When Computer Weekly announced the end of its print edition in April 2011, plenty of people mistakenly associated “shutting print” with “shutting down”. The reaction was symptomatic of a lingering perception in parts of B2B media that if your print product goes, you’re doomed.
Ending the printed magazine was, admittedly, something of a milestone, given that Computer Weekly had been around since 1966, the world’s first weekly technology magazine.
The catalyst for the decision was our sale by Reed Business Information and acquisition byTechTarget, a US online tech publisher with no interest in a declining print industry, no matter how well-known the mag nor how long its history.
But the plan to go all-digital had been in place for a couple of years before the change of ownership, and if you’ll allow a moment to show off a little, our experiences since demonstrate a way to grow a B2B business in a digital world. Here are a few facts about what we’ve achieved in the last 18 months:
• The editorial team has grown from 10 to 15 journalists
• The weekly digital magazine now goes out to over 200,000 subscribers – the print edition went to just 90,000
• Website traffic is up 50 percent – November 2012 was a record month for page views
• Membership is significantly up – the number of readers registering each month on our site to access premium content (and, with their permission, to receive the commercial marketing that is central to the business model) has more than trebled in the past six months alone We ran over 15 events last year, and are planning more than 20 next year, including our first series of events in continental Europe
• We have launched many new editorial products, including a digital magazine targeting an English-speaking audience in mainland Europe
• Q4 2012 brought the biggest quarterly digital revenue for Computer Weekly, ever.
We’re pretty proud of what we’ve delivered – but that success has been built on nothing more than getting back to basics: understanding your audience, and delivering quality journalism based on context, analysis, depth and great contacts.
Changing the culture
In 2010, Computer Weekly’s digital revenue exceeded print for the first time, and from then on, it was only a matter of time before the printed magazine ended. But the transition was more than simply an end to the cost of paper, ink and distribution.
Our editorial workflow, processes and organisation needed a complete overhaul to move away from print-oriented ways of working and thinking. A flat structure, more autonomy for journalists, and an entrepreneurial culture that better engages with a digital audience were already in place by the time print ended.
In fact, all that changed when we went digital was that our production editor no longer had to send the magazine to the printer every Friday. We still produce the weekly magazine, but it goes to readers as a downloadable PDF instead. When we moved from print to digital, we received not a single objection from readers – not one. The additional 110,000+ subscribers added since then haven’t had a problem either.
Freedom from tyranny
Two things have been fundamental to our digital journey, one editorial and one commercial.
Editorially, we have been freed from the tyranny of chasing any hit on the website. Quality of audience is the critical factor, as it has to be in B2B. We could easily grow our readership by writing endless stories about iPads, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram; by live blogging every Apple product launch; or by crowd-pleasing rants about the angle of the bezel on the latest smartphone.
Instead, we write about the sometimes boring things that matter to our audience of IT professionals. And we write in depth – our ratio of news to long-form content is about 50:50; a few years ago it would have been nearer to 80 percent quick-hit news stories.
And guess what? When you write about things that matter to your audience, they read more articles, and they stay longer on the website, and they develop a trust that means they will give you information about their job and their employer and their purchasing intentions that allows us to monetise that relationship. And your website traffic increases.
Commercially, our business model frees us from the tyranny of CPM and commoditising ad rates. Of course, with a million-plus page views a month, we still sell plenty of ads. But our focus is lead generation – connecting suppliers with buyers who will be interested in what those suppliers have to offer. We’re selling data; business intelligence that introduces clients to the readers who are most likely to be a prospective customer.
For journalists, there is a clear line connecting the content we create to the way the company makes money from it. Dull things like taxonomy become important when you can see how the way you tag an article generates data about readers that grows the business. That’s actually rather motivating.
Return on marketing investment
In the print days, B2B publications like Computer Weekly made money by understanding the audience – the endless registration cards that captured audited reader demographics. But that model ultimately failed because we had no idea what articles they were reading, nor how many people even took the magazine out of the plastic bag when it landed on their desk. The measurement of return on marketing investment for advertisers was too difficult.
In the initial race to the web, we made the same mistakes that many others did (and some still do). Publishers chased hits, on the basis that page views meant ad impressions. But advertisers also saw the tiny clickthrough rates, realised they had no way of identifying who the page views were coming from, and the price of those ads plummeted.
Meanwhile, the readers that B2B publishers really need – the ones who want information to help them do their job – deserted most of those sites as well, fed up with a stream of rehashed traffic-chasing news and consumer-focused stories.
Now, we combine reader demographics with behavioural data about the content they read. And that is hugely valuable to clients.
But it all stems from quality journalism, created with a relentless focus on the needs of our target audience. Just like we always did in the heyday of print.
Bryan Glick is editor in chief of Computer Weekly, a TechTarget publication.