I am just back from the American Business Media annual conference in Florida. Since this is the leading association of business magazine publishers, I expected the mood to be dour. After all this, this is an industry that has remained stubbornly wedded to not just advertising, but print advertising, and has consequently been hammered in this economic downturn.
The mood I encountered was actually somewhat upbeat and distinctly resolute. This downturn, I heard time and time again, is forcing publishers to make hard decisions and take decisive action to evolve their businesses.
And what's the focus of this evolution? Interesting to me at least, it's not data. While these magazine publishers are increasingly appreciative of the stable, recurring revenues data products can offer, they remain largely outside their comfort zone. Instead, the conference buzz centered on the notion of magazine publishers evolving into marketing service companies. The idea is to move off a singular focus on ad pages to staging events and promotions, building websites, whatever the advertiser needs. As my colleague Janice McCallum notes, this isn't exactly a new concept, and it begins to blur the lines between publisher and agency.
Are there dangers in this? Most particularly, do publishers risk "biting the hand that feeds them" as they start to move onto agency turf? The conference panelists took a combative stance in response to that exact question, suggesting that agencies were moving onto what has traditionally been the turf of publishers, particularly in the area of building communities on behalf of their clients. No talk of cooperation or partnering here. Rather, the recommendation was "get them before they get you."I admit to being energized by all this talk of marketing services. It's a concept that makes sense, and the dollars and the margins being discussed are big enough to yield fast and positive financial results for many magazine publishers. My caution to these publishers, however, is to remember what's enabling this fast move into marketing services, something we call Central Market Position. Most business magazine publishers occupy a central, trusted, respected and neutral position in the markets they serve. Central Market Position provides a uniquely powerful platform to exploit any number of market opportunities. Moving too aggressively into marketing services risks damage to this position, and that could mean that the hunt for short-term dollars could conscribe future growth opportunities.