KCCrain

Crain Communications Emerges from the Pandemic Focused on Subscriptions and On the Hunt for M&A

KC Crain

Last November, KC Crain became president and CEO of Crain Communications, representing the third generation of leadership at the 105-year-old, family-owned publisher, whose brands include Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business and Modern Healthcare.

AMPLIFY caught up with KC to talk about his vision for the company, such as changing revenue streams (including digital and print subscriptions, which for the first time will exceed print advertising revenue for Crain this year) and a desire to expand into new markets through acquisition.

AMPLIFY: KC, how has Crain responded to the crisis over the past year and how has that positioned the company as we start to come out of the pandemic?

KC Crain: Like everybody else, the biggest fire was our events business. In a typical year we do about 200 events across all our brands and as it became a reality that we would be canceling all our events for the year, we made a massive pivot. We did over 900 virtual events over the last year and kept about half of our overall events revenue but the margins increased significantly. On the digital side, we had to get smarter about the analytics around our audiences and we paid a lot of attention to our audience strategy. We saw some nice increases in paid digital audience.

AMPLIFY: You’ve mentioned that audience strategy is the key to Crain’s future—can you expand?

KC: When we look at this business, it’s always been based on audience—your events audience, your digital audience, your print audience. We’re trying to get as smart as we can about who is engaging with our brands and on what platforms. We doubled down on our journalism. After 105 years, journalism is integral to our strategy, but now more than ever, it’s fundamental. If you have good journalism that people can’t get anywhere else, then they’re going to have to subscribe.  We’ve put in place a great team, we got smart about the analytics around our audience and their consumption habits and we’ve seen a huge lift.

AMPLIFY: As part of Crain’s prioritization on audience, you made a major hire in Veebha Mehta, who ran audience and marketing at Financial Times, Pearson and Cengage. What is her role with Crain?

KC: We had to look at how we were marketing to consumers and for the first time we have a global CMO in Veebha, whose main focus is our audiences. She’s a great hire and put together job functions we haven’t had in the company before.

AMPLIFY: What’s the revenue mix today for Crain?

KC: For the first time, our audience revenue—print and digital subscriptions—in 2021 will be greater than our print advertising revenue. Our revenue mix really changed from trade print advertising and event revenue to digital and audience revenue and the margins were significantly better. We saw a huge improvement in our first quarter numbers and I think we’ll see that trend continue. We’re up 50 percent year-over-year in our digital business coming out of the pandemic. As we’re focused on audience, digital, data, and custom, those business lines will continue to grow.

AMPLIFY: How does Crain look at the relationship between media and events as events start to come back?

KC: If people didn’t figure out a way to enhance their digital business during the pandemic, then shame on them. The pandemic 100 percent accelerated our digital strategy, namely in the data and analytics around our audiences, which we will continue to push in 2021. Coming out of 2020, nobody knew what 2021 would be like. We originally budgeted for zero in-person events but we will have our first in-person event in July and this fall we will have in-person events all over the world. There will be different aspects to our events such as live streaming and I think we will see a hybrid model for a while yet. We have no interest in running 900 virtual events again; it’s not sustainable. But as we move forward, we will continue to see virtual events where the topic and the market make sense.

AMPLIFY: KC, you are the third generation of leadership for Crain. What’s your vision for the company?

KC: We’ve got the business to where we are 100 percent focused on growth and we’re looking at verticals outside our traditional businesses. When you think about Crain, you might think about healthcare, automotive, marketing and manufacturing, our city brands. We made an acquisition in 2019 in the genomics space—life sciences are a new market for us. You’re going to see us make acquisitions that are adjacencies to our current business but then we will also get pretty focused on growth markets as well. We are in the market and looking at deals weekly. This is an exciting time; there’s a ton of opportunity in our space.

AMPLIFY: What are you excited about?

