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May 11, 2010, 11 a.m.

Forbes takes a page (and an employee) from The Economist to build a custom research service

In news organizations’ efforts to diversify their revenue streams, one idea — custom research — is catching on. Global Post offers businesses “our global network of credentialed journalists to find authoritative answers to your urgent questions.” We recently wrote about Iraq Oil Report, a startup that provides paying clients on-the-ground answers to their Iraq questions — and which now generates 30 percent of its revenue from those research operations.

To launch that service, Iraq Oil Report hired a veteran of the bigger player in the space, the Economist Intelligence Unit. That’s also the path chosen by Forbes, which hired an Intelligence Unit veteran, Christiaan Rizy — at the time director of business development of EIU — to launch its own custom research operation in June 2008.

The Forbes Insights division, a 13-person operation spread throughout offices in New York, Austria, and India, is already profitable, Rizy told me. Its major product is a form of tailored journalism for high-paying corporate clients. (Rizy wouldn’t get into specifics on how much a project typically runs.) The program fits with Forbes’ broader strategy of expanding into products well beyond magazines and the ads that run in them; we recently profiled their corporate “reputation tracker,” another money-maker outside of ads.

The bulk of the Insights team’s work takes the form of surveys and interviews with executives, which then appear in published white papers. The final product looks similar to something a consulting firm might produce. Typically, one company “sponsors” the paper, paying for the cost of the surveys, research, reporting, and writing, plus a healthy margin for Forbes. Sometimes the reporting, writing and analysis is done entirely by the Insights team; other times, freelancers are tapped.

The white paper is generally made public, but that doesn’t mean Forbes wants everyone reading it. “We’re not too keen to promote our stuff to the general public, because I want very specific individuals to come download them,” Rizy told me, as he directed me to a page not listed on forbes.com’s main site navigation. The reports are marketed to a select audience, either to drum up business for the sponsor or as a promotional tool.

To get a sense of how this works, take a look at this list of Forbes Insights reports. One report, “Has the recession changed the talent game? Six guideposts to managing talent out of a turbulent economy,” is the seventh in a yearlong series on managing talent. The research was sponsored by Deloitte, the consulting firm, which offers services in the talent management field. Rizy explained to me that Forbes would not do research that specifically promotes a company (e.g., a report on why Deloitte is so great) — but as in this instance, the research can promote the type of work they do. The divide is important, Rizy said, to maintain the credibility of the work.

The reports’ surveys use Forbes’ established relationships with executives around the world — you’d have a tough time running this operation out of your garage. “We can get pretty specific,” Rizy told me, explaining how sponsors typically want to zoom in on a specific sector, global region, and executive level for surveys, which typically include 300 to 500 people. The surveys aren’t scientific, but they can give companies a sense of trends and thinking in their industry. Those surveyed are not paid for their time, but do receive small gifts and acknowledgements from Forbes throughout the year, like copies of recent books from Forbes writers.

Rizy also noted that, when a company doesn’t want Insights research to be made public, it’s willing to provide bespoke research just to the paying client.

I asked Rizy if Forbes Insights should be considered journalism. He says yes: “You’ve got the interviews, you’ve got the reserach,” he said, and “that quantitative and qualitative combination makes a pretty powerful story.”

POSTED     May 11, 2010, 11 a.m.
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