Fooled by Forbes’ fantasy fiction?

One issue dominating the tech-media back channels of late is publisher Forbe’s use of its column “BrandVoice” to promote blatantly various technology products, such as Oracle and SAP.

“What’s wrong with advertorials?” I hear you ask.  Well, simply put, BrandVoice articles are not clearly portrayed as advertorials, such as when you read a car advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, but appear to be regular news and opinion pieces.  For example, take a look at this write up of SAP’s “Pioneering Walk in the Cloud”, or Oracle’s “Why Exadata Is Rocking the Tech Industry”.  The only indication that these are sponsored columns, is the “BrandVoice” note at the top, if you happen to know what “BrandVoice” actually means. There is no sponsored content indication anywhere on the BrandVoice articles, not even a company logo at the top of the pieces.  Moreover, midway through last year, the column title was changed from AdVoice to BrandVoice, further blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

The list of praiseworthy articles is endless, and (seemingly) very convincing to the general reader, who is being fooled into thinking they are reading real journalism.  And why would you think these articles were suspiciously fictional marketing puffery, while skim-reading over your corn flakes and coffee? It’s Forbes, for chrissakes… has to be great content, right?

Sadly, these pieces are not even written by journalists, but by marketers within the respective vendors.  And hey – it’s awesome marketing. A prestige media platform like Forbes allowing sponsors to pen their own content under their famous brand? Can’t fault the savvy CMOs for buying up some serious media real-estate.

And this pay-for-praise content fest doesn’t stop with the BrandVoices. There is more blurring of the lines as some regular Forbes columnists are brand sponsored, for example Dan Woods used to be sponsored by IBM, now he is sponsored by SAS. How do his followers know who’s paying him to wear their rose-tinted spectacles. Even at HfS, we’ve been approached to be interviewed by Forbes “journalists” for sponsored pieces by services providers.

So what does this say about Forbes and the state of tech journalism? 

Has Forbes reached a level of greed from its advertising revenue, that it simply doesn’t care about fooling its readership into reading blatant commercials?  According to one (highly credible) vendor marketer, the cost is $1M to get into BrandVoice, and there is even a more modest program requiring a paltry $50K to $100K a month for a six-month trial package of fantasy pieces.  This isn’t small potatoes stuff, ladies and gentelmen…

Or is this simply the decline of the tech journalism industry, where vendors have taken their level of control over written content to a whole new level where the publisher and vendor have lost all respect for impartiality?  The vendor having its unblemished one-sided spectacular praise pieces, the publisher getting paid spectacularly well, despite risking losing all credibility with its readers.

We had the opportunity to talk to some vendor executives recently to get their experience working of the strategy behind Forbes’ BrandVoice….

HfS:  Does Forbes promise to make the sponsored content appear independent?

Potential Advertiser: No, they don’t promise to make their content appear independent.  They position it as another marketing channel where editorial and advertorial co-mingle and co-exist.  They are, in fact, quite proud of the hits BrandVoice articles get relative to straight editorial.  They like that blending of content.

HfS: Does Forbes have specific writing/content guidelines – and how much do their own staff shape the content?

Potential Advertiser: They do have specific writing and content guidelines, yet there is no vetting process whatsoever.  Vendors can publish anything through the WordPress site.  I get the impression that only after someone calls out an egregious post will they do anything.  There is no filter, no vetting, vendors can post anything they want.  In the case of using their content bureau, things are different, however - they do screen their own content.  It is very much like the Wild West, that’s why Oracle and co. can get away with such blatant advertorials.

Key facts* about Forbes BrandVoice, relayed to HfS:

  • 33 active advertisers as of today
  • BrandVoice generates 150,000 hits a month on average
  • Forbes has added what it calls a “service bureau,” which operates like a creative services team, to help brands publish content of interest to readers across not only the site, but also social media
  • SAP has been onboard since the beginning and averages about 60% of all hits to BrandVoice columns
  • SAP aspires to turn 10% of its Forbes readers into what it calls “marketable contacts,” but right now that number is somewhere between 2% and 10%.
  • Cost is $1M to get into BrandVoice, and there is a more modest program requiring $50K to $100K a month for six months
  • Forbes expects BrandVoice to generate 25% of all revenues in 2013, up from 10% this year

*If Forbes deems these to be wildly inaccurate, then please share this openly with us here

The Bottom-line: Beware of famous media brands bearing free content

To be honest, this whole debacle leaves me depressed and speechless.  While less credible or renowned brands (or some lower tier analysts) might be pressured to take vendor handouts for rose-tinted articles, you expect more from a world famous brand like Forbes.  It’s almost as if the vendors want to cut corners these days and simply buy opinion – and even write it themselves, and some of these media platforms are (apparently) giving up the ghost on quality reporting and journalism.  This is a slippery slope, and one you struggle to see bottoming out anytime soon.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted January 30, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Phil,

    Thanks for sharing your insights about this program.

