Like a hanging, mobile focuses the mind. I often say the $2 to $3 CPMs publishers frequently get for smartphone ads will crush all traditional newsrooms built for the era of $50 print CPMs — and most of them still are, whether they admit it or not. The FORBES contributor network was conceived, in part, as a new content-creation model to offset such upheavals in the marketplace. Next in line for disruption — and tied pixel-to-pixel with mobile — is the article page. Spawned by a print mentality, it must cope with both smaller device sizes and a strong push by marketers for more compelling ad positions.
I know, I know — the demise of the article page has been predicted for years. I heard the bellowing from digital know-it-alls shortly after I joined AOL in early 2000. They argued it couldn’t deliver a 360-degree view of a news event. Despite the noise, it was never in real danger. The article page accommodates what ad agencies know how to create at scale for clients: display ads in the form of rectangles. At first, it was hundreds of millions of banners and boxes, then trillions of big honking banners and boxes. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn changed the game. They’re about feeds, rivers and streams. Call them what you wish, they’re the consumer experiences that marketers — and by extension their agencies and PR companies — are now focused on.
FORBES has experimented with streams for the last three years. We implemented early versions for channel pages, the home page, a real time page for posts and the home pages of our staffers and contributors, too. We shied away from the article page, mainly for business reasons. It was imperative for us — as it is with others — to create the pages that run the ads that pay for the journalism (fancy-dan new article pages tend to inhibit effective monetization by requiring non-standard ad solutions). Then we led the way in native advertising. We knew our BrandVoice program, inherently scalable, would work well in a world of article pages — and even more so within streams.
The time has come to re-architect Forbes.com for the era of streams. The individually branded article page we launched in August 2010 — and have since frequently updated – has taken us to a record worldwide audience of 27 million (as measured by comScore) and the strongest financial performance in five years. Last September, we began testing continuous article streams on desktop, releasing them to 5%, then 10% of our audience. It’s been a bit of a challenge, as I mentioned in this year-end post. Still, that effort helped us think through a new smartphone experience for consumers and our marketing partners. Phase 1 went live last night. And working with MAZ, our app partner, we launched a first-of-its-kind image stream earlier this week that starts to turn our new FORBES magazine app into a mini social network that connects FORBES enthusiasts with each other, the magazine to Forbes.com and marketers with potential customers.
Here’s a look at each experience:
Our mobile traffic (predominately from smartphone browsers) has risen sharply, to 30% of our total audience from 10% three years ago. In fact, a comScore report I’ve recently seen put our mobile-only monthly users at eight million over and above the 27 million cited in its regular monthly reports. I’m operating on the belief that smartphone and tablet traffic will hit 50% by the end of 2014. If it doesn’t, we’ll be that much better off when it does — and it surely will. Right now, mobile subscriptions almost equal the earth’s population, and cellular data usage has nearly doubled, to an average 1.2 gigabytes a month from 690 megabytes.
So, what’s new? Here are the key changes:
1. Vertical Navigation: Beneath every post you arrive at from search, a social network or elsewhere, is a stream of headlines. The headlines in your feed will be different from those in mine or another person (read more about that here). All streams include related or editor-curated headlines, special features and BrandVoice content that is specific to the content vertical of the original post. Tap the headline or the “Read” icon beneath it to reveal the entire post. Tap the sharing icon to open a drawer with four social networks and an email option. Tap the “Bio” on a post to check out the author’s background. The vertical streams will soon include new treatments for display ads.
2. Horizontal Navigation: When scrolling down any post you’ll notice the ability to swipe — or tap — to move horizontally. The swipe immediately takes you to the next item in the stream (content or advertising), with slightly more information than simply a headline. We call it the Info Card. You can either tap on the read button to expose the entire post or continue swiping horizontally through Info Cards.
3. BrandVoice: Native advertising is integral to our mobile site. It offers consumers valuable insights and provides monetization opportunities to help pay for our journalistic product. BrandVoice headlines, fully identified and labeled, appear in both the headline stream and the Info Cards. In a mobile world, the headline is a better display ad.
4. Display Ads: Rectangles, the workhorse units of the desktop experience, don’t work as well on smartphones, though we’ve found new ways to integrate them in our new mobile streams. We believe our Info Cards will eventually offer ad agencies and marketers real estate for new types of ad units.
5. Functionality: Right now it comes down to three buttons — read, comment and share — and swiping. We have plans to add additional services (think video and audio) in both the headline units and the Info Card in future mobile updates.
