EXCLUSIVE: Taj Forer on Content Experience, Story Telling & More
Taj Forer is a famed visual artist and the co-founder of Fabl, the B2B visual storytelling platform, and Daylight, the internationally-celebrated, disruptive art publishing/media company. The 37-year old New Jersey born Forer is an acclaimed published and digital marketing expert with deep exposure to fine art marketing. He has presented his visual artwork collections in various solo and group exhibitions across the world.
Forer has worked with some of the leading taste-making brands throughout the art, publishing, digital media, and design markets. He has helped these companies achieve enhanced consumer engagement by creative use of high-value, curated content in both the print and digital spaces. The Fabl, Inc. platform is used to support brand building by establishing meaningful engagement with consumers.
Taj Forer has also authored two books, Threefold Sun in 2007, and Stone by Stone in 2011. They are works of his critically-acclaimed art photography. The artwork of Forer now finds pride of place in permanent collections in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC, the Fidelity Investments Collection, Boston, MA, the Sir Elton John Collection, London, UK and many other famous art collection centers across the globe.
Could you tell us a little bit about your journey – From Daylight to Fabl?
In 2003, I Cofounded Daylight along with my friend Michael Itkoff. Daylight is an art publishing and media brand that we conceptualized in a college dorm room, literally. We built Daylight into an established, global media brand through our uncompromising attention to quality, design and value-additive content and associated products. We were obsessed with production quality, elegant design and product positioning within the fine art and design markets (luxury). Everything we produced was of the highest quality, from the paper stocks chosen for printed books to the inks used on that paper, to the German-origin of printing presses we produced on, no detail was overlooked.
As we inevitably began to ramp-up our digital programs, we were always frustrated with the freneticism of web content experience. We fundamentally believed that disruptive advertising (banner ads, display ads, pre-roll video, etc.) was going to die a not-so-distant-future death as consumers were already increasingly rejecting these forms of intrusion. We speculated, rightfully so, that publishers who had built their revenue bases on such an archaic model would be torn apart – disruption seemed inevitable, accelerated by the rise of programmatic.
Fast forward seven or eight years, and what do we see? programmatic advertising revenues are in rapid decline (the automated technologies powering the nauseating, disruptive advertising experiences that we all know too well), publishers are going belly-up left and right, legacy media is in total free-fall (Time, Inc. selling to Meredith, Meredith in turn selling off the new portfolio’s most iconic brands like Time magazine and Fortune, as one such example), it’s a total shit-show and I fundamentally believe it’s all rooted in the industry’s inability over the last decade to prioritize content experience (some might say: user experience). I mean c’mon, turn back the clock to 2012 and visit any content publisher’s website and tell me you had a good experience – no way, it was and still is for the most part, a mess.
So, Michael and I got to talking about our plans for a big, bold, new digital program relative to our observations and successes creating premium print content delivered via premium print content experiences (packaging, design, user experience) and realized there were no tools on the market supporting digital content publishing as we approached it – let alone tools that considered both the content creator and their audience. So, being product guys with tenacity, we decided we had no choice but to build our “dream platform,” one that would put the user-experience, or content experience first, hedging our bets that the value-creation generated by this meaningful engagement would organically drive revenues, audience numbers and open up the future for our media company.
We immediately got to work.
We looked at the digital projects we had undertaken to-date and identified a direct correlation between the time and money invested in the design and development of a premium, lush, highly visual content deliverable and the performance of that content (reader engagement and associated conversions from the content such as registrations, clicks on Call-to-Action buttons or product purchases) – it was as clear as day; invest in quality, custom design and development, deliver far superior engagement and conversion results.
The problem was, this approach wouldn’t scale for the digital program we were envisioning; we had identified a starting point for our product roadmap and knew that we needed to build software to automate the dominant inputs from designers and developers critical to successful, premium, on-brand content pages, ensuring superb performance seamlessly across all devices and platforms.
