Forbes 30 Under 30 as a marketing tactic
You're 29, and it's a week before your birthday. You feel like you're in a good place in your life and don't have any regrets. And then you see the Forbes' "30 Under 30" list. And now you're mad. No, you're not mad. You're just disappointed. No — you're mad. You're really mad. So you start Googling it: What is the dang 30 under 30 anyway? How do people even get nominated? Who judges this thing? And what's the point of it all - just to make you jealous? Because it's working!
Well, believe it or not, the purpose of the Forbes 30 under 30 is not just to make you jealous - really, it's not about you. But it's not even really about the winners, either. It's actually a marketing growth engine put on by Forbes to capitalize on the wealth, status, privilege, influence, celebrity, and self-interest of the winners to promote Forbes itself. And it's absolutely genius - because it works. And you can create your own version to capitalize on their system in the exact same way.
Below, we tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Forbes 30 Under 30, including 4) how you could replicate the 30 under 30 with a five-step framework we identified, 3) how the Forbes Under 30 grew into Forbes's top revenue generator and brings the outlet 6 million extra visitors per year, 2) conclusions we drew from all 6,000 of the US honorees, including how the acceptance rate compares to Stanford and Harvard, how the richest Under 30 is worth $26 billion and the youngest ever nominated is only 14, and 1) the origins of the 30 Under 30 and why this all lead to the Forbes 30 Under 30 in the first place.
TOP 10 INSIGHTS
- Forbes launched the 30 Under 30 list in 2011 as both a response to Fortune's 40 Under 40 list, the rise of Business Insider, and that for the first time in history, "being young" was "actually an advantage for most fields."
- The Under 30 brand currently reaches 26 million 13-to-34-year-olds through its year-long marketing growth engine and cross-platform ad campaign with digital media content and live events.
- The name "30" under 30 is actually a misnomer. The US list recognizes a total of 600 people per year, with 30 individuals selected across 20 different industries, and there are over 30 countries and regions that all have their own lists.
- After running the 30 Under 30 program for ten years, Forbes has said there have been 100,000 nominees, with 20,000 nominations per year in the US alone.
- With 600 spots available per year, there are about 30 applications for every spot, equivalent to a 2 to 3% acceptance rate. Forbes says it's harder to get onto the Under 30 list than to get into Stanford (4.8%) or Harvard (5.2%).
- The 2022 US honorees collectively raised over $1 billion in funding, nearly 50% identify as a person of color, with 61% male and 38% female, and 24% immigrants from 58 different countries as wide as Albania to the Bahamas to Syria.
- Forbes has three kinds of revenue: advertising, subscriptions, and brand extensions, like conferences and brand licensing deals. The company expects its subscription revenue to decelerate over the next few years but expects its brand extensions and advertising revenue to accelerate because of the Under 30 brand.
- The 30 Under 30 is currently the top revenue generator for Forbes due to 1) its year-long digital media campaign that drives upwards of 6 million extra web visitors per year and 2) its 10,000-strong exclusive "nominee" community, which allows Forbes to bag multi-year advertisement deals with sponsors and charge up to $9000 per ticket for the four day, in-person "Under 30" Summit events.
- Advertisers who sign up for the 30 Under 30 do so to reach young audiences whose finances will grow as they age, so they sign multi-year franchise campaigns. The key selling point to advertisers is the community of over 10,000 entrepreneurs and celebrities who join, promote, and amplify the brand year after year. Critically, everyone that has ever won are nearly all still under the age of 40.
- A five-step framework to replicate Forbes's success is: 1) Build a target audience of ideal customer persona influencers, 2) attract these "influencers" with a prize they genuinely value, 3) include a viral growth engine built into your competition, 4) make sure the community around your awards can be scaled, and 5) tailor your content marketing strategy around exclusivity.
The history of the "30 Under 30"
The history of the "Forbes 30 under 30" actually begins with the "Fortune 40 under 40." From 1999 to 2003, Fortune created the "40 under 40" list as a purely numeric ranking of wealth to capture the value creation of the first dot com boom. (source)
They brought it back in 2009 to use as a more subjective ranking of power and influence, and it included the founders of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, Tiger Woods, and plenty of other tech execs and celebrities. (source)
Why 2009? One reason could be the rise of its competitor Business Insider, which was founded in 2007 as a purely digital aggregator of business news and industry verticals focused on millennials - the 18-34 demographic. Facebook was also on its meteoric rise, and so legacy business media companies like Fortune and Forbes needed some way to keep up. (source)
Forbes launched its 30 under 30 two years later. Forbes editor Randal Lane created it as a way to chronicle a "cultural shift in the mainstream perception of youth and ambition." He said at the time, "This was a list that was perfect for its time, in that this is the first time that being young is actually an advantage for most fields." (source)
Forbes was known for its annual list of billionaires and all sorts of other lists, but the 30 Under 30 slowly expanded in both readership and editorial priority to become the company's most influential brand. In particular, it grew the publication's readership beyond its aging core print audience to a younger, more diverse, and a more online cohort of millennials. (source)
One could say it worked. And that one would be Randall Lane, who was eventually promoted to the company's Content Chief. (source)
According to Comscore data, Forbes still lagged behind Business Insider when it came to unique visitors between the ages of 18-34 in 2015. The BI CEO and editor-in-chief Henry Blodget had been aggressively expanding Insider to attract even more millennial readers, and most of the company had recently been acquired by Axel Springer. (source)
Source: Commscore via DigiDay
To keep up, Forbes increasingly leveraged its 30 Under 30 franchise, and today, it has become the company's flagship product. We'll get into all about how it benefitted Forbes financially in a moment. But first…
Who wins the Forbes 30 Under 30 and why?
