Monday, February 11, 2008

Buying a staff for the future

Late last month came news that B2B publisher Questex was buying FierceMarkets, the online-only publisher best known for its niche, email newsletters. I said then that I thought the deal had some major implications for our industry. Today I'd like to elaborate.

First, I want to make it clear that the FierceMarkets deal doesn't change my opinion of email newsletters. As a general rule, I can't stand the things. I much prefer to get my news and information via RSS feeds. As I wrote on this blog slightly more than two years ago: "With RSS I don't have to worry about annoying "unsubscribe" functions that don't work properly. With RSS I'm not subjected to a never-ending stream of spam and other marketing nonsense from publishers. For a content consumer, RSS is a vastly superior delivery mechanism. And I expect that, eventually, every consumer will demand it."
I still believe that.
But I also believe that this is not the time for B2B publishers to walk away from email newsletters. There's still money to made with them -- lots of money. That's why publishers love them. But someday soon it will become clear that publishers' love of newsletters will not be able to compete with users' love of convenience and control.

But my dislike of email newsletters doesn't change the fact that I like the Questex/FierceMarkets deal. And here's why:
I have a feeling (and it's really just a feeling, I don't have much hard information), that the deal isn't really about newsletters. Nor, for that matter, did Questex buy the company because FierceMarkets also distributes news via RSS. Nor is the deal about FierceMarkets' cash flow or profits.
I think Questex bought FierceMarkets' staff. This is a deal about people...a sort of large-scale version of what Rex calls an "acqhire".
I think Questex decided to buy a staff that understands the Web.

To understand what I mean, take a look at FierceWireless. Drill down a bit. Read some pieces. Make note of the Web-friendly writing, short stories, agnostic links and reader-friendly design.
Then head over to Questex. Make your way to the page about the company's telecom products.
Then try, as I have several times today, to visit Wireless Asia. What I found was a dead link. You can also try searching for "Wireless Asia" on Google. What you'll find is that the top link goes to -- the same dead link. In fact, the only live link I can find to Wireless Asia is to a three-year old media kit from when the product was owned by Advanstar.
And as I made my way around the Questex site today what I found over and over and over again was a series of dead links.

Now I don't want to judge Questex based on what appears to be a bunch of technical glitches. These things happen. But it seems to me that the dead links are indicative of a larger cultural problem at Questex.
I did eventually find some links that worked. Take a look at the site for Response Magazine or American Salon. See if it's as clear to you as it is to me that the sites are afterthoughts ... an endless series of in-house ads aimed at getting people to subscribe to the print products.

I believe that Questex -- like many other B2B publishers and newspaper companies -- has recognized that it needs a staff that thinks of the Web first. And Questex, like many other publishing companies, has come to believe that its existing staff was never going to get there. So Questex did the right thing: it bought some folks who could help lead the company into the future.
FierceMarkets had been in play for awhile. And I know that some potential buyers thought the asking price was too high. But those folks were looking to add to already sophisticated Web teams. They didn't need to "acqhire" anyone. They just wanted to buy some cash flow and growth potential.
But Questex saw something else in FierceMarkets, something it needed -- an editorial staff that could help shape the company's future.

We're going to see more of this. We may see a lot more of this. And as a general rule, I'm likely to applaud such "acqhires" of a Web-savvy staff. But I'd urge caution. FierceMarkets is a fairly rare bird. Not every online-only company is staffed by very bright people. And even the smartest number crunchers won't necessarily recognize brilliance in an online editorial staff.
So make sure that whoever does your acqhiring or hiring understands Web culture.

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  1. I have e-mail newsletters from wapo and nytimes that I scan every day for the top headlines. I rarely go through the RSS feeds for those sites, since I use RSS for more niche information. I wonder how many others there are out there who do the same?

    Now, that may be different in the b2b world.

  2. Hi Bryan,
    It's interesting that you should mention those two sites.
    The NYTimes is about the only paper I ever buy in print anymore. I pick it up once or twice on weekdays. I almost always get it on Sunday too. I go to the Washington Post website once or twice a week too. And that's about the only newspaper site where I actually visit a home page and look around.
    Almost everything else I consume tends to be niche information in media or other B2B industries. And it all comes from RSS feeds or links in blogs.

  3. Hi Paul,
    Great blog post. I couldn't agree more with your emphasis on talent as the key to success in digital B2B. One thing that attracted us to Questex is the company's digital horsepower among its leadership. CEO Kerry G. definitely "gets it" and has an exciting vision for digital as an integral part of the company. Seth N., Questex's VP of Digital Media, joined the company from Amazon and was previously CEO of the CMP Media Internet Group. He's taking very clever and innovative approaches to digital initiatives that I haven't seen elsewhere. Others have digital capabilities, too. I mention this not to counter your thesis, only to point out the critical role of leadership in embracing digital and understanding the challenge in the first place. Questex scores high on that.

    - Jeff G., FierceMarkets


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