The Future of B2B Trade Media

Marty Batteen

The internet has disrupted most industries, but publishing must have experienced some of the biggest shocks due to digitalisation. I’m amazed how journalists and publishers have responded to the need to change, but it’s not over yet. Having talked with a few people in the media at the recent embedded world conference in Germany, I’ve been wondering what’s next for the B2B trade media I love.

The future of B2B trade media is likely to be a complex mix of providing independent editorial that readers want to consume and giving advertisers the distribution to reach readers who are potential customers. Trade media is also likely to expand their range of activities, with events playing a bigger role and innovative online technologies offering ways for advertisers to target a bigger relevant audience. This post examines the options for the sector and suggests some likely outcomes.

The Value of B2B Media

Ultimately trade media brings value in two key areas:

Third-party endorsement: when a journalist writes about your product or service, they are providing tacit endorsement. Numerous studies have shown that a journalist or other third party carries more weight than you promoting your organisation and its offerings.

Distribution: pre-internet (yes, I remember those times) getting information to people was expensive as you needed to pay postage for each message sent (and print it). You also needed a database of people to whom you could send the content. Today the cost of distribution is low, at least once you have purchased your marketing automation or email platform, but the cost of data is arguably higher due to legislation like GDPR, and the fact information is much more freely available online. Today it’s the SEO of the publication’s website and the names in the database that you don’t know that are the gold to be mined by companies through PR and advertising.

Although there are arguably many other benefits of trade media. A good example is attention: people are more likely to pay attention to a publication’s email newsletter than a marketing email from a company, but they tend to be related to endorsement or distribution.

Changes in B2B Publishing

There have been numerous changes in B2B publishing. Some have been slow, while others feel like they happened overnight.

The move to online publishing is an obvious one. Although some publications remain print-first, with a limited website offering, pretty much all publications have a strong online presence that simply didn’t exist when I started my career. Online, however, introduces something that print never had: a scarcity of advertising opportunities. With a magazine, you just print another page to accommodate more ads, whereas with online publishing you are limited by the number of page views on your website and the slots available in your email newsletter.

I’d argue that B2B publishers have also looked for new revenue sources. When I started my career, fewer events were organised by publishers, but now they are driving many of the seminars and conferences in industry. It’s been very obvious how important those revenue streams have been as many publishers saw sales slump dramatically during the pandemic when they couldn’t run events.

Perhaps the most important thing that has happened is that advertising has become more measurable with the move to online. Although many companies are using vanity metrics such as CTR and clicks to determine success, rather than digging deeper to find metrics that measure the impact on their business, most advertisers are measuring in some way. This means that publishers need to deal with direct comparisons between the perceived RoI from advertising with them compared to other activities such as search engine marketing. New ways of comparing and new competitors: massive change!

There are detractors of B2B trade media who point to a reduction in quality, primarily due to shrinking editorial teams due to financial pressures on publishers. Is this true? Possibly. But I think it’s unfair to say that quality has fallen. Online publishing means that journalists can spend more time writing and less time “flat-planning” print pages. Publications may be producing fewer articles that deliver new insights because the deep research that was conducted, but the journalists have not lost their talent. Back in the “glory days” of print publishing, there were many great articles, but there was also a lot of product news, and today I would absolutely argue we still see great editorial pieces. So maybe things haven’t changed as much as the naysayers believe.

The Challenge of Online B2B Publishing

Publishing has never been easy, but it’s incredibly difficult for trade publications in the digital age. Firstly, information is much more freely available: I remember as a salesperson in the component industry having to deal with the shock that I couldn’t get an appointment by simply offering to deliver a data book because data sheets were available online. It’s even worse for publishers: no longer do people need to read magazines to see what new products have been launched. And the companies themselves are all focused on growing their owned media operations, which directly compete for eyeballs with the publishers.

And this is the challenge for publishers: they have lost what was almost a monopoly over distribution. While it’s true that a publication can reach beyond the audience of any supplier, it’s also true that anyone can drive readers to their website. To be blunt, 20 years ago a trade publication would be the place you would have read this article, rather than an agency’s blog.

