Call it “native advertising” or “social content marketing,” BuzzFeed has cracked the code.
Sparksheet spoke to Buzzfeed President Jon Steinberg about what it takes to relentlessly roll out viral content while serving the brands that power the platform:
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti has said that 100 percent of BuzzFeed’s revenue comes from what he calls “social content marketing.” How does social content marketing differ from the content marketing we all know and love?
We call it “social” because it really is word-of-mouth marketing online. There’s really nothing new about this. That’s one of the things that has given me great confidence as we’ve done it. It’s basically the advertising type stuff that David Ogilvy did.
Advertorials and word-of-mouth have been a force in marketing and research since the 1950s. We’re just doing that online. It’s going back to good advertising and getting away from banners, which were always a terrible advertising product.
I don’t think we’re the inventors of branded content marketing online, but I think we’re the most committed to it. This year we’ll do 500 or 600 branded content campaigns, all with direct-sold Fortune 1000 brands.
Can you unpack the process of creating branded content at BuzzFeed? Do editors, agencies, or the brands themselves develop the stories?
We start by talking to brands and their agencies about what they want to convey. It could be something as simple as a new product introduction or a television show launch. Then we brainstorm with the agency about what they want to convey about that, what story they want to tell.
Then our team typically takes assets—videos, images, whatever’s available—and creates a variant of that content. Then we send it back to the brand and agency for feedback and approval.
We have 30 people that work on branded content that report to me—not Ben Smith, our editor-in-chief. They are completely walled off from our editorial team. It’s essential that you build that wall if you’re going to go into any kind of advertising.
You’re still applying the same secret sauce that goes into your editorial to your native advertising content. Isn’t that the point?
Yes, it’s the same style to the extent of best practices and writing, format and the publishing system. It’s all one system that’s used by everybody. The technology is the same, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s been so successful.
How do you ensure that branded content is “on brand” for both BuzzFeed and the advertiser?
BuzzFeed has dramatically broadened over the past year, with us doing everything from business content to DIY, from fashion and entertainment to tech. We get 60 million unique visitors a month, we have a wide range of content, and there’s a very social skew to the formatting and style of the content.
We would never run a piece of advertising like, “Buy this stuff now for $9.” We don’t do what I call “shouts in a vacuum.” It has to be about a message. There has to be reciprocity. The brand has to give some content or something of interest in exchange for a little bit of attention.
We go back and forth with the brands. We collaborate, but I think that’s the way advertising needs to be.
How do you find the sweet spot between content that gets spread and content that promotes the brand? Some people might not realize, for example, that Prius sponsored the Hybrid Animals article.
In any campaign, we’re doing five to 10 pieces of content, minimum. There’s a range of content that sits on the spectrum between getting people excited about what the brand stands for and about the brand’s attributes.
Take the Toyota Prius campaign. The goal of the Hybrid Animals post was to speak to the fact that Toyota is a brand that has humor and that understands the culture of young people. There’s a wink to “Napoleon Dynamite” with the Liger.
Then there’s a post about cities where mile-per-gallon driving was more expensive than in other cities. That’s a more specific attribute type post talking about mile-per-gallon efficiency for a hybrid type car.
The challenge is if you unbalance yourself in either direction. If it’s so fun and interesting but doesn’t convey a brand attribute, you have an issue. If it’s only about why a product is awesome, with no give or interest, then you’ve similarly erred.
Tell me about the new Social Storytelling Creator Program. It sounds like you’re training agencies about how to create content for BuzzFeed, right?
It’s been an evolving process since we launched it. It’s open to agencies and to brands as well. We’re doing this pilot with VaynerMedia during the summer and will let some more agencies in as well.
With Vayner, we’re doing a five-week training program followed by an accreditation test. It addresses the fundamental question of how you convey brand attributes and at the same time make it shareable and offer something up to the reader.
Then there are very technical things, too: how to use our super poster, how to do the image list, how to reorder items.
When you’re innovating a new platform like we are, you have to offer education. That’s why Facebook offers the Preferred Marketing Developer program. It’s an essential piece of doing a new platform.
What do you think about brands that are trying to build their own platforms—blogs, magazines, web series? Is that a waste of time when you can access existing channels and audiences?
When I got here three years ago, brands wanted to post things on their own microsites. No one really believes that anymore. Everybody now has the view that you fish where the fish are.
When I write posts on marketing, I publish on Medium; when I have something that’s more tactical that explains how we operate efficiently, I publish through the LinkedIn Influencer program. I go to where the platform is right to put the content. It doesn’t really make sense for me to post content on my own blog anymore.
Do you think the BuzzFeed platform is a good fit for every brand?
Any brand that wants to do content and any brand that wants to do social is a brand for us. We work with all the insurance companies, a lot of the auto companies, a lot of the CPG companies.
We have lots of people that are interested in science and technology that work in lots of different professions. It makes sense to do a B2B marketing campaign for GE around aviation with us because there’s a lot of young people in the aviation and industrial fields that read BuzzFeed.
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They’re human beings that like fun stuff, too. That doesn’t mean that GE shouldn’t advertise in aviation magazines, but it does mean that with social targeting, there’s going to be somebody interested in aviation that’s going to send that awesome content to other people that are interested in aviation. The content finds its audience.
Dan Levy is the editor of Sparksheet, where a version of this story originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @danjl.