‘Once Digital Gets Its Hands on Things, It Never Lets Go’; Media Executives Talk Transformation

“I think there’s an incredible future path for us to do what we do,” Industry Dive CEO Sean Griffey said today in an excellent discussion on digital transformation. “There’s still a place for good journalism in the world. And a place for us to leverage our role as connectors and make a lot of money for it.”

Listening intently to that discussion yesterday took me back to a Zoom call I had in May with Krystle Kopacz, CEO of Revmade. “The biggest challenge is, ‘How do you lead your company through a massive transformation when your work hours are not what you’re used to, you can’t connect in the office, and you can’t separate professional and personal problems?’” she told me.

Kopacz said she had been up early—probably around 5 am given her schedule with a 9-month-old daughter—thinking about her SIPA keynote in June. “Publishers can provide information and research, but what do they need from me? How can I help them navigate this? I work with brand clients. And they’re calling me saying, ‘We’re not doing trade shows, so how do I find qualified buyers?'”

Her first question, she said, is, “Have you thought about working with a publisher?” But  “publishers are up against a lot in this new environment. What they need to do is to align their products better with marketing pain points. ‘How do I call up some of the clients’ pain points? How do I create a lead gen replacement package?’

“This is where your media sales team can play the biggest role, helping clients understand and being relevant to your target audience,” Kopacz continued. “They’re also wondering, ‘How do I navigate this?’ So there’s some advice-giving that needs to happen.”

From a business standpoint, as Griffey said, good things can come of this. The other SIPA 2020 keynote, Don Harkey, told the story of his 75 year-old mother-in-law teaching piano lessons on Skype now. “If you would have told me that at Christmas time, I would’ve said no way. But she’s doing it and liking it and said she will be offering it to her students in the future. It’s things like that that are fundamentally changing.”

What [Customer] Problems Are We Solving Day-to-Day?”

Harkey’s mother-in-law had figured out a way to solve her audience’s pain points. It’s kind of the same for some members. In the discussion yesterday, Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, said that their “transformation started in 2013 [when] we realized that if we wanted to connect with our audience, we needed to provide information they needed every day. We acquired a workflow product that’s now the fastest growing part of our business.”

Their foundation is still their database, she said, but “our media product gets us to the table. It has built this broader audience for us [so we can] go deeper [with the] workflow product. Some days I wake up and wish I was a big company, but then I’m glad we’re small,” Green added with a smile.

Green said they actually had their best year ever in 2020—their niche is the veterinary field—partly because they had thought about transformation well before the pandemic. “What problems are we solving day-to-day for our audience?” Green asked. “As an organization, we had to change our structure from a media organization to one that is product focused. That allowed us to get much greater cross-collaboration with our teams, because they’re now focused on product and not departments. We also are able to make decisions much faster.”

Industry Dive’s Griffey added that over the last 12 months, he has seen “upticks in brand advertising and other different [digital] components. People had relied on events to do these things. They used events to get executives on panels and as keynotes. And now we see [the resurgence of] brand. Will that go away when events come back? It’s kind of a [reminder] that once digital gets its hands on things, it never lets go. We got tailwinds because we didn’t have events. Marketers come to us looking to use digital in ways that wouldn’t be expected.”

“How does the lack of live events across the industry affect us?” Kopacz asked back on that May morning. “What does that do to lead generation efforts? And how are you refilling that pipeline? Publishers still have a key role to play between buyers and sellers. There are many ways you can mimic what live events do.”

For now, that journey continues.

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Think Virtual-First, New Sponsors, Fast Following and Editorial Selling