We theorized that if we could successfully build such a platform, we would eliminate those cost and time intensive inputs that correlated back to great results for the published content programs that were so hard and expensive to build. After about a year of rapid iteration, we had built our BETA and it was working. Within a fraction of the time previously required, we were building and deploying gorgeous, on-brand, rich-media enabled content pages that drove engagement rates greater than anything we had previously experienced. We had our silver bullet and we were going to scale…
…until, some mentors put a bug in my ear about scaling this magical platform of ours as a third-party platform, not scaling as an internal tool, to support (and capitalize on) the growing demand for premium web content, for great content experiences (think Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music – the table stakes for standards were going up, fast, and we were in a powerful position to participate). Just think back five years when the term “brand storytelling” and “content marketing” were barely starting to become commonplace…It happened quickly, right?
Practically overnight, “storytelling” and “content marketing” were dominating the marketing community conversation.
Naturally, around the same time, we started attracting interest from other brands and media companies in licensing the system we were using in-house, but we had no third-party user interface, nor the ability for the platform to support multiple brands, nor so, so many other things that would be critical to a platform that could be used by people outside our company.
Eventually, we embraced the unique position we were in to help increase the quality of experience for web content, at-large, and decided we had no choice but to get after it!
So, we spun-out our BETA platform, licensed it back to our publishing company, and built an amazing team of software engineers, UX/UI designers and seasoned software executives from Silicon Valley to develop a unique platform, sold as SaaS, to support what we now call: Brand-as-Publisher.
The idea is simple: as marketing organizations (both B2C and B2B) rapidly begin functioning more like publisher/media organizations than traditional marketing organizations, they lack the right tools for the job – a publishing engine to scale high impact, high quality, on-brand content marketing and branded content initiatives. Historically, even in very recent history, brands have not been publishers, but now they have to become publishers in order to compete effectively in the “digital attention economy.” So, we got to work talking to marketers, agencies, publishers, designers, content producers and really drilled-into the dominant pain points, friction areas and cost-centers that drove them all crazy. We then reverse-engineered this feedback to come up with the feature list for our enterprise platform and started building. After a couple of years, we had a working, scalable version of Fabl on the market (Fabl 2.0) and without any marketing or PR of our own, began building a customer list of brands and publishers including GE, CBS, Ducati, Forbes, Oracle, to name a few.
And so, here we are, helping brands transform their marketing organizations from cost centers into revenue generators by putting the customer first, delivering unique, premium content marketing pages that increase engagement and conversion rates when compared to previous systems and processes. All automated by the next-generation MarTech / AdTech platform that is Fabl!
Looking back six years when I was focused primarily on publishing art books, I can’t honestly say that I would have ever imagined running a content marketing automation platform for the enterprise in 2018 but here we are, loving every day and meeting every new challenge as a learning opportunity while helping to make the internet a better place to live (let’s be honest, we spend approximately 50% of our waking lives on the internet everyday so I’d say it’s critical that we start creating environments and experiences on the web that align with our standards for environments and experiences off the web…)
Not every company is in a position to afford a service like Fabl. What are they missing out on?
What they’re missing out on is that a SaaS platform like Fabl isn’t an expense, it’s an investment.
Time and again, we see Fabl clients investing in upping their game for content quality and content experience, investing in and prioritizing tools, technologies and the right people to transform the customer experience through the brand’s content experience and, quite rapidly, the ROI speaks for itself with more and more revenue growth attribution correlating right back to that content team’s output. It takes money to make money and the smart brands are approaching quality content programs as a central priority, a necessity, investing appropriately and then reaping the rewards in greater and greater volume. So, I’d say brands that “can’t afford Fabl” are not missing out on Fabl, they’re missing out on the point entirely: make the content experience a priority, move budget around to breathe life into a quality content marketing program and smile when realizing just how quickly that investment starts paying big dividends.
In the past we had “value propositions that we wrote creatively about” and now with increasing commoditization / lack of differentiators, everyone talks of ” storytelling”. Do you think that this “retrospective creativity” is equally authentic?
