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How Forbes is tackling the irony that is 'brand journalism' to drive ad revenues

'Brand journalism' may seem like an oxymoron but Forbes believes its readers want more and is quickening efforts to show brands that they can’t have a winning content strategy without journalism.

Rather than spend big on an internal team to do this for marketers, the publisher is simply connecting them with its most influential experts. Should an advertiser want to align its product to cloud computing or financial planning for example, Forbes will broker relationships with its best journalists, bloggers and academics in those fields instead of just paying them to peddle products. It’s the media owner’s push into influencer marketing and the latest addition to its BrandVoice advertising model, which lets brands pay to publish articles on its site.

Five years after flipping the advertorial concept on its head, Forbes’ BrandVoice native ads account for around 30 per cent of the company’s total digital advertising revenue. And this year it’s going to be more “inventory in our environments that are easy to justify to advertisers,” said Mark Howard, chief revenue officer. “These companies understand that in order to get into the considerations they need to not expect all their communications to take place [in their owned channels]” he added.

The thirst for more content inevitably brings more questions from marketers such as: "will publishing articles on Forbes cannibalise traffic to my site?" and “who’s actually engaging with my content?”, he added. What the publisher is offering to those publishers willing to fork out $75,000 for its elite package is the ability to use analytics on both their site and content hub within Forbes to run an “apples for apples comparison” in order to answer those questions.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen our audience grow from 12 million to 50 million and have been able to create scale around a premium product, said Howard. “Scale gives us more targeting opportunities, which is a huge opportunity because we’ve got more [advertisers] looking at smaller businesses and affluent entrepreneurs.”

That focus on providing scale to what can be very niche audiences dovetails with the publisher’s programmatic efforts. Having made an aggressive move into the space in 2012 through Google’s Dynamic Allocation product, Forbes has high hopes for the online giant’s Programmatic Guaranteed tool for ad campaigns that have been brokered between itself and a media buyer using algorithms.

“It seems like this is going to be the year where [programmatic] starts to materialise for us in a big way,” said Howard. “Through some of our partnerships like the one with Google, which has a tremendous demand source, we were able to bring certain types of [buyers] to the table and have seen a dozen or so of our direct relationships investigate or launch programmatic direct deals. We’re already in 20 conversations this year.”

The promise of more direct programmatic deals has also meant there’s less reason for the business to rely on open exchanges and private marketplaces such as Pangaea. “I know there’s a value in [private marketplaces but there hasn’t really been a need for us to get into that if brands are buying through us more and are asking for these private relationships because the DSP and the trading desks are sitting on so much transactable data that they can do it directly via the scale of the site.”

Ad blocking is another area of focus for Forbes this year; the publisher began testing a message on its welcome screen to ad blocker users in December, asking them to disable their blockers in exchange for an ‘ad-lite experience'. It found that 44 per cent of the visitors in the initial test turned off their ad blocker and those people went on to spend double the amount of time on the site than those with ad blockers installed.

However, the tests won’t stop there and Forbes plans several more that will evaluate what an ‘ad-lite’ experience actually means and whether there’s scope for people who don’t have an ad blocker to receive a similar experience. “There are a dozen different variables that we have on paper and we’re going to look at over the next couple of months with A/B tests to see what the right solution is for right now. There’s a good chance that this level of testing may never end given the explosion of ad blockers.”

Underpinning all these changes will be Forbes’ mobile experience. Developers from private sharing app Camerama are working on the project after the media owner acquired their business last March. Details of the design are thin on the ground for now but there will be several rollouts this year for both the user experience and the publishing interface.

For apps, Forbes is building apps that serve the specific communities on its sites as opposed to something broader. Its ‘Under 30’ app is a prime example of this, serving as a social network only for those listed individuals.