Amelia Island, FL—Over the last three days, close to 200 b-to-b media executives convened here for ABM’s 2013 Annual Conference. After an 83-3 member vote in favor of the association’s merger with the SIIA, the conference kicked off featuring sessions that repeatedly hit on the growing importance of customer data as a key to cross-platform media success.

Incoming ABM Chair and 1105 Media CEO Neal Vitale, who made is first gavel strike Monday, noted in his introductory remarks that "the future of b-to-b media is not owned by companies that fit neatly into any one category."

The nature of what b-to-b media companies do now extends across multiple platforms—confounding any central defining characteristic.

Indeed, in the first panel of they day, moderated by CEO Tony Uphoff and featuring Bizo’s Russel Glass, Penton’s David Kieselstein, 1105 Media’s Abraham Langer, DeSilva + Phillips’ Dan McCarthy and Scout Analytics’ Matt Shanahan, tackled the difficult task of defining the b-to-b media company of the future.

"The single biggest competitor you have today is your customer," said Uphoff, noting the efforts brands are making to turn themselves into publishers. Yet Uphoff said that while they’re getting better at developing content, they’re still struggling with identifying and engaging prospects. Why? Because the data is "inconsistent, expensive and challenging," he said.

So the opportunity for publishers then, is to better understand and harness their own data to solve the needs and pain points of their customers.

"We should look to the migration and fragmentation of our audience across digital platforms as an opportunity," said Langer. "We can finally understand what our readers are interested in and what they want to consume through the data. B-to-b media needs to monetize the behavioral data that is generated in the interaction between the audience and the content."

"It’s not about the customer," said Shanahan, "it’s about the data. I’m just putting my money into where the best conversion rates are. You have to beat that cost in terms of the channel and you’re only going to do that if you know your own conversion rates."

Kieselstein cautioned publishers against simply building a "black box" unified database and expecting solutions to pop out the other end. A company needs people who can understand the data and parse it into patterns that reveal opportunities.

That point segued well into the next session, "How Customer Modeling Works (and Why It Should Be the Core of Every B-to-B Strategy)"

Scott Vaughan, most recently CMO at UBM Tech, stressed the importance data has taken at the company. "It’s the foundation of everything we do now in business going forward."

But shifting the corporate culture to that sensibility was a long and difficult process.  "The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to take our company from a company of publishing and events to a data company."

Later in the day, data shifted from an internal priority to one that embodied a more directly monetizeable quality. Rafat Ali, founder of Skift, a content and data-focused media brand targeting the travel industry, described his company as a "data-based, data-led and data-focused" entity.

Skift’s media/content operation is the entry to what will become Skift’s main revenue center—data aggregation and subscription sales. "We believe media and data can co-exist," he said. "Data informs our media strategy, which we build as a large funnel on the media side and use that to upsell customers to our data."

On Tuesday, the opening panel featured smaller independent companies, represented by Robert Dippell from the Praetorian Group, John Failla from Tesoro Business Media and Harry Stagnito of Stagnito Media Group.

In all three cases, the panelists drove home the importance of sticking to the fundamentals of running a b-to-b media company: meeting customer needs, whether a reader, event attendee or an advertiser.

And operational efficiencies, at this stage, are a moot point, noted Failla: "It’s tough to get our costs any lower. We’re a small company and we already have a very efficient organizational model. Frankly, we’re not focused on driving costs down."