Forbes likes to think of itself as a 95-year-old startup. To that end, the old school publisher has embraced the digital age with its AdVoice branded content model, which enables executives from major brands to pay for the right to pen columns for Forbes.com (providing the site with authoritative content without having to pay reporters and editors). As AdVoice approaches its second birthday, Forbes president and CEO, Mike Perlis sat down with Adweek to talk about Forbes transition to digital, and how the company keeps track of its 1,000-plus contributors.
Adweek: Critics of the Forbes contributor model will say that having 1,000 contributors to the site can lead to sloppy journalism and create that "If you've got something to say, say it on the Huffington Post" kind of eye-rolling. What does Forbes do to keep thought leadership while democratizing the platform?
In a world where content can be commoditized we create filters around our brand. We love the fact that we produce a successful magazine. Our 1,000 contributors are all hired, are vetted, are all on a compensation plan and all curated which is very different from "If you've got something to say, say it on the Huffington Post." Our model is, if you've got passion and expertise then apply for a position. We've really created more relevant content than we ever could have by carefully hiring people with more narrow and specific passions.
That’s a lot of content, though. How does Forbes keep track of it all?
I'm not suggesting we edit them like we edit a full-time staffer, but the most important decisions we make is at the point of our contributor hires. We can take things down as quickly as we get them started and we do when we need to. We’ve enhanced our full-time and freelance staff too, and a number of those people pay full time attention to the contributor space editing on a vertical-by-vertical level. We think the vibrancy of the platform is worth the extra time and energy. It's not an easy thing to do and it’s all about this platform. Our content carries the Forbes name and our whole mantra is to put authoritative journalism at the center of the social media experience.
What happens when an AdVoice story is dull and boring and comes off more like an advertisement than thought leadership?
It'd be harder to deal with dull and boring than straight advertorial message. We would stop advertorial message and they know it. When they sign on that’s not what they're here for and they know it. As for boring and dull, well, we don't want it boring and they don't either. Their brand's name is right out there. These brands work hard to deliver quality content. SAP and NetApp have been in our 'Most Popular' category – and Oracle debuted this week as an AdVoice partner. We're also making our first foray into a video AdVoice product with Cartier in the coming month.
The AdVoice partners are all blue chip brands with a steep entry to get in. Are you working with smaller brands to get the little guys in?
Little guys may be a stretch. We've launched with some of our biggest advertising partners, it's been a lot of work to get it going. we’re offering on a monthly basis a site-license arrangement. Now that the platform is established, democratization will happen. We expect in 2013 to see a significant jump in the number of people who are participating. That will bring the average cost of entry down. It's not going to be cheap or inexpensive. It will be a value, but the price of entry will come down and size of the participating companies will go down.
What do you think has been the secret to Forbes’ success moving from pure print to create a digital side of the organization?
We did 33 million unique visitors last month (August 2011), which makes us unique from a digital footprint standpoint. Forbes.com started 15 years ago and one of the things that we did that really allowed us as a legacy business to become a digital player was that at the time we separated Forbes.com and the magazine completely. We set up a completely independent, highly entrepreneurial, and performance driven .com team in a separate building. This allowed us not to make all the bargains and all the deals and all the half way steps you have to take to take a traditional media company into the digital age. We really became a digital media company during that time alongside our traditional publication. I think that was the secret to developing the sensibility and appreciation for the brand and marketplace. Just as it was right to separate the assets it was right to put them back together a couple of years ago and now they feed off one another.
Looking at the future, what is Forbes most focused on in the coming months?
Well, the whole industry is looking at mobile. We have a growing percent of our traffic coming from mobile and we need to figure out like everyone else how to monetize that experience. For all of us, mobile is an opportunity to deal with and a problem to solve.