Content, Ad Ops and First Party Data – How B2B Publisher Breaking Media Grew 50% During the Pandemic

Editor’s Note: Join Breaking Media CEO John Lerner and TechTarget senior director of search and advertising solutions Adam Davis to discuss new digital revenue ideas and dealing with the demise of cookies at AM&P Network’s Revenue Council meeting on Oct. 21 at 1pm ET. Register here or contact 

The pandemic caused a massive reset in B2B media. Publishers that had morphed into events companies first and media second took it on the chin (in more than one case losing upwards of 50 percent of overall revenue).

Meanwhile, the pandemic has been a boon to companies poised to meet the renewed demand for digital media. Case in point—New York City-based Breaking Media, which serves verticals such as legal, defense, fashion, medical and finance. After two flat years of growth in 2018-2019, Breaking Media saw digital revenue soar more than 50 percent over the past year as both new and existing customers shifted spending from events into digital media.

John Lerner

Here we talk with Breaking Media CEO John Lerner on how they did it and how they plan to keep the momentum going as events return and the B2B media industry at large scrambles with a renewed passion for digital media.


AMPLIFY: John, Breaking Media is up 50 percent in revenue. Where specifically is the growth coming from?

John Lerner: Before and during the pandemic we invested heavily in our main verticals. Our strongest markets right now are defense, law and healthcare. Defense, in particular, is the biggest driver because that’s where we were doing the most investment before the pandemic. We were building that momentum before COVID and then we were able to address the needs of the market when the pandemic hit.

We are doing a lot of content marketing programs. We added really strong editorial teams. We’re hiring more ads ops people than salespeople these days—sales is still relatively straightforward but what makes a successful campaign on the back-end is getting more complex.

The Breaking Media model is a bit different than other B2B publishers in that we like to identify the total universe of a vertical and then create content that engages as much of that community as possible. From there we segment the audience through content first but then on the back-end we start to develop lists and the first party data so that we can target them.

We took a long look at the market in April and May of 2020 and we saw that things would be coming back. We didn’t do any layoffs. I’ve always believed that you invest in a downturn and you can grab market share in a downturn.

AMPLIFY: What is the current revenue mix for Breaking Media and has that changed over the past year?  

Lerner: Right now, we’re 100 percent digital media although historically live events have accounted for 10 to 15 percent of total revenue. Fifty percent of our current revenue is custom, 20 percent is email, 20 percent is classic brand advertising and the remaining 10 percent is a mix of other thing like job listings and subscriptions. I was just budgeting for 2022 and it’s hard to define because today everything overlaps. Every content marketing program we do usually has a banner ad component to it.

AMPLIFY: How have you accomplished this growth?

Lerner: We got a lot smarter in terms of segmenting the audiences and then developing the products that they want. We’ve focused heavily on first party data for some time now, knowing that the ‘cookiepocalypse’ was coming. But the key was having that audience—you can’t segment audience you don’t have. It was really there for the taking and we’ve hit our stride at this point.

AMPLIFY: Beyond editorial, where have you invested that’s had the biggest impact?

Lerner: It was really building ways to collect first party data. We have a heavy focus on e-mail. The interesting thing about B2B is that your readers and advertisers are mixed together. The more people we get to read our content, the more who will subscribe to our newsletters. The more you know what their news consumption behavior is, the more we can target them.

Our view was we needed to deliver solutions to advertisers who couldn’t go to events. The Farnborough Air Show was canceled in 2020 but the need to reach people in that market was still there. We had a subset of our audience that was purely engaged in that show subscribe to our newsletters, so we can jump in and fill that gap.

AMPLIFY: Can you share a specific example of a product that helped drive this growth?

Lerner: There wasn’t any one million-dollar product. In defense, instead of selling around an event, we started selling around a topic. For example, there’s something called multi-domain, which doesn’t focus on defense in just one environment like land, sea or air but across the board because the technology is merging all together. We had a lot of interest from our marketing partners about multi-domain so we launched it as a special section on the site in lieu of any event that could cover it. In doing so we’ve created a really engaging topic that wasn’t part of the site initially.

Customers want to be thought of as thought leaders in their space. We offer branding around the content, not just banner ads. Banner ads are still a part of it but there’s a special design element and the marketing is integrated into that. From there you give them the opportunity to run their own native content (labeled as such) intermingled with our editorial content.

Big trade shows used to be that way. You had a big launch with a massive splash at a trade show and your brand would be everywhere. That’s the goal of what we’re trying to do with the online experience today.

Amplify: Marketing services have exceeded banner advertising as a revenue generator in B2B media in recent years but also brings with it the internal challenges of managing so many custom elements. How are you addressing that?

Lerner: We create a lot of process around how we execute. We don’t try to templatize the program itself because that is custom. That’s one of the reasons we keep hiring campaign management people. There is a hand-holding process to this now. We’ve always had the market experts, who usually come from the editorial side, and they’re usually the face of the brand talking to the customer’s marketing experts.

But then our campaign management teams comes in to make sure it’s done right. The client can’t give us collateral at 5:00pm on Thursday and have it accepted on Friday. We want to make sure they’re using stuff that will resonate with the audience and everything, down to the links, are working. We’ve laid out a process where there is X amount of back and forth of iterations and you the customer know what our expectations are.

After that, the reporting is just as vital to the success of the campaign, so we make sure we’re going to follow up and give them weekly and monthly reporting on what’s happened.

We assign a campaign manager to the program and they really serve as more of a project manager, because they understand all the metrics that need to be tracked. Someone owns it internally and they’re accountable to it and the goals that we’ve set. Our renewal rate has gone up tremendously because of that.

AMPLIFY: How much of this new business is coming from marketers shifting budgets from events and how many are existing customers versus new customers?

Lerner: It’s both. This is not the death of face-to-face events in any way, shape or form but I do think there’s a bit of headwind in the events space because marketers want to see the ROI and are questioning whether they need to be there. A lot of them are starting to realize that digital has the best ability to show ROI of any media. I would not want to be a trade show-only company right now because digital media is going after that business.

AMPLIFY: What’s this mean for your own events?

Lerner: We feel bullish because our own events have usually been about high-quality programming and a lot of networking. The networking event can’t be replicated online but the sponsorship side can be. In the trade show world, people are going to be saying, ‘Wait a minute how much is this booth? What are my alternatives?’

We sell on tangible metrics. You know how many people look at the campaign or look at an article. A trade show today is sort of like magazines in the old days, where you had circulation but no idea if someone actually read it.

I don’t think you’ll see events come back 100 percent. There will be changes and there will be hybrids which I think are exciting.

AMPLIFY: How do you sustain the momentum going into 2022?

Lerner: To continue to grow, we have to continue to add new products. I’ll use law as an example. There are about 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S. and a couple hundred thousand law students. So, the full universe of lawyers, students and legal support is around 1.5, 1.6 million.

We reach most of them in a given month with Above the Law, because that’s the nature of the site. But very few of our marketing partners want to reach that entire 1.6 million. We recently had a client who wanted to reach family law firms in California with two to 20 employees. We were able to deliver that thanks to our first party data and that’s how we will move into 2022. One of our key missions is to know more about our audience, give our audience the content that they want and then deliver that audience to our advertisers.

We’re also looking at experimenting with other programs that are more direct-response driven. Certain clients want lead gen and we have to create campaigns where we’re competing against LinkedIn and Google. Those are SEO plays more than anything but we’re heavily focused on that. We have a lot of products queued up for next year and they’re all subsets or cross-overs of our existing markets. In every market, the common theme is how far we can drill down and create a product that hits a subset of that audience.

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