Neil Thackray’s Business Media Blog

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The Right Answer to the Wrong Question is Still the Wrong Answer

If you ask the right questions there is chance you will find the right answers. Is it possible that in business media we are asking the wrong questions?  Many business media companies are asking themselves how they can manage the migration from print to online and how they can maximise the cash generated from the legacy business in the meantime.  The right answer to the wrong question won’t build the new model we are striving for and my contention is that this is the wrong question.

The problem with the question as phrased, is that it leads managers to replicate the offline model in the online world.   Content sourcing and selection is done in the same way as for magazines.  We try to sell display advertising with display advertising arguments and metrics.  In the legacy business we manage our magazines as cash cows, driving out costs but plugging away with the same failing model.

There is an old cliche that if you are hitting your head against a wall and are discovering that your head is hurting, the best answer is to stop hitting your head against the wall.

Let’s use that analogy as as starting point to rephrase the question.  Let’s begin by thinking about our aims.  We want to build a new model for offline publising that will deliver sustained growh over the long term.  In addtion we want to make new profits by using the distribution medium of the Internet.  If these are our aims then the question we have to answer is different.  What does a successful business magazine look like in a world where news and comment is consumed via a screen?  What service can we provide online that will lock in targetted groups of decision makers and how can we help suppliers convey their marketing messages to those prospects in a way which leads our customers to increased sales?

Now that sounds like a more interesting way of thinking about the problem.  Let’s think about the magzine question first.  What do we know?  We know that readership has fallen over time.  We know that much of the news we publish in our magazines is out of date before it reaches the reader.  We know that classified and recruitment advertising is being eroded by job boards and other online solutions.  We know that declining readership means declining reponse and lower  advertising yields.   We know that as we cut costs our competence to write credibly about our markets is being undermined.

What do we know about online publishing for b2b communities?  We know that building traffic is possible.  We have discovered that our target readers are butterflys using search engines seek out nuggets of information.  We know that sophisticated Internet users are as likely to read our content in RSS feed as they are to read it in our livery.  We know that when readers come to our sites they will often consume only a few pages. Two or three is not unusual before they vanish off to some other information source.  We know that b2b advertisers don’t understand how to use our audience to make money and the devices we give them often offer disappointing returns with low CTR.

Ok.  So that is not comprehensive and isn’t even universally 100% true, but wouldn’t you agree that as a broad description of our world it rings some bells?  So lets try and tackle the issues at the heart of this argument.  In magazine publishing we need to produce titles which are worth reading even when news is available on the net.  We need to construct the content on a lower cost base than before.   We need to do this without thinking about migration, but rather do it for its own sake.  If we try and migrate then we risk being out thought by nimbler  online only providers.  There are many ways we could do this and there is not a single right answer to content construction, but this is one approach that might be interesting.

1) Abandon the idea of writing breaking news or seeking scoops.  Instead act as a summariser and aggregator of all that has happened this week in your niche.  Think “The Week”. For those whose RSS feeders are full, or who worry they might have missed a key story  or event, what better than to have an experet (a b2B editor) sift, summarise and edit the most important stuff of the week and put it in one place.

2) Tear up your exisiting features plan.  You almost certainly can’t afford to produce it to the standard you would like.  Decide to publish fewer features but make them longer.  Long articles are not easy to present well on the web.  (One comment left on this site noted how much easier to read my rather long winded writing style would be  if it was properly laid out in a magzine) and are better presented on a dead tree.

3) Source your features from new sources.  Don’t depend on journalists.  Tragically in the new era model you can’t afford to hire many of them anyway.  Instead recuit a cadre of expert witnesses in your niche and get them to write about the key flexion points in your niche.  The test of a good feature in the new model is how useful is it to the target niche in helping them make better decisions.

4) Think about all the things you can do in a magazine that you can’t do on the web and then do those.  Examples? You have time, so write longer.  Paper is cheap and distribution costs are not weight driven so make it look beautiful.  If the web is about instant access to every document on earth, read ephemerally,  make the magazine about slow considered, thoughtful and essential matters that will be read repeatedly.  If you want someone to read a magzine it has to be essential.  Examine every article and really ask yourself, if I didn’t publish this, would it matter?  (If you want help with this do call me).  Write about what’s on the web. Provide lists of sources of further reading.  Look at experimenting with QR codes, run series of articles which mean that once you have read the first you will want to read the next (Thackray’s glib sayng of the day, “the purpose of this edition of the magazine is to get people to read the next edition.”)

