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Ben Heald, CEO of Sift MediaThis week, we speak to Ben Heald, chief executive of Sift Media, about the challenges of B2B online publishing, including the economy, how to monetise international traffic and tackle participation inequality in social media.

We ask him about trends from audiences and advertisers, how the sector is moving forward in terms of best practices, and why his journalists are now paid on a performance basis.

Where are you at as a business?

With Sift Media, our publishing business, we’re looking at revenues of about £3.3m in the year to December this year, and about £500,000 profit, so we’re small but doing well.

We’re a portfolio proposition, so we go to advertisers with eight or nine fairly closely-aligned sites and quite often, we do campaigns across two or more titles. We also have particular strength in the accounting space. With AccountingWEB, we feel we have the leading accounting brand online.

We have some activities in the US. AccountingWEB is both UK and US, so we have a team in the US running that version. We’ve discovered that you can’t sell effectively to US advertisers unless you are there.

What are the key trends you see from audiences in B2B publishing online?

The whole premise of this business is that if you encourage debate and knowledge exchange on your titles, that’s more valuable to both audiences and advertisers.

That’s why we’re getting much higher levels of advertising with our low levels of page impressions compared to consumer publishers. We don’t have 30m page impressions a month to deal with. It’s a focused audience.

People aren’t interested in blogs or communities per se. People are interested in debating software and solutions and case studies. If you go to our HR or finance communities, people are talking about things they have tried and the suppliers they have used. That’s what draws in the advertisers.

What levels of participation inequality do you see from forum and community users? What can publishers do to tackle that more effectively?

Yes, broadly speaking. It varies a bit. You probably get about 10% of the audience that you are sending your emails to, contributing to the content in some way.

I don’t think usage levels have changed that much. It matches the dynamics of a conference, where out of an audience of 100 people, you will get ten asking a questions and one or two people speaking to you after the presentation.
I don’t think that will change. We won’t all become avid contributors to forums. Some people just want to take stuff.

What roles will B2B journalists play in the future? What skills will they need?

There have been big changes there, and it’s something I have found quite a challenge. Writing to engage, rather than to inform, is a big switch. These worthy articles that quote all and sundry are fine and they have their place. But you don’t feel like commenting on them at the end. You don’t feel like engaging with it. You’re informed but you feel a bit exhausted by it.

We are trying to be a ringmaster or a coordinator or a facilitator. The job of the editor is to seed audiences, stimulate and provoke on behalf of the whole site.
All our editors are rewarded through the success of the sites in terms of the page impressions and users their articles generate, not how many words they write. They have a basic salary and the commission is based on the page impressions and the number of reads of their stories.

It’s about engendering the right behaviours. Do you really need to write 1000 words, or do 500 words that are more provoking? They become active on other forums, promoting their websites. You can’t be successful when you’re running your own walled garden.

Sometimes Haymarket, Incisive and EMAP all have awards nights, in the same sector, but don’t reference each other. It’s madness. You can’t deny that there is an industry out there. Journalists have to change their spots and get out there and get involved in the community.

What’s your financial outlook for the next couple of years?

We should be well north of £3m revenues this year, and we see that growing by 30% next year and 30% the year after.

The way we go about growing the business is to look at the top 100 advertisers in each vertical, try to have substantive conversations with them and getting in front of their marketing executives to see how we can meet their objectives. That can involve webinars or offline seminars. We’re holding a golf day next week, sponsored by Blackberry. A lot of creative energy goes into those campaigns.

We’re looking to bolster the portfolio. We’ve made a couple of acquisitions in the last couple of years and have integrated them well, so we’re looking for more.

We like things with potential. We bought UK Business Forums last year, which was completely un-monetised. We paid £150,000 for it and were delighted to do so, as it had the potential. A lot of sites have the audience but can’t monetise it, as they would have to go from a one-man band and scale into having sales, marketing and so on.

We’re also launching a business lifestyle title in the next few weeks.

How much of your advertising is sold on a performance basis? Are you doing any lead generation?

It’s mainly about putting together an effective campaign for someone and integrating them across several activities. It’s quite rare that we do CPA stuff, although we do guarantee response in some campaigns, where appropriate, with certain types of clients.

What are your thoughts on ad network performance in the B2B space?

We don’t use them. We get more money through putting together focused campaigns. We do [have spare inventory] but the rates you get are so low, it’s hardly worth it.

Have you ever used or considered using Adsense?

No. We looked at it for UK Business Forums but we felt it would detract from the value we offer to our major clients. The people making serious money online are either doing one thing or the other — focused activities for bigger advertisers, like us; or going down the volume route.

Can you point to any best practices that you see coming into the B2B publishing space?

The key thing for us is the accountability the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) has been championing. We think it is very important but the tools and standards are still in their infancy, in our view. Agencies are asking for one thing and the agencies are asking for another. We aren’t all agreed on it.

In our view, the agencies have come up the learning curve hugely in the last couple of years. Two or three years ago, they would just ask for inventory. That’s all they would be after — can you offload a million page impressions?

They are much more sophisticated now, which is great. It’s much more fun for us to work with people who know about it as you don’t have to educate the market all the time. You can think creatively and conjure up solutions that will work for clients.

That’s the beauty of these open source platforms. It’s much easier to be flexible if you have an open source platform, such as displaying directories in a different way. You get stuck with things if you use a proprietary platform.

That’s what we have found here. The commercial team is always going to the IT team and asking if they can do something, like integrating user databases with directories or doing stuff that is slightly more innovative.

How much of your traffic is international? How can UK publishers do more to monetise international traffic?

AccountingWEB US is obviously exclusively US. But inevitably, if you look at the logs, 25% comes from outside the UK. They probably aren’t the members driving RoI or the advertisers.

It’s terribly hard to monetise that long tail of international audiences. The advertisers are keen to focus the money on your key personas as that’s where they get their RoI.

Have you any plans to develop a print presence?

No, and we don’t feel we need to. It’s difficult to produce a weekly or monthly publication because of the print costs.

Related interviews: Incisive Media's Tim Weller

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Published 9 September, 2008 by Richard Maven

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