KC: Our audience strategy. I’m so fired up. We’re a 105-year-old company and we’ve never been so analytical. We’ve got great team members doing things to grow the business and for the first time in a while, we’re having fun. We’ve put ourselves in position to take advantage of these market opportunities out there. We’ve got wonderful traditional brands, great legacy markets and we’re looking to grow into new markets.

revolt

A Publishing Staff Revolts Over Bungled Return-To-Office Message

As the world opens up, one of the most pressing issues facing publishing CEOs is navigating the cultural and business ramifications of sticking with remote work versus returning to the office (editor’s note: on May 19, AM&P Network’s CEO and Owners Council is hosting a virtual discussion on Planning the Office Return, facilitated by workplace experts Monreau Shepell).

Strong cases can be made for both, including remote work offering flexibility, lower costs for both employees and employers, and unchanged or improved productivity (see chart below) while in-office fosters deeper collaboration, mentoring and camaraderie.

However, Cathy Merrill, CEO of D.C. regional magazine The Washingtonian, showed exactly how NOT to approach the dilemma in a Washington Post opinion piece last week.

Merrill wrote that she’s excited about the prospect of returning to the office but concerned about the “common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion.” Fair enough.

Then Merrill threw down the gauntlet, saying employers could consider changing the status of those workers to contractor and eliminate their benefits:

“While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — ‘extra.’ It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’ Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation.”

Merrill’s staff subsequently revolted very publicly, including a one-day work stoppage on May 7. “As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor,” they declared. “We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today.”  

Ultimately, the pushback from The Washingtonian staff has less to do with remote work versus office work than a lack of respect from the C-suite. That next conference room birthday bash should be fun.

No Change in Productivity

Fortunately, in B2B and information publishing, most CEO’s seem to be treating their employees like adults and exploring a hybrid model of remote work and office. “We’re allowing employees to keep working from home two-to-three days per week,” says the CEO of one mid-sized B2B publisher. “I find where face-to-face is really necessary is for things like budgeting and idea generation, not day-to-day.”

According to an AM&P Network survey conducted last fall, most B2B media and information companies surveyed noted little change in productivity with remote work.

That’s led to some creative policies for publishers to enable employees to balance home life and work. Industry Dive (a staple on the Washington Post’s Top Workplaces list) adopted a flexible approach to supporting employees should they decide to live in another part of the U.S. during lockdown, while keeping staff connected by offering a video-based story time hour for employees’ children as well as cooking demonstration, yoga and workout sessions.

Changing Culture, Not Just Revenue Mix

Publishers today are quick to refer to themselves as “digital first” or cutting edge compared to their competitors.

While that may be true of their product set, it often doesn’t apply to culture and daily operations (not that the tech giants have handled the office return any smoother—last week Google backtracked on its hardline return-to-work policy, saying staff can telecommute through Sept. 1 and then have the options of returning to their pre-pandemic office, working out of a Google office in a different city or working remotely if their role permits it).

The evolution of this industry can’t be limited to the development of data products and marketing services or dropping the label “publisher” for something like “information services.”

“We refer to ourselves as digital-first and if we can’t operate day-to-day in a digital environment, then we’re doing something wrong,” said Thomas CEO Tony Uphoff at our Business Information & Media Summit last year.

AIN

How a Small Publisher Used First-Party Data To Scale Its Reach 50x

Last month Penske Media, which owns Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Vibe, announced a new data services division called Atlas Data Studio that creates first-party data segments for marketers to target ads to specific customers.

Unlike third-party data, which is information collected by an entity that does not have a direct relationship with the user, first-party data is information collected directly from your customers. The Atlas Studio takes data points like subscriptions, membership data and virtual event sign-ups to develop information around known users.

The tidal wave of data privacy regulation (CASL, GDPR, California Data Privacy and a slew of others) combined with major tech platforms like Apple and Google abandoning third-party cookies lead many to predict the decline of third-party data and power coming back to publishers who can use that first-party data to sell high-value audiences and scale their reach beyond their own websites and communities.

