The words “International Data Group” conjure up an old era of computers that took up entire rooms with data-punching experts wearing white coats. And it’s not a coincidence that the International Data Group, or IDG, was founded in 1964 near Boston. But what started as a research firm turned into a series of tech trade publications (e.g. InfoWorld, Computerworld), consumer tech pubs (e.g. PC World, MacWorld), and events that spanned the globe. Now, the private company is looking toward a data-driven, mobile future.
“I think mobile will be fascinating in two areas: How do you gate that content and use that channel to deepen that relationship with readers? And from the advertiser’s perspective and with responsive design, how are you going to leverage video and native ads on those platforms?” said Michael Friedenberg, who ascended to IDG CEO last summer, and spoke to me recently via Skype.
IDG has been slowly moving its U.S. publications from print to digital, moving InfoWorld in 2009 and more recently PC World went online-only, with an emphasis on charging annual subscriptions for tablet editions. While newer tech blogs such as TechCrunch and Engadget have gained prominence — and borrowed from IDG’s playbook of mixing content with events and research — IDG continues to plug away quietly. The company has turned its focus to programmatic ad sales with its Tech Media Exchange, and continues its global ambitions by focusing on the emerging MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey) area.
While many people wrote off tech trade publications as obsolete in the digital era, IDG continues to expand, diversify and find new ways to serve the tech industry.
Below is an edited version of my interview with Friedenberg, with audio clips for some of his answers.
What areas do you look at for growth at IDG? Are there specific areas that interest you more as growth drivers this year and beyond?
Michael Friedenberg: As far as revenue-generators, the biggest growth drivers are going to be around data, around our DemandGen business (lead-generation) and our reader revenue. To me the areas that are growing the fastest now and that we’re putting the biggest emphasis is around our data-driven strategy and network and exchange in the IDG TechNetwork. Our DemandGen network, both domestically and internationally, is showing some nice gains now.
Our events business [is growing]. Whenever there are signs of chaos and anxiety as the world of technology shifts, our events business is always propelled forward as people want to get together to either share their anxieties or share the knowledge. Lastly, our reader revenue from our CIO Executive Council, with CIOs and aspiring CIOs as they want to propel their professional careers forward, we help them navigate the twists and turns as the CIO position evolves.
With lead generation, editorial, events, your venture arm, is there a worry about conflicts of interest in what you’re trying to cover editorially and the business aims of IDG with clients?
Friedenberg: We hold our editorial integrity to the highest degree. I don’t think a company like IDG Communications could be around for 49 years and not make sure we have the highest level of editorial integrity in the business. As these new types of marketing channels come about like native advertising, we’ll always be very careful about how we label [sponsored content]. If you see us do any type of native advertising, it’s always properly labeled as sponsored because we take that relationship with our reader very, very seriously.
There’s a lot of talk about breaking down the business and editorial wall, but it sounds like you at IDG are still pretty strict about separation between the two sides.
You mentioned native advertising, and being in the publishing world for some time, we’ve seen sponsored sections, advertorials, so many versions of this. Is there something new about native advertising? What do you see different here?
Friedenberg: I have to be honest about this. There’s a lot of discussion out in the marketplace right now about how [native ads] are so unique and different. But for you and I being in the industry for a long time, we’ve seen sponsored supplements in the print entity forever. In the digital world, I think native advertising is in the natural flow of your website. But as long as it’s labeled properly, I don’t think there’s much confusion to the reader or the advertiser.
To me, the issue of native advertising is becoming overly complicated because certain media companies are not being upfront in labeling it properly. If it’s labeled and the content is good, then our readers will engage with it. If it’s not of quality, then I don’t think our readers will engage with it. So it’s up to the vendors and publishers who are putting out native ads that it’s of high quality and labeled properly … I personally think [native ads are] just a different name for the same beast that we’ve been dealing with for many years.
Mobile and video have been a big push for publishers online. Do you feel like the future will be mobile, and more energy and investment should be put there?
When I look at your list of print properties, it’s interesting to see how many print properties there are in Asia and in Europe still. Do you think print will remain strong in certain geographical areas, or will those areas eventually move toward digital?
Friedenberg: I think print, internationally, will be around for a long time because people internationally have a bigger affinity for paying for content. Here in the U.S., the genie is out of the bottle as far as a reader expecting to get content free, and there are certain entities trying to put that genie back in the bottle. But in the trade press in the U.S., our readers expect free content and there’s so much of it. Internationally, that’s not the case. In many cases, people value the publication and are willing to pay for that, especially in Western Europe and Asia. The future for print in those regions will be popular for some time.
Now how you deliver print, and what you define as print, will be up for debate. Will there be this entire ecosystem with chopping down trees and delivering them with trucks and planes? I think that’s a model that will be up for debate. How you define print will change as the market evolves … For instance, PC World went out of print last year, but we have a digital subscriber base of over 120,000 paying for the digital edition. Is that print or digital? It’s an amalgamation of both.
Programming ad buying seemed to be the big thing last year. But many publishers were wary about that because it would lower the price of ads and cut out their sales force. Now it seems like publishers are changing their tune on that, saying advertisers want it, so we should provide it. Is that where you are with it?
Is there any part of the world that IDG hasn’t conquered yet?
Friedenberg: We’re watching very closely the emerging markets, we already have a presence in Latin America. But just recently, the new buzzword is MINT — Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey — those seem to be hot regions we’re watching carefully. Certainly, wherever IT (information technology) spending continues to grow, and Internet access continues to be adopted, I think you’ll see IDG moving into those areas.
Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Renee and sons Julian and Everett. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+