From The Editor

Lessons Learned By A 40-Year-Old B2B Publisher

Abby Sorensen July 2017 Headshot

By Abby Sorensen, Editor



Decades ago, working in B2B publishing used to look something like this:

A B2B publishing sales rep would get something we called a “bingo card.” This was essentially an RFQ form inserted in a print magazine that a reader would fill out and send back to the publisher. In turn, that reader information would be “sold” to advertisers that fit the reader’s buying criteria. Bingo, advertisers would keep paying publishers to access those hot leads.

Within the last decade, the B2B publishing model adapted to look like this:

A B2B publishing sales rep would call up a few readers. Company and personal demographic information, purchasing needs or upcoming projects, and names of current suppliers would be jotted down. Blinded copies of this information would then be sent to potential advertisers as evidence of how engaged right-fit readers are. Of course, suppliers would advertise to get in front of these ideal prospects.

And today, some B2B publishers still operate like this:

A B2B publishing sales rep would see a media kit request form appear in his inbox. Without asking any questions about your marketing or growth objectives, that rep would send out a lengthy PDF with excessive detail around editorial calendars, rates, and audience demographics. You’d buy some advertising, maybe in exchange for spreadsheets showing you who clicked on your content, and you’d rarely hear from that publisher before it was time to talk about next year’s marketing budget.

What Broke The B2B Publishing Model?

You should be wondering, “Why did my B2B publishers do it this way?” Quite frankly, we did this because it worked – for decades we sold lots of ads this way. This was before the digital era and the content marketing revolution drastically changed the B2B buyer’s journey. Once upon a time, our readers didn’t have the luxury of a vast universe of digital information – so they needed publishers to help connect them to information and suppliers.

Eventually, though, our readers became disenchanted with these various B2B publishing models. Readers’ habits and preferences started to change. More and more content became more easily available in a wide variety of formats. An explosion of websites, magazines, blogs, newsletters, discussion threads, trade shows, and podcasts meant readers could get information almost anywhere.

Readers didn’t need B2B publishers to write about vendors (which publishers did, and still do, to sell ads). The same became true for suppliers: buyers didn’t need to talk to sales reps because they could do most of their buyer’s journey research independently.

Today, readers are only loyal to the publishing platforms that provide truly helpful information about their industries that can guide their business strategy. These readers are skeptical of suppliers and are less willing to talk to suppliers than ever before.

That’s how we got here: suppliers can’t reach buyers on their own, and publishers face the challenge of a massive amount of information competing for readers’ short attention spans. The role of B2B publishers has never been more challenging or more important than it is today. It’s time for publishers to embrace a new model to tackle that reader engagement challenge.

That Was Then. This Is Still Now.

The problem is, many B2B publishers are still attempting to employ outdated models to engage newly sophisticated readers. That’s why the next time you – a B2B marketer – talk to an agency or a B2B publisher, some combination of this is likely to happen:

  • You’ll be asked about your budget a million times, and eventually, you’ll get a rate card that is highly negotiable.
  • You’ll be walked through vanity metrics like average monthly impressions, click-through rates, and circulation size (which will be inflated, and likely will not include trustworthy, data-backed information about active subscribers).
  • You’ll be shown an editorial calendar of topics regurgitated from industry conferences and things important to the vendor community (but not necessarily important to your buyers).
  • You’ll be offered access to editors, who will be paraded to your user conference and will dial-in to your press briefings (which they’ll gladly do, instead of doing the hard work of talking to their readers – your buyers – in order to truly understand their challenges).
  • You’ll see a few hand-picked profiles of readers who are an ideal fit for you and anecdotal evidence of engagement to get you excited about the overall audience (even if that hand-picked reader hasn't clicked on any content in three years).
  • You might even be asked to write “thought leadership” and “educational” content for that publication, without many – if any – restrictions on how promotional it can be (even though your buyers see right through promotional content).

Notice how none of these things track actual, measurable engagement with readers? Notice how these questions are all about the publisher and not about you, the marketer? This is why B2B marketing and sales teams hate working with agencies and publishers (so much so that some companies are trying to become their own publishers, which we discuss here).

The way B2B buyers consume information has changed. Why hasn’t B2B publishing changed too?

A Better Way To Reach B2B Buyers

Time for some straight talk: We’ve been guilty of riding the wave of this once-effective, never reader-centric B2B publishing model throughout our long history as a media company. We’re willing to talk about these mistakes because we’ve fundamentally changed the way we operate as a publisher. The biggest change is the way we serve our readers.

We’ve built and rebuilt audiences. We’ve removed readers from our circulation lists who aren’t engaged. We’ve invested heavily in developing software and tools to help us with reader engagement reporting. We’ve re-engineered our data privacy policies to protect our readers. We’ve hired a team of new editors and retrained our experienced editors to put our readers first.

That last point is key to our publishing model: Our editors write about our readers and what our readers care about (not about our advertisers). Our business development representatives are tasked with understanding our readers’ challenges as deeply as if they were working at our readers’ companies. We don’t launch a new website, or a new product, or a new media format without fully understanding if and how it will benefit our readers.

We call this “following your reader.” And over time, this mindset grew to encompass how we help suppliers reach our readers. That’s why our content marketing methodology is called “follow your buyer.” This is the foundation of our B2B publishing model today, and we’ll continue to refine it in the future.