How Forbes got readers to double the time spent per post on mobile

For most news publishers, their audiences increasingly prefer visiting them on mobile devices. As comScore found, mobile eats up 65 percent of digital media time. But many publishers have lagged in reshaping desktop news for mobile sites.

Forbes, which usually sees half its traffic coming to it this way in any given month, felt the problem firsthand. “The industry’s just shrunk to fit the phone,” said Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer at Forbes. “It was a traditional storytelling format for a device that requires a more visual storytelling format. Mobile audiences in my mind want a different kind of experience.”

So six months ago, D’Vorkin decided to come up with a new way to present news for the mobile web. Forbes, no stranger to reinvention, having been early in letting outside contributors and advertisers publish alongside its own journalists, created card-like formats to replace text-based stories. Forbes tested this new format with 26 articles, focusing on its list-based ones like “America’s Top Colleges” and “America’s Richest Self-Made Women.” For the latter, each woman is represented in a photo on the home page; clicking on each reveals a series of cards with data and information snippets about the person.

Forbes tested the visual formats with 60,000 users, mainly people coming from Facebook. The experiment was limited, but the results were striking: time spent on the new mobile experience overall was at least twice that of the current one. For the new mobile lists, 35 percent of users averaged 10 minutes on the new version versus 4 minutes on the old mobile version. For new mobile articles, users averaged 2 minutes on the new version versus 1 minute on the old mobile one, with some articles showing a 10 times increase in time spent, according to Forbes — contrary to the drive-by nature of the mobile web.

The mobile landing page for one of the Forbes lists that got the new storytelling treatment

Forbes isn’t the first to experiment with new, mobile- and platform-friendly ways of presenting the news. launched two years ago with its explanatory news format called “card stacks” that were made to be distributed on social platforms. It recently acknowledged the limitations of the card stacks, though, given the complexity of the online news environment. “I’m still proud of them and we still use them, but they’re not going to change the whole game,” co-founder and editor in chief Ezra Klein recently said.

In the case of Forbes, D’Vorkin said he isn’t declaring the death of the text article, and confirmed that Forbes will continue to publish in text form. But, he said: “Not every story has to be text, and in some cases, it’s a better story told in that format.”

The desktop version of the same article

Forbes has a group of mobile editorial staffers, data developers and analytics and social media experts creating the mobile formats, and they’re working to identify other stories that are suited for this mobile treatment. Beyond lists, it also picked stories it expected to do well on social media, ones that are highly visual and luxury-focused, as well as in-depth articles that it could turn into information nuggets or timelines.

Today’s publishers also can’t afford not to think about social distribution, so Forbes designed the cards to be published to social networks with the least amount of reworking.

Typically, publishers’ ability to monetize their mobile sites hasn’t kept up with user behavior. That’s the other case for the new card formats. Years ago, Forbes adopted the platform mantra that says all the tools available to its editorial staff would also be open to contributors and advertisers, and it’s thinking similarly with the card approach. Forbes CRO Mark Howard is working on special ad units for the card formats that will be sold on the basis of time rather than impressions. D’Vorkin also envisions making the format templates available to outside contributors.

A handful of publishers have adopted a time-based ad sales approach, but it hasn’t caught on widely. A big reason is, there’s no industry standard for buying this way.

Howard acknowledged that change will be slow but said that by next year, he expects time-based ads to be at least 10 percent of mobile revenue.

“It’s early days and there’s going to be a lot of evangelizing. But we’d rather go early, learn the technology and really advocate for that kind of change. We absolutely see that being the primary way forward on mobile,” he said.

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