Media companies have been increasing their investments in marketing services as a way to diversify their digital revenues. Marketing services – everything from lead gen programs to content marketing to app development – can help publishers decrease their reliance on display advertising to fuel their digital business.
But while marketing services may be a lifeline for some publishers, they may serve as a death trap to others. Magazine brands that stray too far from their identity as content creators risk losing the brand equity they’ve built up with their audience. If the audience declines – in quality or scope – those marketing services then become far less appealing to advertisers.
We’re seeing this conventional wisdom put to the test in the B2B technology publishing space. In February, online marketing company QuinStreet purchased the assets of Ziff Davis Enterprise, publisher of tech titles including eWeek, Channel Insider, Baseline and CIO Insight. It was QuinStreet’s second major purchase of a tech media brand; in September 2011, the company acquired IT Business Edge, a network of tech sites including Datamation, Internet News and Linux Today.
QuinStreet’s motivation in the Ziff Davis Enterprise deal was apparent in its press release: It acquired “one of the largest email and telephone subscriber databases in the business to business (B2B) technology space.” ZDE claims its EnterpriseOne database comprises 6 million “highly responsive, qualified buyers.” Honey for the bees.
In essence, QuinStreet is trying to beat B2B publishers at their own game: leveraging media sites to build a large customer database through which it can serve up targeted leads for technology vendors.
The question for QuinStreet – or any publisher looking to grow its lead-gen business – is, How important is original content to this strategy? QuinStreet reportedly plans to lay off as much as 80 percent of ZDE’s 120-130 employees – an indication that it certainly didn’t value the human capital ZDE was deploying against its “OmniDigital” publishing strategy.
QuinStreet may choose to redeploy some of the 40 full-time tech editors and writers that staff its other tech sites to the ZDE properties and fill in the gaps with vendor, user or aggregated content. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that strategy – heck, it’s a path that most B2B publishers are following these days.
But what QuinStreet and its more established competitors in B2B publishing are likely to learn is that this journalism-light model is not sustainable long term, not without original, credible content. You can milk those 6 million names for all they’re worth, for as long as you can – but if the audience isn’t getting anything in return, they’ll stop visiting your site, opening your emails, downloading your white papers, and attending your webinars. Before you know it, your value proposition – the audience – is seriously eroded.
QuinStreet’s VP of content and compliance, Katrina Boydon, said in a brief email in response to an interview request that QuinStreet is providing the Ziff Davis Enterprise properties with “a business model that works, and on which we can all expand into the future.”
The jury’s still out on that.