For all the talk of digital transformation, the real transition for many B2B publishers was becoming events companies with media rather than media companies with events. Events typically offered better margins (especially attractive to PE owners looking to boost revenue then flip for a tidy profit) and didn’t require the headaches of building infrastructure and new skills that digital demanded.
However, the emphasis on events came at the expense of media for many publishers, which were under-invested and underdeveloped. And today the realities of events are changing too—the barrier to entry is so low that the market is over-saturated and overall growth has declined (the CEIR Total Index, which tracks revenue, attendance and square footage for events, grew just 1.9% in 2018, down from 2.0% growth in 2017). Events can no longer go it alone—the future of events is being part of an integrated approach that serves the customer year-round and shortens the buy-sell cycle.
That’s certainly the new priority for Questex, which went all in on events in recent years before selling in late 2018 for a reported $180 million to private equity firm MidOcean Partners, whose mission is to make an already profitable company bigger.
“As opposed to narrowcast events-only businesses, MidOcean believes in the value of surrounding a market with integrated event and media assets,” said David Kieselstein, chairman of MidOcean’s Executive Board and the CEO who led Penton to a $1.56 billion sale to Informa in 2016, in a press release announcing the acquisition. “We focus on the customer journey, from discovery and awareness through to consideration and purchase, and the breadth of Questex’s assets in each of their markets allows them to support both their audience and marketers through each step of the journey.”
(Kieselstein will be discussing the new formula of events and media during a keynote at the upcoming Connectiv Executive Summit called “Beyond Events: Maximizing Your Full Enterprise Value.”)
To get there required Questex to overhaul its approach and reinvest in media. MidOcean tapped Paul Miller (pictured), who previously led UBM’s Technology Group, Penton’s Industry Group and Informa’s Industry & Infrastructure Intelligence Group, as CEO. MidOcean also hired Kate Spellman, former president of Informa Engage, as chief marketing officer, responsible for building out Questex’s shared services resources and capabilities to boost growth for audience and marketing services revenue.
In March 2019, Questex reorganized into five key markets sectors—Beauty and Wellness, Travel, Hospitality, Pharma and Technology, that will leverage a scaled model to connect buyers and sellers at every point in the buying journey (Questex tapped another UBM alum and former Virgo Publishing CEO John Siefert as group president for the Beauty & Wellness, Travel and Hospitality markets).
“One of reasons I was attracted to Questex was that what I saw from the outside was a set of unrealized potential,” said Miller. “If we can unlock that, there’s a real set of growth that can happen. That’s helped by the fact that we have a private equity backer that is willing to invest in the company and stay with it for the long haul. The platform was there, it just needed some tender loving care. That was verified early and we’ve ended up getting some nice early returns.”
From Digital Declines to Double Digit Growth in Three Months
Miller is quick to point out that he took over a company that was profitable, with a revenue mix of 70% from events, 26% from digital and 4% from print.
However, that focus on events had left a media business that was digitally antiquated.
With a focus on modernizing the operation, Questex went from a digital advertising business that was actually in decline to posting double digit growth in three months (while he wouldn’t give specifics, Miller says “I don’t mean 10% either.”). “I haven’t been in a digital environment in 20 years that saw year-over-year declines, so we thought there has to be a better way,” he added. “It wasn’t so much low hanging fruit as much we were picking up apples off the floor. The digital fix is ongoing and sorely needed.”
To revitalize the digital business, Questex addressed three separate buckets. The first was design and customer experience. “We had a templatized Web infrastructure that produced templatized websites,” said Miller. “Every site had the same look and feel, from the spa market to deep B2B tech verticals. When Kate and I arrived, we said that can’t be right, certainly people in the beauty category are looking for more visuals, more videos, more how-to information. You’ve got to have a website that’s prosumer in its approach.”
In six weeks, an internal team of graphic designers and developers produced a new website for one of the leading brands, American Salon. “Clients would say, 'Wow, that’s the B2B website we were looking for,'” said Miller. “I don’t want to overplay or underplay the importance of this redesign but internally it showed us that we could move fast.”
The second step was modernizing the product inventory for the sales team (going beyond traditional digital display to include elements such as audience extension, video—Questex is currently building its own video studio—or even 15-minute sponsored versions of hour long editorial webcasts) and boosting the speed in which products could be delivered (in many cases shrinking months-long production times down to weeks).
