As the chorus of "banner ads are dead" gets louder, the notion of marketing through original content continues to gain steam. Content-marketing supporters say that brands should be creating their own editorial work, whether to run on their own web properties, on social platforms or on other companies' sites.
Perhaps no traditional media company has embraced this idea from the publisher side as much as Forbes. In late 2010, Forbes introduced a product called AdVoice as one piece of a radical transformation of its print and web publications under Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin. The AdVoice product lets employees at big brands, or writers they hire, publish blog posts directly onto Forbes.com. Other than AdVoice and brand logos at the top of the webpage, the posts look like any other post on Forbes.com. Forbes also occasionally runs AdVoice columns from marketers in the print magazine.
In the 22 months since launch, 13 advertisers have used AdVoice; seven of them online, according to Meredith Levien, Forbes Media's chief revenue officer. While Forbes says the product has been a nice differentiator for the sales team, it appears it's not yet a source of big business. AdVoice posts have generated 3.3 million page views over that time, or about 150,000 a month on average. Sixty percent of that traffic has come from SAP, the business-software maker that has been an AdVoice partner since day one and whose posts have garnered a total of 2 million page views.
The way Forbes has sold AdVoice also makes it difficult to gauge its effect on the business' top line. Advertisers have had to "earn" their way into AdVoice participation by buying ad packages of at least $1 million on an annualized basis. But Forbes is now starting to introduce an alternative for advertisers who don't want, or can't afford, to buy a big campaign: a licensing model, with a six-month minimum, that will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a month, according to Ms. Levien.
"We are still working on formulating the right way to value it," she said.
The best Forbes says it can do in measuring the revenue from AdVoice is to say that ad packages including AdVoice have accounted for about 10% of the company's overall revenue this year. Ms. Levien said she expects that number to reach at least 25% next year. Forbes is also expanding its concept into video and will unveil its first Ad Voice video partner in October.
So what does a marketer such as SAP see in AdVoice? CMO Jonathan Becher, who is one of about 10 frequent SAP AdVoice contributors, said the company is trying to get in front of people who aren't familiar with the diversity of SAP's software offerings, and then tell the SAP story in an indirect way that focuses more on connecting industry expertise with relevant news than overt salesmanship.
SAP has measured success in three ways: first, with what Mr. Becher called "ego metrics," such as page views and comments; next, by tracking what percentage of readers showed some interest in learning more about SAP by following the company on a social network or visiting one of its websites; and lastly by identifying how many readers visit an SAP site and give the company a way to reach them either by email or through social media. SAP aspires to turn 10% of its Forbes readers into what it calls "marketable contacts," Mr. Becher said, but right now that number is somewhere between 2% and 10%.
"The question is if we ever get our conversion rate up where we want it, do we still need Forbes?" he said. "We probably do, but not in the way we need them now."