Three years ago we called it AdVoice. A year or so later, we renamed it BrandVoice. Our idea was straight forward: in the era of social media, offer marketers the freedom to speak directly to consumers — authentically, without contrivances. First, we gave them access to our editorial tools to publish posts on Forbes.com, always clearly identified and labeled. Then, we built a brand newsroom (it reports to the sales department) to support them, not unlike the editorial newsroom works with staff reporters and 1,200 expert contributors. Our larger goal was to foster an environment in which journalists, marketers and the audience could exchange ideas with one another.
In an analog world, the ad industry called this form of brand-to-consumer communication “content marketing.” John Deere and Michelin have been at it for 100 years. Mobil Oil made a name for itself in the 70′s by leading a national debate about gas prices. This is the digital era, which demands its own lingo. So, now we have “native advertising.” Catchphrases tend to focus the mind. It certainly galvanized an editorial class reeling from declining newsroom employment and the rise of of social networks. Would native ads further marginalize the role of traditional editors and reporters? Who would protect people from marketing messages that were no longer cordoned off from journalistic “truth?” Such angst, among other things, got the Federal Trade Commission’s attention. On Wednesday, it begins hearings to explore what native ads are all about.
I often say the mission of journalism is to inform, and the job of a media business is to find solutions for marketers. FORBES BrandVoice does both. The growing FORBES audience has a voracious appetite for insight and perspective. Marketers certainly know their industries as well as anyone. In turn, marketers need to find more effective ways than display ads to reach audiences. BrandVoice, when done right, enables the kind of authentic story-telling that works for today’s savvy consumers.
The chart above puts some numbers to BrandVoice, which launched in November 2010. SAP kicked it off on Forbes.com. BrandVoice began that same month in FORBES magazine, with Cadillac, and continues to appear regularly. The data in these graphics reflect the performance of our digital BrandVoice partners. Here are a few more interesting statistics for the first 10 months of 2013:
– 1,100 total BrandVoice posts generated 821,000 social actions — Tweets, Retweets, Likes and StumbleUpons. Those actions resulted in 565,000 social referrals to content. Search referrals generated an additional 1.1 million visits.
– The partner with the highest average page views per post had 13,500.
– The partner with the lowest average page views per post had 691.
– The partner with the highest average monthly unique visitors has 120,000.
– The partner with the lowest average monthly unique visitors had 2,100.
– The top performing post in October was actually published in June, with 131,000 page views (625,000 page views, 1,500 Facebook shares and more than 1,000 Tweets in all).
– In October, two BrandVoice writers in the technology space each generated 150,000 page views, compared with a median of 100,000 page views for staff reporters and contributors in that vertical (Note: staffers and editorial contributors cannot work for a BrandVoice partner). Last month, one of these BrandVoice writers finished 12th in terms of unique visitors among all writers in the vertical, including reporters and contributors.
So, how can brand marketers succeed in the world of native ads? The simplest answer: tell an interesting story with expertise and confidence. Here are three examples:
– Sungard, a specialist in IT disaster recovery, discusses winning business designs in the context of evolutionary biology in Blockbuster Never Had a Chance (24,000 views).
– SAP, an enterprise software company, deploys one of its tools to help gamers make a critical decision this holiday period in PS4 vs. Xbox One: Winner Emerges Via Social Media Analysis (91,000 views).
– gyro, a business-to-business marketing company, talks about the role risk plays in forming customer attachments in Everything We Thought We Knew About B-to-B Marketing Is Wrong (60,000 views).
Of course, brand journalism is hard to get right. Most advertising agencies remain stuck in their old ways: they want to stay on — and control — the message with slick packaging. Public relations firms, eager to take business away from ad agencies, must overcome the culture of spin ingrained in their communications strategies. Interestingly, marketers themselves can be more forward-thinking about native ads than either Mad Men or PR types. NetApp, now into its second year as a BrandVoice Partner, talks in 4 Ways to Win at 21st Century Marketing about replacing the 4 P’s (product, place, price and promotion) with 4 C’s (create, concentrate, compel and communicate). On a recent trip to Europe, I offered my own advice in What I Saw and Heard on the Front Lines of Native Advertising.
Quality of content will be a key determining factor in the future of native advertising. Today’s consumers are quite adept at separating the meaningful from the mush. The mouse click, finger tap, swipe or scroll makes it easy to evade a product pitch in a personal news stream — or check out its veracity. Transparency is vital, too — the kind audiences require, not necessarily what journalists deem acceptable. As native advertising and digital publishing evolve, the journalistic profession would do well to finally accept the hard lessons it keeps learning: conventions from one era and one medium often don’t apply to the next era’s preferred method of communication.
This article was written by Lewis DVorkin and Forbes staff from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.