This new navigational construct for text-based content opens up new ways to monetize a small screen. It’s a joint effort of our product, sales, technology, editorial and design teams, all working together with a unified goal. In future releases we’ll roll out Info Cards for video, photos, special features, ebooks, conferences and more. Together, they’ll make for a more complete consumer experience, offer marketers new opportunities and provide FORBES with valuable network-wide promotional inventory. The new architecture also plays a critical role in our strategy to optimize the programmatic buying of display ads and grow our native advertising revenues.
FORBES Magazine App:
What’s a magazine? At FORBES, we think it’s an experience, not sheets of paper. Increasingly, consumers do, too. It’s about turning, clicking, tapping or flipping to discover, read, learn or be entertained. These actions seem natural. The magazine we’ve produced for 96 years has nearly one million subscribers. On Flipboard, only few years old, our stories attracted 1.8 million readers in October and racked up 44.5 million flips. Still, magazine experiences must evolve for new behaviors. In the age of social media they need to be far more social.
Most magazines remain solitary experiences. A reader’s relationship is with the brand, the editors who pick the stories and the authors who write them. There’s never been a way for readers to easily share, connect or be part of a community.
We’re changing all that. Last January, we launched an iPad app that made it easy to clip and share text, photos, charts or whatever. Pinch the screen with two fingers. Select and frame the content. Tap a Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook button to share. With this issue, we’re taking a big leap forward. Now, FORBES enthusiasts can participate in a first-of-its-kind social news feed. Clippings are included in an image stream for all app subscribers to see. Tap any clip in the stream and go directly to the content – or share it again. Editors select stories for each issue. The community curates them for others. Soon, you’ll be able to follow an individual’s clippings and use other features associated with social networks.
“Stream,” as it’s called, was developed by MAZ, our app partner. ”If you think about it,” says MAZ founder Paul Canetti, “we’ve been sharing content the same way for 20 years. Copy text, paste text, get text – words or links. ‘Stream’ is part of the online world’s massive shift from text-based media to visual-based media.”
MAZ uniquely mixes visual and social functionality with production efficiency. A startup founded by ex-Apple and ex-Adobe designers and engineers, it gets the labor challenge in building new experiences. Most media companies use app publishing tools that require expensive staffs to rip apart, then reassemble their magazines for tablets and smartphones. One large publisher hires five to ten full-time people per magazine title. Even with that, these magazine apps are solitary experiences. The only linking is internal to the app.
The MAZ solution recognizes the importance of the social Web. It repurposes PDFs used in print magazine production by layering on actionable buttons. Since last January, we’ve mostly used actual magazine PDFs for our magazine app (we did recreate new PDFs for the table of contents, giving them a more app-like look and feel). Most important, we connected each story to our Web site. Last March, the app version of our Billionaires issue contained 2,000 links to real-time content, people profile pages and much more on Forbes.com. Starting with the 30 Under 30 issue, we’re now re-templatizing every PDF in our magazine app, making the PDFs indistinguishable from any app digital screens designed from scratch. And we’re doing it with our existing team, no additional headcount required.
You can get the new app, with the image stream, the clipping and sharing, and all the new pages at the iTunes stores. For this 30 Under 30 issue on iPads and iPhones, there’s audio, too. Bruno Mars has picked 22 songs for 30 change agents. Clip, share, join the stream — and listen in. It’s a special experience.
I outlined the strategy behind our desktop streams in this post last September. Since then, we’ve updated them many times. All along, we examined usage, the data and made many discoveries that helped us launch the mobile streams. As we move forward, look for the the smartphone experience to inform the desktop, just like the desktop informed the smartphone screens. Also, look for the FORBES Magazine Image Stream to inform both the desktop and mobile experiences.
We do things differently here at FORBES. In the last three years:
1) We’ve turned the digital content model upside down. Topic experts build their own individual publishing brands to attract a loyal audience — all under the FORBES umbrella brand.
2) We’ve changed the labor model. Some 1,200 expert contributors live side-by-side with full-time staff reporters. More than 150 are freelance journalists. Others are authors, academics and business leaders.
3) We’ve change the compensation model. Contributors can be part of an incentive plan tied to the size of their loyal audience. The bigger and more committed their readers, the more they get paid.
4) We’ve changed the advertising model. Marketers can publish content on Forbes.com, too, as part of our BrandVoice platform. Their posts are always transparently labeled across our site.
The news business remains inextricably tied to economic forces and technology. Nostalgia for what was stands no chance against those twin forces. Every move we make is aimed at creating the systems, processes and products that work for journalists, consumers and marketers in a new era. Over the past three years, that’s meant hundreds of product releases, big and small. Some hit the mark, some didn’t. Either way, we learned. In 2014, we’ll continue to live by the philosophy popularized in The Cathedral and the Bazaar: “Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.”