Editor’s note: Join GovExec’s Frank Salatto and ACS’ Stephanie Holland for a webcast on Thursday, June 24 at 1pm ET as they share How to Build a Scalable Content Marketing Studio. Free for AM&P Network members, register here.
“I’m looking for ideas. Every time I call a publisher, I hear about their rate card—that’s not what I want. I will never read your rate card.”
That’s a direct quote from Jason Abbate, VP of Strategic Accounts at B2B agency Stein IAS, at a joint publisher/marketer event hosted by AM&P Network and ANA Business Marketing shortly before the pandemic turned the world upside down.
Abbate summarized both the opportunity and the challenge facing B2B media and association publishers. Marketing services revenue—including content marketing, native advertising, advanced lead gen—has grown faster than digital display advertising for several years now but jumped to the forefront last year as advertisers shifted budgets away from canceled live events to digital solutions.
Now, as events start to return, publishers need to keep the momentum they’ve developed with digital solutions and solve the biggest challenge with building a robust marketing services and content marketing business—the shift from selling products and placements to selling ideas while creating a model that scales profitably.
Strategy Before Story
American Chemical Society (ACS) created a content marketing lab several years ago, which positioned the association well for the pandemic.
“Because events went away, how do our advertisers get revenue and leads?” said Stephanie Holland, ACS Director of Advertising Sales and Marketing, at the recent Reset, Reinvent, Revenue conference. “A lot of our advertisers became publishers on their own. We had to contend with that. With our publishing studio we could partner with them to recoup some marketing dollars.“
When it comes to selling ideas, not products, Holland and her team prioritize four points in making a pitch:
- Strategy before story
- Solution-based selling, not tactics
- Understanding the advertiser’s goal
- Know what success means to your client
Because costs can quickly spiral out of control, ACS keeps a close eye on project margins, including the development of pricing tools to determine the level of effort required before a proposal is issued and mapping to that document throughout the project execution.
A successful marketing service business requires publishers to break out of the siloes in which they may normally operate. “The projects transcend groups internally,” says Holland. “Our goal is to ensure the scope is clearly communicated before the project begins.”
Marketing Services Driving Overall Growth
Marketing services has always been tied closely to events for GovExec (which recently rebranded from Government Executive Media) 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).
“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 GovExec. “Honestly, we were part of the conversation with clients like never before in how to rebuild their event programs.”
GovExec transitioned quickly to an all-digital environment by turning large live events into multi-part integrated digital programs and 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 GovExec 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 GovExec last year and 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.
GovExec 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.”
With more than half of the US population vaccinated and office openings on the horizon, it’s starting to feel like we’re nearing the end of the pandemic. But 15 months ago, as people around the world quarantined in fear, several businesses stepped up to the plate, pivoted operations, and responded to COVID-19, determined to help.
In recognition of the businesses who met the moment, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), did a little pivot of our own and created five new categories for the 36th annual CODiE Awards centered around companies’ response to COVID-19. With 37 finalists, we wanted to highlight some of the powerful stories behind the Best Customer Experience in Business Technology category, before winners are announced at our virtual celebrations later this month.
Accenture’s Conversational AI Platform (CAIP)
When the pandemic led to an unprecedented surge in new employment insurance claims and call center inquires, Accenture used its conversational AI platform (CAIP) to roll out virtual assistants to more than 90 customers. In a week, Accenture implemented a conversational, self-service virtual assistant to support a state’s surge of unemployment insurance questions. Accenture also created a virtual assistant for Bright Horizons, one of the leading child care providers in the US, to help offset the surge of calls from concerned parents to its call center.
As quickly as schools began shutting down in March 2020, MobyMax ramped up. On March 6, 2020, MobyMax became the first edtech provider to make its award winning educational software available for free to all schools closed by COVID-19. By November, more than 5,500 schools had taken advantage. MobyMax also offered free live training webinars to teachers and issued an “Emergency e-Learning Rescue” game plan for educators facing unexpected shutdowns.
LexisNexis Risk Solutions’ Desk Officer Reporting System (DORS)
A community online reporting system that allows law enforcement agencies to electronically collect minor incident and accident reports from community members, DORS became a pandemic necessity for officers trying to maintain social distance. DORS allowed officers to minimize face-to-face exposure while empowering community members to take part in the process from the safety of their own homes.These are just three of the 37 companies that went above and beyond to help our communities and businesses survive a global pandemic. As our nation slowly recovers, we’re expressing our gratitude by celebrating those that helped make it possible. I hope you’ll join us in the virtual celebration on June 22nd and 23rd where winners will be announced.
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.
“We struggled with our education offerings,” Scott Stuart, CEO of the Turnaround Management Association, recalled recently from the early days of the pandemic. “So we formed a subcommittee, and they [developed] 24 webinar opportunities for members between March and September. It was a pivot for our visibility [and a huge success], and now it’s a staple for our education. Crisis brings clarity.”
