Corner Office: Why & How Penton Pivoted to Information Services
Last fall, Penton launched new branding and a revamped website. But this wasn't your typical slap-a-new-coat-of-paint-on-it rebranding. Rather it was a new outward identity to reflect Penton's reinvention as an information services business. As many legacy publishers have done or are trying to do these days, Penton has made the transition from a traditional publishing company to something other. The information services tag is meant to indicate Penton's broader, multi-platform market offering, where "media" or "publishing" is part of the greater whole.
Evidence of this reinvention is apparent in the company's revenue shift. Events now account for the largest share of Penton's total revenue, which exceeded $360 million in 2013. Marketing services is growing 20% per year and Penton expects digital business to exceed print in 2015. Penton has also made several key acquisitions to bolster its core verticals, delved deeper into the marketing funnel with its market services business, and positioned data as a strategic asset for growing all businesses. It has also recruited talent to implement these changes, bringing in several key executives to advance marketing, data, digital, and content.
Kate Spellman, senior vice president of marketing, has been instrumental in advancing change at Penton. Spellman joined Penton two years ago-a year after Penton CEO David Kieselstein came aboard to redirect the company-and she has had a central view of the dramatic changes the company has undertaken. And despite much internal wrangling, Penton's transformation has largely been guided by the evolution of its outward view of its audiences. A more nuanced comprehension of its audience has emerged. "The big change for us, as a company, was starting to really understand the habits of our users, and our consumers. What are they doing at what time of day? Where can we reach them and on what device? Really kind of getting into the rhythm of our user."
Spellman says Penton conducted in-depth research of user behavior across the organization and by vertical, realizing the different patterns from vertical to vertical. "It was really interesting to be able to look at that and to see what users wanted and when. I think that's when we were able to step back and start matching our products and our delivery to what was needed."
Spellman says Kieselstein made it a priority to take greater advantage of the volume of data that Penton had at its fingertips, drawn from its 16 million users. Penton also reexamined its user interface and experience approach in order to deliver information that is easier to access and use, which Spellman admits was a challenge for a company with a strong content heritage.
As an example, Spellman points to its Natural Products Expo, which yields information on what organic foods and natural products will hit the market well before they appear on store shelves. "We have that information, and we've been sitting on that information." The high-level objective became finding ways to translate Penton's heritage of informing audiences into new Digital- and -Data Era products. In the above instance, Penton took the meaningful market information it was capturing and developed NEXT Trend, a data and analytics tool for the natural products industry (a tool that will be replicated in other verticals.)
Furthering its data business, in January Penton launched an API store, with the first featured product a price digest for the trucking and automotive industries. Of course, new skillsets around UI/UX, data science, and marketing analytics needed to be acquired and nurtured to support such initiatives.
Here Spellman shares the company's notes on the strategy and execution that took Penton beyond publishing.
Has it been a struggle to build the infrastructure and competence to make data part of Penton's strategic growth?
Yes and no. In 2013 we hired chief data officer Richard Stanton. His background is really being able to look at different products and digitizing them so you can gather that information easily and in one place. He's brought on a lot of tools that we've been able to use to pull this information together.
The other thing we've done is we've implemented Eloqua. We now have Eloqua across the entire company and all of our verticals. For the first time we're actually able to look at deeper layers of information from a behavioral standpoint. Then we've created what we're calling a "data mart," that actually holds all of the data to see what our users are using and what they're not.
I'm not saying it's easy. For example when we developed NEXT Trend, all of that data had to be collected and put in a format that was easy for our users and consumers to look at. I think that's the hardest part. That's not easy for people who come from the traditional media industry. Therefore, we've hired a lot of people. Under Richard Stanton, we now have an engineering group, with real product managers and data scientists. We have a very formulated way to go to business. We're not throwing things against the wall to see if they stick anymore. It's a product-oriented go-to-market process. Rather than just kind of putting things out there to see if they work.
Penton has a rich heritage in traditional B2B publishing. What are the talent challenges involved in working in different ways and with different products?
I will say in the last three or four years, we've had a 40% differential in who we have on board. You still need the heavy content people. You need the traditional people who understand our industry, and that's really our secret sauce-the people who understand the industry, who understand the content, and who understand the users.
What we've done is we've taken services and centralized them, to put a layer of capabilities over that group. Look at Joe Territo [SVP of content] who was hired as a content expert. He's come in and he's got a group of content people. They don't all necessarily report to him, but it's that centralization of best practices [that's important.]
This is going to sound like a very simple thing, but for example, the heavy use of photo galleries that's happened in the last year-that would be attributed to Joe Territo coming onboard. He also has developed what we're calling Idea Exchange, which is a community and social networking [platform], which all of the groups have implemented.
The key is having that capability layer on top of it. That way we can invest heavily in some of the things that we want to do and actually have these things happen across all of the different sectors and verticals. They may have a different skin, or they may have a little bit of a different nuance, because again the audiences are different. But you're able to leverage that across the whole company.
Would you say Penton has moved beyond a product or platform viewpoint?
I think we used to think about a platform, and we used to think about both from a sales and a content standpoint. "Well this content goes here, and it doesn't cross over." Now from a cultural standpoint, that's really been pulled away. You're thinking more of your user, thinking of the content. When and where is it delivered in the right way? Then from a sales perspective, what's the customer's goal, and how do you get there? Rather than it being, "Well, you can have X-amount of banners today."
Given your heritage, how were you able to attract the right people needed to evolve?
There definitely was a huge challenge with that. When Richard Stanton came onboard, he actually hired key people that he's worked with before. John Paul, VP of engineering, whose one of the people who worked for Richard, he's like world-renowned in the engineering world. Hiring that talent enabled us to bring some really great talent on. Talent begets talent, and that's how we were able to get into different pockets. That group of people had never heard of Penton. We have people coming in all the time, which is refreshing.
I think the fact that we now have a new website-that's attracting a lot more younger people. We're getting people from mainstream consumer digital platforms, which is something that we had not done before. When I started here, we had a website which I'm sure was a home run quite a few years ago. When people went to look at that, they didn't want to come to interview at the company; we would lose people that way.
When considering bringing a new product to market, how do you determine the market demand?
We're looking at how it's going to impact the company. That could be financial. It could also be user behavior-that we'll get more user behavior information. Or that we get more users or deeper use by users. All of those things are looked at, and they all have to be quantified.
It's not sitting around the table, like it was two years ago, saying, "Hey, I have this idea, can you do this for me?" If somebody said, "No," you would go to somebody else and then they would do it for you. That's been, I think, the biggest difference.
It was the Wild West, and now there's a process in place. There's a procedure. We have this whole timeline, when you need to bring in different constituents, and how they need to be brought in. It's much more of a formal process. It's really bringing a SAAS product model into what was a traditional media model.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed 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.