/// Inside Forbes: Before It Was Called Native Advertising, a Team in a ‘Box’ Had an Idea
We called it “The Box.” It was a windowless room no bigger than 8 feet by 10 feet in midtown Manhattan and the temporary office space for the startup I founded. Five of us, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, were working on a bold new model for journalism. Reporters and writers would build individual brands around their expertise — and they’d use our publishing tools to do it. The bigger their audience, the more they’d get paid. From inside that room came an equally disruptive idea. Marketers could pay to use our tools to create stories of their own. In a digital world, we said, “content is content.” It just had to be transparent and clearly labeled for all to understand. Our company was True/Slant. We called the ad product Ad/Slant.
That was four years ago this month. Fast-forward to today. The product is FORBES BrandVoice, one of the leading solutions in the hot new world of native advertising, or content marketing, or whatever you want to call it (SAP was one of our first partners, launching its page in November 2010). Actually, up until a few months back we called it AdVoice. Then one day Meredith Levien, our chief revenue officer, strolled into my office. “Let’s change AdVoice to BrandVoice,” she said. “It’s not an ad, it’s thought leadership.” She was right. We pitched it to agencies and clients that way — and marketers’ posts already reflected that fact.
I tell this story for a reason. The best digital media — edit or ads — is organic, built from the ground up, not bolted or welded to the side of something old (At T/S, we were inspired by Beck’s decision in December 2008 to hire a comedian to blog about beer). It must be socialized, understood and accepted by an entire organization to have a chance to succeed. Then you need processes, training — and, of course, the right structure must be put in place. BrandVoice was born of a core philosophy applied to all content in the digital age. Then came a strategy, followed by methodical execution. Now, it’s part of the fabric of Forbes.com, just like posts from from our staffers and contributors.
That brings me to The Atlantic — and its foray into the now noisy world of content marketing. One of the industry’s most prestigious brands, it recently ran a “sponsored post” from The Church of Scientology. The journalistic howling (today’s reporters are a loud bunch) started immediately. Out came the revulsion, followed by condemnations and then the “analysis” — post after post about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and the lessons to be learned when marketers storm the gates. Most were predictable (how could they?). Some showed thought (it was nothing more than PR). The majority turned reactionary (make those walls higher). No one ever got to the heart of it. A new product such as this must mean more than revenue. It has to be part of a bigger purpose. It must be reflective of the brand. And everyone must be all in to work through the inevitable.
FORBES is for the business news enthusiast in search of information. Our staffers and contributors are topic experts. Marketers are undeniably the same. On our platform, the audience knows if a post is written by a staffer, a contributor or a marketing partner. The tools to publish are the same for me as they are for SAP, or UPS, or Harris Bank or any of the other 20 BrandVoice partners. I write my headlines, they write theirs. I use a data dashboard to tell me how I’m doing. So do they. If I need assistance, I go to the editorial newsroom. If marketers need guidance, they go to a recently created “brand newsroom” (it reports to the sales team). I’ve never made it to the Most Popular module, but SAP, Oracle, Netapp have — with their posts clearly identified as theirs. Content organically rises and falls on Forbes.com and naturally flows through our content management system.
How do our reporters and editors feel about all this? At first, they were just as skeptical as they were about our contributor model. We talked about it a lot, explaining the changing media space and BrandVoice’s place in it. Editors, reporters, contributors, producers and so many others at FORBES listened, debated and learned. We’ve had our missteps, too — and I suspect there will be more. As a team, we work through each and every one. Today, BrandVoice is more than a vital component of our revenue strategy. It’s a way for marketers, news enthusiasts and journalists to engage with one another — a truly social product. In its recent post on crowdfunding, NetApp was thrilled with the resulting audience interaction. We also see opportunities for marketers to use it as part of our new FORBES magazine iPad app and our live events, such as the FORBES 400 Philanthropy Summit and the Women’s Summit this May.
The era of digital media is ushering in vast changes, both for journalists and advertisers alike. As I wrote awhile back, editors and reporters must understand their business, not sulk and go home. The facts are clear: display advertising, those boxes and banners the news media has come to accept, don’t command the premium prices they once did. They will be extinct sooner than you think. Different types of advertising that give marketers a new kind of voice can’t prevent any credible news organization from performing the essential role of journalism — to observe, collect and interpret information. In fact, the revenues from those new ad products can only help provide a profession with the funds it needs to serve audiences more hungry than ever for what they do.