You know how there’s speed dating and speed networking and speed reading and speed friending and speed skating and speed eating and speed walking, etc. I’m turning to speed ideating today. See if any of these ideas from the last couple months triggers something good for you.
Build something new. Maybe we need to put aside the pivot for a while and create an event that’s virtual-first—like we used to say digital-first a few years ago. What works best on Zoom? I like moderated discussions there. Or think of five speakers you never would have thought you could get pre-pandemic. Try calling them now. I just read something that said celebrities are turning up (virtually) in all sorts of unexpected ways these days. This gives us a chance to re-format.
Come up with new sponsorships. Vendors still want to vend. They need new opportunities. What fresh and exciting sponsorships can you come up with? The Washington Nationals have Bathletix hand santizer. Start a podcast. Or a puzzle. Or a quiz.
Talk to your customers. The natural inclination at this time might be to withdraw or think everyone is on vacation, but the opposite might be true. It’s the time for strategic conversations and important questions. Pick up the phone—yes, you do NOT have to Zoom. “How are you?” should be the lead question. “What do you need the most help with?” “What are your pain points?”
Empower staff to have these same conversations and then share. Anecdotal information from the conversations/emails your staff is having with your audience should be shared at your next Zoom meeting. Everyone should be empowered to ask these questions. A short personal email is fine if you don’t want to call and then listening for what comes next from them (after “how are you”).
Follow the money. Asked why he might go into popular verticals rather than more obscure ones, Industry Dive CEO Sean Griffey said, “Crowded spaces means there’s money there. I’d rather go where there’s money today rather than create a market tomorrow. If it’s between being first in something or being a fast follower, I’m not in the first one… At the end of the day, we like verticals that are impacted by technology or regulation so there’s a need to follow the news.”
Try “selling without selling.” Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications, said that he has an audience that doesn’t like to talk to sales. So an editor will contact them and say, “I’m the editor and my job is for you to get value from the site. Is there content that’s not there that you need?” He calls it selling without selling. “It’s non-intrusive but takes the right type of editorial folks who get that.”
Create content bundles. People have more time now so come up with new courses or e-learning initiatives. Bundle that with a new newsletter or report and special access to something.
Get more social. Despite social media’s effectiveness for driving traffic to organization websites—it’s number one at 90% in a recent survey—only 1 in 5 respondents in that survey feel strongly that their organization’s social media strategy is well defined, and only one-third strongly agree that social media is a high priority for their organization. There’s a definite disconnect there.
Do an honest assessment of your product bucket. Use that to inform future products. A reallocation of resources is something real that has to happen and now is a good time.
Focus on the “gap methodology. The plans that we all put in place 4-6 months ago aren’t the plans today. And who knows what the future will bring. Our key stakeholders are experiencing a level of uncertainty that we’re all experiencing. There’s a place now between the current state (unarguably not great) and the future state. Make the most of the time now.
Get back to your core products. What do you do best? What do you have—in the archives perhaps—that you can tune or adjust to solve your audience’s current challenges? Maybe you once did something on crisis communications or managing remotely or hockey in August.
It’s been a long week.
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‘Thrilling to See it Happen’ – Transition to 100% Remote Work and Non-Event Revenue Give CEOs Optimism

When offices open up again, what will make employees comfortable enough to go back in? In an engaging and revenue-focused CES Deconstructed session titled CEO Power Panel: How Leading Companies Are Planning to Not Just Survive But Thrive, Arizent CEO Gemma Postlethwaite offered one answer that resonated with her colleagues and audience.

“We have tried to quantify this [with a survey],” she said. “We’ve asked specific questions of what you would need to have in place to feel comfortable [to go back to the office]. It’s very clear from our part of the world that until there are vaccines, most people will be uncomfortable commuting in and out of New York City. [Plus] 30% have school-age children.”

Of course, she also pointed out that “people who live alone and who work alone are itching to get back to more communication in real time. How do we serve our community and make decisions in the best interest of that community and families, and keep up productivity? We’ll embrace it and look at it as an opportunity.”

Tony Uphoff, president and CEO of Thomas, and Connectiv’s just-named 2020 McAllister Top Management Fellow, has accepted the commuting-will-be-tough mantra and went one step further earlier this year—100% remote.

“It was thrilling to see it happen,” he said. “We saw personal protection equipment coming out of China early on and did a couple things quickly. There were 2000 manufacturers who volunteered to make PPE, and we operate where goods are traded. Usage of Thomas is up 45%. The demand for our advertising solutions is up 100%… For us, this is an accelerator” to the direction they were already moving in.

In the hour-long session, four media company CEOs talked about finding the cents and sensibilities floating in our new uncharted seas. The consensus seemed to be, don’t count on events coming back too soon. Instead, find what can replace them both in terms of revenue and networking.

“We’ve really been aggressive with virtual and digital events,” said Tim Hartman, CEO of Government Executive Media Group. He believes it will be a while before we return to any semblance of what physical events looked like, so they will focus on digital advertising and marketing services and virtual events.

“I really want to avoid [this] and caution everyone else that delays in pushing back live events can be problematic. That requires keeping relationships going with vendors, venues, locations. It’s hard to do—delaying to August, then October, then 2021. We’re avoiding that. [Instead] we went to clients with a combination of new products and an incentive for digital advertising—convincing them that this is good idea. [Fortunately] it works for us. Our clients are open and are still getting paid by the government.”

Sean Griffey, CEO of Industry Dive and a holdout in the events world—although he said that they had been looking to acquire an events business before the crisis—said they have remained focused on solving problems for their audience.

“Culturally, our sales team doesn’t view themselves as selling advertising. And we’re not selling webinars or banner ads,” said Griffey. “They’re trying to solve customers’ problems. That’s allowed us to be very nimble… We’re always looking for something that has a foundation. I’m excited about peer-to-peer networks. How do we do that virtually? What do our audiences need? What do our advertisers need?”

They have “seen some tailwinds shift from event budgets to online. Our clients have problems they’re looking to solve, [and with us in] 19 different markets, we have a vast array of [solutions] to offer… In education [for example], people with remote learning solutions are coming out of the woodwork. We’re fortunate on how we can position ourselves. Sales and revenue are up.”

With those 19 verticals, Industry Dive’s doubling down on content has not gone unnoticed. Postlethwaite said that Arizent has also “invested a lot in our editorial content.” They’ve been able to pivot to an integrated approach, helping to make more truly meaningful connections for their clients. “We’ve made big investments in our studio,” she said, adding that clients are coming to them more for the content they’re producing. “We’ve been gearing up to have way more inventory for sponsors and have also seen a greater demand for valued leads and marketing services.”

