The aftermath of the dotcom crash left the revenue of many business-to-business websites reduced to a pile of ashes as advertisers opted to take their spend elsewhere.
It has been a lengthy recovery period, but five years on, after increased investment and development, there are signs of revival as B2B sites report a turnaround in fortunes.
Research released by the Association of Online Publishers last week suggests that business decision makers regard B2B websites as the most useful media source for finding work related information, ahead of print business publications, national and regional newspapers, and web portals.
While signalling a huge opportunity for online B2B, this dotcom revival paints an uncertain future for print publications, which have to contend with shifting revenue streams as more and more users choose to log on to the web.
After several months spent interviewing business decision makers, the AOP research team can say with authority that 83% of users have taken action of some kind upon seeing an online advert on a B2B site.
And it doesn't end there – the research also suggests that 63% of users see B2B websites as a modern environment for a company to advertise and an impressive 54% have purchased a product as a result of seeing an advert on a B2B website.
Nick King, head of digital research at Diffiniti, part of Carat Interactive, believes the research to be methodologically sound, but feels the results may in fact be too good. "The only one downer is that there are no negatives there," King says. "I have been in research allmy life. You can never have just positive results – there has to be some negatives. There must be some. I would prefer it if they said this is not so good or it does this wrong."
AOP director Alexandra White argues that the positive vibe is down to it being the first piece of research that has looked at the impact of advertising on B2B websites.
"The results seem surprising because it is the first time we have actually found anything like this," says White.
"We're not saying 83%have actually bought a product as a result of seeing these ads. What we are saying is that online ads are effective because people are taking action in some way or another."
Whatever way you look at it, the results strongly suggest those B2B publishers who have yet to embrace online advertising opportunities had better get on and do so.
But as Newton taught us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and some industry figures fear a surge in online advertising could spell uncertain times ahead for print editions that now have to contend with drifting revenue streams.
With thousands of titles covering everything from catering to construction, B2B is already busy, and in some cases a saturated marketplace, and not everyone is convinced there will be enough ad pounds to go round.
Bob Morrell, director of Reality Media, has witnessed several mag-to-web flops over the course of his career. "I saw a lot of B2B online failures back in the days when it was assumed that if you reproduced your magazine online then that would be successful – which is totally wrong."
Before bombarding advertisers with their online advertising options, Morrell cautions B2B publishers to first step back and re-examine what it is they have to offer and if necessary go back to the drawing board.
"Some companies think what you need to do is put an online search and selection option for your industry and then they will sell the supplier ads and enhanced listings to appear on it.
But of course that is going to affect the print edition because initially what magazines were there for was to explain about products and services and get the readers' interest up and going," says Morrell.
Arguing that a B2B magazine should remain as an important source of industry information, Morrell adds: "You have got to be careful if you are going to launch a complementary product – it could actually spell the death of your magazine.
"The moment you start making it easier and quicker for people to get the information they need, you damage your core product."
Nick Suckley, managing director ofMedia.com and head of the online team, doesn't believe the growth of internet advertising will bring about the death of print any time soon.
Recognising that more and more people are using magazines more as a weekly review and the web as a searching database, Suckley adds: "There is a risk that magazine money is diverting into the web but it is going to a lot of the traditional publishers anyway."
James Burckhardt, one of the AOP's research committee members and marketing services manager at B2B publisher VNU, argues that the development of B2B online offers a significant opportunity for publishers rather than threatening core brands.
"B2B publishers and media owners who actively develop their website offering are likely to see higher levels of loyalty and interaction with their brands – the only danger is if traditional publishers don't develop their brands across multiple platforms," Burckhardt says.
Jools Ellis, account manager at Jelly Bean Solutions, an integrated marketing agency that deals with B2B catering titles, says that while she has seen a surge in online offerings, she has yet to see a massive uptake in online advertising.
"The immediacy of online is its big appeal, and we get a lot of requests for banners that clients go for when they have something to offer," says Ellis.
She adds that while she is anticipating online to feature more on media schedules, she doesn't see her clients choosing it over print just yet: "I don't think the likes of a chef at the Dog and Duck in Brighton would be all that comfortable hanging their hat with just online."
Diffiniti's King concurs: "We have big trouble persuading our big FMCG and blue chip brands about the validity of online."
However, Ben Reynolds group account manager at Starcom says that in the past 18 months he has seen a noticeable shift over to online.
Reynolds explains that his B2B finance clients have had a change in attitude from being slightly sceptical to asking how to make it even more efficient for business results.
"We've done both branding and direct response, but the majority has been direct response and it has proven to be very efficient," says Reynolds.
As Ellis and Reynolds illustrate, a prevalent mode of thinking within the advertising and agency community is that online advertising is best suited to direct response campaigns rather than branding.
Ross Sturley, marketing director at Emap Construct and who was also on the AOP's research committee , agrees that this is a typical viewpoint from the agency and marketing community.
"It's because they haven't seen it proven yet, but here is a piece of research which shows that advertising on websites can deliver similar branding effect that other media can," Sturley says.
White at AOP agrees that an increasing number of agencies are keen to show that online is not just about direct response, but also about building brands, and believes that the research will prove that.
VNU's Burckhardt hopes that the research will serve to enhance the credibility of B2B websites. "I hope it will serve to dispel some of the misconceptions about B2B being just a nice additional thing to put into the media mix. I think this research is saying that online advertising is a critical part of the media mix."
Emap's Sturley agrees: "People need to realise that B2B is different to consumer and that users have different relationships. It's also not just about click-through. Good B2B websites can deliver really good results on branding campaigns, just as they can direct response."
Starcom's Reynolds predicts that in coming years most trade titles will see their business move online and will have to adapt to a more internet savvy business audience: "I can imagine traditional circulations will probably remain constant, but the actual worth will be less, especially with direct response."
Where the focus needs to be placed at the moment, Reynolds argues, is with publishers.
"Advertisers are moving more quickly than publishers – it doesn't take a lot of money to do a test to learn that online can be very efficient. It takes a long time for publishers to believe their business is changing. I would like to see more B2B titles moving online and having a better quality online offering."
As the AOP research demonstrates, B2B audiences are already online and receptive to advertising on the business websites they frequent – and advertisers are beginning to recognise that fact. B2B websites may be competition to their print counterparts, but online is going to become more important not less, and B2B publishers need to meet the challenge head-on.
While some B2B magazines may migrate entirely online, others will thrive as a source for in-depth analysis and features that complements the online product. Ignoring the web and hoping it goes away is not the answer.
Websites first port of call for specialist recruitment
Recruitment, once the bread and butter of a B2B magazine, has been one of the first forms of advertising to migrate online.
The growth of both specialist and general online recruitment sites has increased rapidly in recent years, meaning dedicated sites are often the first port of call for job seekers and employers – above magazines and press.
Nick Suckley, managing director of MediaCom's online division, says publishers saw this coming and have already put their own defence mechanisms in place.
"What they have done is build up their recruitment online profiles and are using their magazines to direct people online for the more up-to-date jobs, therefore keeping them within the publisher's portfolio."
But while that is true for the likes of The Guardian, which has managed to convert its many jobs classifieds sections into one massive jobs website, there are numerous standalone websites such as Hotonline.co.uk and Jobsite.co.uk.
This article was first published on Media Week