When www.forbes.com contacted me in late 2013 they were looking for European financial writers who would contribute 500 plus words to the website a few times a month for a modest fee (way below typical per word rates) plus a "per view" bonus.
This bonus depends on whether the viewer is looking at my work for the first time or is a "returning" reader, which pays a higher rate.
Starting in March 2014, I began these contributions with a piece on the Scottish independence referendum . To my amazement, it quickly went viral, gaining tens of thousands of Facebook shares, being retweeted by J K Rowling and earning me invitations to comment on national media.
The remuneration system meant that this one article of around 1,000 words has now had 312,000 views and earned me somewhere over £2,000. Not a bad afternoon’s work.
However, my subsequent contributions have fared much less well. Another on Scotland, just before the referendum, had 80,000 views but otherwise it’s all been sub-20,000.
The payment system means that, per word, I’m earning well below the amount I expect from traditional commissions.
Trouble is, I’m hooked.
So here, in true Forbes/BuzzFeed style, are five reasons why I love this model:
It connects me with my readers. The biggest difference is one’s relationship with readers. Before Forbes, I paid attention to a publication’s readership, its tastes and enthusiasms, but never felt very connected. It was the editor’s and publisher’s job to cultivate that readership and address their needs. Now I know tons about them – they’re following me on social media and I can check them out.
Social media makes sense to me. To drive readers to read my stuff on Forbes, I’ve become highly active on social media. I’m on first name terms with many hundreds, if not thousands of my potential/actual readers because they follow me on Twitter, have liked my Facebook page or are connections on LinkedIn. Without this, I’d be in danger of howling in the dark, in an empty forest (full of all the trees that are no longer being chopped down to make newspapers).
It’s something that many journalists have been doing for a few years, especially on Twitter. Before being hired by Forbes, I couldn’t really see the point. Now, since a big Twitter following is almost sure to raise my Forbes readership and therefore my income, I get it.
It’s the way journalism is heading. Rewarding writers for work which gets the biggest readership in a completely direct, transparent way seems like a reasonable idea. And a platform like Forbes enables writers to build up this rapport with their audiences like never before.
The Huffington Post reportedly pays some of its writers using a similar metric and I’ve heard of others adopting it too. Advertisers are clearly attracted by the ability to target readers who have shown a very specific and sustained interest.
The potential rewards are breathtaking. Some Forbes writers are earning exceptional amounts from their contributions. One, called Gordon Kelly, often gets more than a million views per week and has done for months. He writes about tech companies such as Apple – have a look at the Q&A below.
Forbes also encourages its writers to come up with book ideas, based on their work, which the company then publishes via the site. This is another potentially fertile avenue for me and for other freelance contributors.
Posting direct is a great feeling. As a Forbes contributor, you’re allowed (indeed obliged) to post your work directly onto the Forbes.com website, add pictures and keyword links, then share it on Facebook, Twitter etc. This is a funky experience and something that few other major publications or websites have developed, as far as I know. It also encourages you to have strong opinions, like a blogger, while maintaining a well-researched, professional approach.
…And one annoyance
I’m supposed to write about media and entertainment, which is a perfectly cool patch to cover, but faced with the freedom to post articles directly onto the site, I’ve stretched the patience of my editors a couple of times. They don’t see the copy before it goes onto the site, but they do sometimes comment afterwards.
However I’m now a reformed character and can see that, like Gordon Kelly, I’ll do best to cultivate a specific Forbes readership who come back to me for more of the same.
This is another turnaround in my approach to journalism: I’ve written about everything from shark diving to pensions and love the spice of variety and the challenge of the new. The discipline of sticking to a narrow furrow has been tough for me.
And it’s possible that I’ll never make any real money from it and give up in despair.
So to conclude.
With the potential rewards of this model in my sights and a growing social media following ready to broadcast my latest output, I’m optimistic that Forbes will eventually repay what I’ve invested in social media and in terms of time, working for minimal pay.
And if not, at least it’s helped me to start swimming in these unfamiliar waters.
Q&A with Gordon Kelly – star Forbes.com contributor
Technology writer Gordon Kelly has taken Forbes.com by storm. Based in London, his regular posts on Apple’s iPhones and related stories have won a massive following and significantly increased his income.
His best-read post, on Apple’s acquisition of Beats by Dr Dre, has had more than 1. 7 million views and he regularly tops 4 million views per month and 2 million unique visitors per month. His viewing figures are way above those of almost all other writers on Forbes, even the most experienced and popular US-based ones.
As a fellow contributor, I was curious to pick his brains.
DN : Which social media have you found most effective in attracting readers to your Forbes posts?
GK : For me it varies from post to post. Different audiences respond better to some posts than others. Twitter is the most explosive but short lived, while I've found a growing audience from my Facebook author page that has been really beneficial. Google+ interaction has also been surprisingly strong and I think Instagram will be a big focus for me next year, especially for more visually inclined posts.
DN : Have you invested much time/resources in building up your social media presence if so how did you go about it?
GK : I think it is mandatory for every writer to spend time setting up a social media presence and if you haven't yet then you're very late to the game. The 'Social' part of Social Media has long been merged with Professional and the Twitter account I casually started in 2008 has increasingly become work-focused. I haven't found a magic recipe (and my follower numbers are still small compared to many) but regular posts, responding to comments and questions and keeping your feeds up to date are the basics I (and every writer) should follow.
DN : What other kinds of marketing have you done to attract traffic?
GK : In all honesty, very little. I've tried promoting posts, but the budget-to-returns figures don't really add up. For me what is more important is having your publisher promote your posts and tag you/retweet you. Publishers typically have much larger follower counts than writers so they should use this to build up the social media visibility of their writing team. Forbes does this very well with weekly tweets for its 'Most Read' writers in each major section and that always delivers a flurry of new followers which in turn helps boost visibility back onto its site.
DN : What do you think accounts for the number of views you've had on the Beats by Dr Dre post?
GK : I think with that one it came down to a combination of factors. The subject was obviously key: Apple's purchase of Beats captured the public's imagination in a way tech company takeovers usually don't. In addition to this I had a strong opinion on the deal which I believe separated it from being 'just another news story' and it provoked discussion. Writers have to be brave with opinion posts – they will, by definition, always divide opinion – but getting readers talking by introducing a new narrative was the driving force behind the popularity of that post.
DN : Besides social media, what other factors do you think attract readers to your posts?
GK : Sometimes they aren't attracted! No writer has success with every post. That said what has worked for me on Forbes has been the site's encouragement of a strong author voice. This is still taboo for many publications, but Forbes' wants to establish individual voices. Having been a freelance writer for many years and used to fitting in with 'house style' finding this freedom really appeals. It's my voice front and centre. Top Gear is famous for attracting viewers who don't care about cars, but enjoying watching 3 middle aged men bicker. I wonder if I've started to develop an aspect of that with my Forbes readership – what is Gordon going to argue next?! And I can see middle age on the horizon!
DN : Clearly writing for Forbes is working well for you. But do you think it is a viable model for journalism more broadly?
GK : I think the fact it is currently working for Forbes is massive because very little is working for publishers in general. Whether it works more broadly for others is far less certain. Some titles, Huff Po for example, already have something similar and some broadsheets have open columnist pages. Right now the publishing sector is desperately trying to find a credible way to save itself and this looks to be one route, which is encouraging, but I don't think it will be the only one. We need a variety of models so different kinds of publication and different types of writer can flourish. I think the publishing revolution has barely started.