So off I went to the PPA (Periodical Publishers Association) conference, arriving unexpectedly early and thus catching the Minister of Culture trying manfully – and succeeding brilliantly – in saying nothing of consequence to the future of magazines for 20 minutes. I have encountered Ed Vaizey before – as pleasant and affable a politician as one would wish to meet – but he made it clear that everything significant was decided, as he put it, “above his payscale” so there was no real point in asking him a question at all. I reflected on the wit who suggested that if you needed a Minister for Culture you have no culture, and on a political society in which the government reacted to criticism that it had doctored yesterdays’ Queen’s Speech laying out its legislative programme in the light of election results the previous week, by pointing out that the speech in question is written on goatskin vellum, which takes a week to prepare and inscribe, and where the ink takes three days to dry. And we expect politicians to help us into a networked society! Really!

But from this low point everything got better. Under the ebullient chairmanship of Barry McIlhenney we looked through the PPA Publishing Futures report, where some of the characteristics of the industry became clear. In old world terms, the PPA’s consumer and B2B sectors are pulling further apart, and after a year of slippage in 2012, forecasts for the coming year are more buoyant in B2B than elsewhere. My surprize was that 34% of sales revenue was outside the UK (46% in B2B). It was not surprizing that consumer is only 8% digital, or that B2B is down to 41% of revenues coming from print (though the remainder is a mix of digital with events and consultancy). Average profit margin was 15-16%: very much higher for many B2B companies: rather lower for some consumer players who see little advertising recovery in print. But the world of the future that they all see is a wider range of revenue sources derived from additional services from remodelled businesses which are more “customer-centric” (one of the expressions du jour). The risks are the UK’s dodgy economy, the shortage of investment, the speed of change and the skills gap. B2B now recognizes that scale matters, and confidence is linked to size. On a scale of 1-10, member confidence stood at 8.4, with B2B averaging 9.1.

If indeed confidence is half the battle then this is good. And what followed bore out a good deal of that. Future’s Nial Ferguson showed the T3 technology service platform, a real mix of events, awards and digital services that has 40k subscriptions and 4 m uniques a year, doubling year on year. This has the same usage in the US as in the UK. Less than 20% of margins is now print, while 50% is digital.William Reed Publishing’s 50 Best Restaurants service has similar characteristics, with significant sponsorship (another theme of the day was the importance of sponsorship) and use of social media marketing techniques. Some players still feared the cannibalistic tendency of some digital developments (dmgmedia) but others saw and grasped for completely new business model concepts. In the latter category Immediate Media (BBC Magazines and Magicalia) was a stand-out, with CEO Tom Bureau placing ecommerce centre stage and using brand astutely with some key demographics. But was this really customer-centric? Going retail, in a High Street retail market in the UK that seems to have lost touch with customers, must surely imply that you know customer needs better than bricks and mortar retail does. What we heard about was not mass customization, but a development of reader reply cards, making it hard to see just what the partnership (another good word of the day) with market data player CACI really meant. The big pull at Immediate is Radio Times (bought by 900k AB1s a month and 2.2 m at Christmas; the problem is that they are mostly over 55). Making programming links to travel services (inviting people to book beach holidays at the murder scene in the successful UK crime thriller Broadchurch was a stretch too far for me!), is one thing: supplying customer needs in a user-centric matter is quite another. But I really liked the idea of using brand clout to get the travel companies to share booking data with you.

Dennis, in the hands of James Tye, their CEO, had a more relaxed view. He feels the key problem is format transfer. So they have invested in their supplier, Contentment, and their Padify environment, and have based themselves on HTML5 so as to “future-proof” the business. With 50 apps in the market and 50% of The Week’s subscribers taking a digital product, and given the strength of their print, there is an implication here, as well as elsewhere, that management have time to plan and strategize a response to a networked world. Listening to this I wondered if it was justified: I would have said that the only way to secure any degree of future-proofing was to get all the data – not content – semantically enriched and upon a single platform capable of interrogating structured and unstructured information, and make the key asset the searchable metadata, thus enabling content production to HTML5 or anything else, regardless of format. This prepares the way for a truly user driven network world – one where, amongst other things, the user drives the service through personalization. Templating is very restrictive, and Create Once, Publish Everywhere sounds grand, but only works when the user sees the format and editorial input that you have created for him as more important than removing those constraints and giving him just the content he needs or requires at a particular point in time or in a particular context.

And then on to Events. I did not go on the stream headed Content: Still King? for fear of blood pressure problems, but I really enjoyed the B2B sessions. People kept using words like Collaboration, Community – and even client ROI. Many of my anticipated criticisms from the previous post were confounded. I really liked the IHS Janes experience of getting users to ask for and subscribe to online seminar sessions, using the expertise of the Janes advisors in a new way. And then feeding back the data gathered into the publication system for blogs, articles etc. I rejoiced at the EMAP presentation: how refreshing it was to hear a manager in a unit that creates about 30% of EMAP’s revenue say that sales staff had to be retrained to ask the right questions and listen to the answers in the cause of getting customers to tell you what they want. EMAP’s 780 sponsors are now some 50% of gross revenue, and the object, as yet not attained, is to retain 75% each year. Naming rights enjoyed by BT and Oracle in terms of Retail Week events made a good case study, and supported the idea of a 12% growth rate in the coming year (given performances of 7 and 17 % in the two previous years, during which the changeover to a sponsor centric view has taken place).

And my grand vision of event software that allowed attendees, sponsors and exhibitors to create their own meetings and agendas within the event? It all takes place on Twitter and Facebook, apparently – which implies that event owners do not have the data flowing from this either. But the good news is that event organizers do need to give sponsors and exhibitors some idea of the ROI on the event: it might help here to have some convincing data to put into that model!

By the time I reached the street it had stopped raining. I hope that is true for this industry as a whole, and that they sound convincing when they meet their historic users once again – in the network.


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