Questex made sure customer enthusiasm for the new products wasn’t dampened by sticker shock. “We’re not dealing with customers that are spending $10 million to $15 million a year with us like in the tech space,” said Miller. “A lot of the advertisers are smaller and they are focused on running a salon or a hotel. We made sure we started off with a product that was priced with what they were used to. We didn’t come out and say, ‘we’ve got a new product and a new Website and by the way, it will cost you 10x what it used to.”
Third, the new executive team looked at best practices at certain brands that could be shared internally, such as social media. “Because the American Salon website was a little bit old fashioned, and because they weren’t able to make the changes with the templatized format, the team had gone all-in on social media and built up close to one million Instagram followers,” said Miller. “I’ve been around B2B a long time and I never would have thought a B2B environment would ever get one million Instagram followers, especially on what was a 100-year-old print brand.”
Questex now holds internal training classes across different groups and different brands. “The undercurrent here is that we were a bit of a siloed organization,” said Miller. “There was not a lot of sharing. We had to unlock some of the cultural history. My view is that culture change is a three to five-year turnaround but you can start on it immediately.”
Marketing Services Leading the Charge
Like many B2B publishers, Questex is seeing marketing services, not digital display, driving growth (Miller says that over half of the digital growth Questex is experiencing comes from marketing services).
“It remains true that the biggest challenge for B2B brands is that they just can’t get enough content on their sites, they can’t get enough Google juice and they don’t know how to do it,” says Miller. “We’ve been very choosy about the projects we’ll do and we’ve taken a crawl, walk, run approach. We’ve focused around our Fierce Markets brands, which are our most digitally-focused products. To scale, we will eventually sell content marketing through outside partners. We’re not going to try to build an internal agency.”
However, to succeed at marketing services, publishers need to embrace an agency mindset or the complexity and workload will quickly go off the rails.
“If a client says at the last minute, ‘We like it but we want to make five paragraph changes,’ that’s a change order and we need to charge for that,” said Miller. “As opposed to a lot of companies that are just pushing back deadlines and before you know it, it’s unprofitable because you’re just having too many people spend too much time on it. You need to have the confidence to say to the client, ‘We are delivering for you but now it’s going to cost a bit more.’”
Tying Back to Events
The early returns on Questex’ digital business are impressive but the ultimately, the upgrade is about creating a full-service approach that leverages digital and events together for a complete customer solution.
The idea of linking events to digital is not new. “I’m a huge proponent of that and I don’t think many of us have done it well including myself,” says Miller. “Under the guise of the new Questex, we have the opportunity to do it and shorten the time for buying and selling. Not everyone at an event is ready to make a purchase. What about three weeks later when they’ve had a chance to do their research? How can we help them with that research? I’m a believer of the circular approach—the more you know about your customers the better you can serve them at the event and the more you know about them at the event the better you can serve them online. To be fair, we are not there yet. I don’t think our Websites are nearly closely connected enough to our events brands yet.”
Questex is building out its ability to make data-driven decisions rather than gut instinct, from content strategy to events to sales. “I want the data to help inform those decisions which quickly exposed a lack of data in the business,” said Miller. “There’s always data but is it being collected, is it accessible, is it telling a story?”
The team did a lot of manual work gathering data from spreadsheets spread throughout the organization and tapped into service providers such to help gauge content and market trends.
“We recently did a data-driven breakdown of one of our shows that was a two-hour call,” said Miller. “We looked at how many attended, how many attended last year, the number of new people, the number of people from Southern California and Nevada and the Southwest, which can lead to a decision around whether we have a regional show or the potential for a national show?”
On the content side, “We are looking at what stories are being read, what stories get the best open rates and using tools like Parsley to see what’s working and what’s getting engagement and using Bombora to see what’s surging in the market and if we can gear content strategies towards what’s topical as opposed to what we want to write about,” said Miller. “From budget setting to content strategies to event strategies we try to source and find any piece of data that we can and build it together.”
Miller acknowledges that expertise and market feel still have a place. “There’s still a bit of art to our world, we’re not totally data driven,” he said. “But we are embracing the fact that we have to spend more time with our processes and our systems to make sure that we’re making decisions that take the gut feel and emotion out of it and more on what the data is telling us. That’s a journey, it’s not just a six-month process.”