Is the Distinction Between Consumer and B2B Media Still Meaningful?

Writing this week in Folio:, Matt Kinsman asks “Why Do Consumer Stars So Often Fail to Shine in B-to-B?” It’s no criticism of Kinsman, whose work I admire, that after reading this piece I could only ask in return, “who cares anymore?”

In his article he reflects on the departures of Richard Beckman and Michael Wolff from trade publisher Prometheus Global Media. Their effort to use their consumer publication experience to add luster to business-to-business books like Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter failed, he writes, because “useful trumps sexy.”

Fair enough. But was their failure really the result of a culture clash, or something more like arrogance and stupidity? Was the problem that you can’t mix consumer and B2B models, or the probability that both approaches are doomed? Are the differences between B2B and consumer media even relevant any longer?

The contrast used to matter a lot, at least to those of us affixed to one side or other of the divide. Most of us in journalism first fell in love with the consumer side, because that’s what we saw at home or on the news stand. Only later, when we tried to break into the business did we find out about the trades, and realize there was an entire world of media we’d known nothing about. If you were lucky or unlucky—take your pick—you ended up on the trade side, fretting over an inferiority complex but making a good living and doing good work.

So in times gone by, Kinsman’s article, like its predecessor last June (“Six Things B-to-B Editors, Designers Can Learn From Consumer Magazines”) would have seemed vital. Now it seems merely quaint.

What happened in the meantime was the birth of that great leveler, the Internet. It hasn’t so much erased the differences as smudged them. Just as it has muddled the distinction between professional and personal, and between home life and work life, just as it has confusingly merged the roles of reader, advertiser, and publisher, so it has blurred the traditional line between trade and consumer publishing.

What once made trades so distinctively different from the consumer side was, as Jim Edwards writes of Adweek, obscurity and scarcity: “It churns out enough detailed information about the ad biz to require ad execs to buy subscriptions to it and to require marketing services companies to buy advertising in order to reach those executives.” What gave a trade magazine value, he says, was “the fact that this information is badly chronicled elsewhere.”

Now, of course, such information is easily found, which is why readers are less willing to pay for subscriptions and marketers less willing to pay for advertising.

My point isn’t that B2B and consumer markets are one and the same. The functional, practical differences between them will always exist. But I suspect that the cultural and emotional differences are disappearing.

The question for B2B and consumer media may no longer be how each business model can inform the other, but what entirely new model both need to adopt.