CASE STUDIES

Disruption Constant and B2B Media Success

Kyle Shay
Digital Director — Annex Business Media

August, 2018


MediaGrowth:
Over the past 21 years, Annex Business Media has grown from a small independent newspaper and magazine publisher into Canada’s largest privately-held B2B media company. Please gives us an idea of the scope of the business.

Kyle Shay:
Annex Business Media serves our users and advertisers in diverse industries with more than 65 titles in manufacturing / industrial, resources / heavy equipment, agriculture, retail, commercial and professional services. Many of our brands do not have huge circulations because they are very niched in makeup, but they cover the industries that need to be covered in Canada. Print is responsible for approximately 52% of revenue, with Digital and Events at about 20% each, and the balance in miscellaneous products. We have a Book division and two printing operations as well.

MG:
As Director of Digital Media at Annex since 2010, you have been involved in significant change and growth. What lessons have you learned during this time?

KS:
Lessons learned through times of past recession, organic growth, acquisition and the upheavals that we’ll call the “Disruption Constant” have led us to significant investments in digital talent, process and technology.

In 2010, the digital department at Annex included myself and a coordinator. In the past 8 years we have added talent to bring our department to a team of twelve with programmers, a full stack developer, digital coordinators, video producer, project managers and a digital analyst – still not a huge staff. We realize we need a diverse group of individuals with values that go hand-in-hand with our own. Agility, boldness, intelligence in their field and that ability to see what is coming down the pike and react quickly – these are the qualities we are looking for. When an advertiser asks for something new, we look at the resources needed. If the return will be there within a year, we want to be able to pivot with the right talent in place to make it happen. We will be looking carefully at our departments and transitioning people into needed areas, turning old silos into new creative marketing teams to push forward on new projects.

At the same time, with 65+ titles that push 7500 different email marketing pieces out each year, we have to maintain a process that is able to pivot, but that does not require us to reinvent the wheel constantly. Editorial, sales, production, audience development all work within a process that is step-by-step and that ensures that content goes “out the door” accurately and on time. But we know that disruption — or whatever buzzword you use for change – happens. So the process evolves in order to handle whatever is coming next.

And disruption is often related to technology. Annex has researched available software, and has invested heavily in systems that are purpose-made for our company. We work with a company in Montreal to develop our Audience Development system and we use an in-house email marketing system. It is critical that the systems we use integrate well with each other to give us the flexibility we require. Much time and effort has also gone into being compliant with Canada’s strict anti-spam legislation. Our lists are opt-in and clean, which is a selling feature that smaller niche magazines aren’t able to offer and that is valuable to our customers.

MG:
You’ve referred to the “Disruption Constant”. What do you mean by that?

KS:
It’s kind of funny to define disruption as something that is constant, but this has been Annex’s experience since its inception. It’s part of our DNA because change that often feels like upheaval is always happening around us. Some of the company’s growth has been through acquisitions. In 2015 we acquired sixteen or seventeen magazines from another player and about 80 new employees with them. They became part of our process and we took what they do and incorporated that into what we know works for us. Sometimes it feels like upheaval, but the process evolves to handle the new requirements.

I remember a few years ago during budget talks, a comment was made that it had been a good year… digitally, we were catching up, things were quieting down and we could take a breath. Our CEO looked at us and said, “That’s not what I want to hear.” And he was right. Handling new and on-going disruptions has always been the basis for the company’s success and our ability to deliver content, in context, any way our users want it.

MG:
What do you see in the near future in terms of “delivering your content, in context, any way your users want it”.

KS:
The next generation of how we deliver content to our B2B niched markets is our big thing now. We can still offer content that our users need in ways that algorithms (Google) can’t. If you search for widgets on Google, you’re going to get widgets. But if you’re using any of our online and print properties, you’re going to get widget content, and widget-based advertising, and widget white papers, podcasts, video series – the list goes on. The context of all these products makes for a better experience over all, and Google can’t provide that – yet.

So when agencies ask us to justify a $100 CPM compared to the $1 – $3 CPM they might get somewhere online, we can talk to them about the sweet spot created by running their content in context with our content in any form our niche users want. But it is difficult to predict how our competition might change in the future, so we are paying attention to data and analytics and how users seek out content on their devices.

We were one of the first B2B media companies in Canada to provide well-designed, readable mobile compatible e-newsletters (meaning that the design was responsive… agnostic is what I prefer… the platform doesn’t matter). Mobile curation is a big deal. We see big open rates on mobile devices, but more click throughs on desktops and laptops. We’re learning and responding to how people want to use their devices – now we just need to figure out the best way to reach people on the Apple watch.

Annex owns two printing plants and print, is not declining for us. Still, we have to be ready for what may come. We all used to say that “print dollars” were being traded for “digital dimes”. With the right resources in place we can turn those “digital dimes” into fifty cent pieces, at least. Print products may even be utilized to promote digital products. One of the things we’ll be focusing on in 2019 is using our print products to promote the digital.

All of this relates back to the Disruption Constant that will not stop. Traditional media departments – production, pre-press, even editorial – will have to move into the future. New teams will be created with digital and traditional roles combining.      People will need to transition to new responsibilities to answer the needs of users and advertisers. We’ll depend on data and analytics more and gut feelings less.

Our attitude toward the Disruption Constant will be the basis of our success! Know that the disruption is coming, prepare for it so you can embrace it and move forward.

MG:
Thank you, Kyle!