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Selling Ideas Is Different Than Selling Products

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.

Stephanie Holland

“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).

Frank Salatto

“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.”

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.”