3 Ways B2B Publishers Can Turn Data into Dollars
We’ve heard all the buzzwords: predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning. But have you done everything you can to wrangle data and find the insights that reliably drive revenue?
Unfortunately, when I ask most publishers this question, they answer “no.” And there are even more “no” responses in the B2B world. Why? Because there’s a misconception that “big data” only applies to consumer brands. B2Bs believe their audiences simply aren’t big enough.
Let’s dispel that myth. You can use data science to grow sales, whether you’re a mass consumer magazine or a narrowly-defined niche B2B publication. And you don’t need to spend millions of dollars and several months (or years) building out your data infrastructure. You can get started now, with what you have. But you must have the right mindset in place.
In this article, we will discuss three mindset shifts that B2B publishers should make to successfully leverage data – and turn it into dollars.
Mindset Shift 1: Be Hypothesis-Driven
The problem with data is we have so much of it. It can paralyze us and fill us with fears. How do we avoid feeling overwhelmed? How do we get by without the expensive data warehouse project? How do we decide which data sources are worth looking at?
The way to squash these doubts is to be hypothesis-driven. Take a look at what’s working and what’s not. From there, come up with theories as to how you can grow your business. Then, determine what the right advanced analytics tactics and data sources would be to prove or disprove your premise.
Let’s say your renewal rates are down. So, you brainstorm some possible reasons — or hypotheses — for this trend:
- The renewal process is too complicated.
- Our readers aren’t engaged enough to build habits around our content.
- And for those with paid subscriptions: Our pricing is not in line with the market.
Let’s say the team thinks the first hypothesis is most likely to be valid.
If you suspect your renewal process is too complicated, that opens up a lot of questions around the process, and those questions direct us toward the data points we should be assessing.
- Are customers opening renewal emails?
- Are they responding to direct mail campaigns?
- Are they reacting to on-site messages?
- Are they speaking with outbound sales?
- For each renewal channel, are they starting the process and not finishing? Or are they not even making it to the starting line? Where exactly are they dropping off?
- For paid subscriptions, what is the renewal rate for members with credit cards on file versus “bill me” clients?
When we know what questions we are trying to answer, the data requirements become much clearer.
As an example, a B2B publisher in the accounting space was experiencing issues with their paid subscription renewals. We crunched the numbers and found that the biggest thing holding them back was a low renewal rate for subscribers who didn’t have a credit card on file and didn’t respond to emails.
Digging into the data, we found that the average subscriber’s purchase order process (i.e., the amount of time it took their organization to get the subscription purchase approved) was longer than the publisher’s renewal process.
To address this bottleneck in the renewal process, the publisher provided incentives to switch to a compliant credit card auto-renew process — one that only needed to go through the purchase order process once. Plus, we created a streamlined online renewal process that eliminated more than half of the steps. We also started the renewal processes sooner and across more channels, including outbound sales. That provided subscribers ample opportunity to get their internal purchasing process started promptly to lock in a timely renewal. As a result, the publisher improved their renewal rate by 60%, worth millions of dollars.
Maybe in your case, it’s one of the other hypotheses dragging down renewal rates. If you thought, “Our readers aren’t engaged enough to build habits around our content” was the leading contender, you could build a model that predicted likeliness to renew based on number of touchpoints (website visits, email opens, podcast downloads, etc.) with your brand throughout the year. Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute found that the secret to increasing his revenues was looking for members who consumed his content across multiple channels (e.g., email plus online plus in print).
If you thought pricing might be your issue, you could look at the correlation between renewal rates and price over time, or you could segment your users and look at renewal rates by class. For a B2B publisher in the healthcare space, we found a different willingness to pay for physicians versus nurses, and adjusted the product and pricing strategy accordingly. With that shift, revenues more than doubled year-over-year.
Mindset Shift 2: Look for Something No One Else Is Doing
Best practices have their place in the world; they’re a grab bag of tactics you can consider when trying to solve a problem. But here’s the rub: If you follow the same best practices as everyone else in your industry, you will realize no tangible value. If everyone relies heavily on video, that market will just get saturated. If everyone lowers price, there will be margin erosion across the industry.
The secret to growth is using your data to find an insight no one else is paying attention to. Usually this means finding an underserved niche to build upon within your own audience. It could also mean finding an underleveraged sales or marketing channel. If you use data to find ideas no one else is noticing, you’ll have an instant competitive advantage.
For a publisher in the beverage space, we found an underserved semi-professional segment within their audience, and thus could launch events and content products squarely targeted at this sub-niche. This added over 30% revenue to the business.
For a publisher in the trucking space, we learned that female truckers were a vastly overlooked demographic. Special email newsletters, trainings, and events created specifically for this segment made for lucrative incremental revenue streams.
For a publisher in the business media space, we found that Facebook was a neglected channel that, once optimized, delivered a cost per qualified lead that was 30 to 40% lower than one from the more popular B2B site, LinkedIn.
What possible sub-groups exist within your audience? What new channels can you try? Go out and use your data to find them.
Mindset Shift 3: Be Willing to Fail and Learn
I once had a boss who talked a big game about innovating and trying new things, but whenever we tested something and it didn’t work, he’d have a hissy fit. Then the team started to resist trying new things and went back to business as usual. And that is a recipe for true failure. (FYI he ended up getting fired.)
If you get upset when something fails, then, I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to thrive in the world of data. There is a right way and a wrong way to fail, as outlined in this article from Harvard Business Review.
Data helps us fail by design. It gives us confidence that what we try is more likely to work than not, but no model is perfect. Sometimes correlation does not mean causality. Sometimes there is an external factor that changes the system. Sometimes problems are so complex that data alone can’t solve them (like how IBM’s Watson had no problem competing on Jeopardy!, but when asked to cure cancer it famously failed miserably).
Once you have a hypothesis supported by data and a way to compete that is distinctive, you need to think about how to test and learn. It becomes about collecting even more relevant data to see what’s working and what is not.
We recommend maintaining a learning agenda: a list of all the experiments and tests you have going on, what you are hoping to glean from these tests (e.g., optimal messaging, optimal media mix, optimal lead gen, etc.), and how things are going. Resist the temptation to blame your team. Instead ask, “What can we learn from that experiment that will help us design a better one?”
Data science is not just for B2Cs. When used correctly, B2Bs can leverage their data to find and exploit opportunities for growth. By getting into the right mindset — one that embraces a scientific approach, looks for novel opportunities, and is willing to fail and learn — you can find success in using data to transform your B2B company for the better.
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Ristagno is passionate about helping others grow near-term revenues by applying data science to uncover and test low-risk, high-reward sales and marketing strategies. Committed to spreading this message, Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and the developer of the Growth Mindset Assessment.