according to the marketing research company Outsell. Overall, U.S. spending on total B2B media will grow an average annual 6% to $31.5 billion in 2001, according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson. Total professional and business information services will grow an average annual 8% to nearly $197 billion in 2011.

While most branded business media players are receptive--if not resigned--to new interactive platforms, there are a noticeable lack of enterprise mobile applications to cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods and other portable devices that their subscribers are never without. Indeed, a readership survey by Ipsos Media of the Media power elite say they seek out and are influenced by a broad array of new and old media platforms for personal and professional interests, and prefer to get the information and insight they need on the go.

There also are relatively few experimental efforts to dynamically tailor information and analysis for specific constituents with easy-to-use comparative tools. It is yet another example of premium revenue streams that can be developed by providing interpretive, actionable information that can be used immediately by executive decision-makers.

All the same, too many business media players continue to rely on their popular, easy formulas for static lists, tables and even daily news headlines (as if anything on the Web stayed new or exclusive for long) without layering in enough of the caliber of analysis and industry intelligence that is the interactive world's competitive edge. Clearly, the most valuable asset any of them has is the expert insight and unique style of their contributing writers and staffers. Perhaps the most proactive digital showcase is, which aggregates the content of more than 500 business and finance-related bloggers, many of whom share in the advertising revenues generated by the site.

There are, of course, many enterprising and progressive business media players reveling in new concepts. However, time is running out for business media to seize new opportunities to transfer their brand value and leverage reader and advertiser loyalty. Saturation levels are high, and the resources that constituents have to invest are stretched. The gap is narrowing between business-to-business and business-to-consumer press, expanding choice and complexity.

To survive, business media players can't just be a quick read; they need to be a must read. They should be using interactivity to connect readers and advertisers as well as buyers and sellers in new ways, to deepen their targeted ties and transactions. They should develop more sophisticated community interfaces, borrowing best practices from such social networks as Facebook and LinkedIn. This is particularly important as business media entities become more global and need to transfer their services and products across date lines, currencies and cultures. It is not clear how quickly business media companies are prepared to move past the periodic special sections on emerging markets to integrate international business into every aspect of their digital interactive editorial and sales.

Or, the sector might just wait for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to offer some new marching orders on playing the global business game he has helped shape for the past 50 years. However, most sector players say they expect Murdoch's first order of business after buying Dow Jones for a cool $5 billion will be to free the subscription-based and move the Journal's Wall Street orientation more toward Main Street, just as his newly launched Fox Business Channel is doing. Business media generally could become more sensationalized and mainstream-oriented as a result of his high-profile involvement.

Not surprisingly, Murdoch has conceded that he is taking dead aim at the New York Times Business coverage--which, online or on the print page, has led metropolitan newspaper efforts to create energized and interesting online business content. The pending $17.7 billion Thomson Financial-Reuters merger will likewise create an entity that will shift from a stricter B2B to a slightly more B2C orientation.

Indeed, general interest business publications appear to face the toughest battle as they try to stay relevant in times when the broad swath they cut across global commerce can look stale--even on the Internet. On the flip side, many special interest readers and advertisers are also becoming restless with an old-line trade press that generally is content to maintain place-holder branded Web sites and 24/7 online digests.

New business media players crafted in cyberspace--from TechCrunch to Huffington Post--already carry an estimated $100 million market value that reflects not only their journalistic credibility, but their adept use of interactive functionality that engages and serves readers and advertisers. CNET is among the publicly traded online business media entities--with an estimated $1.2 billion market cap--that validates the rising worth of technology-focused business media. This is no Internet bubble.

However, the new business media entrants also struggle with digital form and function. The likes of Red Herring and Industry Standard have transformed from physical print business media to Web entities under the same name, and are testing new business models online.

The trends are unsettling at all corners of the business media universe. Despite its recent redesign and tighter business focus, BusinessWeek's revenues declined 11% and its advertising pages declined 16% from a year earlier. Rival national business magazines such as Fortune suffered similar declines. Their competition, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, are the leading financial news and information Web sites led by Yahoo Finance, MSN Monday, AOL Money and Finance, and CNNMoney--all of which are profitable. Narrowly defining the audience is key. For instance, Mansueto Venture's Fast Company and Inc. magazines have bolstered their operating margins 30% in the past year by avoiding the larger business audience.

Even as consolidation among all manner of business media continues, driven more by merger economics and strategic buyers, there are no guarantees that the combined entities will be any better positioned to make digital inroads. Too many of the highly fragmented business media companies still see their online and digital efforts as separate or ancillary to their old-line print instead of taking up a completely transformed unified cause.

Others are more like CMP--which has literally blown up its legacy business structure to reinvent itself and to create a more agile, effective new business media model from scratch. Among other enterprising new concepts, CMP has a new high-profile component on its Web site called the "thinknet" blog that combines original and user-generated content. Like other business media players, CMP still relies on finely tuned live events and conferences as a profit center.

While there is no shortage of barriers to effective entry--including legacy operations, conservative private owners and distracted conglomerates--business media players still can be their own worst enemies by underestimating the importance of innovation as an agent of change and energy force. Any company that expects to survive as a digital force will need to start thinking outside the box in order to make it off the printed page.

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