Look, storytelling is as old as our species – there’s nothing “new” about storytelling and I think it’s hilarious that storytelling has become some buzz word in marketing. People connect with stories because our brains are literally wired to connect with stories. Not using storytelling is like the most blatant mistake any organization can make when creating a content strategy, regardless of whether they’re marketing fifteen dollar skateboards to 15 year old kids or multi-hundred-million dollar enterprise cloud security solutions to the C-Suite of the world’s biggest companies, we’re all human and we all connect with a good story. But storytelling, or content, isn’t the be-all, end-all – brands can tell the best stories in the world but if the experience of those stories sucks, no one cares – no one connects with the narrative, no actual value is generated. Let me give you an example, if someone hurriedly yells a story at you in an overcrowded bar where three TVs are blaring three different programs and some drunk sales guys are obnoxiously hitting on the waitress, you’re not going to connect with the story or the message imbued in the story, let alone the storyteller herself! But, sit down around a campfire along the edge of a quiet lake at sunset while sipping mulled apple cider and the same story is likely to have a profoundly different impact on you, as is the connection created between the one hearing the story and the one telling the story. Do you follow me? Does the first setting remind you of, say, the internet??!!
This is actually a pretty good way to think about Fabl; a user-friendly tool for quickly and easily creating distinguished settings (experiences) for stories to be engaged with – a place for audiences to connect with brands through stories, authentically, delivered via meaningful context (think lakeside campfire!). Memorable relationships are created between a storyteller (brand) and their audience (customers or prospective customers). Granted, sometimes the story might be a whitepaper and the audience a bunch of business people in a lead database, but it’s all the same! We’re all people, we all value high quality, unique experiences, we all love stories and we’re all sick and tired of the clusterfuck that dominates our digital lives.
I’ll also say that investing in real, integrity-based content creation cannot be overlooked. I cannot say enough good things about working with trained journalists, seasoned storytellers. Its easy to do: seek out speakers at the last conference who gave you goose bumps and as them to partner on some inspiring content creation, for example. I also always like to think about being the reader, listener, viewer of a story and so as to approach content creation projects as if I’m the one on the other end consuming the content, that’s probably the easiest and most effective approach to ensure the content we create is meaningful, authentic, value-additive because we all know good content we come across it. So, in short: we should make content as if it’s content we’re going to consume ourselves, the rest will probably work itself out.
Your own work is truly brilliant and critically acclaimed. How do you come up with the ideas / concepts that you do? Is there a process or idea lifecycle that you can share?
Oh, my artwork? Well, thank you – that’s flattering but to be perfectly honest, there’s no formula or real “logic” to my artwork. I’m a deeply concerned person, I’m convicted and it’s from this place of concern that I make art. There’s a great artist named Joel Sternfeld who I (and Michael, my Cofounder) had the blessing of studying with (during which time we developed a friendship that remains in place today), and Joel used to always ask, “What is at stake for you in the world?” He would grill me on this question and not let up until I had really peeled back the layers of that onion, getting to the heart of what it was that was truly concerning me in the world at the moment – it is from that place that I learned make art because, I would argue, unless concern and intention are the core ingredients with which aesthetic work is created, the object or experience (the “art”) isn’t actually art. I do a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of feeling and a lot of dreaming (literally and metaphorically) and that all brings me, again and again, to realities that I’m really concerned with (often political, social, environmental, societal, behaviorial), I tend to then delve-into that place of concern and often it becomes the source for my making pictures, or installations, or videos, or sculptural objects, whatever feels right for the topic of my concern as a medium at the time – I tend to gravitate towards that and start making, with purpose, with urgency, with intention. Fabl is no different, it’s like one big art project, responding with urgency, intention and purpose to the deep concern of value being sucked out of the lives of billions of people everyday through offensive and disruptive and unininvited digital content experiences – it’s bad, it’s really bad but slowly, with platforms like Fabl, it’s getting better and I see a big, bright light at the end of the tunnel and man, are we cruising through that tunnel!
I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty heady dude so sometimes I probably get a little too esoteric for some people but hey, I’m just telling it like is.
