Inside Forbes – the century-old title behaving like a startup in its bid to crack Europe
After 100 years of publishing, Forbes is making its biggest move into Europe with a new London base and major expansions of editorial resources, live events and branded content production.
At the same time, the famous American business title has made an increased bet on its contributor model of driving digital traffic by publishing articles from external experts – despite global news site HuffPost having scrapped its own blogger network on the basis that large open platforms with unpaid writers can “undermine democracy”. Forbes has committed to paying all its contributors.
Alex Wood, Forbes' new European editor
In interviews with The Drum, Forbes chief executive Mike Federle, its managing director for Europe Charles Yardley, and its newly-appointed European editor Alex Wood, set out the strategy for a news brand known for its lists of the world’s billionaires and business events that attract luminary speakers from Warren Buffett to the rapper Kendrick Lamar and activist Malala Yousafzai.
Once known only as a glossy magazine, its website attracted 60 million visitors in December.
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The value of contributors
Federle says the network of 1,500 outside contributors has played a vital role in Forbes’s transformation to a multiplatform brand. “Our commitment to the contributor network should be in neon lights! I am hugely committed to it because it has worked for us extremely well. We are in our 101st year and we have never in our history had an audience as large as we have now.”
Changes to the network announced last week ensure that even occasional contributors (all of whom are vetted for their specialisms and expertise) are guaranteed a basic income of $250 a month. At least five of the Forbes experts are making in excess of $200,000-a-year based on the traffic they generate. Federle said the changes had “taken the question of who’s paid and who’s not paid off the table”.
The Forbes contributor network supplements the work of a 150-strong newsroom (about a tenth the size of the Wall Street Journal’s). “We were trying to find a scalable and sustainable model of journalism in the digital age,” says Federle of the contributor concept. “What the contributor model allowed us to do was build out a newsroom as large as anyone’s. It’s not like we could have unlimited bureaus around the world or unlimited beats.”
Forbes may have been founded in 1918 by a Scottish-born financial journalist and émigré to the United States, BC Forbes, but its interest in European entrepreneurs and business figures has been largely peripheral. Until now. “Already in Europe we have high (brand) awareness but not necessarily the business that is commensurate with that awareness,” Federle admits. “We think we have a big opportunity in Europe.”
Acquiring The Memo
A “sure signal” of Forbes’s intentions in Europe, says Federle, is its acquisition of the tech website The Memo. Founded in 2015 by Wood, a business and technology journalist, The Memo has been a rare example of a successful British digital pure play business, finding an audience of 500,000.
Its purpose was “to try and humanise technology” for people in business who might be struggling to comprehend the impact of the digital revolution and who were not being served by the cocksure and “geeky” tech websites, he says. “We recognised that…there was a real gap between the deeper tech community – sites like TechCrunch – and the greater business community, who are feeling the change of technology but don’t necessarily know how it relates to them.”
That appealed to Forbes. “What we liked about The Memo was that their approach to technology was not necessarily about hardcore technology but about what technology means to people’s lives,” Federle says.
He also claims that The Memo’s identity as a “smart scrappy startup” reflects the ethos which Forbes seeks to espouse. That edgy claim might sound strange from a venerable legacy media brand but Federle claims justification in Forbes’s record of innovation. When it launched its contributor network in 2010 rivals “threw rotten tomatoes” and claimed it would be a branding disaster. Similarly, Forbes’s Brand Voice branded content operation was a pioneer when it began, also in 2010. But both have lasted.
In the wake of its sale The Memo has been reminiscing on its three-year history of independent publishing, covering subjects such as e-bikes, banking apps and VR porn. Wood cites two viral story hits, one highlighting a credit card with a digital screen that changes its three-digit security code every hour, and the other featuring software that jumbles the words on a webpage and so “enables you to understand how frustrating it is to have dyslexia”. Both these pieces were successful because they took a deep tech story and made it accessible, Wood says. “I want everyone to relate to what’s happening in the business world and the tech world.”
Forbes recognised the synergy between its own century-old championing of entrepreneurial capitalism and a new website that has quickly found an audience for its celebratory coverage of the intersections of business and technology. On 1 March The Memo will redirect its content to Forbes.com and its staff will effectively become Forbes Europe’s digital newsroom. The young brand will also continue in a “The Memo on Forbes” weekly newsletter, which replaces The Memo’s current daily digital missive, which has built a 20,000 subscriber base.
Forbes' franchises come to Europe
The developments will coincide with a moving to new Forbes Europe offices in Soho, central London, where Yardley and senior Forbes correspondents, Parmy Olson and Thomas Fox-Brewster will also be based, along with the commercial team. “We haven’t really invested this type of money in Europe I don’t think ever before,” says Yardley. “We are committing not just commercially but editorially to this region.”
Critical to the success of this European brand-building project will be Forbes’s ability to transfer its key event franchises, most obviously its “30 Under 30” celebration of young entrepreneurs. In America, a place on this list has become a coveted honour, awarded at a Boston-based Summit which attracts 7,000 attendees anxious to network with the next generation of business leaders.
The Forbes Europe “30 Under 30” list was launched in January at a party in London’s Wardour Street, at which it was announced that the inaugural European Summit for what Yardley describes as “this best-in-class breed” will take place in Amsterdam in September. It’s a smart way to align the Forbes brand with a new and influential cadre, he says. “Each year you get a new crop of people and the network keeps growing and it’s self-perpetuating. The ideal scenario is that you want to take these millennials on a journey - they have made it onto the 30 Under 30 list and then we go on that journey with them until they are on our (Forbes) Billionaire’s list.”
Expect the business title to also bring across its Power Women lists, which have become a fixture in the American business calendar.
Yardley is targeting C-suite decision makers. He brought 80 senior marketers, including Unilever’s Keith Weed and key figures from Microsoft, Santander and Deutsche Bank to a new annual CMO’s Summit in November. He plans a similar event for CIOs (chief innovation officers) in May.
Of course Forbes will be looking to expand its Europe-based contributor network, which already stands at around 200, including Gordon Kelly, a British technology writer whose articles about Apple and Samsung phones regularly draw in excess of 250,000 views.
Forbes is a family business, and its publisher and editor-in-chief Steve Forbes is the grandson of BC Forbes. But its association with success continues to prove alluring. Millennial startup entrepreneurs and silver-haired executives alike seek expert insight in its content and crave recognition at its events and on its prestigious lists. “It’s the cache,” Yardley says. “It validates your business.”
Its task now is to persuade more European readers and brands that that is true.
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell