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Digital Strategies for Small to Medium Sized B2Bs

For many publishers, faced with media fragmentation and market upheaval, the biggest challenge is where to start. How can you create a coherent digital strategy when you have limited resources and the goalposts seem to be constantly moving? Peter Houston has some helpful advice.

By Peter Houston

A belated Happy New Year to you. No doubt you’re well into implementing your 2015 digital strategy by now… has it worked yet?

That kind of impatience, too many technology options and constant change in audience and advertiser habits are what make digital strategy so difficult. It’s especially tough for smaller publishers who have no option but to show a return on digital investment as quickly as possible.

As you change and adapt your digital strategy through the remainder of 2015 – and you will, many times – here are a few things that you might want to keep in mind in the interests of sustainable digital development and your own sanity.

Culture eats everything for breakfast

The best digital strategy in the world is worth nothing if no one acts on it.

In smaller publishing operations, where safe silos have had to give way to an all-hands-on-deck mentality, responsibility for developing digital sits on everyone’s desk. In a piece for TechCrunch last year, Bill Aulet, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, extended Peter Drucker’s famous ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ line to have culture eating “technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too”.

Aulet, a convert who once believed products were all that mattered, explains that culture helps direct employee decision making. “Good culture creates an internal coherence in actions taken by a very diverse group of employees,” he says.

To put that another way, if you can get everyone in your business on the same page at a time when there are a dozen ways to do everything, decision making will automatically follow an internal company logic without management having to micro-manage every little piece of the puzzle.

That’s particularly important in smaller organisations taking on new digital platforms. Employees need to focus on what the business is trying to achieve rather than debating the finer points of underdeveloped processes and systems.

Power to the people

Clever, motivated staff are a bigger asset than the slickest CMS.

Back in 2013, when Justin B Smith had just become the new CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, his first all-staff email said that “talent is the ultimate driver of media success… the super-ingredient for media success, and the organisations that recruit and maintain their top talent — and manage it well — will win.”

The man credited with bringing the Atlantic Media Group back to profitability took responsibility for managing his people well, but also challenged them to use their talents to drive success at Bloomberg. Getting the balance right between management and staff is crucial when it comes to digital strategy. Without vision, an action plan, resources and incentives, staff will be on a journey from confusion to frustration via blind panic.

The flip side is, you need the right people with the right skills for the job, people that get it, people that can take the digital baton and run with it. In niche business publishing, that’s often more about training up than hiring in. The best B2B subject matter experts and sales professionals are deeply embedded in the industries they serve and giving up on those personalities because they don’t know DPS (Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite) from DFS (a leading sofa company) just isn’t an option.

Unfortunately, one of the easiest things to save on in tough times, and one of the easiest to forget in better times, is training. But regular, structured training is the surest way to give staff who already know their industry inside out the power to compete in the digital space.

Nourish your roots

Leaving behind legacy publishing problems doesn’t mean abandoning your heritage.

You’re probably not a new-media billionaire trying to drag an American publishing institution into the 21st century, but there is a sobering lesson in the story of the staff exodus from The New Republic in December. Facebook entrepreneur Chris Hughes lost more than 50 of the staff he acquired with the magazine in 2012 over claims that he and his CEO were showing no respect for the magazine’s 100-year heritage in their quest to turn it into a digital media business.

Upsetting the rarefied atmosphere of a lofty political journal is probably pretty easy, but it’s not impossible for hard-headed B2B publishers to forget where their success came from when they’re squeezed by uninspiring print advertising revenues and online upstarts. Too often Imperial Overstretch sends publishing teams rushing off on a half-baked quest to develop a new market that will ‘more than make up’ losses elsewhere in the business.

Realistically, setting up a new dog grooming directory when you’ve spent your whole publishing career in heating and ventilation probably isn’t going to end well.

Your audience and advertisers know and love you for what you’ve done for them in print and digitally in the past. They’ve spent their time and money with you because you know what they want. Taking the essence of those relationships with you to digital is crucial for every established publisher trying to develop their digital strategy.

