Forbes believes that paying journalists based on the traffic they generate rather than a fixed cost has “broken the back” of the economics of traditional journalism and can fix the challenges facing print publishing.
Forbes’ director of EMEA Paul Mikhailoff, while attending a judging day for The Drum Content Awards, argued that the fixed cost model is “in some ways broken” and that moving into a contributor model has helped the publisher transition away from “the challenging world of converting print into digital”.
Forbes.com’s contributor platform has grown exponentially in the six years since its inception, recruiting approximately 2,000 contributors globally.
The proof is in the pudding, Mikhailoff said, with Forbes recording its highest ever traffic in July this year, attracting 53 million unique visitors to its site. Six years ago, when the contributor publishing platform launched, Forbes.com pulled in 15 million unique visitors monthly versus 51 million unique visitors in August this year, according to comScore.
Meanwhile in 2010 Forbes launched a product called AdVoice, which let brands publish blog posts directly onto Forbes.com. In 2012, Forbes rebranded the service to be called BrandVoice – to differentiate it as content marketing, and part of the Forbes ad offering.
In 2015, more than a third (35 per cent) of Forbes’ ad revenue came from BrandVoice. This has helped push 80 per cent of Forbes’ total ad revenue from digital, compared to 64 per cent two years ago.
Yet while the numbers show the BrandVoice offering can lift revenue, the publisher has come under scrutiny from the industry for allowing advertisers direct access to its CMS. This, it has been argued, could compromise its journalistic integrity.
Dennis Publishing’s head of digital Paul Hood believes there is still a place for ‘sacred content’ and expressed concerns over allowing advertisers such unparalleled access to organic audiences.
“Publishers have to be really careful in the role that they play in facilitating paid for content and distribution across their organic audiences,” Hood told The Drum, “There is a place for brands to be involved in the conception but there is certainly still a place that we feel should be sacred to the publisher.”
Responding to critics of the content marketing platform, Mikhailoff asserted that in the five years that Forbes has been running BrandVoice “our integrity has never been compromised”.
“We have a vested commitment to our readers as a premium publisher to work very closely with brands to make sure that they are producing content that fits our brand objectives,” he continued.
“There seems to be this premise that if you give a brand access to your system they are somehow going to hoodwink all the users. Why would they do that? It’s not in their interests.”
Mikhailoff pointed out that “more and more brands have hugely sophisticated newsrooms” and that “the concept that the only people that have the right to inform are journalists is not the time that we live in”.
“There is plenty of room in the digital world to be able to embrace that perspective and view,” he added.
A further topic that divides the industry is whether branded content needs to have a purpose to sell in order to justify shifting ad budget into the format that doesn’t guarantee return on investment.
The Guardian’s commercial strategy director Adam Foley told an industry audience at IAB’s content and native event that too many brands creating branded content feel they are “somehow absolved from the need to sell anything” and marketers that take a back seat from pushing sales are “wasting their time”.
Mikhailoff was unconvinced of Foley’s dismissal of the format’s inherent value for brands, arguing that “the purpose of branded content is a value exchange” and should not be focused on selling products.
“With branded content you have to carefully consider the user experience. If a user has been generous enough to spend time with your content, it has to be useful, it has to be valuable to them. If you are able to do that in a way that compels them to interact and purchase something then great, but that is not the purpose of branded content,” he said.
That said, Mikhailoff believes that branded content in addition to display advertising “is the most effective way to increase brand favourability and purchase intent”, rather than one in substitution of another.
“I think with clever advertising running alongside a branded content campaign that is where you are going to get return of investment,” he added.