As publishers have made the difficult shift from print to digital, many have had to fundamentally reassess what they are and what the nature of the content they put out is. Publishers have trialled a number of different strategies for success in the digital age - constant output of content, going all-in on video, appearing on every social media site under the sun, etc. Lately, though, the notion of quality over quantity has gained traction, and the value of well-produced content is becoming increasingly clear.
By publishing content of real value, brands and publishers can build a deeper connection with their audiences than through bare-faced content marketing or programmatic advertising. This is easier said than done, and to achieve consistent quality many publishers have had to cut down their output - a rush to publish as much content as possible, in most cases, leads to a drop off in quality than can ultimately damage a brand's image more than it helps it.
This is where business magazine Forbes' strategy is interesting. The 100-year-old company quickly embraced digital transformation, with 80% of its revenue now coming from its online business after a relatively speedy transition period. Its articles consistently rank top or very nearly top on searches related to business subjects, and it has maintained its position as a thought-leader throughout what many other companies have found a tricky transition.
Forbes has developed its strategy around the notion that, in a digital world, it's not only the job of journalists to inform. The publisher encourages everyone from respected academics to freelancers with a speciality interest to publish on its platform, and its body of contributors now numbers over 2000. Between them, they generate 400 - 500 articles per day, and Forbes is able to cover a vast array of topics without having to employ an army of staff writers. According to Forbes, the strategy has born fruit, with the site seeing a four- or five-fold increase in visitors since they put the strategy into action.
Paul Mikhailof, Director of EMEA at Forbes, explained the strategy at the Digital Marketing Innovation Summit in London in 2016. 'We actually didn't give them necessarily a fixed salary, but we encouraged them and incentivised them - they get paid basically based on the scale that they generate. So, the more users they attract month on month and the more repeat users they attract month on month, the more they get paid... So, in essence we have recruited these contributors just like you would editorial folk (staff editorial); they're managed, given verticals, they could be academics, freelancers, scientists, anyone with a prolific ability to publish on a particular subject. What we're essentially saying to them is "build you own brand on our platform". Social journalism, I suppose, would be a great description of it.'
There are criticisms of the model that Forbes employs. By opting to use such a huge number of external contributors, the long-running publisher is adding to the very modern problem of precarious employment within the gig economy. Its policy of paying writers more or less depending on how well their content performs is good for figures, but arguably affects journalistic integrity given that its editorial has to straddle being both informative and as popular as possible. Having 'contributors' write without any of the security of full-time employment may not sit well with some, but the results are there for anyone to see, and whatever Forbes' approach means for journalism it is undeniable that it's an effective one. The editorial team ensures that submissions stay on brand, but generally there is sufficient creative license afforded to its contributors that the content is varied in both style and subject matter.
Forbes' open, expansive policy also creates opportunities for brands to publish content on the platform. Where many publishers take issue with branded content for fear of weakening their own voice, Forbes embraces it.
'We know that some of the brands that we work with are incredible centers of domain expertise. They have incredible vaults of information and research. More and more of the brands that we're working with have spent maybe the last five years developing incredibly sophisticated news rooms, and in fact when you look at the content that gets produced, it's probably some of the most complicit content you could ever imagine.' This is where Forbes' attitude to brand contribution differs to many other publications. It sees branded content as worthwhile and valuable for the audience for the reasons Paul cites above. It is not ring-fenced or treated any differently to the site's editorial content, making it an attractive prospect to any brand looking to expand its content distribution network.
Given that its articles are often broken up over multiple pages, each with a selection of banner ads, traffic and engagement are clearly big parts of Forbes' digital strategy. At present, its clear that it's a strategy that's working, and the 100-year-old print-turned-digital publisher is flourishing.