Options for the Future

There are several ways that B2B media could change in the future. I’ll examine them one by one to see what makes the most sense.

Maintaining the Status Quo

Perhaps things are OK: let’s face it, there is a vibrant trade media sector with publications about almost every industry you can name, particularly in countries such as the UK and Germany. Maybe Billy Joel had it right when he sang:

Don’t go changing to try and please me
You never let me down before,
Don’t imagine you’re too familiar
And I don’t see you anymore

Unfortunately, the next line in the song is “I would not leave you in times of trouble,” and we know advertisers are always quick to reduce spend when they face financial challenges. I think that Billy Joel was probably a little optimistic, but we will see some publications struggle on with little change. This will particularly be the case where they have a specific niche (e.g. the only publication for the industry in a particular language).

Different Adverts

There has been a move to offer different adverts, from annoying roadblocks and pop-ups to native advertising. While they all generate a little bit of incremental interest, it’s hard to sustain the increased revenue.

In the trade media, there has been a real reluctance to move to native advertising, or advertorials for the older marketing pros reading this blog. Despite advertorials being a print tradition, there appears to be a feeling that readers would not respect publications that offered online advertorials. To a large extent, I think the consumer media has poisoned what could have been a good source of revenue by offering native advertising and then indicate the content is paid by doing only just enough to stay out of court. I think trade media that offer native advertising will tend to do this by providing microsites (which is a typical approach today), rather than trying to hide advertising within editorial in the same way consumer media does. This will inevitably limit native advertising’s revenue potential in B2B media.

One exception does appear to be video, where publications are happy to charge for the recording of videos and then present them as editorial. I guess this is similar to the “colour separation” charges of the last century, and maybe the practice will last as long as colour seps. But unlike print, where digital printing has meant that the actual colour separation process and associated cost disappeared long before the practice of charging for it, video is likely to remain relatively expensive to produce, so publishers will benefit from the revenue but are likely to make little – if any – profit from charging for video content.

Directories are another alternative advertising format, and can be profitable for publications. In fact, there are successful B2B stand-alone directories, even in this world of search-driven research. But it’s going to be hard for any editorially driven publication to build a significant revenue stream through directories.

Becoming Internet Businesses

This is the opposite to struggling on: becoming an internet business. Whether it’s user-generated content, a maniacal focus on SEO or using marketing technology and insighted gained through interactions on the publication’s website to target people across the internet, we’ve seen both successful and disastrous attempts to re-define magazines as internet-first properties.

Unfortunately, there’s a real challenge in being driven by internet technology alone: the trade publication is limiting itself to a small niche while competing almost directly against online giants. That’s hard to do.

Of course, there are exceptions: if I was being cynical, I’d point out that SupplyFrame was a site that initially simply out-SEOed the manufacturers. Potential customers clicked on the SupplyFrame link that was first in the results and SupplyFrame charged the manufacturers to forward on the traffic. Of course, SupplyFrame has developed well beyond this today, and I just don’t think it would be possible to do the same thing now that suppliers understand SEO and the Google algorithm has matured.

One other approach is to “become a community”. Sorry, but this just doesn’t work: at best you are competing to be one of maybe a handful of communities for an industry, but more likely you will be trying to fill one of zero slots. Unfortunately in B2B most people are not looking for industry-specific communities, and commercial pressures mean that postings tend to be bland as everyone worried about giving away their organisations secrets. Even in electronics, where element14 and Design Spark have become successful communities, the primary focus is on hobbyists and makers.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do think that marketing technology is going to be part of the magic formula to make a successful trade publication of the future. But to believe that it can be the core strategy is a big mistake.

Publications as Events Organisers

There are already many examples of trade publishers that make a significant proportion of their income from events. The British Kebab Magazine – I told you there were trade publications for everything – only publishes once a year to round up the British Kebab Awards. It’s a publication entirely driven by an event. Other publishers have a more balanced approach, but it’s not unusual to find that the events side of a “publishing” business can bring in more than half the profit.

