Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beware of geeks bearing gifts

Don't expect the geeks in your office to get much work done tomorrow.
Because Wednesday, Jan. 27, will be something akin to Christmas for geeks. For it is on that day that Apple will unveil their long-awaited, much-rumored ... something.
Most of the tech world expects the product Apple will unveil to be some sort of tablet-style computer, i.e., something sort-of, kind-of like a Kindle.
But better.
And cooler.
And as excited as I, a bit of a geek myself, may be about the arrival of the iSomething, I'm a little bit concerned about what it may mean for B2B publishing.

To understand why, let's look back at a bit of history.
In April 2007 I wrote a post in which I attempted to share my concerns about a pervasive and troublesome issue in B2B -- our industry's inability to respond to change.
In that post I said that " I expect someone will soon build an "iPod of reading" -- a new, portable device that changes how we read in the same revolutionary fashion that the iPod changed how we listen."
And I wrote that whatever the next big thing in media might turn out to be, in B2B "our next big problem is going to be our inability to respond to the next big thing."
Nearly two years earlier, in November 2005, I wrote a piece asking "How will we create/consume content in the future?"
In that post I wrote about my love of the Bloomberg terminal and my yearning for a user interface of the future that would ease both the consumption and the creation of journalism.

Now, it appears, the future is here.
It's possible, of course, that the iSomething will turn out to be iNothing. Or maybe the iJustaLittleDisappointing.
But given Apple's history with portable devices for consuming, communicating and creating, I'm expecting the iSomething could turn out to be the iChangesEverything.

But if you look around your newsroom today can you honestly say the people there are ready for something that changes everything?
Heck, how many of them are ready today for the stuff that changed everything a few years ago (mobile content, database reporting, multimedia production, Twitter, etc.)?

In other words, if the iSomething turns out to offer a better way to communicate and/or to create, I worry that only a tiny percentage of B2B editors have the skills to capitalize on that or have the mindset to find it exciting.
More troubling -- at least to me -- is that the iSomething may very well turn out to be nothing more (and nothing less) than a better way of consuming print-like material. That, in essence, is what the Kindle is. It takes print, with all of its limitations, and distributes it in a new, arguably superior, platform.
And there's nothing that worries me more than the illusion that the answer to B2B's many woes can be found by slapping print content on to a screen.
Even if it's the coolest screen ever.

Or, as Rich Maggiotto, chief executive officer of Zinio, said, "It’s one thing to shovel print content onto a screen. It’s another thing to think about how to reinvent your content for that medium. That’s the publisher’s responsibility."
And can you honestly say that your newsroom has the enthusiasm, the will, the interest or the budget for that in 2010?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Predictions old and new

(Editor's note: As many of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook already know, my mother passed away on Dec. 30. Since then I've been overwhelmed by the kindness I've received from friends and acquaintances in both the real and virtual worlds. Thank you all.
As my Ma took a turn for the worse in mid-December, much of my working life had to be put on hold. So I wound up running late on many things ... including a long-promised follow-up to my predictions about 2009. But as Ma taught me, there's "a time to die ... a time to mourn" and a time to get back to work. So with no further ado, let's look back at 2009 and make some guesses about 2010. )

I hate to say I told you so, but ....
As 2008 turned into 2009, I wrote a a lengthy piece in which I argued that "the B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse."
If you've never read that piece, I'd ask you to do so now. If you have read it, then you know I was predicting a systemwide failure in B2B. The problem, it seemed to me, was clear: Too many people had been borrowing too much money and making too many preposterous assumptions about the industry. Complicating matters was that far too many B2B journalists -- who are the core of the business -- had failed to keep up with the changes in editorial.
Furthermore, I said that I'd grown remarkably disappointed in the majority of Web-only publishers who had emerged in B2B. Simply put, although such companies had mastered things like content aggregation, most of them had failed to move to the next level.

That's what I said
So let's review.
I made three specific predictions about 2009. They were:
1. The B2B publishing industry -- which is now dominated by giant print companies and smaller Web-only companies -- is about to collapse.
2. When the dust settles, B2B journalism will still be here -- but many of the companies that make up the industry will be gone.
3. The dominant business models of both the past and present will fail.

