Computing technology has undergone a business revolution over the past 15 years. It used to be a topic shrouded in mystique, the sole domain of shadowy figures in the IT department who alone understood the benefits of a mid-range over a mainframe computer. The chairman, merely concerned with how the invoice systems would go through, would sign the horrendously large cheques and leave them to get on with it.
Today, the PC revolution has led to a massive reduction in the cost of technology, and with it, a reduction in its mystique. Technology has been brought to the masses, made an affordable business tool. PCs have made computing power easier to use and understand. Technology issues are business issues, which are debated and understood, from board-level down.
That has fuelled a change in marketing and advertising. IT used to revolve around high-value accounts, with little choice in the market. A company would be tied into one manufacturer for years.
Now it is all about branding and promoting the merits of cheaper, more diversified systems, with a myriad of competitors within the sector. Rather than the handful of IT managers in major corporations which used to be targeted, the explosion of IT growth among smaller firms means there are about 1.3 million IT decision makers in the UK, according to Banner & Co (a research company which specialises in IT readership surveys).
There has also been a change in the skills which good IT decision makers should have. With technology so essential to business, the need for greater corporate awareness from IT staff has grown. They are expected to understand the issues faced by their company, and use technology to gain a business edge.
With this revolution has come a change in the way in which the media regards computing. Far from being the sole domain of the geek, it has moved into the realm of mainstream newspapers.
The Daily Telegraph carries its Connected supplement, The Guardian has Online, The Times the Interface technology section and The Sunday Times carries the Innovation section.
Each title is also eager to show off computing prowess by moving editions onto the Web. Every paper, from the Financial Times to the Daily Star, has its own Website, although the nature of products being discussed in each case varies to suit the readership.
It may have been expected that the in-roads of the broadsheets into the domain of the technology press would cause alarm among the trade titles, as both fight for advertising and journalists in the same sector. In fact it can be argued that the opposite is true. The marketing relationship between the two is sym- biotic, rather than destructive.
“If anything, we work in conjunction with the broadsheets, not against them,” says Gerry Sherwood, marketing executive of Reed Business Information, which publishes titles including Freelance Informer and Computer Weekly. “We will work with them on stories because the national papers can be used to raise the profile of our titles.”
Stories are often exchanged between trade titles and the nationals, and bylines of IT journalists are common to both. For titles which are apparently rivals, it appears to be a civil relationship.
One reason this relationship exists is that the trade and the broadsheets are catering for different markets.
Hardly a month goes by without the launch of another IT title, with each targeting an ever-more niche area of the market. Ziff-Davis, for example, has just launched PC Gaming World, a consumer title aimed at providing families with a breakdown of PC computer games. Reed Business Information is about to launch Corporate Networks, aimed at network managers within large organisations. Bath-based Future Publishing, better known for its gaming titles, is readying the launch of a new consumer title aimed at Internet users.
In the fight for advertising space, it is this niche targeting which gives the trade titles an advantage over the nationals. The nationals may claim a much higher readership than the trades, but it is questionable what proportion of that readership is actually turning to the technology supplements, and which turns to other pages that interest them throughout the rest of the paper. As many of the trade titles are sold on a controlled circulation basis, advertisers can be presented with a breakdown of the precise job title, spending power, responsibilities and interests of the readership.
Peter Kirwan, editor of VNU Business Publications’ title Computing, which has been published since 1973, says it is this careful targeting of titles that is ensuring trade magazines are not suffering from the avalanche of interest from the nationals. “The general view would be that the national IT sections have a real problem in terms of positioning,” he says. “I’d say The Sunday Times’ Innovation section was an exception because there is a clear coupling with the business section, but really the technology sections are something of a default purchase.”
He argues that the trades can provide targeted editorial, addressing the interests and concerns of the readership, rather than having to provide a superficial Jack-of-all trades coverage. “The nationals”, he argues, “don’t know who their readers really are.”
The broadsheets may disagree with this statement, but it is reflected in the sort of advertising which they carry. Advertising in the national technology supplements tends to be branding advertising, promoting a company rather than its products. It is the trade press which is used to promote the services and technology which can generate business change.
“If you are trying to decide which 20 fast Pentium PCs you should buy that month, you are not going to decide it on the basis of the coverage, or the advertising in the nationals.
“The PC press enables the buyer to make the buying decision with confidence,” argues Lisbet Tolson, European director of marketing for IT publishers Ziff-Davis.
Tolson argues the market for informed buyers’ guides, like its PC Magazine or VNU’s What PC?, will never be eroded by the broadsheets.
“Dell, for example, takes the inside front cover of PC Magazine every month because it knows there will be product reviews and analysis of machine performance. You are never going to get that level of product review in the nationals because they aim for a more superficial coverage of issues.
“They may do features on video-conferencing or a new chip, but it will be a drop in the ocean compared with the analysis and reviews in the trade titles. The two areas of the press are complementary to each other.”
Others agree. Simon Rockman, whose firm Blah Publishing publishes What Mobile and Demon Dispatches, the contract title for Internet firm Demon Internet, says the nationals should be viewed as a valuable public relations resource, rather than a rival.
“What Mobile and the trade titles are more for educated readers. It is a symbiotic relationship. We will publicise features and news issues from the titles through the nationals. The nationals are not buyers’ guides, they do not provide a level of information to make buyers knowledgeable so they are not competition.”
One advantage the national press does have is frequency of publication. Whereas advertisers for monthly titles such as PC Magazine have to approve ad copy weeks before publication date, the nationals offer a quick turnaround and flexibility to advertise new prices or offers.
It is this flexibility which poses a threat to the lucrative area of recruitment advertising in the trades. With a national shortage of IT skills, the nationals offer a far quicker turnaround in terms of recruitment advertising.
The trade press has reacted to this by turning to the Internet. VNU Business Publications, for example, has a Website called job.net, which gives a daily update on the jobs offered across its 16 titles.
“The Internet has enabled us to compete against the broadsheets’ huge advantage of frequency,” says VNU’s New Media editor Julian Patterson. “With job.net we are constantly updating all the recruitment advertising and are getting hundreds of thousands of hits a week.”
He says although other trade titles have moved to counteract this disadvantage of frequency, with sites such as Reed’s @Computer Weekly, the buoyancy of the job market has meant that even this apparent threat has not affected advertising revenues for the trades.
“The thing we worry about with recruitment is a much bigger economic change in the market. The market slowing down would affect us far more than competition from the nationals,” he says.
But it may be the Internet, rather than the nationals, which provides the real competition to the trades. In their eagerness to keep pace with the technology changes, and the frequency of the nationals, many trade titles are now online. And this, say readers, is proving a far more attractive proposition that wading through acres of newsprint.
According to the latest Banner & Co survey, six out of ten IT decision makers will use the Internet by next year. Of those that use it now, about one-third will use it to access online titles. And they say it’s proving more attractive than newsprint.
David Valentine, a systems analyst and trade titles recipient of 20 years, is now dropping the trade press in favour of Web-surfing.
“I used to fill in the controlled circulation forms like clockwork, but now, with all the titles and jobs online, there’s little need to bother,” he says.
“I can simply download sites like Oracle or the job pages every day and gain a knowledge of what’s happening without having these piles of newspapers from all these trade titles anymore.
“It was just getting to the stage where there was too much newsprint to keep up with. Now I buy The Times to keep up with business issues. The rest of the papers go in the bin. Everything is there on the Web.”