2016 marks my 32nd year running a B2B technical content marketing and PR agency so when I visited New York last December and caught up with a couple of veterans from the publishing side it was interesting to hear their views how marketing communications and publishing strategies have developed in the last few years, and how they’re likely to change in the future. At one point our conversation turned to the ongoing saga of what UBM is planning to do with EE Times, Embedded.com, EDN and some of its other associated media outlets and events. There seems to be little doubt that these properties are for sale and industry insiders suggest that potential buyers have included Penton (where Paul Miller, ex-CEO of UBM Tech is now Group President), a group led by Steve Weitzner (Paul Miller’s one-time boss at UBM and now President at Longboat Media Advisors) and the distributor, Arrow Electronics. As I understand it, Penton is no longer pursuing the opportunity, I know nothing about Mr Weitzner’s intentions and the rumour mill is still pointing to Arrow as the most likely acquirer, some observers saying it could be any day now, other’s telling me that any deal is on hold for a while yet.
While it may seem unusual for a distributor to be vying to buy a publishing outfit, the move is not the first of its kind. Last February Arrow acquired the United Technical Publishing Division of Hearst Business Media in a deal that included “directories, e-newsletters, 16 engineering-driven websites, inventory access tools and databases that are important resources for engineers involved in product design,” setting up its AspenCore division under which some of these sites and related services are marketed. In November 2015, AspenCore then bought Munich-based ICC Media, publisher of Embedded Control Europe. Whatever the other intent behind these moves, it’s clear that Arrow is buying up mailing lists of engineers. The downside is that many of the other distributors that supported the Hearst media outlets with advertising are pulling their budgets from these outlets, or at least reducing them substantially, because it makes no sense to finance a competitor.
So what if Arrow does buy EE Times, EDN et al?
In 2014, UBM’s ‘Mind of the Engineer‘ study, a survey of 2,626 engineers from North America, EMEA, China Japan, and one of the industry’s most valuable pieces of research, suggested that industry publication web sites are the next most important source of information for engineers after manufacturer and distributor web sites. The e-newsletters associated with these sites are not far behind.
However, traditional electronics trade media print publishers have struggled to make money from digital publishing, hence the decimation of editorial teams in the leading outlets over the last 10 years or so, particularly in North America. At the same time, distributors, and some component makers, have been becoming very competent publishers – a trend driven by the need to achieve good Page rank in Google search. When you type a search phrase into Google, the search engine looks for relevant (think keywords and phrases), unique (it downgrades duplicate content), high quality (well-written stuff) and recent content – older content gets less attention.
If you’re a distributor with hundreds of thousands of products in stock you need an awful lot of fresh content to be generated each month to stand a reasonable chance of ranking well for key phrases. Several of the larger distributors are therefore already major publishers in their own right, some of them publishing more new material each month than the likes of EE Times etc. That said, the types of articles published by distributors are distinctly different in that they tend to be product and applications focused. It’s more aligned with the kind of content you’d find on EDN, rather than EE Times, but it often presents information in an even more valuable way – leading engineers to specific products that can help them solve their design challenges. What you won’t find much of on distributor web sites is high-level industry overviews and independent commentary on trends. This is where outlets like EE Times in North America, Electronics Weekly in the UK and Markt & Technik in Germany excel.
If Arrow does buy EE Times, how will its few remaining seasoned journalists feel about working for a distributor rather than an ‘independent’ publisher? I fear they won’t hang around for long.
The rise of specialist digital publishers
Despite the commercial uphill struggle faced by traditional publishers, there’s a new breed of specialist digital publishers that have carved themselves a slice of the market in recent years. From everything I hear, many of them are doing pretty well out of it too. If you haven’t see some of these sites, they’re well worth a visit. I’m told that EE Times attracts around 3 million page views per month. I know of at least one site on the following list that has just a single full-time employee – the proprietor – and already has over 1 million page views per month for its very high quality technical content. This list is not exhaustive but some of those shown are certainly worth considering if you still have some advertising dollars in your budget. (Note to blinkered content marketers: yes, advertising does still work – otherwise how would eBay make money?)
You’ll probably notice that some of the most respected journalists from traditional media have found very good homes with the new breed of publishers, or have been founders of the sites. I doubt they earn quite as much but I bet they have a lot more fun.
The other interesting thing to ponder is what Penton will do with Electronic Design magazine (and its web site) if UBM’s titles do end up being owned by Arrow. It should open up a great opportunity for Paul Miller and, whether you agree with his past strategies or not, he has never been slow to grasp what he perceives to be a good opening in the market. With the engineering following Electronic Design has built up over several decades it should be relatively easy to present it as the leading authoritative independent media outlet for the broader electronic engineering community, as distinct from those with only specialist interests, such as wireless design.
According to the ancient philosopher Aristotle, who observed that nature requires every space to be filled with something, “nature abhors a vacuum.”
Even if EE Times/EDN et al disappear altogether, there will still be a thirst for the knowledge they convey and there will still be people with the talent to capitalise on the opportunity presented.