ABM held its annual meeting this week in Charleston, South Carolina. Many of the familiar faces were there.

Also familiar were some “legacy” issues that kept cropping up throughout the program. Issues that I hadn’t heard discussed in some time. For all of the innovation we continually speak and write about, there are still some persistent, fundamental problems that are fouling up the aerodynamics. And, no, I don’t just mean the lack of capital.

During the program I was periodically surprised to hear publishing leadership getting hung up with “missionary selling”; or criticized for merely duplicating content across platforms; or wondering how, or whether, they should supplement their ranks with skill-specific expertise from outside the industry.

That’s where the familiarities ended, however. As we’re all moving at light speed to keep up with equally quick market dynamics, these old issues are simply emerging in a different context. B-to-b publishing in the last few years has changed dramatically, and attendees at the event were candid about their confusion.

Warren Bimblick, Penton Media’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, admitted that audience development has become “the most difficult thing for us as a company to get right.” And he’s right. Metrics and campaign accountability have become an all-consuming issue for marketers asking for lead-generation and other performance-based programs. Data is the new currency. Publishers everywhere are still struggling to define and corral the ways in which audience interacts with each platform—even after we’ve long jumped on the revenue diversification bandwagon.

Labeling the Transformation

In his opening remarks, after having the gavel officially passed to him from past board chair and Vance CEO Peggy Walker, Charlie McCurdy was uncharacteristically bemused over b-to-b media’s state of transformation. “We don’t even have a vocabulary for our business anymore,” he said. “We’re not building our business around brands anymore in any sense of the word, we’re building it around customer insights. There’s no one word to describe what we produce. What do we call this?”

McCurdy added that it’s equally difficult to define an audience. “If they’re not ‘audiences’ anymore, what are they? ‘Users’? That sounds like a methadone clinic.”

Of course, some of this could still be the residual, dizzying effects of having our clocks cleaned during the last two years. I was talking with one attendee and we both agreed that the deathly pall evident at previous shows had mostly dissipated and was replaced with a sense of general befuddlement.

Yet even publishers who have been considered “canaries in the coal mine” and have led the charge in dramatically shifting their revenue sources are struggling to choose the right path. “We’re wrestling with ‘so, now you’re digital, so what?’” said Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner. “What happens next?”