While Penske joins a list of heavy hitters such as The New York TimesThe Washington PostForbes and Bloomberg in building out first-party data solutions, the opportunity is open to publishers of all sizes, provided they make the not-insurmountable investment in a tech stack that both organizes the data and makes it actionable.

“With the demise of the third-party cookie, resources are going to shrivel up and disappear,” says AnnMarie Wills, CEO and president at first-party data specialists Leverage Lab. “Organizations with deep, rich, organized and accessible first-party data will be in the catbird’s seat.”

Not Just Retargeting
Legal publisher ALM in 2019 introduced Audience First, an advertising platform that targets decision makers and influencers through first-party data and self-reported demographic data. They then use advanced ad technology to drive those messages to audience segments on both ALM channels and beyond, including social media and other websites.

ALM is quick to point out that this is different from retargeting. “Retargeting allows for an anonymous user to be followed based on cookies,’” says Matt Weiner, president of marketing services at ALM. “If I am identifying a specific individual and targeting that individual, you can see where the value starts to increase.”

How Aviation International News Scaled Its Reach 50X
Scale has always been a challenge for B2B media, which typically serves high value but niche audiences. Today’s digitally-focused marketers are demanding both scale and ROI without any wasted spending.

“First-party data is not new for B2B publishers,” says David Leach, COO of Aviation International News (AIN), which covers the aviation sector. “We’ve always tracked subscriptions and demographics with our print product. That is the same first-party data that we’re talking today but the tech stack and complexity have changed.”

With a traditional mix of print, websites and newsletters, AIN faces similar challenges to much of the B2B industry when it comes to serving digital marketers looking for reach and ROI.

“We could offer print but that includes many of the demographics they aren’t interested in specifically, and the ROI is difficult to show,” says Leach. “We could offer digital display or newsletter placement, and there is some demonstrable ROI but still a lot of unknown traffic. We could isolate our audience in CRM and target with direct email, but that could burn out our list. We could target content on our website but doing that at scale doesn’t work—it cuts our traffic and inventory too thin.”

Despite knowing more about its audience than ever before, AIN’s ability to productize this information at scale—the key part—was limited.

To jump that hurdle, AIN realized it needed to add a Customer Data Platform to the mix. Guided by Leverage Lab, AIN tapped Lytics as its CDP to an integrated tech stack that included HubSpot as digital CRM and Computer Fulfillment as print CRM.

“This brings together all our siloes of data,” says Leach. “Now what we can do is track that behavior pattern in our CRM—we have opens and clicks but also website behaviors like white paper downloads and webinar sign ups. It gives a much more robust look at our audience and brings all behaviors and activities into one profile.”

If AIN sold an advertiser on the magazines, it could target 5,600 names. With the addition of behavioral interest data, third-party lists and another 4,300 names from its other media brands, AIN can now offer a targeted audience on its own properties of more than 15,000.

AIN can then target its own readers and lookalike demographics with offsite display advertising on other websites and social media channels and drive those eyeballs back to its own brands. “We can increase our inventory by 50 times in terms of what we can offer a client,” says Leach.

Selling Audience, Not Product
AIN has shifted to selling audience, not just selling product. “That can be a hard thing for our sales staff to get their heads around but it’s incredibly powerful, especially with what marketers are asking for,” says Leach.  “This allows us to target audience at scale. In the old days, our ability to reach this audience on our own channels at scale would have been nearly impossible.”

Like ALM, Leach stresses that this approach is not retargeting or programmatic advertising.

“These are folks that we’ve identified with first-party data that we’ve collected forever—they’re a pilot for this company, flying out of this location, flying this type of aircraft and one day they might be interested in retrofitting that aircraft with a $500,000 avionics overhaul,” he adds.  “That’s who our advertisers want to reach. We’re just starting on this journey, but the results so far are very encouraging. Some of our clients are all about this while others are still doing all print. Either way, it’s still a great story to tell.”

Bobcat

Beyond Virtual Events: 3 Replacements for Live Events That Are Taking Center Stage in 2021

The cancellation of live events in 2020 (and for most, at least the first half of 2021) has forced publishers to find new ways to connect buyers and sellers, particularly as sponsors shifted ad dollars earmarked for events into all-digital channels.