    To be completely clear for readers, Forbes needs to spin off BrandVoice and make it a separate site, specifically for these are pay-for-play columns. I recently read the Oracle column – the angry one – about the company not getting enough credit about their cloud computing business. It would be great if Oracle broke out cloud revenues and shared, in financial results, what was going on in each area of their cloud business. But they don’t do that, and that is a disservice to CIOs and the idnsutry:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/oracle/2013/01/29/oracle-cloud-success-triggers-oracle-derangement-syndrome/

    What made me realize this was a BrandVoice article was this statement: For Oracle, the move into the cloud isn’t new, it isn’t trendy, and it isn’t tentative—CEO Larry Ellison began an aggressive move into the cloud 8 years ago with the Fusion Applications megaproject, which would allow customers to run Fusion apps either on-premise or in the cloud, interchangeably, with the same code base.

    Really? 8 years ago Fusion was about the cloud? I think not.

    Thanks for shining a bright light on this issue. Hopefully technology buyers will be vigilant about what they’re reading as a result.

    Louis

  2. Jay Kong
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    No surprise here….this is right out of Larry Ellison’s playbook: http://www.conceivablytech.com/3637/business/the-scariest-company-in-tech

  3. Jarret Pazahanick
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Great article Phil and have watched this closely especially given that SAP has been the largest and more prominent user of AdVoice. It is interesting also that Bob Evans who wrote many of they earlier AdVoice posts for SAP (with often very strong opinions on Oracle) is now doing the same for Oracle.

    SAP has sprinkled in decent article on adVoice but loses any goodwill I may have with articles like SAP’s “Pioneering Walk in the Cloud” which the title alone is ridiculous unless I misunderstand what the word pioneer means :-)

    My take is SAP and Oracle must be seeing value and business generation from using Forbes as they continue their investment in this area but my take is that customers will eventually start to understand these are one-side paid advertisements and blogs like this will help in that education.

  4. Joseph Morrissey
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This really isn’t anything new. Companies can pay to have their content look like journalism. Most people can tell the difference. The big concern is what is NOT being written in order to keep advertising revenue.

  5. Phil Fersht
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    @joseph: I have had multiple notes from folks who have literally been floored by this – they had NO idea these were advertorials. Can you elaborate on who else does this in the IT/services world (i.e. a premium brand, not some hokey site)?

    PF

  6. Phil Fersht
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    @jarret – there just is an insatiable desire from many vendors to broadcast propaganda and avoid debate and thought-leadership. If vendors put out some educative, useful stuff, I’d welcome it with open arms. McKinsey, IBM, Accenture, KPMG, PwC etc all produce (on the whole) compelling studies that are educational… so why this compulsion from software vendors to ‘force’ opinion? Is it simply that the legacy software industry is commodotizing and the differentiation is dying? Or is it simply marketing functions that are getting overly paranoid and scared of open debate?

    PF

  7. Jarret Pazahanick
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Per your question Phil SAP is also doing the sponsored content/editorials on Business Insider in addition to being the first and largest AdVoice customer

    http://www.clickz.com/clickz/news/2226149/sap-launches-branded-blog-on-business-insider

    It also wouldn’t surprise me if there are several others such as http://www.­businesscloud9.­com as I see SAP Executives are able to post articles there as well.

  8. Bill Kutik
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I recognize this, Phil. It used to be called “reporting.” Thanks for restoring my memory.

  9. Joseph Morrissey
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Jarret beat me to it. Business Insider is the other one I would mention. I think that every magazine I read has articles written to look like real stories but they have a little disclaimer on them that says “Advertisement”. People are used to it. It was the Oracle Vs. Google “paid blogger” disclosure that had people really shocked.
    I saw the AdAge article last year that talked about this.
    http://adage.com/article/digital/forbes-advoice-takers-revenue-impact-unclear/236533/
    I was just surprised that SAP was 60% of the money.

  10. William DeMedio MD
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    I’m not surprised that Forbes places infomercials such as Brandvoice in their publication. In fact the editorial board has every right to do this. Forbes is in the popular literature category and the objective of the publication is to generate profit for the publication as much as to disseminate information to the investing public.

    Forbes, as popular literature, does not have to adhere to the same transparency standards as a technical journal or a research publication.

    As one very large branded subscription investment advisory organization puts it, the information is intended to “entertain and amuse”.

  11. Phil Fersht
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    @william – You are correct, Forbes has every right to publish whatever it wants. Whether it wants to maintain any credibility is the issue here…

    PF

4 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Busch wrote recently about a piece that Phil Fersht wrote about Forbes magazine. Although I’d encourage you to read both pieces in summary, they [...]

  2. [...] to Phil Fersht’s blog, HfS, Forbes BrandVoice has 33 active advertisers as of late January 2013. The site generates 150,000 [...]

  3. [...] again to HfS’s Phil Fersht for surfacing the details and numbers behind the Forbes BrandVoice scheme in a recent post on his blog and how SAP, Oracle and others are influencing an audience with the Forbes brand without disclosing [...]

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