Forbes' Lewis DVorkin says banners aren't dead, and content is content – even if it's bought
Banners aren't dead, Forbes is not driven by marketing, and content is valuable, whether it comes from staff writers or paying customers. Those were the key themes Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer of Forbes Media, struck on at tonight's PandoMonthly in New York.
Forbes, a traditional business magazine that has successfully transformed itself for the digital era, has faced criticism for its liberal use of brands and volunteer "contributors" – now totaling 1,300 people – in producing content for its website, but DVorkin put up a strong defense when questioned about the practice by PandoDaily editor Adam Penenberg. Forbes has a phrase, explained DVorkin, that sums up its position on contributor-provided stories: "Content is content."
And, in the case of its contributor network, he said, that content can be high quality. All of Forbes' contributors are vetted and are experts in their topics, he said. "They have knowledge, and they have information. The audience today is voracious for knowledge and information."
They have access to the same publishing tools as Forbes staffers, they self-publish, and they market their own content. "They are their own brands," DVorkin said. He suggested it's a way of thinking that could be applied to journalists themselves. "If you're going to be a journalist today, you need your own individual business model. You can't just depend on a larger company to provide you that model."
Penenberg also pressed DVorkin on Forbes' Brand Voice, a program that allows marketers and advertisers, such as SAP and FedEx, to pay to publish their own content that sits right alongside stories produced by Forbes staffers. The content is clearly labeled with corporate logos and company names, as well as the tag "Brand Voice."
"They pay a fair sum of that money for that write to be able to publish on our platform," he said. "It's now called 'native advertising,' but we've been doing it for two and a half years."
The Brand Voice program, DVorkin said, is built on the notion that marketers and advertisers actually have insights. "They are not stupid people. They understand their industries, they are thought leaders in their industries."
Sometimes, content from those advertisers even makes it into Forbes' "most popular" category. DVorkin loves it when that happens, saying that if the audience thinks the content has value, then he thinks it has value.
Penenberg wondered if that meant the publication becomes too marketing-driven. DVorkin insisted that branded content – the stories that appear under the "Brand Voice" banner – accounts for only about 10 posts a day on the website, out of a total of 400 to 500. Other posts are produced by Narrative Science, a company that uses algorithms to construct stories out of data sets. That number of automated stories peaks at about 25 per day at the height of earnings season. DVorkin said today's readers are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between paid content and staff-produced stories. "They get the drill."
The advertisers that pay for branded content on the site also buy display ads, he noted. That group accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the company's total revenues. Evidently the company seems to be getting by outside of branded content, something that DVorkin attributed to being open to reaching an audience and making money in many different ways, including in print, where branded also has a presence. That openness even extends to banner ads, which are notoriously unsexy and have been publicly forsaken by BuzzFeed, which is widely considered one of the most successful media companies of the social-mobile era.
"There's a lot of people dumping on banners and display ads, because of the click through [rate] and things like that," says DVorkin. "But the reality is, they can work for branding. They can be effective if done right."
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]