Virtual events were the obvious answer but if you talk to most publishers and sponsors privately, they’ll admit they see “traditional” virtual facsimiles of live events as a stopgap to be abandoned as soon as the world goes back to normal.

Here we look at three solutions developed in response to the crisis that have performed so well that they will continue to be offered even as live events return.

1.  Social Simulcasts

AC Business Media (ACBM) covers markets ranging from heavy construction to manufacturing to supply chain and that means serving sponsors with heavy equipment to sell. As events canceled, giving customers a way to get products in front of potential buyers was critical.

“We were at CONEXPO last March just as the world started imploding,” says ACBM Chief Digital Officer Kris Heineman. “Big manufacturers had already paid millions to ship machines out to the show but they didn’t come themselves because they didn’t want their staffs exposed to COVID. When events go away they’re not going to stop producing products, they’ll start looking for other outlets.”

While many publishers produced virtual product showcases within proprietary digital platforms, ACMB created simulcasts—basically live streaming—that leveraged social media to expand the reach of its audience.

In one example, ACBM created a single livestream that played simultaneously across the seven different Facebook pages devoted to its Construction brands.

“When we first started doing this, we were concerned that the channels would start overlapping with each other but it’s actually a case of more is more—with each platform you get a certain percentage of your overall audience,” says Heineman. “Let’s say you have 1 million Facebook followers—Facebook won’t let you organically reach all those people. But if you stream to 10 different Facebook pages, maybe you reach 40,000 here and 60,000 there, so it’s all complementary.”

ACBM created a simulcast for equipment manufacturer Bobcat that drove more than 100,000 views and 800 interactions in the first few days.

“For B2B, those are high numbers,” says Heineman. “When most people in B2B say they put something on Facebook they’re usually getting two or three interactions. Not everyone thinks there’s opportunity in B2B for social media but this product proves that wrong.”

Customers continue to clamor for the live streams even as ACBM begins exploring the return of live events. “We can’t produce enough video,” says Heineman. “We’re already sold out on some channels through 2021.”

[Editor’s note: For more on how ACBM is creating social simulcasts, register for our upcoming webcast this Thursday, March 25 at 1pm ET on New Revenue From Social Media: How To Build a Live Product Showcase.]

2. Marketing Services

Marketing services have grown faster than digital display advertising in B2B media for several years now but prior to last year still took a backseat to events as an overall revenue producer for most publishers.

Marketing services has always been tied closely to events for Government Executive Media Group (GEMG) but in 2020 came to the forefront by helping customers meet their event objectives when live events came to a standstill (and finished the year with revenue up 43 percent as a group while helping to drive 20 percent topline growth for the overall company).

Frank Salatto, GEMG

“It wasn’t just about helping customers achieve their event objectives with us but their event objectives writ large,” says Frank Salatto, Vice President and General Manager of Marketing and Communications at GEMG. “Honestly, we were part of the conversation with clients like never before in how to rebuild their event programs.”

GEMG transitioned quickly to an all-digital environment by turning large live events into multi-part integrated digital programs, using content as the connector to drive audience from one touchpoint to another.

“Digital events were part of that but it’s a series of digital events that would allow you to recreate what you would get with a live event but in between those you need additive content that keeps the conversation going,” says Salatto.

Data collection and diverse capabilities helped GEMG keep revenue whole for all but one live event booked prior to the pandemic.

“There is opportunity in the data that you can collect,” says Salatto. “That’s always been a pain point for live events. But in digital we know what customers are interacting with across a much longer time-period and we know more about them including how interested they are and how ready they are to buy.”

Branded websites proved to be a winner for GEMG last year and will continue to be a key product in 2021. “That turned out to be a great vehicle for brands to tell their story and drive sustained engagement over time but also a way for us to have a center piece for really large, long term programs and have tack-on revenue beyond the initial build,” says Salatto.