Publishers publish

Don’t waste time looking for a digital strategy, build a publishing strategy.

Publishing across multiple channels, including print, is the best way to increase your chances of success in today’s fragmented information market. After too many years of looking for a digital silver bullet that would finally kill off print, most publishers are back looking for holistic publishing strategies that bring together the best of desktop and mobile, web and app, print and pixel.

Although time spent with digital is increasing, it’s time spent across multiple channels. And although print is grabbing less time than it used to, it’s far from being irrelevant. Just ask who printed 200,000 copies of its new magazine in November last year.

Print or digital, relevancy is what matters most. Pre-digital, when people were trying to figure out how to grow their publishing businesses, how much time did they spend thinking about the platform? They might have talked about print and paper contracts once a year, but they didn’t fill every waking minute with ‘platform’ discussions.

In the bad old days, publishers started with the audience, or with the story or, sometimes, with the advertiser. Form used to follow function, with the objective determining the publishing format.

You can argue there were fewer options, but decisions around adding print sections, creating supplements, investing in heavier paper stock and special finishes were all qualified against reader needs and revenue potential.

Digital platform choices should be no different: If publishing content on a particular platform isn’t going to bring profit, revenue, traffic, PR or learning, don’t publish there.

Choices, choices, choices

Every successful publishing strategy should rely on the Three Rs – Revenue, Readers and Writing.

Digital has maybe moved magazine publishers beyond words and pictures, but the principles hold. Digital decisions should be based on tried and tested publishing logic, not what’s trending. Great content gets attention and attention generates cash.

Smart B2B publishers have found ways to engage their print audiences digitally. They have moved readers online with the convenience of repurposed print content or enhanced content re-imagined for digital; anything from industry dashboards to show floor videos, resource directories to CPD centres.

Where everyone struggles is making enough money and the need to grow digital revenues should be very close to the core of any long-term publishing strategy. That might seem like common sense, it is common sense, but the conversation about how to make money too often comes at the end of the digital publishing decision making process.

Most smaller publishers focus on portfolio sales, leveraging print advertisers into print + digital bundles. This is a solid starting point, but it’s not the end game. Work to educate customers to the opportunities digital offers. Excite them with the possibilities. Give them the inside track to work with you in creating new advertising and sponsorship propositions that really fit their digital strategy and deliver digital revenue early in your development process.

The next big thing

If you knew what the next big thing will be, you wouldn’t need to publish a magazine

Not knowing what’s coming up in the lift is not an excuse for doing nothing; maybe think of what you have now as a place holder while you wait for the dust to clear. Pure digital products can work, but digital extensions of existing brands, often with continued print support, work best. Figure out ways to make your successful products and services even better online.

The list of digital formats to consider is endless; the rule of thumb has to be, consider what your audience will engage with and what will your advertisers pay for.

Since the bingo-card days, lead generation has been a primary focus for B2B and anything you can do to deliver names directly to your customer base will increase your chances of closing an order. White papers, resource centres and webinars are all proven formats for customer data around a specific subject or event.

Social media is a traffic driver, but an unlikely revenue source right now. Video is a great way to engage audiences, especially on mobile, but revenues around sponsorship or content creation will be much more interesting than banner display.

Apps can deliver real B2B functionality that will put your magazine at the centre of your audience’s working day. But if there was ever an argument for involving advertisers, or more likely sponsors, at the prototype stage then it’s B2B app development. Get buy-in at the concept stage and you’re less likely to be left holding the baby.

As you work through your publishing strategy in 2015, look for digital inspiration everywhere and anywhere, but start from where you are. Some of the work that the biggest publishing houses, B2B and B2C, are doing is incredible. From UBM to BuzzFeed, Reed to Vice Media, innovations in digital publishing are everywhere, but they are largely irrelevant to your business unless you can find a way to do it on your scale and budget.

And as you struggle to get to where you think you should be this year, think about the Scots Magazine and the iPad, the first founded in 1739, the second launched in 2010. The iPad has been around less than 2 percent of the Scots Magazine’s history and, without being complacent, you’ve probably still got time to get your digital strategy right.