As digital traffic booms, Forbes evolves its ad revenue model

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The reinvention of Forbes Media extends well beyond its content model. The business side of the house is in transition as well as the business publisher seeks to diversify its ad products and keep pace with the growth of the digital audience.

Forbes is building out both its advertising products and its operations as it seeks to capitalize on a steady rise of website visitors. In a phone interview, Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Levien talked about the growth of Forbes’ digital business and the opportunities that lie ahead in areas such as native advertising and mobile.

By most measures, the growth of Forbes.com has been impressive. Unique monthly visitors increased 67% from June 2010 to January 2013 (comScore U.S.). January’s 16 million unique visitors in the U.S. was a 26% bump from January 2012.

Ad revenues are showing sustained growth as well. Digital advertising revenue increased 17% in 2012 – its best year-over-year digital growth since 2006. As importantly, half of total ad revenues for the year came from digital – the first time Forbes's digital business has reached that threshold. From June 2010 through January 2013, total ad revenues (print and digital) have increased 25%.

Riding an industry wave

The bulk of Forbes’ digital revenue still comes from display ads, as the publisher rides a wave of robust industry growth. Across the web, U.S. online advertising revenues surpassed $17 billion in the first half of 2012, with display advertising grabbing a 36% share of that spend, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. comScore’s latest report on digital media says 5.3 trillion display ad impressions were delivered across web properties in 2012.

comScore's report also notes, however, that three in 10 ads are never actually in view, “leading to significant waste, weaker campaign performance and a glut of poor-performing inventory that imbalances the supply-and-demand equation and depresses CPMs.”

Publishers such as Forbes are looking to counter that wasteful spending with native advertising programs that more closely integrate brand messaging and editorial content. Forbes’ BrandVoice program (previously called AdVoice) is one of the more successful examples of native advertising to date. BrandVoice allows advertisers to publish blog posts on Forbes.com using the same publishing tools as editorial staff and contributors. The only distinction is a logo on each post that identifies the brand. As Chief Product Officer Lewis D’Vorkin likes to say, the posts sink or swim on their own merit, just like any other post.

Two dozen advertisers have participated in the online and print iterations of the program since its launch in 2010. About a dozen are actively posting on Forbes.com, Levien said.  About 15% of total advertising revenue comes from brands participating in BrandVoice – a figure that Levien expects will rise to 25% this year. (Forbes does not break out specific BrandVoice spend.)

“We’re hitting a nice arc of growth now with BrandVoice,” said Levien. “We’ve seen a high likeliness to renew it. We’re building a pretty substantial organization to support it, and we’re adding to it with content syndication services and social analytics.”

BrandVoice originally was available only to advertisers as part of a larger ad buy across Forbes Media. But last year, the company launched a separate site license program that doesn’t require an integrated program. Licenses are priced at $50,000 or $75,000 per month, depending on the level of content promotion and syndication, with a three-month minimum commitment. 

A structural transformation

To support BrandVoice, Forbes’ has built a “brand newsroom” – a team of editors and producers that report to sales and help vendors with search engine optimization, headline writing and other production tasks. The brand newsroom, part of a 12-person ad products group, reflects the ongoing transformation of Forbes’ sales, marketing and ad product organization.

“Our business operations look wholly different today than they did two and a half years ago,” said Levien. The 35-person cross-platform ad sales team includes a lot of “digital natives” who have helped spread the gospel on the importance of digital. A 12-person ad operations group provides technical depth across digital, mobile and social channels.

With more inventory to support – Forbes says it publishes 400-500 original pieces of content daily – the revenue team is also embracing programmatic buying. Inventory sold through Google’s AdX  exchange accounts for about 10% of digital revenues.

“We are confident enough in what we feel is a healthy and successful premium business to be willing to sell programmatically where it’s relevant,” Levien said. “It helps us to address a different marketing challenge.”

The mobile opportunity

Mobile is another rising opportunity for Forbes, as it is for most publishers. Mobile traffic to the site increased nearly 150% in the last year and now accounts for 30% of total visits – growth that has increased the urgency for new mobile ad products. Forbes has built a suite of mobile units, including rich media and a new full-screen interstitial, and has also optimized BrandVoice for mobile screens. In addition, developers are working on a touch-optimized site design.

Sponsorships and other products for Forbes’ new iPad app are also in the works. The hard push for native tablet ads will come later. “Everyone’s excited about the opportunity there, but the app just launched and we want to be able to offer solutions that can scale in a meaningful way,” said Levien.

Mobile’s share of ad revenue remains in the single digits, but Levien expects year-to-year mobile revenue growth of 50-70%.

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