Member Profile: Behavioral modeling and customization drive Cygnus Business Media
|CEO John French|
Sept. 26, 2012 -- Three years ago last week, Cygnus Business Media simultaneously emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and named John French, former Penton head, as CEO. At that time French had a lot on his plate, including declining revenues and fleeting staff morale. Now, he excitedly talks about the future of the company, calling technology the basis for his company’s impending road to success.
Many b-to-b companies are trying to get closer to their customers via consolidated databases, allowing them to track customer behavior across different platforms, and Cygnus recently tossed its hat into the ring by partnering with Omeda, a database marketing service provider (Crain Communications has also teamed with the provider). French believes the move will lead to other initiatives that will give the company a "technological edge." ABM chatted with French about the data initiative, his corporate turnaround strategy and his vision for the future, which includes behavioral modeling and customized publications.
ABM: Give us an overview of Cygnus today. How has the company changed from when you took over three years ago?
French: Cygnus is radically different than it was a few years ago, in a positive way. We take the view that we are just as much as a technology company than we are a b-to-b company. What we've done is built within our company homegrown platforms that we called "based in inception." When we first got here we had circulation fulfillment that was still in-house, and it was antiquated. We had 20 different diverse databases of subscribers that we couldn't do anything with except deal with them on an individual basis. We did an outside search [for a database management company] and chose Omeda. What they have done is take every database in the company and put it on one platform, one totally integrated database.
By putting everything in one database, we've come up with what we call Cygnus Analytics. It's the ability to provide to our advertisers information about our readers, our trade show attendees, the people who come to our websites, more than who they are but what they are doing and how they are behaving. We can say that you've been a subscriber for how many years, that you've gone to a couple of trade shows, and when you were at our trade shows these are the editorial tracks you attended, this is what you're interested and your behavior on our site has told us that you're more interested in transportation than concrete. And we go back to our advertisers with that information.
ABM: What key parts of your long-term plan have been realized?
French: I was the former CEO of Penton Media, and Primedia B2B before joining Cygnus, and I actually looked at Cygnus a couple of times to buy it. The long-term vision when I got here was to just find something that would make us different. I knew that a base has already been built -- the beginnings of our platform. My vision early on, what was going to make Cygnus different in the markets we served, was going to be technology.
I've been in b-to-b a long time, and it all comes down to, and I mean everything -- trade shows, magazines, online, social media -- it all comes down to the people that consume the content we produce and vendors/manufacturers who want to reach those people. You have people that want to pay you to get people to consume their product, and they want to know two things: one, who these people are, and two, how to get to people that will potentially use their product that they've never talked to before. What we can do, because of our integrated databases, is we can find new people to come to our tradeshows that we didn't know about before. We can tell people more about the audiences they are trying to reach and can find new audiences that frankly neither one of us knew existed.
ABM: How are you going to leverage that knowledge?
French: I would like to get to the point where we can get into behavioral prediction and put together super user groups and say, “Okay, these 5,000 people are about to buy a product category.” So we'll go the extra mile and start making available to [advertisers] groups of people that you need to focus on specifically because we believe they are going to buy a product in the next six to 12 months. That to me is the holy grail.
ABM: What is your ideal revenue ratio?
French: I think it’s certainly in the range of print being 35 - 40% of the company. I think the company should be dominated by a combination of online and trade shows, and more than that, true data products. Some companies want print lower than that, but we still have bastions in our industry where people want to get a magazine. We can't just kill off all print, that would be colossal mistake.
I also believe that print will continue to decline in terms of the mix, but what's left of the print is actually pretty exciting because of the technologies we are investing in now. We re-signed our printer, Publishers Press, which is strong on technology, and think we can begin to customize print because of our databases. We'd love to see a magazine where we can customize the copy: The cover will say "This is your October issue of Firehouse and we know from your recent behavior on Firehouse.com that you've been showing a very strong interest in water pumps and fire trucks. On page 48 there is a whole product companion about that today. And also, keep in mind that in six weeks we have Firehouse World in Baltimore -- all of those vendors will be there as well. Here is the registration that you used last year.” Imagine that.
I think we are morphing to become more of a technology company in b-to-b, rather than a b-to-b company that's adapting technology.
-Elizabeth A. Reid
Photo credit, with thanks: Cygnus Business Media