GEMG expects a similar marketing environment in 2021 and is looking to capitalize on its stable which includes branded microsites, immersive articles, video and audio, digital event integration and data visualization.

“We believe this is sustainable and there’s room to grow,” says Salatto. “The net of this is that 14 out of our 15 top clients have marketing services central to the program they bought with us. We are not a huge piece of the revenue pie as an individual unit but we are a driver of topline revenue and a significant part of the pathway to bigger revenue programs.”

3. Attendee Data

You’ve likely heard of first party data and third-party data but how about zero party data?

At our recent Business Information and Media Summit, Informa Markets chief digital officer Jason Brown, who leads a newly created group called Informa Markets DNA, showed how the company is finding new revenue by leveraging event audience data into a new take on lead gen that not only creates revenue in the interim but promises to elevate the value of Informa’s live events when they return.

That includes creating online marketplaces that are enhanced versions of the show directories that Informa produces for its live events. Customers can use the online marketplaces to search products and suppliers, discover new products via a recommendation engine, make connections, create a virtual “walking” or favorites list and register for other Informa physical and virtual events.

The online marketplaces also provide Informa with “zero party data” where users offer direct insight into their interests through their use of the marketplaces, which helps Informa create authenticated data that shows not only who a lead is also their buying intent.

“We take our first party data, the third-party data that we can buy or borrow and the zero-party data given to us by our audience when they are specifically after something and combine that information together to create something called authenticated data,” says Brown. “If we do all of that correctly, our gray cloud of a data lake becomes a green cloud of known buyer status. That’s where we can say who our buyer is and where they are in the funnel.”

In addition to the traditional model of offering leads as part of a one-off sponsorship, Informa is moving toward an annual subscription model that includes,

  • continuous access to fresh data
  • ability to count, segment and modify criteria for best data selection
  • intent scoring
  • ability to create a sales pipeline that feeds directly into the customer’s CRM

“Instead of bundling and packaging programs, this is an annual program that you can subscribe to and we can present different layers and opportunities to you,” says Brown.

Informa Markets

3 Ways B2B Giant Informa is Reinventing Lead Gen

With more than 500 trade shows and exhibitions that in a typical year generate more than 60 percent of its total revenue, few companies have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s impact on events more than Informa.

But the way forward is turning crisis into opportunity and Informa is aggressively creating new businesses out of its existing events model and the enormous cache of audience data those events create.

At our recent Business Information and Media Summit, Informa Markets chief digital officer Jason Brown, who leads a newly created group called Informa Markets DNA, showed how the company is finding new revenue by leveraging event audience data into a new take on lead gen that not only creates revenue in the interim but promises to elevate the value of Informa’s live events when they return (replays of that session are available in the BIMS archive and AM&P Network members can reach out to me at mkinsman@siia.net for a link).

“We were hit hard with corona, but on the back of that, we’re working hard to look at alternative ways we can generate revenue from a similar mix of audience,” says Brown. “We’re not seeking to replicate what a show would do but instead offer year-round engagement with buyers and sellers which will mold itself to physical trade shows when they come back over the next 12 months.”

Three-Part Combo: Online Marketplaces, Authenticated Data and Audience Extension

Informa’s new approach leverages three components—Online Marketplaces, Authenticated Data and Audience Extension—that work together to generate data, convert that data into highly detailed and actionable intelligence and ultimately leverage that intelligence and Informa’s scale in connecting buyers and sellers across its own properties and beyond.

Online Marketplaces are enhanced versions of the show directories that Informa produces for its live events. Customers can use the online marketplaces to search products and suppliers, discover new products via a recommendation engine, make connections, create a virtual “walking” or favorites list and register for other Informa physical and virtual events.

“We let attendees figure out what they want to do,” says Brown. “It’s not about driving traffic to physical shows but creating engagement for 52 weeks a year. We’re allowing buyers and sellers to connect now without the ultimate destination of a physical trade show.”

