Mike Federle took over the reins at Forbes Media in 2018, having previously held leading positions at Fortune, Time Inc. and Bonnier. Here, he talks about Forbes’ latest innovations, the brand’s approach to audiences, and how the wider global business community is itself changing to become more socially responsible.
Still published fortnightly in print, Forbes magazine also commands a strong presence in the Google rankings for articles focussing not only on core business topics, but also related areas like technology, communications, science, politics, and law. Indeed, the publication is perhaps best known for its own rankings, including lists like the Forbes Rich List, 30 Under 30, and the Global 2000, which provides a look at the world’s largest public companies.
The publication’s latest innovation comes in the form of Forbes8, an on-demand digital video network brimming with expert content designed to help the next wave of entrepreneurs take their first steps into the business sphere. And that is where we begin.
“Yeah it’s a standalone app,” says Mike Federle, CEO of Forbes Media. “It’s downloadable right now and it’s available all over the world. But what it’s based on is Forbes’ focus on entrepreneurship, and we call it is Forbes8, which is the infinity sign of an entrepreneurs journey. It’s all about providing information in your pocket, in an app, with information on everything you need to know about becoming an entrepreneur, starting a company, etc. There’s 3,500 videos that we have in there from successful entrepreneurs, successful startups, to tutorials on how to write a business plan, how to raise capital, everything you might need to know.”
For a magazine that has made its name writing about the forefront of business, and the individuals who drive it, staying on top of new technologies is naturally an important component in the brand’s success. So what other areas of innovation is Forbes focussed on right now?
“Yeah the focus is always around technology these days: you have to stay up on new technologies that are coming out. And so for us, we’re very focussed on adding artificial intelligence elements into our CMS system, as well as looking maybe to partner, to buy, to joint venture, with interesting companies in the AI space. We’re firm believers that AI will be very much a part of newsrooms. It already is, and will become increasingly so.”
“So technology and audience – Forbes has done a great job of building a business of scale – but we’re a business driven largely by search, in terms of how people find Forbes content. Increasingly we want to have people look for our content, and to come directly to us. And increasingly we feel we can do this successfully by increasing our engagement and relationship with our readers.”
Forbes’ position in the search rankings is undoubtedly one of the key components in making its online offering such a success. Google any kind of topic you can think of in or around traditional business content, and there’s likely to be a Forbes article there or thereabouts. This is not only good for direct traffic but branding too, since the Forbes name is constantly being reinforced within the context of prominent business topics. So when much of the industry is now so obsessed with social, was remaining high in the rankings a conscious decision on the part of the magazine?
“Without a doubt, search rules right now, and search is the method for driving audiences. Moreso even than social. Social is a good way, but a lot of times you are giving your content to social to let them present the way they want, in formats that they want. As opposed to search, which is bringing people directly to your site.”
“So for Forbes our search ranking is off the charts. It’s great. It’s one of the special secret sauces we have. And it’s a combination of a really trusted brand – a 100 year old brand – that has all the trust and professionalism that people want in their information, plus this great search ranking. In almost any search you’ll do, Forbes is somewhere in there, and it’s usually pretty high up.”
Conversely, one of the issues that appears to be providing more of a challenge for traditional media outlets right now, is the growing plethora of rules and regulations surrounding data usage at large. For many years we heard, particularly from publications sitting within the business realm, about the importance of ‘Big data’ and harvesting user-behavioural patterns to tailor relevant content to them.
Now, with the introduction of GDPR in Europe, growing calls greater social media regulation around the world, and even more recently the doomsday warnings that have emanated from the digital advertising industry in response to Google’s plans to phase out traditional cookie practices, are we seeing a shift back towards more familiar trust-driven relationships between media outlets and their audiences?
“Yeah, it’s interesting that these two things are conflicting, in that you’ve got a lot of media companies working towards much deeper understanding of their audiences, and at the same time the privacy issues are coming up. GDPR, the California initiatives that are coming up, etc., that’s the environment in which we’re all just gonna operate.”
“But it means that it’s more important than ever to have that direct relationship with your audience, and that it’s permission based, that they’re giving you permission. There’s a value exchange that has to go on. It might be a newsletter, it might be an invitation to an event, webinars, podcasts, it could be any number of things… but you have to make sure that people are giving you permission to involve them, include them, or to market to them. Ultimately [to know] that it’s content they value and want.”
“So that’s going to be I think the big initiative going forward: how do we get more people aware that we can’t market to them in certain circumstances? And if they want our content, they need to be registering with us and saying I do want this content, I do want you to market to me on other things that I might be interested in based on what I’ve shown you.”
Beyond Forbes, there is, of course, a monumental shift going on right now within the audience it represents. Chiefly, business is changing, to become more egalitarian, more cause-driven, and arguably more socially aware as we enter a new global economic age. Has Federle witnessed this shift in focus taking place amongst business professionals and entrepreneurs himself firsthand? And if so, what is Forbes doing to reinvent its own tonality to better reflect modern business?
“So this is one of the fundamental trends happening around the world. It is truly a global phenomenon that people want purpose in their work, as well as they want to be part of ethical and socially responsible companies.”
“And Forbes is famous for its Rich List, right? We have become the definitive measure of wealth around the world. But about six years or so ago we started to ask these billionaires, ok you’ve made all of this money, but now what good are you doing with it? We’ve now created a philanthropic index, by which each of our billionaires are ranked on their philanthropy. And Warren Buffet told us that is the single most important thing we have done to join the Giving Pledge. You know, that public listing is important.”
“Now that’s not the only thing we’ve done. We’ve also partnered with the Just 100 – Paul Tutor Jones of Wall Street fame. It’s a list we’ve just published and I think it’s our second or third list that are not only shareholder driven, but also showing shareholder responsibility around their employees, around their communities in which they operate, and around the greater good of society.”
“And this is a trend that’s just beginning, and companies are embracing as being hugely important, because they’re not going to be able to recruit the people they want if they don’t go there, and they’ll also find big backlashes from stockholders and shareholders there.”