The death of the B2B print media may or may not be greatly exaggerated, but the reasons for it are misunderstood

It is generally believed, maybe even accepted, that the business-to-business print media is in either a very poor start or has entered its death throes. For all sorts of widely reported reasons, most too familiar to be worth listing here in any detail (the rise of online information foremost amongst them), the future for looks bleak. Print media barons (who no longer look very baronial) will for self-interested reasons deny this but the reality is that to stay alive, at best they have entered a race to the bottom.

Meanwhile, online information sources may or may not thrive from an economic perspective (I don’t know…I don’t have access to the numbers) but they are rapidly cornering the market on useful content. And that, of course, is the key. The print media may have had its day because the delivery mechanism is outdated but we will never know for sure. In my view, the real reason print has fallen or is falling off a cliff is because editorial standards, and skill-sets, have simply disappeared. Trade publications are, by and large, no longer worth the paper they’re printed on. The quality editors and publishers have let the building.

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It was with studied indifference that I received a solicitation this week to advertise (which, these days, means to contribute a bylined article) in a leading (sic) comms magazine. The title in question was to be distributed at an event at which one of our clients is exhibiting, and in which it is thus investing a not insignificant sum. The solicitation – no surprise here – offered me a rather significant discount (more or less, reading between the lines, “name your price”) if I could act quickly, with the print deadline closing in. Rather than rejecting the offer out of hand as I would usually do, I momentarily tried to justify accepting it as an easy way to amplify the clients already committed plans in the time-window the issue would be extant.

And I honestly, in the next half an hour, couldn’t think of a single reason why I would want to get involved. I couldn’t think of one solitary argument to support the contention that doing so would be even a passable, let alone the best, way of spending around two thousand pounds of a marketing budget.

It is true that if I went ahead, my article/advertisement would appear in a publication that around 10,000 people in total would access, although almost certainly in my view not read. It would be available in bins at a relevant trade show but if the evidence of my own eyes at trade shows over the past twelve months is anything to go by, those bins are just as full of publications at the end of an event as they are at the start. I cannot remember the last time I saw anyone at an industry conference walking round clutching a sheath of trade titles to his chest, or departing with a bag full of (heavy) printed information. Furthermore, my words would appear in what amounts to little more than a glorified advertising flyer, buried (a reality openly admitted in the solicitation) between one vendor contribution after another.  What’s the point? Are we marketers really so desperate that we think it’s worth spending money for this sort of exposure?

But the worst of it is my original point. The increasingly small percentage of pages that in any trade publication is these days written by what passes for the editorial team itself is, in terms of quality, risible. Articles are either a series of softballs lobbed gently in the direction of a paid for interviewee (who has probably subsequently edited the resulting output to the point it’s morphed into a marketing pitch anyway because the editor was too incompetent to understand what he was being told) or, even worse, a ham-fisted attempt to construct a story founded on far too inadequate a knowledge of the subject to usefully to engage in any kind of research.

In a meeting between a CEO and an editor I was involved in last year I was treated to the experience of the editor posing – straight-faced – the question “so, tell me what you do?” When I subsequently pointed out to his publisher that, perhaps, a little background information, preparation, industry-knowledge, or insight might be useful qualities for his editorial team in preparing an article actually worth reading, he looked at me like I might be mad. And I might be, but judging by the rapidly declining number of pages in his title, I might not be the only one.

The reality is that the business-to-business print media is in a poor state. Its day has probably now come and gone. But that’s because – in the comms industry at least – quality control has gone to the dogs. It’s to online media that the real experts, many of whom aren’t journalists at all but just people who understand their subject and want to talk coherently about it…have turned.

Great content supersedes delivery mechanisms; rubbish sinks to the bottom in any medium. Our clients have consistently told us over the past year that their investments in print media haven’t paid off. All we have had to explain is why. This is sad, because I do miss it.

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