The online marketplaces also provide Informa with “zero party data” where users offer direct insight into their interests through their use of the marketplaces, which helps Informa create the next component—Authenticated Data.

Identity and Buying Intent

If the top of the buyer funnel is about generating awareness, the bottom of the funnel is about decision and action. Informa is offering its customers authenticated data that shows not only who a lead is but also their buying intent.

“We take our first party data, the third-party data that we can buy or borrow and the zero-party data given to us by visitors and our audience when they are specifically after something and combine that information together to create something called authenticated data,” says Brown.

Getting the data right is the most important part. Informa aggregates its full spectrum of audience data into a data lake, including event registrations, online behavior and third-party data from services such as Bombora. Informa then uses that information to build a picture of a user and create an intent score.

“If we do all of that correctly, our gray cloud of a data lake becomes a green cloud of known buyer status,” says Brown. “That’s where we can say who our buyer is and where they are in the funnel.”

“Right Person, Right Time, Right Message”

Audience extension—reaching customers not only on your own branded properties but beyond—is something Informa and other publishers have been doing for years (and it’s why social platforms have become such an existential threat to publishers). But the addition of highly targeted, highly accurate data makes Informa’s audience extension efforts even more powerful.

“We ask our clients what kind of customer they are looking for, then we work with several third-party companies to find that lookalike audience and present a marketing message,” says Brown.

This is something Informa has seen success with particularly in the ag vertical, where it runs events such as the Farm Progress Show. “We can take a farmer, find hundreds of thousands of other farmers just like them, find whatever device they are on and target them with a message,” says Brown. “Right person, right time, right message.”

“Giving You the Needle, Not the Haystack”

And while audience extension is about scale and Informa still sells many traditional lead gen projects (including CRM feeds, webinar series, email promotion, programmatic remarketing, geo fencing and market intelligence reports), providing access to qualified buyers is the ultimate goal.

“We don’t want to give you access to 9,000 people; we want to give you access to 12,” says Brown. “Customers say, ‘don’t give us the haystack, give us the needle inside it.’ If you do a webinar today, you might get between 200-500 attendees and that’s great, but you’re not sure how qualified they are. Here, we are talking about creating a qualified buyer and then working with clients to create a webinar for 20 people, but a very distilled audience of 20 people who have shared with us their intent.”

Changing the Ways Leads Are Sold

Traditionally, publishers sell a sponsor on a content-driven program such as a webinar, then hand over the audience list to that sponsor. That’s a risky and outdated approach for both publishers and sponsors, according to Brown.

“The current model in many places of giving away the crown jewels of our data is not a good business model,” says Brown. “The danger in handing over those leads is that they can be abused quickly. Files also start aging from day one—and not like fine wine but like moldy cheese. As soon as you hand it over to someone, their journey in that buyer funnel may have changed the next day.”

Informa is moving away from selling leads as part of a one-off sponsorship and instead offering an annual subscription, which includes,

  • continuous access to fresh data
  • ability to count, segment and modify criteria for best data selection
  • intent scoring
  • ability to create a sales pipeline that feeds directly into the customer’s CRM

Informa also enables subscribers to Bring You Own Data, in which customers can give the publisher their data and Informa will cleanse it, authenticate it and attach an intent score for the customer’s own audience.

“Instead of bundling and packaging programs, this is an annual program that you can subscribe to and we can present different layers and opportunities to you,” says Brown.

Not for Everyone

It’s an approach that requires a skillset and an infrastructure that not everyone—including both publishers and advertisers—can take advantage of. Informa has developed a criteria for assessing markets and clients that could benefit, which include,

  • an active digital market
  • a sophisticated digital sales team on the client side
  • market pricing
  • a client with existing audience data

“The markets need to be fairly advanced. We look at whether they are buying on social, on Google, how much are they spending with us and can we convert what they are spending elsewhere,” says Brown. “We’re not selling Webinars, we’re selling access to data. We need to work with really smart digital salespeople who we can train to cross-sell access to data.”