/// Inside Forbes: With 50 Million Visitors, Here’s What’s Next For Our Editorial And Ad Models
Three years ago this month FORBES became a startup again. One of the most storied brands in American media history, then 94 years old, decided the time had come for dramatic change. New digital technologies were wreaking havoc across the publishing industry. The traditional media models for news — and advertising, too — were engulfed in disruption. The economic crisis brought on by the fall of Lehman Brothers had exposed the media’s underlying vulnerabilities for all to see. Against that backdrop, FORBES moved to collect, produce, distribute and pay for news and information in unique ways. We began to build state-of-the-art publishing tools. We launched new digital pages. We set up a newsroom for the era of social media. We provided marketers with a new way to engage with consumers. FORBES was transitioning from a Web site to a brand-building platform for expert voices.
This is the Internet business, so let’s first go to the numbers. There are two sets of data that industry participants watch closely (I dissect them daily). One is the so-called “internal” number — traffic typically measured by Omniture or Google Analytics. The other, comScore, is what advertising agencies reference when buying digital display inventory for clients. Last month, Forbes.com hit a record 49 million monthly unique users, as measured by Omniture. Three years ago it was 15 million; two years ago, 18.5 million; and last year, 31.5 million. That means our audience marched steadily higher — 225% over three years. comScore measures traffic through audience panels. It also attempts to dedupe consumers who access a site using multiple browsers. The count is different, the story the same: Forbes.com had a worldwide audience of 25 million in June 2013, up from 10 million three years earlier. We moved past all competitors in our category.
Now, for what comes next (with stats behind the stats behind the stats) — and perhaps our most exciting project yet.
The Contributor as Partner: Our one-of-a-kind contributor model sits at the core of our content strategy (you can read about it here). During tumultuous times for the media industry, we’ve forged long-term relationships with hundreds of journalists, authors, academics and other topic experts. They are not employees, but many participate in our online community newsroom, exchanging ideas with staff editors and reporters. They are certainly more than freelancers, incentivized for individual performance (the formula: 1x for a one-time monthly user, 20x for a repeat user) rather than paid a flat fee or by the word. All our writers benefit from each other’s work. The network effect of the Web (375 posts per weekday x 1,100 contributors) is a powerful force (think Metcalfe’s Law). Our underlying site architecture plays a critical role, too: 40% of our monthly traffic is to content at least 60 days old; social referrals hit a record three million during one week in July; 43,000 different sites referred traffic to us in June . Our ties with contributors will soon get even deeper. More will write for the magazine and publish online, too. More of their digital work will be expanded into ebooks (one a month to start, then hopefully one a week). Some will be part of a new initiative to bring on video contributors. There will be TV appearances as well. It all adds to this: contributors will be full-fledged partners in a new model for journalism based on individual accountability, group expertise and the power and authority of the FORBES brand.
The Job of a Staff Reporter: Impact is the key — and the path forward for our full-time writers is clearer than ever. Actually, there are two distinct tracks. In one approach, the staff reporter specializes in a beat, niche or angle, writing about it and also recruiting what I like to call an orbit of expert contributors. Our medical and pharmaceuticals reporter, Matt Herper, now has an orbit of a few dozen contributors (some are here). Many were and still are his sources. They include university fellows, researchers and former government officials and corporate executives. Together, they provide more coverage of this vital industry than any other news organization. The second approach strictly focuses on reporting, but with unmatched access and unbridled passion. Sometimes I’m not sure if Andy Greenberg, who covers the world of hacktivists, is one of us or one of them. Both ways fit the bill for what it takes to be a great digital journalist on the social Web: “Pick the dragon you want to slay and slay it over and over again,” to use a quote borrowed from an industry colleague.
