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Summary:

Forbes magazine has been talking with major advertisers about giving them blogs on the magazine’s website that would blend their marketing message in with Forbes’s editorial content, but blurring the line between advertising and journalism is a hugely risky bet for the business publication to make.

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It’s no secret by now that many publishers — particularly those with traditional print publications — are trying just about anything to boost revenue online, including pop-ups, interstitials, site takeovers and everything else under the sun. But 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 a spot right 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 their branded content as close as possible to traditional journalistic content is as old as publishing itself. The “advertorial” sections that appear in printed newspapers and magazines are driven by exactly that desire, and the fact that they try to mimic the 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 use the exact same typeface as the editorial content or not).

The rise of blogs and micro-blogging tools like Twitter has given advertisers and marketers a new platform for their content, and companies like the new SAY Media — formed from the combination of advertising platform VideoEgg and blogging pioneer Six Apart — are pitching exactly that to major brands. There’s no question that the line between advertising and non-advertising content continues to blur, thanks to the web. But what Forbes wants to do is to effectively transfer some of its brand value to those marketing-related blogs, and that risks damaging the trust readers have in the magazine.

This isn’t something that only journalists are concerned about, interestingly enough: The Ad Age article quotes Chris Perry, the CEO 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 their other blogs, but even so, there is a very real 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 those advertisers are so eager to rub up against, defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. It’s not surprising that Forbes is looking for alternative ways of raising revenue, but it should be careful not to sell its soul at the same time.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rick Audet

  1. advertising *is* content (mho, natch. don’t think i’m alone though). the open question is to what extent do the national brands discussed here understand that marketing is (ibid), in this new world, a conversation and not broadcasting.

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  2. Read More In ‘Editorial Soul-Searching’ At GigaOm Pro (sub req’d)

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  3. Outside of your title, this is one of the more even-headed responses I’ve seen on this matter.

    I helped build True/Slant and am currently working with great people at Forbes. I speak for myself alone.

    I agree this new kind of advertising needs to be done with care. Taking that care will be, I presume, an iterative process.

    That said, “blurring the line between advertising and editorial content” has been an iterative and continual process for decades.

    As a news consumer, I’ve heard David Brinkley tell me about the great people at Archer Daniels Midland making his broadcast possible, listened as the same man on the radio who tells the news also talk about life insurance and car tires, and I’ve seen ads claw their way to Page 1 of even the most traditional print pubs.

    All news – print, broadcast, online – is sponsored by or underwritten by someone. Pretending otherwise is foolishness. We need new ways to make it work.

    In entertainment, the blurring’s even more so: Seinfeld inexplicably had CA software next to his Apple II. Last season while watching “Community,” a tax software commercial appeared featuring two of the shows recurring characters. “Mad Men” features “pre-ads” styled and sound-designed like the show itself.

    Perhaps the brand and credibility concerns differ among all these examples. All of us in this space will need to be cognizant of these differences and dangers:

    – Publishers weaving advertising and marketing with editorial need to take care to be transparent
    – Per what Robin said, Advertisers and Marketers need to create messages that have some value and interest for people reading and interacting with it – if they don’t, no one will read and interact with it
    – Journalists need, as ever, to be transparent, too
    – Participants / Consumers / The People Formerly Known as The Audience should take care they understand that with which they’re interacting

    We’ve been working toward new, sustainable models for news and opinion. I don’t expect a single silver bullet. I do expect we’ll continue iterating until there is a workable, successful and profitable solution.

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  4. Forbes sacrificed so much credibility when it ran Dinesh D’Souza’s farcical rant about Obama being a “Kenyan Anticolonialist” that it’s hard to imagine that this really matters.

    Ultimately, quality matters. You can’t replace the journalists and journalism Forbes has lost over the years with volunteers and corporate marketing writers. That’s not to say you can’t make money trying, of course.

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  5. @destor23 – I hear what you’re saying. With hope, you understand your take on the article you mention is not necessarily universally-held.

    Editorial slant should be accounted for separately from editorial quality. As far as I know, there are no efforts underway to “replace the journalists and journalism … with volunteers and corporate marketing writers.” And I know for certain that scores of fine journalists continue writing for Forbes.

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    1. Appreciate the response but I do hope you understand that the issue is not “my take” on the D’Souza article but the still uncorrected errors of fact that Forbes presented. This is neither a case of taste or “your mileage may vary.”

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  6. [...] coverage of Forbes’ AdVoice announcement was accompanied by reïterations of the general existence of [...]

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