Three Valuable Lessons from Forbes’ Digital Shift

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“Our contributor model expands the pool of knowledgeable content creators beyond the traditional notion of a journalist — to authors, academics and topic-specific experts. Each of those groups is filled with sources whom reporters rely on for stories. Well, now these sources can publish content on Forbes, with their affiliation clearly identified and labeled.”

Lewis DVorkin, Chief Product Officer, Forbes Media

I’m not a regular reader of Forbes, but I’ve become a fan of Lewis DVorkin recently, and have been following his blog and watching his efforts to transform the historic brand closely, gleaning practical insights to help guide my own efforts at the day job. He’s doing really interesting work marrying old media sensibilities with new media opportunities, and while his willingness to share his progress publicly is admirable, more importantly, he’s practicing what he preaches.

Even though some of the tools and resources he’s working with are beyond my means (their editorial dashboard makes me jealous!), the underlying philosophy that’s driving their transformation offers a number of takeaways for any media brand.

Here are three of the most significant lessons:

1. Understand and Embrace the Shift

“Our goal is to place our authoritative journalism at the center of a social media experience.” —DVorkin

Far too many people still don’t grasp what’s really changed with the rise of the social web, cynically spinning it as a rejection of gatekeepers and “authority” rather than simply being about participation and having a voice. It’s not a zero-sum game; Tom Foremski noted that most of the content being shared via social media channels is from “big media” sources, and much like the old-fashioned water cooler, people are adding their own commentary to the discussion. Only the tools have changed.

Yes, this is where I cite The Cluetrain Manifesto for the umpteenth time, with a side order of Groundswell. If you work in publishing and/or marketing in any capacity and haven’t read both of those books, you’re doing it wrong.

2. Let Your Community Contribute

“The job of journalists in the digital era is changing. They need to become part of the fabric of their communities.” —DVorkin

“Editorial control” is a four-letter word in my book. It’s a legacy of the pre-participatory era, and journalists, editors, authors, etc. who fight to maintain it, or the illusion of it, are spitting into the wind that should be filling their sails. Credibility is more important than control, and that comes from your community. Whether it’s surfacing and spotlighting insightful comments (something Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates elevated to an art form at The Atlantic), or opening up your platform to smart outside contributors like Forbes is doing, empowering your community and giving them a voice is one of the most effective forms of engagement there is.

Of course, the extreme becomes the FluffPo model of throwing the doors open too widely, and letting anyone with an opinion step up to the mic, sacrificing your credibility in the process. While control is an illusion in the digital era, credibility comes via smart curation as the signal:noise ratio gets out of whack and the need, and desire, for reliable, trustworthy filters increases.

3. Rethink Advertising, Focus on Engagement

“Intel hopes to attract an audience, but it’s also making these stories available to be republished by traditional news organizations, many of which now have fewer resources for original reporting.” —DVorkin

Traditional print advertising is becoming less and less effective for all but the most deep-pocketed brands, and its online counterpart has mainly worked out to Google’s benefit. DVorkin’s Intel example isn’t unique, either. So much emphasis was put on advertising revenue shifting from print to online, few paid attention to the fact that a significant chunk of that money wasn’t going to banner ads, but instead to marketers building their own websites.

Banner ads have been re-positioned as branding vehicles, in-text ads are clunky, and modern site designs are weaning themselves away from the Times Square model to put the emphasis where it belongs, on the content, and on the community it attracts. Comments and sharing tools have become standard, and companies like Federated Media are doing innovative work on building more engaging models for savvy marketers.

(Ironically, startups like Flipboard are notable for taking cues from print design sensibilities, not web design, and AdWeek‘s recent site redesign is one of the nicer examples of elevating content and community over ad positions.)

When I ran Digital Book World, our top sponsor was Aptara and four of their contributed articles were in our top 10 last year. They were also a key contributor in our webcasts and events, always delivering quality content with little-to-no emphasis placed on making a sales pitch, setting a great example for how advertisers can become valued members of a community.

That’s my three cents!

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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