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.”

A Trend to Watch: HubSpot Acquires The Hustle

by Alex Ford

HubSpot announced this week that they are acquiring The Hustle for what Axios has reported to be $27 million. The Hustle is a 1.5 million reader strong e-newsletter business targeting entrepreneurs and business owners. In commenting on the acquisition, HubSpot highlighted the overlap between The Hustle’s readership and parallels with the resources and audience that HubSpot has been building on its blog as well as the overall fit with its customer base.

Anyone who has considered HubSpot is likely well aware of the amount of best practice content they offer their customers and prospects. Adding an engaged audience of potential HubSpot customers and a distribution channel for that content makes tactical sense.

So why does this matter beyond what seems like a smart – albeit expensive – marketing play? I’ve long been a proponent of pairing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses with content. And it’s a trend to watch as SaaS businesses become more sophisticated in their customer acquisition and deepen their value proposition beyond simply offering a software toolset.

Combining SaaS and content means including content as an essential part of a software product or by adding digital media communities or conferences to the front end of a SaaS business model. It was a major factor in the acquisition of the company I founded – Praetorian Digital – and its merger with Lexipol in the public safety learning and compliance space. In this case, The Hustle offers HubSpot content, a conference footprint and a fledging subscription data product.

For SaaS Businesses

If you follow SaaS businesses or have operated one, you know that the beauty of a SaaS business is in its clear metrics such as such as LTV/CAC (ratio of lifetime customer value to customer acquisition cost), payback period, and net churn that supports rapid scaling. Done right, adding digital media decreases CAC by creating an ongoing channel to a captured audience to which you can market your solution and builds brand authority and thought leadership. It provides a warm list for your lead or sales development reps to call and allows you to map lead capture to relevant articles even gating content that closely correlates with purchase intent.

More importantly, it also allows you to map content to all stages of the customer lifecycle, which  improves core metrics like usage and net churn. Taking this one step further, content paired with a SaaS platform presents opportunities for new product features or add-ons. For HubSpot, this could be a premium subscription for customers either at an additional cost or as a value-add to support annual price increases. Learning management system businesses have long applied this strategy by offering course content along with their platform and authoring tools. Finally, the data from content engagement can create intriguing opportunities to pair software usage data with industry trends. In this case, the Hustle already offers a data product – Trends – that will only grow in value within the HubSpot ecosystem.

For Digital Media Operators

Digital media has largely been struggling to find its way over the past several years to compete with social media and the rapid changes in content consumption. For digital media businesses in or around verticals where workflow tools are important, there are important implications. SaaS businesses, who may be some of your larger customers, could be future acquirers or could begin to compete as they build their own blogs and newsletter lists. Think differently about the SaaS businesses you have as customers and look for partnerships and deeper relationships to test the waters.

Alternatively, digital media businesses are in a unique position to swim upstream and add SaaS or workflow solutions to their offerings as I did at Praetorian Digital when we built an enterprise learning platform for first responders to extend our digital media communities. That effort ended up generating nearly half of our annual revenue. Doing so is a heavy lift and requires a major shift in culture and different skillset but is well worth the effort when comparing relative valuations and the opportunity to embed your business within your audience. And with software becoming easier to build and manage, the deep domain experience, engaged potential customer base, brand trust and content resident in any digital media or traditional media business presents a set of competitive advantages that will only become more important as we’re seeing here with HubSpot.

 

Alex Ford is an accomplished entrepreneur, angel investor, public speaker and executive. He served as Chief Executive Officer of Lexipol in 2019 and 2020 following the merger of Lexipol and Praetorian Digital, which he founded in 1999. Alex led the company to become the leading learning and content platform for first responders and local government leaders, driving 15+ years of profitability and more than 15% growth per year. Currently, he is operating partner at North Equity and strategy advisor to multiple companies.