The 30 under 30 assesses the 30 most up-and-coming talent in the US under the age of 30, and first began by judging 12 distinct categories like media, tech, and law. Some of the original names on the list included Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Asana Cofounders Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, the Pinterest, Tumblr, and Quore founders, and up-and-coming actors (at the time) like Donald Glover and Jonah Hill. (source)
This list was eventually expanded to recognize a total of 600 people per year, with 30 individuals selected across 20 different industries. After running the 30 Under 30 program for ten years, Forbes has said there have been 100,000 nominees, with 20,000 nominations per year in the US alone. With 600 spots available per year, there are about 30 applications for every spot, equivalent to a 2 to 3% acceptance rate (source). Forbes says it's harder to get onto the Under 30 list than to get into Stanford or Harvard. (source)
So what do all the Forbes 30 Under 30 winners have in common? Not everyone on the list is a celebrity or millionaire. But selected "honorees" usually have a couple of genuine achievements under their belt. This could be other awards, starting a company that's raised money, or some other level of industry recognition or status. It's more of a list of potential rather than a list of solidified achievements. It could be startup founders you've never heard of, new musicians that released their first album, or many in niche categories like marketing, science, or energy that are unknown to the general public. Some are even still in school. However, everyone is googleable (to some degree) and has a solid social media presence. Of the celebrities that do make the list, many are nominated by their PR reps. (source)
The 2022 US honorees have collectively raised over $1 billion in funding, nearly 50% identify as a person of color, with 61% male and 38% female, and 24% immigrants from 58 different countries as wide as Albania to the Bahamas to Syria. The top cities where honorees live include New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco (which has fallen), Boston, and Miami (which has risen). Interestingly, only 14% of the list is Gen-Z, or 24 years or younger, but that demographic is only going to get bigger as millennials age out of their 20s. (source)
The richest on last year's list is also the wealthiest Under-30 on the planet, crypto platform FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who is worth approximately $26 billion. And the youngest-ever winner is Jaylan Hall, who is only 14 years old. (source)
As of 2015, Forbes made a rule that no nominee could be included on the list more than once. While Forbes reporters have said off the record this has made picking nominees harder, it does open the playing field to a lot more potential candidates — which is good news for you if you still want to apply, and good news for Forbes — here's why.
How much revenue and growth has the "30 Under 30" brought Forbes?
Forbes has three kinds of revenue: advertising, subscriptions, and brand extensions, like conferences and brand licensing deals. 30 Under 30 has become such a hit because it's a growth engine for all three. (source)
The company expects its subscription revenue to decelerate over the next few years but expects its brand extensions and advertising revenue to accelerate. And that's because of the 30 Under 30 brand, which has become the magazine's top revenue generator. (source)
The company only has 23,000 paid subscribers, but its Under 30 brand reaches 26 million 13-to-34-year-olds. Forbes gradually transformed the Under 30 brand from an end-of-the-year list, published in its December + January issue, to a years-long campaign with digital media content and live events. This created not only a year-long marketing growth engine but a cross-platform ad campaign that rivals any of their other sponsorship deals. (source)
Advertisers who sign up for the 30 Under 30 do so to reach young audiences whose finances will grow as they age, so they sign multi-year franchise campaigns. The whiskey Macallan sponsored the 30 Under 30 for seven years in a row, Rocket Mortgage signed a three-year deal, and Forbes has relatively new deals with Microsoft Surface and Cole Haan shoes. The only reason those two companies signed deals with Forbes was to reach the 30 Under 30 audience. (source)
The key selling point to advertisers is the 30 under 30 community of over 10,000 entrepreneurs and celebrities who join, promote, and amplify the brand year after year. Critically, they are nearly all still under the age of 40. By sponsoring Under 30, advertisers tap into the social following and clout of these honorees and their audiences whenever the honorees promote the list (more on this in a minute). To capitalize on this community, Forbes has the Under 30 Summit, a four-day festival that can draw over 10,000 attendees, with ticket prices as high as $9,900 for non-finalists. (source)
These festivals bring in an entirely new source of revenue, and because Forbes licenses its Forbes magazine and Under 30 brand in multiple countries, each country can host its own Summit and pay Forbes a cut of the revenues. This works similarly to the Michelin Guide, the origin of the "Michelin-Star" restaurant. The two Michelin Tire brothers created the guide in 1900 to promote demand for automobiles to sell more tires. It listed the top restaurants, hotels, mechanics and gas stations along popular routes in France to incentivize people to buy cars and travel more, and they gave it away for free. After they scaled its reach and reputation, the brothers took out the ads and used their own "star" rating system to highlight only the best restaurants. Then they started charging readers to buy the guide, to promote the exclusivity of both the guide and the rating, making both appear more scarce and therefore more valuable.(source)
