Start-Up Briefing Media Ltd. Blends Old with New

Rory Brown: No more holidays.

Rory Brown

It’s almost a new-media axiom that traditional publishers can’t move forward effectively online because they have too much skin in the old-media game. While these B2B publishers have a highly evolved understanding of their markets, their inability to sacrifice the “cash cow in the coal mine” keeps them mired in the past.

Logically, then, the most exciting and successful advances in B2B media should come from those with an understanding of B2B markets but without the old-media burdens. This makes UK-based Briefing Media Ltd., the new start-up recently announced by Rory Brown and Neil Thackray, worth watching.  Both bring years of B2B publishing experience to the task, but without what Brown calls “the legacy issues that many traditional publishers face.” They expect to unveil the first in a series of niche B2B sites later this month.

Neil Thackray

Neil Thackray

A hallmark of Briefing Media’s approach appears to be a blending of old and new, the tried-and-true with the innovative. Thackray describes its method as combining “the latest technology and good old-fashioned market knowledge” to create a mix of aggregated, curated, and original content, organized by semantic algorithms and overseen by an editor.

As one who has worried about the inadequacies of algorithms alone, I’m heartened that Brown and Thackray will be pairing theirs with expert editors. (The first of those editors will be Patrick Smith, aka Psmith, Journalist.) Similarly, I think they’re wise to match their curated third-party content with original work.

I asked Brown by e-mail whether he could answer a few questions about Briefing Media’s strategy.  He was kind enough to supply the following details:

Why do you feel it would be so much harder for legacy publishers to succeed at what you and Neil are undertaking?

This is the classic “I wouldn’t start from here” problem. Traditional publishers generally have a wide range of revenue streams, business models, technology platforms and staff that were established in a very different era of media. They know the world has changed but it is often a difficult and time-consuming process to adjust. New entrants don’t have to deal with most of this legacy.

Neil’s description of this venture suggests that you’re looking to develop multiple and diverse revenue streams. Is that a significant part of the strategy? Do you expect either advertising or subscriptions to play a role? Will one particular source of revenue dominate either initially or long term?

I remember someone saying recently in relation to a future for newspapers that “no one thing will work but lots of things might”. I think this sums up an approach that all media companies need to employ. Initially our sites will concentrate on selling sponsorship, delegate-led events, and high-end research. However, as the business progresses there will be a greater emphasis on subscription content, advertising and lead generation, training, reports, and consultancy. Over time one of those revenue streams might rise to be dominant, but during my whole career in B2B media the most successful brands I have worked on have made money in many diverse ways—whatever the customer needs.

How are you financing this venture?

Neil and myself are the sole investors. Our whole philosophy is to run things as tightly as possible as we establish the business.

What kind of milestones will you use to gauge your progress?

The main metric we will be monitoring in the initial phase is the level of customer registration on our sites. We plan to offer a lot of value for free but will exchange value-add services for customer demographics.

As I understand it, the content for each vertical site will be a blend of curated and original content. Do you have a particular strategy for how the original content will stand out from or enhance the third-party content?

This is an important balance that we have to get right for each site. Hundreds of hours of work goes into building our content sets to ensure that the very best information is sorted and categorized.

Over this base we train our semantic algorithms to provide relevant context and linkages between those pieces of content.

Alongside that base layer we want each of our sites to have a clear voice. A key part of the editor’s role is to find and commission a combination of regular columnists and thought leaders from that industry to write for us. Often these columnists are not journalists but people who work in senior strategic positions within the industries we serve. The expert columns and in-depth, bespoke research reports are a major point of differentiation for us from other trade media.

Each vertical will have one dedicated analyst who “updates and improves the taxonomy and content.” Will that person typically create content as well, or just curate and commission it?

These positions are key hires in each vertical. We look for analysts with deep connections and an in-depth understanding of the major issues faced in their markets. We want people who are also not scared to express a strong opinion or rant occasionally.

Is there any particular model for contributor payment (i.e., are you looking for free content as so many B2B books have done, paying typical freelancer rates, or doing a Demand Media content-marketplace kind of approach)?

This depends on the nature of the content commissioned and the people who are undertaking those tasks. For high-end research we would generally pay for specialist expertise. When we solicit columns from people who are employed in another capacity, then these contributions are not paid for—although those people will join our “faculty” of experts, and we plan to offer a variety of exclusive site benefits as time progresses.

Neil’s description of the triangular semantic technology you’ll use is a bit mysterious, perhaps deliberately so. Is a hypothetical example of how it works possible?

You will probably be familiar with a variety of semantic analysis systems which tag content and provide metadata to add context. We have looked at a few of these in isolation and been generally unimpressed by their results over time. The secret sauce we are using is to have multiple semantic engines configured together and trained over time by industry experts. This provides much greater accuracy of results and makes the system impossible to replicate.

Neil’s analogy of triangulation is taken from his passion for sailing. If you are lost at sea and can see one lighthouse from your boat you know you are somewhere along a line. Two gives you a range of possible intersection points. It is only when you have three or more that you can glean a precise location.

I’m guessing the technology is not homegrown but outsourced. If you do use a provider, can you disclose who it is?

Not at this moment.

Is there a significant element of personalization or social input in the technology?

At the moment no, but as we tag content and build user demographics, the system provides a lot of possibilities for personalization. We can see many future ways of expanding the product offerings over time.

How did you and Neil get together on this venture? Did you meet him initially via work, industry associations, social media?

The business media industry is a fairly small world. I had known of Neil and his various previous companies for many years before we met. We are also both relatively “visible” with blogs about the business media sector and affiliations with trade associations.

In my last year at Incisive Media we both attended an Outsell Leadership Forum and it was clear that we shared a lot of similar views about both the challenges business media would face over the coming years and the opportunities that might provide. Then, when I left Incisive and Neil sold the remaining parts of Nexus Business Media our paths kept crossing as we independently tried to buy our own media assets. We both compared notes about some of the deals we were trying to do and agreed to set up a side project to look at launch ideas. From that Briefing Media Ltd. was born.