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Oct 20 2009

The future of the construction media

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Marketing Construction Interest Group (CIMCIG) and the journalist and PR association International Building Press (IBP) hosted a joint debate, chaired by Media Week‘s Steve Barrett, on ‘The future of the construction media‘ at the Building Centre in London. As a long-time PR member of IBP and a regular at recent CIMCIG events, I went along, took a couple of photos and – along with my fellow PR Liz Male – kept up a flow of live-Tweets throughout the debate before retiring to the nearby College Arms to continue what turned out to be quite a wide-ranging conversation.

Free v Paid-for content

In line with ongoing debates about the national media, it wasn’t long before the discussion turned to the relative merits of ‘free’ (usually advertising-funded) publications versus ‘paid-for’ content, and there were some interesting moments during which the distinction between pure editorial and advertising got a bit blurred. We lurched from advertorial, through colour separation charges to what Construction News editor Nick Edwards referred to as “revenue-generating editorial” (I think talking about sponsored supplements or sponsored roundtable discussions, but the exact nature of such content was still – he said – being finalised).

As the evening wore on it was revealed that Construction News (and therefore probably the rest of the Emap construction publications, including New Civil Engineer and Architects’ Journal) would be locking down its website content and going subscription-only before the end of this year. Of course, over the past few years, we’ve got used to being able to read news headlines free (whether direct on the website or via links in Twitter and e-newsletters) so this will be a major change for many current consumers of Emap’s output. It will also be interesting to see how major rival B2B publishers such as UBM and Reed respond.

Web 2.0

Niki May Young, news editor of online-only World Architecture News, gave a very upbeat assessment of the potential of web-based publications and the power of social media. “Print is being phased out,” she said (perhaps a tad provocatively), “newspapers will become novelty not the norm”. She pointed out some publishers are increasingly converging print, audio and video content and also looking to promote greater interaction with their readers/listeners/viewers – indeed, Twitter had become part of the news-gathering regime at WAN, she said (but only a handful of people in room confessed to following a trade title on Twitter).

It was clear from both agency and in-house marketing/PR people that there remains considerable scepticism about the value of social media. Audience members talked about how flicking through a magazine was still inherently enjoyable (prompting an incoming Tweet from my friend Stan Hornagold: “The best thing about magazines? They ‘boot up’ immediately“), and stereotyped AEC marketing decision-makers as white, grey-haired males for whom “pipe, slippers, print and colour seps” are more familiar and comfortable.

The tendency for construction-related businesses to block acess to social networking sites was raised, and one attendee suggested the UK AEC industry was lagging behind the US in its use of LinkedIn for B2B marketing, prompting panelist Mike Webb from Corus to say that his company had just undertaken its first campaign on LinkedIn. Interestingly, another delegate said his manufacturing business was coping with a reduced advertising budget by bypassing conventional media and instead using Ning-based websites to engage directly with existing and potential customers (see my Element14 post); someone else added that social media was often more cost-effective for SMEs (see The internet as a lifeline for SMEs).

For CIB’s Andy Cassie, the key issue was one of research: “We need to know what is working best; we need research to show how quantifiable the trends are in the AEC marketing sphere”. If nothing else, this event demonstrated the current confusion that currently surrounds both advertisers and consumers on one side and publishers and journalists on the other; no single model effectively combining print and online has yet emerged; and some independent research would certainly be a great step forward in helping clarify what construction marketers valued and were prepared to invest in. Maybe this is something that CIMCIG should undertake? (I, for one, would be pleased to help undertake the project).

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