Events are good. Except during a pandemic, when they were non-existent, hammering the income of publishers that relied on them. Unfortunately, it appears no one has really cracked the code to make online events as profitable as face-to-face, and the never-ending stream of webinars we all receive in our inboxes suggests that it’s unlikely we’ll be spending huge sums on online content in the near future. I do believe that enthusiasm for physical events will return, and that publishers will increasingly be looking to them for revenue, but there simply won’t be an appetite for enough events to fund all publications.

Become Sell-outs

There’s nothing wrong with selling a publication, even to a supplier in the industry. But it’s never quite the same: there are always concerns about the potential lack of impartiality. A good example of success is Aspencore, which sold to Arrow (a distributor in the electronics components industry), and then acquired other publications. The editors have managed to maintain independence, and although I’ve yet to see “Arrow Sucks” as a headline on one of their publications, I imagine it won’t be something that any journalist in the sector will write as every journalist has to be somewhat mindful of the importance of large advertising budgets.

Unfortunately, the examples of successful sales to suppliers are limited, particularly as suppliers will simply hire journalism talent from publications if they want to bolster a content team, rather than buying a publishing business.

Custom Publishing

Creating publications for organisations might be a better model than selling to them. It’s something some publications have done successfully, but it’s a fine line to walk. Firstly the journalists lose their independence when custom publishing, and if this chips away at their credibility they will lose one of the two key benefits of trade media: the value of endorsing as an independent third party.

I think that a bigger challenge is the market size. Custom publishing – or should we call it vanity publishing – is most effective when you are creating a thick, glossy magazine. There’s much less perceived value in getting a publishing house to create content when it’s going to sit on the company website. It’s also much easier to publish online, and a large percentage of companies already have their own content marketing departments that are doing the same thing as custom publishing would offer.

Agencies as Publishers

Oooh, this is an interesting one for me. Should we launch a publication as an agency? In a few niches, an agency with several major clients has successfully launched a publication. It feels such an attractive idea, but I just don’t think it will work in many sectors. Agencies would have to sell to their competitors and would struggle to claim independence as their whole reason for being is to promote their clients. Ultimately agencies are likely to launch publications that are not as broad in their coverage and independent in their editorial: basically second-class publications.

At Napier, we’ve not launched a publication because of these concerns. It’s still something we talk about, and we’ll never say we won’t do it, but it’s not something we believe would enhance the industries we love.

Data, Data, Data

Publications have lots of data, but the world is changing. When you had to read a magazine to find out about new products, engineers readily offered their contact details for this information. In fact when I started my engineering career, part of my induction was to fill out the “bingo card” to try to get magazine subscriptions.

Today it’s so different. Publications are finding it harder to get contact information. Contacts are opting out. We’re frequently seeing publications who are having to limit the amount of email business they take to ensure they don’t over-mail the database and lose too many contacts. So, it’s getting harder and harder for publications to sell more contact data.

Another area of data is behavioural data. EETech recently launched a product that offers to tell you which companies are visiting your website based on data they gather on EETech online publications. Other publishers offer to serve ads on third-party sites to people who have shown interest in particular product categories within the publication (this is retargeting, despite how publishers might want to dress it up, and most marketers know retargeting really does work). Unfortunately, the results tend to be much worse than adverts on the publisher’s sites. So, despite the dramatically lower CPMs, these ads can be hard to sell as often the RoI is disappointing.

The Future of B2B Trade Publications

Having looked at the options for publishers, it’s pretty clear that there is no magic bullet answer. Technology does not respect the fact that publishers have had it hard for some time: the speed of change is not slowing. I think publishers need to adopt multiple strategies if they are to be successful, and there is no one business model that will work. Some will create events, build their databases through face-to-face interaction and market that data. Others will focus on winning more traffic share through SEO, so be prepared for content and headlines linked to high-volume searches (“Why the Kardashians Prefer an RTOS to Android”). Other publishers will leverage the quality of their journalists, using custom publishing to further monetise their people.

I’d really like to know what you think. Whether you’re in publishing, a reader or an advertiser, let me know how you think B2B trade publishing will evolve in the future.

 

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