The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How B2B leaps the value chain

What had started as an incidental by-product of the Covid pandemic is fundamentally changing people’s lives.

What’s striking, of course, about the whole idea of working from home or choosing whether and when to commute is the absence of leadership among governments and even large companies. For every employer which has managed to come to some sort of understanding with its enjoying-the-flexibility workforce, there are thousands of others wondering what they should do to get back to a supposedly manageable workplace and regain the effectiveness of team-working and human inter-reaction. 

Numerous surveys have found a wide gap between executives’ expectations for workers to return to offices and their employees’ own desires. More than 75% of US executives polled by McKinsey said they expected typical white collar employees to come back to the office three or more days per week, while over half of the workers they surveyed wanted three or more days of remote work. 

Last year, the CEO of Humu, a company focused on workplace behavioral change, said that many companies “will botch the return to the workplace”. He predicted that 80% of large companies adopting new hybrid and remote approaches will abandon them within two years.

Suddenly, the role of HR professionals has assumed the kind of soaring importance that the internet once conferred on their IT counterparts. And it’s being accelerated by the tides of sustainability, fairness, diversity – and skills shortages.

That’s the fertile information market into which Kevin Delaney, Jay Lauf and Erin Grau – media veterans variously from Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, Quartz, Wired and The Information – launched the two-year-old, US-based Charter to help companies and individuals navigate the post-pandemic world and transform their workplaces.

It’s an information provider focused on The Future of Work about which CEO Delaney – former senior editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and co-founder of Quartz – says: “We’re driven by this mission to have an impact on the experience of individuals at work and believe that workplaces can be engines of broader societal change. People are ultimately the biggest value multipliers for today’s organizations. The ability to attract, deploy, and motivate mission-aligned workers must be a strategic priority for leaders. We aim to be a trusted partner for high-value decisions and deliver business value in terms of retention, worker engagement, wellness, and broad transformation of organizations that equips them for high performance over time.” 

Delaney: much more than journalism

Charter seemed to start as a media company with (of course) an email newsletter, which now has 100k non-paying subscribers, sponsored by the likes of Adobe, McKinsey, Paypal and Deloitte. The company hosts an annual forum called the Charter Workplace Summit. It co-produces EmTech Next, a workplace event, with the MIT Technology Review. It also organises a series of smaller events and practical workshops and has a partnership with Time magazine which publishes and promotes Charter content.

The company is guarded about its financials but may have revenue of some $2-3mn. It’s growing fast.

Last year, the self-funded startup raised $3mn (including from Bloomberg Beta) to launch CharterPro CxO, its new membership offering for which companies pay $15k for two “seats” which give them twice-weekly exclusive newsletters, poprietary research, invitation-only breakfasts and dinners, and advisory support. Lower priced “consumer” Charter Pro subscriptions are offered for $300. The weekly newsletter remains free.

Until you get to the $15k subs, it all sounds a bit like many another new-wave B2B media company and even CharterPro is reminiscent of PoliticoPro, which makes substantially all the profit for the almost-legendary $1bn Politico.

But Charter is a company on a mission.

Delaney says its strategy is “to equip companies and owners of the talent agenda to move their organizations forward, to make smart decisions based on research and best practices, and to move the needle on talent and workplace issues including things like retention and recruiting, engagement, and inclusion. We’re an extension of our members’ teams, providing them with research, content, and advice relevant to the issues they’re grappling with now and in the near future”. 

That and the fact that just four of the 15-person team are journalists underlines the sense in which Charter is different: “We have assembled a really talented team with a unique mix of experience in startups, media, technology, finance, and research.” It’s already more about providing much-needed advisory services than producing newsletters.

But there’s more.

Charter’s “charter” reads more like a single progressive company’s own strategy than that of mere B2B media. It says “We can build better places to work. Businesses don’t know how to manage people and workplaces are at a breaking point. Such moments of tectonic change in history are often marked by charters, documents that codify a shared desire for a better world. At Charter we think this is one of those moments.”

Like an academic institution, professional association or even a social movement, Charter defines its model organisation as one that seeks to be: Fair and equitable, Diverse and inclusive, Positive for the earth and community, Creative and innovative, Pursuing impact and learning, Purposeful, and Future-focused.

Its own content and services are built on three pillars:

  • AI impact on work
  • Flexible working
  • Inclusion and diversity

The “manifesto” helps to create a powerful membership vehicle. But it also shows the strategic direction of a company which is guided by the priorities of its members – not by journalistic opportunity.

This is the shift from specialist journalism to tightly-targeted consultancy that should be the goal of many more B2B operators.

It’s easier said than done but companies seeking to provide deep analytical and advisory services for a specialist membership must invest in expertise. The provision of newsletters is the “top of the funnel” entry level for would-be members and helps to build authority and profile. But the emphasis must increasingly be on high-value expertise, exclusive information and insights. That’s where the value is.

Once B2B media makes the leap from regarding content as the main game and everything else as valuable ancillaries, they must seek to dominate the needs of their chosen sector(s) by: creating key research statistics and indicators including charting trends for prices, costs, people and traffic; organising the major network opportunities in person; and offering consultancy and advisory services whose competitive power lies in its specialisation. These 21st century B2B specialists must seek to own the key data – and, essentially, the insights derived from it.

You can imagine how powerful will be any Charter data that tracks the effectiveness and execution of hybrid working models, the incentives, and productivity. The new situation can create valuable new datasets

It does not take Charter’s impressive first two years to prove the huge potential of B2B verticals beyond mere journalism and media channels. But this is also a time when all media companies must major on exclusive content and discard or downgrade what is freely available.

AI will eventually re-define “journalism” as the art of providing context, insights and evaluation – as opposed to the “mechanical” production of news and content. Consumers, who have already largely stopped paying merely for general news, will become even more reluctant to pay for non-exclusive content.

Apart from anything else, it will be another unwelcome challenge to the digital bundle that – for broadsheet-like news brands – has so recently become a rewarding subscription business model. For all the success of the “all you can eat” news, lifestyle and entertainment “bundle” – not least for the towering New York Times – will these rejuvenated news brands eventually face AI-fuelled disruption from digital consumers who want ‘pick and mix’ digital subscriptions instead of a print-inspired “bundle” of everything?

This growing move away from commoditised content is already helping to reinvent the best of single-sector B2B media as versatile providers of information, insights and networking. The best examples include some startup specialists and also well-funded divisions of larger companies. But their longterm success may still depend on the ability to develop the role of many more business journalists – first and foremost – to provide data and advisory services.

It’s no accident that information businesses like the pricing monoliths Argus Media, S&P Platts and FastMarkets were created by journalists specialising in commodity markets. But, for so much B2B media everywhere, the extent of “reinvention” has been just to have journalists engaged in ‘content marketing’ on behalf of paying sponsors and advertisers. They need to get real.

The real prize – and perhaps the only guarantee of longterm success – is in building the expertise to provide proprietary data-fuelled advisory services for a captivated membership in a B2B vertical.

That’s why Charter’s leap up the B2B value chain is so significant.