Are business publications doomed?

Last night B2B Marketing held its annual awards ceremony. B2B marketers from far and wide assembled at the Honourable Artillery Company in London to hear Frankie Boyle’s unrepeatable jokes, to see Man Bites Dog and Eulogy pick up the PR awards, and to party the night away.

It was a celebration not only of the achievements of B2B marketers in the past year, but also of the success Joel Harrison and James Farmer have had in establishing the B2B Marketing brand. As the recent closure of Revolution and Media Week have shown, maintaining an established publication is hard work at the moment; starting one from scratch is almost impossible.

It begs the question – is B2B Marketing an isolated success or is there really a future in business publishing?

Without doubt it’s not only Haymarket that this is suffering at the moment. Profits there fell to £4.5m in 2008 from £8m in 2007, but compare this to the performance of its competitors:

In 2008 NatMags lost £42.8m.
RBI’s profits fell 47% in the first half of 2009.
UBM’s fell by more than a quarter in the same period.
And Centaur’s profits fell year-on-year by a shocking 88% to just £1.7m.

The problem is not only that those B2B marketers who were partying away last night are increasingly reluctant to spend on advertising, it is that the buyers they want to reach aren’t reading those magazines any more. Even the publishers that have had the foresight to set up good online versions are struggling to attract advertising to them, simply because advertisers aren’t convinced that their target audience is reading them.

I wasn’t at the B2B Marketing Awards, but I know what happened on them through Twitter. I don’t need a news journalist to tell me what happened – Tweetdeck did it all for me. I don’t even need a feature writer to analyse what the result mean – there’ll be a blog written somewhere that’ll give me a view on it.

Or is that really the case?

Can I really trust the blog I read? Did Tweetdeck show me all the important results, or just those tweeted by attendees? Perhaps I’d rather read the impartial opinion of someone who’s paid to fully research the facts and then present them comprehensively and eloquently. In other words, a good journalist writing for a publication I trust.

Not all business publishers are suffering from dwindling profits. For the year to March 2009 profits at The Economist Group were up year-on-year by 26%. This despite the fact that The Economist’s philosophy of unfettered free markets was widely discredited in the wake of the credit crunch. The Economist is succeeding because it has a clear target audience, and because it pays the best journalists good money to produce well-written, fully-researched news and analysis. Whenever I read it I’m struck firstly by how little I agree with what they write, but secondly by how well written it is.

Sad though it is to say, Media Week and Revolution lacked differentiation in a cluttered market. B2B Marketing is succeeding because it has carved out a clear niche. And long may it continue to do so.

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