Crain Turns 100: How the B2B Publisher Is Growing for the Century to Come
Looking back five years, Crain Communications faced a problem that has now become a familiar -- though no less daunting -- tale in B2B media and all of publishing for that matter: declining print revenues and balkanized media properties, the promises and problems of monetizing digital, and technology systems that didn’t reflect what the market demanded.
Change was a clear existential imperative. Today, upon its 100th year in business, the company is well-positioned to reach the next century mark, recently uplifted by making strategic acquisitions, diversifying its revenue mix, overhauling its technology systems, and enabling a holistic view of its audience data. Strong brands and journalistic dedication are at the heart of its resilience, says KC Crain, EVP and director of corporate operations for Crain Communications. “Journalism is something that we feel very strongly is one of the reasons we're here after a hundred years,” says KC. “We've never let our foot off the gas on the investment in editorial.” And well-known titles like Automotive News, Advertising Age, Pensions & Investments and Crain's business weeklies in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland have served as a strong foundation for further brand expansion.
Making up for the decline of print revenues and finding the right recipe to monetize digital has been a big, industry-wide challenge that Crain too has encountered. KC says Crain quickly realized that digital was not a replacement for print, but rather that a healthy mixture of products would make up for the gap. “Lucky for us, our brands are super strong. We were able to really double down on some of our products. For our big brands, like Automotive News and Pensions & Investments, you've got to invest and acquire some businesses that can bolt on to make them bigger and more robust and get some of that margin back that you lost in print.”
For example, Crain bought WorldPensionSummit last year for the P&I brand and launched the brand Automotive News Canada in the beginning of 2016. Crain has also launched a dedicated custom content division called Crain Custom and dug in deeper with events.
Of course, the revenue mix for Crain has changed significantly in the past five to ten years as a result of its strategic shifts. “Going back ten years, 2005, we were 85% print with advertising and circulation,” says KC. “In 2016 our budget will have us less than 50% [in print revenue.] And topline revenue has stayed the same or grown a little bit.”
Underlying many of the changes at Crain is an overhaul of its technology and systems, including content management, data capabilities, and site design. “What we really focused on in the last five years was upgrading pretty much every system that we sit on,” says KC. “Being around a hundred years, that's a great thing, but you can also have some issues with updating technology and really staying up to speed.”
Continues KC: “Eighteen months ago, everybody got a new responsive design website. CMS: we're in the middle of rolling out right now, so we'll have a brand new content distribution system by the end of next year. You know what a lift that is. That's another corporate-wide solution that we're implementing.”
The pinnacle technology achievement for Crain has been its CRM tool, which enables a 360-degree view of its audience data. Five years ago, KC says Crain didn’t have the full view of how a reader interacted with its products. “What we've been focusing on is our CRM and getting all of our data sorted. We spent a whole lot of time, energy, and resources building out that system. Now, we've got a really nice system that sits on Salesforce that allows us to create new products and really get that holistic, 360-degree view of the customer that everyone talks about.”
Crain’s CRM tool made possible one of its latest major ventures, the launch of personalized daily digital newsletters targeted to business executives in 35 markets, which began to roll out in 2015. Under the Crain’s National moniker, the company has spread its reach into markets like Silicon Valley, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, and Houston. “We're really strong in Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and New York, but never had a way to scale it. Creating these products allows us to get in the national game.”
Following, KC Crain further explores Crain’s recent strategic redirects and investments, challenges, and what it’s eying for the future.
Considering your audience demographics, how quickly do you see your readers shifting to mobile?
Our transition has been huge to mobile, but the thing we keep focusing on is a holistic ownership of the audience. How do you own them all the way through their day? When they wake in the morning, they're on your website or they're reading your newsletter. Then they’re in the office… We're selling bundle packages the same way people are consuming the media.
It’s a nightmare. The ad placements are tough. The ad units are tough. The engagement is tough. For us, we're having a pretty good go at a bundle package that goes across all the platforms, or at least the digital ones. It's a tougher sell when you get into print-plus-digital, especially when you get into bigger advertisers with big agencies.
We're not pushing the audience [to mobile] -- they're just going there, so it's up to us to make sure our interfaces and our navigation are absolutely just as good as anybody out there. You can't expect them to go from Amazon or a Time Inc. site to a Crain site and be satisfied with a lesser experience.
Given that you’re bundling a lot of products and opportunities in new ways, has selling had to change too?
I think the biggest challenge for our guys now is staying focused on all the different things you have to sell. It's event sponsorships. It's custom. Mobile is just another piece of it. We've had to work so hard on the listening piece and really getting to understand what our clients are looking for. Even though we don't have to be on the bleeding edge, we still have to be able to provide clients with what they need in a way that they want. However they want to interact with our audiences, we've got to be able to provide that technology.
Where are you looking for growth in the future to come from?
We've always been an opportunistic company, so when we see an opportunity with custom, we double down, or where we see an opportunity to start trade shows. My brother and I spend a lot of time looking at this and talking about it. We're lucky that the brands have the strength that they do. It'd be a lot more difficult if you were fighting for relevance and fighting for audience attention at the same time.
What other investments do you see in your future?
We're always focusing on editorial. Journalism is something that we feel very strongly is one of the reasons we're here after a hundred years. We've never let our foot off the gas on the investment in editorial.
On the technology side, once we get through the CMS we will literally have replaced almost every single system in our company. It's been kind of painful. You know what it's like if you just replace an email system. It's bumpy, especially if it's a legacy system. We're hoping to be able to check the box on technology.
When it comes to brands, we're always looking for new brands. What we hope is that because we've got such a great platform when it comes to infrastructure and technology, we can gain efficiencies by leveraging the scale of Crain when you bring a new brand on.
By the way, that's something that we had to work on. We did an audit a few years back on all the technology partners that Crain was using. As you know, it was the Wild West as we were building websites and figuring out how the digital age was going to impact the print world. Every Crain brand was kind of on its own to figure out a solution, whether it was developing apps or developing websites, widgets, everything ... We had a ton of inefficiencies across all the different brands. We've been taking a lot of time to figure out how to leverage the scale and get the efficiencies across everything from search boxes to responsive templates. That was a big lift for us as well.
Looking five or ten years down the road, what excites you?
A lot of things. One, the technology gets me really excited. It was not an easy thing to get a hundred year old company up to speed and put us in that best-in-class category. When I talked to all of our contemporaries, it's a big fight for some of the larger, older publishing companies. We put ourselves in a position where, again, we can bolt on brands and create new products that we would have never been able to do five or ten years ago.
Then there’s Crain’s National. One of the great things that came out of the CRM project was we were able to take a look at this total Crain audience. We found out that in Silicon Valley, we have 112,000 people that we either do business with or that engage with one of our brands and we don't do anything in Silicon Valley. When you think about it, all those people are out there trying to figure out how to disrupt healthcare and automotive and marketing and everything else. We took that as an opportunity to say, "How hard would it be to start a Crain Silicon Valley?" The answer was, "Not very hard."
[Using this technology and approach] we've been able to create digital newsletters in 31 new markets. We launched 9 in October of 2015. We launched a second wave of 22 more last spring. Add those to our well-established city brands in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and Crain’s is now live in the top 35 markets in the US.
It's the first time ever we've been able to sell across Crain from a national perspective. We were turning down a lot of business like a Google or a Capital One that wanted to buy Crain holistically or buy the top thirty markets. We're really strong in Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and New York, but never had a way to scale it. Creating these products allows us to get in the national game.
Denis Wilson is the content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.