5) Think about the ultra niche concept.  Writing an article about Gordon Ramsay is entirely different if the audience is hotel General Managers or Chefs.  The best magazines, we used to say, had the readers name on them, (The Grocer, Farmers Weekly, Fleet Car Buyer, Hairdressers Journal, Personnel Management).  Think the same way today, but define the grouping more narrowly.  By all means have more than one grouping.

5) Never, ever re write a press release and publish it as a story.

So much for magazines.  There is more but the answer will be different for each magazine and is a longer project than I can do justice to in a post.  What do you about circualtion policy? How do you re engage the enthusasm of advertisers and will it make money are all important lines of enquiry.

In the next post, we will have a look at answering the second part of the question.

What service can we provide online that will lock in targetted groups of decision makers and how can we help suppliers convey their marketing messages to those prospects in a way which leads our customers to increased sales?

As little primer for that discussion if we know a little more about what a feature in magazine is, what is a feature online?  An interesting perspective on this from an RBI inmate at his blog here .  Tip of the hat to Adam Tinworth who re tweeted this and brought it to my attention.

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February 6, 2009 - Posted by | B2B Journalism, business media strategy | , ,


  1. Hi Neil,

    I’d argue it’s all about number 4 (um, your first point 4; not your second point 4 – who’s subbing this thing?).

    Print is a bloody brilliant medium – if you use it for what it’s good for.

    The best investment a publisher can make is in the look and feel of the mag.

    Invest in photography – don’t just buy in cheap from iStock. If you can’t afford to do it for everything, then at the very least shoot the cover and lead feature.

    Use a good designer – and design template. It really, really matters.

    Don’t scrimp on the paper stock.

    Those are the things that can make print a winning experience over online. Actually, I think it was you who taught me that.

    Unfortunately they’re also the first things that get cut when times are tough.

    Get it right though, and then I guess we’d better worry about the words…


    Tim – Mumbrella

    Comment by mumbrella | February 7, 2009

  2. Sorry about the subbing. I miss all those pasty faces improving my copy. You are right when you say the paper is the first to get cut when times get tough. I have been guilty of doing it myself – and I have been right – in times when we were trimming our costs to await the next upturn. This time it’s different. There won’t be an upturn – which is why the cost cutting strategy is no longer valid (at least not in isolation).

    Comment by neilthackray | February 14, 2009

  3. Thought your comment 1) reference The Week was apposite as:

    a) for a brief time in the last century I was the part-time publisher of that aforementioned publication.

    b) back in 2002 I suggested to Nick Ratnieks when he was working on ZDNetweek that they should adopt that approach to cater for the information requirements of IT professionals. But I saw that as both a print and online exercise. Probably wisely, they never did. Even so, it would have been interesting to see whether it would have worked.

    c) I have since been “inspired” by the way The Week “reviews” the news to adopt a similar approach to reviewing mobile phones (

    Unfortunately I’m not convinced that asking how to generate more revenue from display advertisements on websites is the right question either. Banner blindness is a real problem, and no matter how precisely targeted those banners might be, I fear they will continue to be largely ignored.

    The ways in which people select and consume content online is very different from the way they do it with print. Consequently, although atomic media can provide a highly effective environment for display advertising, digital media does not.

    Instead online publishers will need to find other ways to make money from their content. Doing so will be as important to building the new model as the equally relevant question of content construction.

    Comment by Richard Howell | April 30, 2009

  4. Hi Richard,

    I remember you well – and who can ever forget Ratinieks! I think you are right about banner blindness and sky blindness and leaderboard blindeness and MPU blindness and text ad blindness. It seems to me there are two challenges. We certainly, as you postulate, need to devlop more compelling ways to embed marketing maessages in web site content. We also need to do a better job at targetting the right ads at the right people at the right time.

    It might be useful to stop thinking about ads as ads but rather as content cartridges of a particular kind. We know that users value information about products and services, but a display ad might not be the best way to get it in front of them. Having said that, we can improve the ad model by using behavioural and contextual tools to improve the targetting.

    Thanks for posting.

    Comment by neilthackray | May 1, 2009

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    Comment by tramdol {1|2|3|4|5|6}{2|3|4|5|6|7}{a|1|2|3f|g|hR} | April 7, 2011

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