The 30 Under 30 is also distributed online for free to promote Forbes and its advertisers, but access to the community is kept exclusive, so both brands and wanna-be honorees desire the value of that access and have to pay (through sponsorship or ticket prices) to get it. (source)
Besides revenue, the brand equity gain is enormous. All the hype and anticipation, all the curiosity around the winners, all the hate-watching and the FOMO, ALL drive traffic to Forbes. The nomination period alone has the potential to bring the name of Forbes to millions more visitors per year. Just take the 20,000 annual nominees in the US and assume they'll send the nomination link to at least five to ten of their friends or colleagues to nominate them. That's one to two million extra people who have visited the Forbes website over the last ten years just for the US list. Check out how the company's overall traffic has grown over the past six years:
Those spikes occur right around the time the Under 30 list is published. And there are over 30 countries and regions that all have their own 30 Under 30 lists, which could extend this to 6 million extra visitors per year.
How could other companies (like YOU) replicate the Forbes 30 Under 30?
So how can others replicate the 30 Under 30 for your own business? Here's a five-step framework we identified from our research (keep reading for a deeper explanation of each step below):
- Build a target audience of ideal customer persona influencers.
- Attract these "influencers" with a prize they genuinely value.
- Your competition must have a viral growth engine built into it.
- Build a community around your awards that can be scaled.
- Tailor your content marketing strategy around exclusivity.
1. Build a target audience of ideal customer persona influencers.
First, build a target audience that is representative of your ideal customer persona, but who themselves also have clout with and influence over this customer persona. This could be the top 1% of the ideal customer persona, which we could call the ideal influencer persona.
Think about how the 30 Under 30 targets the most affluent, driven, and accomplished ~or~ up-and-coming members of the 18-34 demo across 20 different industries. These honorees either have influence over their peers because of their current level of success or want to appear successful and will therefore promote the prestige of the 30 under 30 to make themselves look more attractive for investment opportunities, business deals, or even dating.
If your honorees similarly have legitimate influence over their peers, you can market their involvement to advertisers who also want to tap into that influence. These ideal influencer personas could even be actual influencers, letting event sponsors gain access to their audiences indirectly. Like influencer marketing arbitrage!
2. Attract these "influencers" with a prize they genuinely value.
Think of what your company can provide to the top of your ideal customer persona's industry that would get them legitimately excited to get involved. Forbes used its name brand to market honorees on the front page of a business magazine that usually features billionaires and business leaders. You may not have an equivalent platform, but perhaps you could offer something else of value, such as access to new deal flow, investors, or customers. This would be equivalent to a conference or summit event where access is exclusive, and the networking flows like the free booze!
3. Your competition must have a viral growth engine built into it.
Winning the Under 30 or a Michelin star gives the perception of status, the opportunity to gain status encourages more people to submit, the more people submit, the more they promote it to others, and the more they promote Forbes.
4. Build a community around your awards that can be scaled.
Ken Herts, COO at The Lenfest Institute, said that "for business publications looking to monetize a segment of their audience ( like Forbes did with young entrepreneurs) they have to make sure it is not "only an attractive enough community that will draw in the readership from an editorial perspective but will also appeal to advertisers in a way that will keep the franchise alive." (source)
Enough scale keeps advertisers and nominees coming back year after year — the 30 Under 30 produces hundreds of honorees per year instead of limiting it to 30 total as the name implies.
5. Tailor your content marketing strategy around exclusivity.
Both the 30 Under 30 and the Michelin guide are content marketing initiatives built around exclusivity. Instead of churning out content endlessly into a vacuum, think of your content marketing efforts like a limited sneaker drop. Focus on quality marketing efforts like the 30 Under 30 campaign to maximize for engagement. Supporting content should only support and build hype for the exclusive content, like the Under 30's video interview series and full-year digital campaign.
And there you have it. That's all you need to know about how the Forbes 30 Under 30 works. So you don't have to feel so bad about turning 30 without winning the 30 Under 30 after all. You can now use this framework to launch your own version! If that doesn't work, there's always the Fortune 40 Under 40. Thanks for reading.