As troubling and unlikely as those predictions might have seemed in December 2008, it's safe to say that I was right.
In 2009 there were bankruptcies, shutdowns and creditors-take-control actions (Doubledown, Cygnus, Questex, Milo, Incisive, Advanstar), there were staff reductions (Cygnus, RBI, UBM, IDG, Edgell, Access Intelligence), there were salary freezes and pay cuts (Cygnus, Penton, RBI), there were closures of print products (Ziff, RBI, Penton, Crain, UBM, CMPMedica, Randall-Reilly, Nielsen and just about every other company you can name.)
And I'm sure I've forgotten a few ugly events too. I just don't have the stomach right now to read through this list of the major magazine-industry events of 2009.
And it's not like the tough times are over. Just last week we saw more shutdowns and a the-end-is-near memo from RBI's chief executive as well as more closures from Penton.

Follow the money
In 2009, everything that could go wrong, did.
And that's because, as I predicted, "the dominant business models of both the past and present" have failed.
Consider this:
I began the post with my predictions for 2009 by referring to a study by Outsell that forecast a 4.5% drop in print advertising in 2009. But halfway through the year, the drop in B2B print ads was already more than six times that level!
Online advertising rates -- already low -- also plummeted.
Traditional publishers, who had hoped that online ads could save them, found their optimism was misplaced. The newer, Web-only publishers found that low-cost operations with narrow margins had little room to maneuver when things got ugly.
Whether it was controlled-circulation print, SEO-driven long-tail sites or content-aggregation plays, we saw last year that B2B's center (free, ad-supported content) did not hold.

Retreat and delusions
So what's next?
I expect more closures, more layoffs, more trouble.
For example, it seems clear that RBI's parent company has no intention of staying in the business -- they'll close anything they can't sell. RBI will be gone by mid-year.
Nielsen seems to be taking a similar approach -- rushing to the exits by killing whatever brands they can't unload.
The simple truth is that for dozens of brands in B2B there's no way out. It makes more sense to walk away and take the write-off. So that's what companies will do.
I'm also expecting B2B will soon see an influx of the content mills that have caused so much trouble in B2C. That's going to cause havoc among content aggregators as well as original-content brands that have invested heavily in long-tail strategies.

The blind leading the blind
I'm also expecting a tremendous increase in the level of delusional thinking among B2B executives.
Watch for the same folks who forecast revenue surges in 2008 and a bounce-back in advertising in 2009 to predict that the end of the recession means ad rates will return to 2007 levels.
Watch too for executives and journalists to argue that the free, but generally poor quality content that is pervasive in B2B is suddenly worth paying for. (Note: if you're one of the folks who thinks he can salvage his brand by putting it behind a paywall, you may want to read Outsell's latest report on the challenges of the paid-content market.)

Change is good
My predictions last year were not meant to imply that B2B journalism itself was in any danger of disappearing. I was expecting change and shakeouts. And that's what we got.
I expect more of the same in 2010.
I also predicted that B2B journalism would soon be dominated by five types of companies (content marketing, data and tech, family-owned and other small firms, price-benchmark companies and entrepreneurs' networks.) A quick look around the industry today suggests that I was right about all of those except for the last.
At the same time, it would be misleading to suggest that the shift from the powerhouses of old is complete.
For example, content marketing had an extraordinary year in 2009. A year ago it was safe to assume that half the people in our industry had never even heard the phrase "content marketing." But that has changed. (Anecdotally, I can name a dozen or so top-notch B2B journalists of the top of my head who moved into content marketing last year. )
But there's clearly plenty more room for content marketing to grow.
There are still hundreds of B2B advertisers who haven't begun producing their own content ... yet. And my prediction that "sophisticated corporations (would begin) to purchase established B2B journalism brands and use them as the basis of their content-marketing efforts" has not come true ... yet.

For a detailed look at what I expect in 2010, you may want to read my predictions in Folio and Junta42.
But in summary, let me say this: the old days are over. We're in the midst of a fundamental shift in how people consume information and how the cost of producing that information can be covered.
There's no going back.
Just like in 2009, there will be people who prosper amid the difficulties. And, just like in 2009, there will be people who suffer through no fault of their own.
Your task -- whether you're an editor, a salesperson, a publisher, marketer, c-suite executive, designer, j-student, etc -- is to position yourself where prosperity is possible and suffering is minimized.

In upcoming posts I'll write about the few bright spots I see in B2B as well as outline some of the moves that B2B companies and journalists should make in 2010 so that prosperity, not pain, dominates.
In the meantime, let me say "good luck."
I get the feeling we're all going to need it.