Native advertising is still a much embattled practice, with some struggling to define practices, others declaring it a temporary fix, or still more seeing it as a work in progress. No matter which way you see it, it’s here now.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Forbes Chief Revenue Officer Mark Howard while he was in Chicago for his company’s Reinventing America Summit, which featured appearances by Steve Forbes, consummate businessman Sam Zell, Bill Ford of Ford Motor Co., Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and more.

While the choice of Chicago as the site for the summit may have come as a surprise to some, Forbes’ goal was to highlight the heartland as a “high-technology hotbed,” as well as to celebrate the role of small companies across the country in “redefining (America’s) role in the Global Economy.”

Just prior to our talk, Howard and I had the opportunity to see Sam Zell’s lively, profanity-filled lunchtime talk with Forbes editor Randall Lane. What better way to head into this conversation?

The following is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Q&A

Q: I saw your colleague Lewis Dvorkin’s piece about native advertising. He discussed the state of native advertising and how far it’s come from where he started, and he gave an overview of what you’re doing at Forbes. One thing he mentioned is that you have two separate teams, one for brand content and one for editorial content. Can you tell me briefly what that means at Forbes?

Mark Howard: That really means in terms of the support of the content creators. We do have very clear rules and guidelines around that. Anyone who creates and produces editorial content cannot participate in the creation of BrandVoice content. This goes for the people who are writing the content as well as the producers who support the writers of the content.

Mark Howard, Chief Revenue Office for Forbes

Mark Howard, chief revenue officer for Forbes

A few years ago we started to build out the brand newsroom, and that was really to build out the same type of back end support for content creators that exists on the editorial side, but then, instead of reporting up to Lewis on the editorial operation, they report up to me on the business side. Many of them have traditional newsroom training from the editorial side; most of them worked in another newsroom with another company.

The leader of that group for us actually started at Forbes on the editorial product side, and then she made the move over, completely severing all of her responsibilities and connections to the editorial edit product to really create and really build out the team that is this brand newsroom and team of brand producers. It’s really exciting.

With the way effectiveness is evaluated on the Internet – through shares and likes and retweets and page views – in your view, what is a successful piece of branded content?

Howard: The reality is that when you look at the different types of partners we have with BrandVoice, we’re up to 38 now in total, it’s been really amazing for us to really think about that they have different goals and objectives, and, more specifically, they have different target audiences. They do have the opportunity to write a more broad, general piece, which of course would attract a larger audience, but if you’re writing something very specific about cloud computing or certain aspects of wealth management, you’re not likely to have that same type of mass appeal.

We obviously give all of our BrandVoice clients the basic publisher statistics: page views, unique visitors, comments, follows, shares. We’ve also mapped that to social analytics through our partners at SimpleReach, who then provide all of the data around what happened to their content as it made its way around the social web: social options, social referrals, broken down by social network and the ability to look at it in aggregate or on an article by article basis. Those are both provided as standard practice. All of our BrandVoice partners have the ability to log onto their dashboards and see that data.

Taking it one step further, we really believe that the next level of transparency that’s really important for native advertising is not the disclosure part. If you haven’t figured that out by now in 2014, you have a different set of challenges you need to solve. That’s table stakes right now that your disclosure needs to be clear, and the audience isn’t being duped or tricked in any way.

The transparency that I think is important today is how do you provide greater information to your partners who are creating this content to understand how is the content discovered, both on our site as well as across the web, and who is it that’s engaging with that content. It’s understanding how it’s discovered, and it’s understanding who the individuals are that are actually engaging with the content. By being able to provide that level of information, you then start to get out of the idea that it’s no longer just a sheer page view game, it’s a quality game, and that’s really the goal for BrandVoice is that we think about the larger portfolio of the partners that we have.

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Journalism schools are having to catch up to the digital revolution, make sure their students are ready to enter the job market with the skills that are needed today. What are skills that j-schools could be teaching their students to prepare them for a spot in your brand newsroom?

Howard: The best part about this is that actually the skill set is the same. Right? The ability to tell a story, whether they’re doing in from an editorial perspective, or whether they’re doing it on behalf of helping a brand tell their story, which we all know are the only ways that an audience is really going to resonate or respond. The skill set is actually the same.

We’ve been building out this BrandVoice practice and giving brands the ability to publish their own branded content whether they’re building out a newsroom themselves or having us help them facilitate some of that content.

The only reason it works is because Forbes philosophically almost four years ago bought into this notion of creating a platform for expert voices. While we still have our editorial staff of editors and writers, we also now have a network of 1,200 topic experts who are contributors that are publishing to the platform, and what that is doing is giving a lot of trade journalists who are not necessarily working for Forbes the ability to still publish, provide their type of expertise, cover the beats that they know, build audiences, and continue to build their personal brands. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.

There’s a clear need for that very firm wall of who does what, and there’s no blending of responsibilities, because we’ve got that business that’s putting a lot of trained journalists back to work and make a living as a journalist.

Read more about native advertising on MediaShift:

> Digital Magazines Dive Into Native Advertising, by Susan Currie Sivek

> Native Advertising Shows Great Potential, But Blurs Editorial Lines, by Terri Thornton

> What’s Holding Back Responsive Web Design? Advertising, by Jenny Xie

> Game Changer? Inside BuzzFeed’s Native Ad Network, by Alex Kantrowitz

> Mediatwits #74: Special Edition on Rise of Native, Mobile Ads, hosted by Mark Glaser, with panelists BuzzFeed’s Jonathan Perelman, Terri Thornton, Ana Marie Cox, Andrew Lih & Monica Guzman [VIDEO]

Julie Keck is a social media and crowdfunding consultant based in Chicago. She has run and consulted on crowdfunding campaigns that have raised more than $300k over the past 4 years, mostly for independent films and webseries. She has spoken about crowdfunding and social media at SXSW, the University of Notre Dame, Columbia College, the Chicago Documentary Film Summit, the Chicago International Film Festival, and more. Julie is also a filmmaker, as well as the social media and newsletter editor for PBS MediaShift. You can find her on Twitter at @kingisafink.