A Focus on Quality: Our experienced editors, at the front line of recruiting and vetting contributors, are the keepers of the FORBES brand. Each has been here 10 years or longer and works for the magazine, too. Over the last four months, they’ve been busy trimming contributors (238 in all) who didn’t live up to our expectations. Some never published the required number of posts or became dormant. Others veered too frequently from their area of expertise, failing to attract an audience. A few collected one too many “strikes” on the Google doc we keep to monitor quality and performance. With a better understanding of who’s likely to succeed in our model, we also added 121 contributors, deepening our coverage in some areas and extending it to others. During this same period, our monthly post count fell to 7,100 from 7,300, yet our audience rose nearly 5 million. That type of clear-eyed “editing” of talent will continue as our model expands in the U.S. and abroad. In Europe, we plan to add 50 contributors to the 25 we already have by year’s end.
The Platform Experience: From the get-go, we’ve had two interlocking core principles: build from the ground up (pick the right technologies) and build from the inside out (one digital screen at a time). From a tech standpoint, it began with WordPress self-publishing tools. For the consumer experience, it started with a single Rich List people profile page, content core to our franchise. That’s enabled FORBES to build an elegant content management system for the times. In fact, we’re now in licensing discussions with several well-known publishers. It also paved the way for BrandVoice, a leading product in the world of native advertising. Our platform was conceived and developed for all voices – the journalist, the audience and the marketer. We’ll soon be introducing an exciting new screen architecture (see below) that strengthens the individual branding of contributors, continues to highlight comments and more deeply integrates native ads into what is fast becoming a three-way information experience.
Models Must Evolve: We’re now on Version 3.0 of our contributor incentive-payment model. With every adjustment, our contributors have found their way to success. Last month, seven contributors each attracted enough one-time and repeat users to earn $10,000. Annualized, that’s more than $100,000. Based on their July audiences, another six are on track to earn $75,000 over a 12-month period. As I wrote a few months back, two contributors pulled in $100,000 in 2012 and 25 contributors made $35,000 each that year. The digital space continues to move fast. Programmatic buying of ads continues to put downward pressure on ad rates. Soaring mobile usage creates its own challenges. Nearly 35% of our audience accessed Forbes.com through smartphones and tablets last month, up from 25% a year earlier and 10% a year before that. Mobile screens don’t produce the same revenue as desktop screens, nor does international traffic. We’ll continue to work with contributors as our partners to adjust the payment model to meet the economics of the marketplace.
The Consumer Experience: We’re at it all the time, iterating our product as fast as we can. We’re about to make another big move: a new screen construct to meet the new realities of the information marketplace. Journalists possess important skills. Topic experts possess knowledge and perspective from their lifelong careers. Marketers possess insights, too, and their worlds of paid (ads), owned (content marketing) and earned media (public relations) are converging, presenting new challenges and opportunities for advertising-supported journalism. The paginated digital screen, born from print, with right rails, left rails and commercial ghettos can no longer accommodate the new reality. In September, we’ll be moving to what I call intelligent streams. We believe this new architecture will meet the needs of consumers, marketers and, of course, our business. Posts will be part of continuous scrolling streams that offer a blend of content: related posts; editorially curated posts; content algorithmically matched to a reader’s previous selections; and contextually related posts from our BrandVoice partners, always transparently labeled as marketer content. The number of traditional display ads on a screen will vary with the length of a post. No longer will they be in cordoned off silos. We’ll introduce trackable and measurable native ads that link to our BrandVoice partners. With 1,100 writers, I’m often told it’s difficult to navigate all the content. We feel this new construct will make it easier. At first, we’ll release the new experience to a small percentage of our audience, then roll it out over the final months of the year.
Mike Perlis, our CEO, has a favorite quote. “Work for meaningful differences, not better sameness.” It applies to all we’ve done, what we’re doing now and everything that will follow. Since my startup days, I’ve been known to utter, “You’re in or you’re out.” Change takes a total commitment. In living up to both sayings, we’ve had successes, suffered though our missteps (some more painful than others), fixed what we needed to be fixed — and moved on to the next. None of that will stop. We’re charting our own course to help make sure a profession adjusts to the times and the business of journalism lives on.
Forbes – Lewis DVorkin