Crisis also bring innovation. Last week, The Washington Post published a story for their Outlook section titled What We’ll Keep. “The pandemic made us change our lives. Here are 11 ways we won’t change back.” Those ways include soft pants, spending time with pets, online ordering at in-person restaurants, appreciating essential workers, spending time outdoors, telecommuting and better home cooking.
Stuart, who will be a keynote speaker at our upcoming Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021 virtual event, June 16-17, gave a perfect example of an initiative that will be kept well after the crisis recedes. (Denise Burrell-Stinson, head of WP Creative Team in the Creative Group at The Washington Post, is the other keynote.) Here are a few other probable “keepsakes,” with the best saved for last.
Keep global audiences. Stuart also spoke about their new global audience. “We have had a value proposition—with our 54 chapters and more than 10,000 global members—that as a member you can avail yourself of any program that a chapter has at the member rate,” he said. “I’ve been hammering at that for a while. In the virtual atmosphere, people saw it, and it became a reality. So a member from a chapter in the UK and one in Toronto [will now attend each other’s events]. When people see that global reality, it gives them pride about the association. They now see the value of the greater organization that they’re a part of. And that pride cascades to everyone in the organization.” Welcoming a global audience for virtual events will continue. Said Orson Francescone, head of the Financial Times’ FT Live: “[In 2019] we had 24,000 delegates at our conferences. [In 2020] with 223 online events—that’s webinars, conferences and award shows—we’ve had 160,000 ‘digital delegates.’ So suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water…”
Build more hubs. Coronavirus news hubs brought large new audiences to publishers. “We knew commercial impact was ripe for impact from this… and we knew this was something we had to address quickly,” said Kathryn Hamilton, vice president for marketing and communication at NAIOP (the Commercial Real Estate Development Association). “From a communications perspective, my biggest takeaway [from an initial call with our leaders] was that we… needed to create a microsite where all this content could be easily found. Thus the COVID-19 site was born and visited, again and again.” Does the idea of a hub for expanded coverage only have to be around COVID? A temporary hub on another vital topic could work well for your industry niche.
Earn goodwill. We like uplifting stories, so why stop when the pandemic ends? “We know that a lot of our members are doing good things,” Hamilton said last year, mentioning Delta airlines relocating a work site in less than 48 hours to accommodate workers. “So we’ve invited our members to share their good works with us.” Alicia Evanko Lewis of Northstar Travel Group told us that she created a Silver Lining Social campaign that engaged industry members to share their positive stories amidst the upheaval. It has been a huge success. Marlene Hendrickson, senior director, publishing and marketing, American Staffing Association, suggested lifting your log-in requirements for your COVID resources. There might be other important events—good and bad—that come up where easy access could enable good feelings,
Offer more audio. Text to audio has accelerated during the crisis. Dutch news website The Correspondent recently launched a new audio app for members. “We were a text-based site mostly, and our members asked us if we could also provide audio, because it’s easier to combine it with different activities like traveling or working out,” CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth said. “We figured, well, it’s not our mission to provide text. It’s our mission to be a daily antidote to the news grind, to give an insight into how the world works. The medium isn’t that important, so if voice works better, let’s introduce that.”
Commit to more digital resources. While print is still important for most associations, the last 12 months has required a bigger commitment to digital. “We had to make sure that [our members] were aware that their print issues were being reduced, but at the same time, they weren’t really losing anything from their membership,” said Nicole Racadag, managing editor at the American College of Radiology. “Instead this whole digital publishing model was going to be a value-add for them. They were going to get more content more frequently. We worked with the marketing team to make sure our table of contents was being sent to all members so that way they knew they could access the content online, even though the main June issues, for example, were not going to be printed. Our early web statistics show that users were going to acr.org/bulletin to browse content.” The potential here is enormous.
Double down on content. When the pandemic hit, Morning Brew launched a guide telling readers how best to work from home. It quickly became a pop-up, three-days-a-week newsletter, The Essentials, with tips on how to be active, healthy and happy during quarantine.” It attracted more than 75,000 subscribers in the first three days. In November, after 80+ issues of The Essentials, the newsletter got a makeover to become Sidekick. Looks like it’s still going strong. “Another example of our mission and how we’re being a resource to readers…,” said Alex Lieberman, CEO and co-founder. “We are thinking differently about the media landscape.”
Use sommeliers. One of the most reliable moving parts of virtual conferences is wine tastings. It seemed to check a lot of boxes for the last year: networking, joy, learning, diversity. So why stop? In-person events can easily kick off a networking happy hour with a 20-minute talk from a local sommelier about what we might be drinking tonight. For hybrid events, could be a way to give both audiences a similar experience and would be nice to have her or him around as a resource.