But back to web content experience for a moment now that you’ve gotten me all fired up! Honestly, I’m offended by most of the web experiences I have, like personally offended – not by the content itself necessarily (text, images, video, etc. – although there’s certainly no shortage of bad content out there, of course), but I’m offended by most experiences of engaging with the content on the web, much of which is created by brands trying to get my attention. I mean, think about that for a second from the perspective of a brand; here I (customer) am, telling you (brand) that I’m personally offended by how you try to get my attention online, yet it just keeps happening – it’s insane and everyone with their head screwed on straight feels the same way I do! Huge opportunity here, just huge and I’m excited and proud to be going after it with Fabl. Everyone wins when good content is delivered via a good experience in digital – everyone.
What is a typical day in your life like? We want to know more about what /who inspires you?
Ha! I love that question – ok, here goes:
I wake up at about 6am and while drinking a cup of really good coffee (I’m a coffee lover so that first cup better blow my tastebuds and my mind wide open or it didn’t do it’s job!), I check-in with the part of our team that is based in Europe and has already been at it working on the platform for a few hours. I keep that time really focused, prioritizing responses to questions that are real needle-movers or represent urgency, but that’s it – I don’t get sucked down into the weeds, not just yet.
I then read a couple of stories from trusted online sources like The NY Times while finishing my coffee (ideally stories that give me some inspiration or seed compelling thoughts, like profiles of amazing people / companies, or interviews with folks I admire, compelling market news, etc.) – then, it’s time for time for my kids who are awake and soon blowing my mind with their questions, observations, creativity, and energy – my kids are a huge source of inspiration for me, both personally and professionally, and I try to really soak-in my time with them.
My amazing wife, Kate, and I trade off morning responsibilities that include preparing breakfast, walking our dogs, collecting eggs from our chickens and/or doing garden chores (yes, we have chickens and a huge garden), packing lunches and school backpacks, ya know, normal family life stuff!
My wife or I then drop our kids off at school and I immediately push out a 3.5-5 mile run while listening to an audiobook or podcast, usual business, technology or leadership focused content. This is a huge part of my daily routine as well as a core facet of my physical, mental and emotional health. If you’ve never done something like take a run every day, rain or shine, tired or not, weak or strong, home or travelling on a business trip, I strongly encourage giving it a go – but commit, the positive effects are cumulative!
After my run and shower, I get ready for the work zone and dive into it, hard.
One of the things I love most about my day-day work at Fabl is that everyday is different, yet structured similarly. I’m a die-hard believer in the Pareto Principle so am always prioritizing what I’m working on relative to the output or value-created by the work for the company, that’s my productivity North Star as I navigate the endless stream of communications, fires that seem to need attention (yet sometimes are really just distractions, not real threats!) questions that need answers, plans that need action…
If I’ve effectively prioritized the myriad projects in front of me and gotten through those that move the needle the most for the company with a positive attitude, I’ve done my job effectively. The biggest trick for myself is listening – really listening – listening to those around me working on various projects or problem solving for Fabl or our customers, listening to myself and my gut-reaction to what matters most and then diving in without much hesitation. Trusting myself to execute. Learning by doing.
Oh, and I eat a power salad for lunch most days, drinking lots of water and couple cups of coffee or espressos here and there.
In the evening, I turn my attention to my family, always cooking a nice meal and sitting down together with Kate and our kids for the timeless tradition of sharing time, good food and conversation. Our kids are still pretty young so after early books and bedtime, I generally knock out a call or two with one of our APAC clients, west coast investors or do some final work with our team based on the West Coast (three hours ahead of me here in New York).
Then, it’s time to wind down, usually with Kate, a glass of good red wine and some TV (news, narrative television, or sports, I love sports).
Sleep follows as I don’t think there is anything, really, more important than a solid 7+ hours of sleep. I’m pretty militant about getting 7+ hours of good rest every night – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, give it try, it’s super easy.
Over dinner a couple months ago, my dear friend Krishna (who I’ve known since middle school), told me that ever since we were kids he’s observed that I’m like a motor, always running, chugging along, turning over, again and again and again, that I “never stop.” I kinda like that because it’s true, until I pass out at like 10pm anyway – hahahaha!