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It's no secret by now that many publishers—particularly those with traditional print outlets—are trying just about anything to boost revenue online, including pop-ups, interstitials, site takeovers, and everything else under the sun. Forbes magazine seems to be pushing the envelope in a different direction: As part of an overall shakeup and site redesign, the company has reportedly been flogging the idea of branded blogs to advertisers, offering to give them spots next to the magazine's existing journalistic content.
The idea comes from the newly hired Lewis Dvorkin, a former Forbes editor who rejoined the magazine recently after it acquired his media-related startup True/Slant. According to Advertising Age magazine, Dvorkin has been making sales calls to major advertisers in Detroit, among other places, along with Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel. The voices of advertisers "can commingle under the Forbes brand umbrella to provide a rich experience for our users," Gentzel told the magazine. "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."
The idea that advertisers might want to put branded content as close as possible to traditional journalistic content is as old as publishing. The "advertorial" sections that appear in printed newspapers and magazines are driven by that desire. The fact that they try to mimic actual journalistic content as closely as possible makes it obvious how much advertisers and marketers would like readers to confuse one for the other. (At the newspaper I worked for, there were repeated disagreements over whether advertisers could or could not use the same typeface as editorial content.)
The rise of blogs and micro-blogging tools such as Twitter has given advertisers and marketers a new platform for their content. Such companies as the new SAY Media—formed from the combination of advertising platform VideoEgg and blogging pioneer Six Apart— are pitching this to major brands. There's no question that the line between advertising and nonadvertising content continues to blur, thanks to the Web. But what Forbes wants to do is effectively transfer some of its brand value to those marketing-related blogs. This risks damaging the trust readers have in the magazine.
It's interesting that this isn't something that only concerns journalists: The Ad Age article quotes Chris Perry, chief executive officer of digital at public relations giant Weber Shandwick as saying that he's also worried about the potential impact on the Forbes brand: "Is it a genius move or does it permanently tarnish the brand and credibility of the outlet?" he said. Others have pointed to the recent furor over a blog at the respected website ScienceBlogs that was written by—and about—PepsiCo and its food division. As a result of what they saw as a blurring of the line between marketing messages and real content, other ScienceBlogs writers quit the site and readers complained as well.
Forbes and Dvorkin say the advertising blogs they are working on will be clearly distinguished from other blogs. Even so, there is risk of the gray area between sponsored and traditional content becoming a giant ethical morass, both for readers and advertisers—and that's not going to do anyone any good. Ironically, blurring the line between advertising and editorial content can actually damage the brand that advertisers are so eager to rub up against, defeating the exercise's purpose. It's not surprising that Forbes is looking for alternative ways to raise revenue. It should take care not to sell its soul at the same time.
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