Still, the idea of remote working and if not live events, then what permeated much of the conversation. “Are there emergent event models that will happen… that will be complimentary to live events?” Hartman asked. “If there’s going to be a new world, live will have virtual instances. Events may turn to more Netflix-like programming… We have the opportunity to create the next iteration of that. We’re just in the first inning.”

Hartman added that he sees more product and development energy taking place now, and—in a recurring theme with the panel—more added content. “We’re meeting more frequently. We’ve invested in podcasting; we have our own podcast for every editorial brand. Also six or seven white label podcasts. You can listen to a podcast while you do your chores around the house.

“We’re also spending a lot more time with our sales team, listening to what they’re hearing in the market,” Hartman said. “So they have the newest version of our perspective on the future… How we’re going to educate clients on what that will look like is an imperative for us as well.”

As for the working from home, Uphoff said that they are “thriving remotely” and will make coming in optional even when the situation changes. Griffey also said that they will be a lot more remote in the future. In addition, he said the pandemic affects how we all look at office space moving forward.

“Do we need more space to sit apart or less space because less people will go into the office? I will not force people to come in or get on a plane. It’s not on me to tell them they have to be here as long as long as they’re productive.”

The CES Deconstructed Power Panel session can be accessed here. The sessions continue throughout May. If not already registered for CES Deconstructed, sign up here.

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For Industry Dive and Others, Content Has to Be Crisis-Related… For Now

Go to most publisher websites today, and most likely, COVID-19 has a big presence. On SIPA member insideARM, the lead story is Receivables Industry Leaders Share COVID-19 Strategies, Successes, and Lessons Learned. On Inside Mortgage Finance, the top story in “Latest News” is Amid the Pandemic, the Mortgage Market Has a New Origination King: Quicken.
At Education Week, a pop-up emerges, “Free Resources for School Closures.” At Business Management Daily, the lead article is Out of Sight, Not Out Of Mind: Managing Remote Employee Performance. At Behr’s GmbH in Germany, the first message I see is an ad for their “Online-Seminar-Serie – Corona: Maßnahmen für die Lebensmittelindustrie.” I don’t need advanced German to figure out what that’s about. (I just need Google – Corona: Measures for the Food Industry.)
Thus, I was a little surprised yesterday during an excellent webinar hosted by the American Society of Business Publication Editors titled, COVID-19 and B2B Publishing: A Panel Discussion. About midway through, a poll was conducted—and yes, polls really do work, because I was multi-tasking and it made me engage with the webinar! To paraphrase, the poll asked, “Are we continuing to cover the topics that had been previously planned or are we totally shifting to cover the impact of COVID-19?”
I voted shifting because it feels like COVID-19 has impacted everything, and we can’t look at anything the way we used to. But 84% voted the other way.
Fortunately, I had good company. “We’re going to be in the 16%,” said Sean Griffey, one of the panelists and CEO of Industry Dive. “We’re not hiring extra people [nor are they laying off]. So if we’re going to cover COVID, then we’re not going to cover some things that were planned. Some of those things we had planned just aren’t going to happen.
“At Industry Dive”—which now covers 19 industries—”we’re news driven. Every quarter we push our editorial to see what trends are shaping the industry and what stories do we want to own. COVID-19 is the story right now, if we’re going to be honest.”
In a Q&A yesterday conducted by Jim Kuhnhenn, the press freedom fellow at the National Press Club Journalism Institute, Industry Dive’s editor in chief, Davide Savenije, voiced a similar sentiment. “We’re seeing a black swan event that’s causing seismic change in every sector we cover. Some changes may last for the duration of the pandemic, and some may last after this is all ‘over.’
“So early on, we started asking, ‘Okay, well we don’t know exactly how businesses and industries are being impacted by it yet, we don’t know exactly how they’re planning or preparing, so let’s go out and ask those very simple basic questions….’ As we started tracking that really robustly just internally, we very quickly had the idea that readers will want to see these kinds of things.
“We’re trying to cover what’s changing in these industries, and part of the way that we do that is we think about storylines. … Part of our approach is to really think about which storylines are we going to own. We have relatively small teams of two, three, four or five journalists per industry. And so we really have to allocate our resources to go after the things that really matter most and not to be spread kind of thin and wide.”
I would guess that “small teams” describe most SIPA members, but then you see the incredible coverage that’s taking place and you would guess more. Quickly, most publishers realized that their audience wanted to know how this crisis is affecting them. And by answering that, more readers would come.
Writing on the Belgian news consultant site Twipe today, Mary-Katharine Phillips makes a great point. We’re bringing people in with crisis coverage, but then we need to show them more to retain them.
“As for new subscribers during the crisis, it will be key to ensure they develop a habit with the digital product in their onboarding journey. The first step in creating a habit is the internal trigger. For many subscribers today, that internal trigger is a desire to know the current situation regarding the corona crisis. However, publishers will need to make sure subscribers are exposed to the full breadth of their journalism. While it might seem like today all content is corona content, new subscribers need to be exposed to non-corona content as well.”
SIPA publishers are well-positioned to take advantage of the thirst of a new audience to know more about this crisis, in relation to their industry. Only time will tell when our “small teams” can return to those “non-corona” topics.