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Forbes' New Advertising Pitch: Wanna Buy a Blog?

The Revenue Side of DVorkin's AdVoice Model Means Advertisers Publish Under Company's Banner

By Published on . 8

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Forbes bought blogging startup True/Slant, it got a familiar face in True/Slant CEO and former Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin but an entirely unfamiliar editorial model for its website.

YOUR BRAND GOES HERE: Pretty soon marketers will also be able to blog under Forbes' banner.
YOUR BRAND GOES HERE: Pretty soon marketers will also be able to blog under Forbes' banner.
Staff writers were given blogs and, even more striking, outside contributors were invited to start blogging under the Forbes banner in a bid to create what Mr. DVorkin, who'd now become chief product officer of Forbes Media, calls a "much more scalable content-creation model."

The visual expression of this is being rolled out in a redesign of the magazine and website this week. But there's a business side to Mr. DVorkin's big idea, too, and that's what's taken him on sales calls to Detroit along with Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel. The pitch is this: We'll sell you a blog, and your content will live alongside that of Forbes' journalists and bloggers. This isn't the "sponsored post" of yore; rather, it is giving advocacy groups or corporations such as Ford or Pfizer the same voice and same distribution tools as Forbes staffers, not to mention the Forbes brand.

"In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment," Mr. DVorkin said in an interview at an empty restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the historic headquarters of the 93-year-old magazine.

The product itself is called AdVoice, and the notion is that in a world of social media, corporations have to become participants and, in a sense, their own media companies. Corporations these days also have to face the practical problem of fewer business reporters left to pitch. "There's fewer ways to get your message out, because there are fewer reporters, and that's a fact," he said.

This was the never-realized revenue model behind the blogging platform True/Slant, which Mr. DVorkin was pitching to marketers before Forbes bought the company in May, bringing him back to the magazine where he'd been an executive editor in the late '90s. Since then, Mr. DVorkin has been pulling apart the website and magazine, merging staff and contributed content, and generally blowing apart how journalism, blogging, reader contributions and advertising fit together on the web, in the magazine and everywhere Forbes content is published.

"For the last however many decades of traditional media, you're a reader so your stuff can only go here," Mr. DVorkin said, starting to get animated. "You're an advertiser so stuff can only go here. And our stuff? It goes right here. But there's a flow of content that's contextual. Anything can appear in any place as long as it's contextual -- that's the web and we are bringing that sensibility to the magazine."

Forbes has always attracted a significant web audience; it says its site reaches 18 million people around the globe each month. But it's now assaulted on all sides by low-cost blogs siphoning off page views with derivative content. Forbes.com got about 5.7 million U.S. visitors in August (including traffic to Forbes' Investopedia site), down about a million from August 2009, according to Nielsen. That's still ahead of Reuters.com, but behind Bloomberg Digital and well behind behemoths like Yahoo Finance, with 28 million unique visitors, and The Wall Street Journal Digital, with 11.5 million including traffic to MarketWatch.

Forbes hasn't announced a client for AdVoice yet, so it's hard to know how transparent it will be in practice, but the executives say it will be obvious from the labeling who's doing the talking.

"We feel in a very transparent and clearly labeled manner that these voices can commingle under the Forbes brand umbrella to provide a rich experience for our users," Mr. Gentzel said. "If an auto manufacturer is in the midst of a new-car launch and has a great story behind the creation of a high-performing engine, they should be able to tell it and to stream into our tech topic flow, or automotive topic flow, as long as it's clearly labeled."

For a couple of guys trying to blow up the publishing model, Messrs. DVorkin and Gentzel are walking publishing stereotypes, at least visually. Mr. Gentzel, the sales chief, could step into the cast of "Mad Men"; Mr. DVorkin, wiry and disheveled, is more a mad scientist experimenting with fundamental elements of news, PR and advertising.

Consumer marketers such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson have years of experience creating branded entertainment, and many have arms dedicated to creating entertainment properties. But the motivations have broadened in an age of social media. There's an ongoing conversation about corporations -- not always nice, as BP or Toyota could tell you -- and corporations feel they must participate.

The changes at Forbes since it bought True/Slant and brought Mr. DVorkin back have gone beyond strategy. They've also included an exodus of top-level editors, two of whom declined to comment for this story.

Marketers will try AdVoice, although they'll have to consider whether to invest in hiring bloggers, retraining PR staff or, well, just outsourcing it to Forbes to make it effective, said Chris Perry, president of digital at PR giant Weber Shandwick. The impact on the Forbes brand, however, is less clear. "Is it a genius move or does it permanently tarnish the brand and credibility of the outlet?" he said.

It's all about how advertiser content is presented, according to former BusinessWeek editor Stephen Shepard, now the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. "The golden rule from an editorial point of view is there should be a clear distinction between what is produced by editorial staff or a blogger and a marketer who is paying for space on the site," Mr. Shepard said. "You don't want to deceive the reader. Readers have to understand what they are getting and the source of it."

Lewis DVorkin
Lewis DVorkin
Then there's the question of how Forbes AdVoice posts appear in search. While brand websites tend to appear prominently in natural search results, their ads don't. Forbes is nothing if not expert at optimizing content for search, and now advertising or corporate blog posts could benefit from that. Think press releases with as many links and Google juice as a Forbes article. Mr. Gentzel said the labeling for the posts would extend to search.

Forbes plans to charge for this approach on a flat-fee basis, which means that marketers producing the most appealing content will, theoretically, get more readers and a better deal on a cost-per-thousand-readers, or CPM, basis. Also on the way: a tool from Forbes to measure brand reputation, or, partly, whether a Forbes blog actually works.

Forbes staffers -- not editorial -- will provide consulting services to help position the marketers' content. In the old days, those staffers might be producing advertorial for marketers, which was usually obvious because it was, well, pretty bad and generally a big step down from magazine editorial. But with paid and unpaid bloggers as well as the self-published musings of staff writers circulating among magazine content, a good post from a marketer might have a chance for eyeballs.

Said Mr. DVorkin: "Marketers need to reach the audience. This is where publishing is headed."

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