Follow That Lead!

As I write this at the end of 1Q 2009, things look especially grim for business information on almost any platform. In print, across 200 B2B titles that ad auditing group IMS tracks, ad pages were down in January and February 28.3% from the same 2-month span in 2008. For February alone, the page count was down 31.94%. Titles have been closing and consolidating; staff at companies such as Reed and Questex are being cut and reorganized. Are there no bright spots?

In fact, adversity tends to bring focus, and one of the products that emerges from this rough environment looking stronger and more sensible than ever is lead generation. Almost every publisher I consult tells me two things about how they are trying to find growth areas in an otherwise fallow publishing terrain. First, they argue they are going digital as fast as they can because their customers are too. But if the end result is a lot of online banners and sponsorships, I am not sure how far that will get a publisher. CPMs are tanking, and it is hard enough for many niche publishers to get the scale they need to drive performance from even targeted banners.

“Investing in digital” doesn’t mean more than following conventional wisdom unless you have web-based revenue initiatives that are selling. The second rallying cry I hear is more promising. The more-evolved publishers tell me that recessionary times and strapped marketing budgets only enhance the attractiveness of the lead-gen proposition. Jeff DeBalko, president of Reed Business Information Business Media, tells me that leads are his fastest growing product and the target of much of his investment across brands. “It is not only great growth but it is recession resistant,” he says. “People are looking for leads more than ever.”

The beauty of lead generation as a model for client, publisher, and reader alike is that there is a highly efficient and fair exchange of value involved. In most cases online, the user is getting a tangible asset. White papers seem to be the most popular vehicle for collecting leads right now, but webinars, research papers, and now virtual trade shows are becoming increasingly popular. The targeting is superb since the user is self-selecting and demonstrating interest. The client can back end an ROI from leads pretty easily, so there should be a lot of predictability to the buy and little waste. While many B2B segments such as tech and supply chains have been following the leads for years, many business verticals are relatively new to the field. Multititle publishers such as DeBalko can take the best practices and lead-gen opportunities from one segment to teach a new segment some old tricks.

We will likely see some service companies emerge in the online space this year that will help spread best lead-gen practices and data management across publishers. New companies such as Madison Logic are emerging to help publishers manage the advertising that can help drive lead gen and the back-end management of the data. Publishers are also looking at custom content distribution systems such as Junta42 and ON24’s Insight24 video network as ways of getting content beyond their own walls and finding much-needed reach.

Yet creating solid lead-gen products not only helps clients, it also helps a business publisher’s own marketing efforts for other products. At IDG’s ComputerWorld and InfoWorld, VP of event marketing and conference programs Derek Hulitzky leverages every contact his publications and events have with readers as a possible lead. “IDG created in 2006 our Customer Intelligence Database that aggregates all of the profiles of readers/customers. We have a profile of each person as well as touch points with varied portfolios.” Now, when the company is marketing its own events, it can dispense with third-party lists, mailings, and much of the old telemarketing efforts because its own internal database is a kind of lead-gen engine for itself. Hulitzky knows who in a given region would be interested and available for an event. “It has caused us to drive out some hard costs,” he says.

I am waiting for the consumer side to start talking about the lead-gen model more seriously. As I said, one of the core principles of good lead gen is nano-targeting the audience through a tempting, value-added lure, a tangible asset that is worth having the user hand over personal information. Isn’t this where consumer publishing should be headed as well—toward offering us something more and better than mere advertising?