The Gospel According to Buzzfeed

Blazing the branded content trail one listicle at a time

Blazing the branded content trail one listicle at a time

I’ve never shared a banner ad with a friend.” Exhibiting the slightest hint of smugness, Jonathan Perelman, BuzzFeed’s vice-president of agency strategy and industry development, justifies the highly successful but oft-scrutinized business model that helped turn BuzzFeed – the internet’s premiere destination for cat pictures and witty listicles – into the much envied oracle of the online advertising world: branded content.

What was once an experimental approach that caused ethicists to grimace – let the brands be the media? Let the money into the journalism? – has proven to be not only sustainable, but a soaringly lucrative proposition.When done well, branded content (or native advertising, sponsored content, branded journalism, whatever name you wish to know it by) is capable of putting a brand into spaces previously uncharted. It’s also capable of totally blowing it, especially since the current branded content boom essentially means most executions are in some way experimental.

“I don’t think pushing works,” says Perelman. “[Brands] have to be allowed in. It can’t be ‘Buy My Product Now.’ That won’t resonate. It has to be social and emotional and something people want to laugh at, cry to, whatever it is, and then share.” BuzzFeed has never sold a banner ad.

The reach of any piece of branded content, whether a BuzzFeed list of “The Happiest Faces Of The Internet” – “delightfully inspired [meaning sponsored] by Coca-Cola’s AHH Effect campaign”—or a list of barbecue tips sponsored by Grill Mates, depends on its level of shareability. In fact, shareability is the metric BuzzFeed concerns itself with the most, according to Perelman (he uses the term “social reproduction rate”).

If the content can slide comfortably into someone’s media diet and serve something they’d have otherwise not had – a laugh, a thought, a lesson learned – that will likely, and ideally, inspire the user to share it across their social media channels. When Instagram became available to Android, for example, a Virgin Mobile-sponsored post called “11 Things No One Wants To See You Instagram,” generated 329,676 impressions, according to BuzzFeed. But if the integration is too sleek – if it isn’t made clear that the content was paid for by a brand—that shareability turns into trouble. And when sleek branded content is where the money is, being cunning can be tempting. (BuzzFeed did clearly label that the post was paid for by Virgin and labels all of its sponsored posts as such.)

The Atlantic learned that the hard way. Last January when it ran an online advertorial package sponsored by The Church of Scientology, the magazine’s readership exploded with frustration. (The post was also marked as sponsored, but many felt it was not indicated clearly enough.) Eventually The Atlantic pulled the content and issued an apology, earnestly admitting: “We screwed up.” It then stated that while the publication was committed to and enthusiastic about branded content and new revenue models for digital advertising, it had gone too far by letting a controversial religious organization promote itself to The Atlantic’s discerning audience.

In the quickly evolving realm of branded content creation, cardinal rules have begun to emerge. Chief among them: don’t misrepresent the purpose of the content. If a brand has sponsored a post, readers have a right to know. “If we trick our users into thinking they’re getting something different, they’re not coming back,” says Perelman. “We value their trust very highly.”

BuzzFeed goes so far as to tell its audience how many times a post has been shared, and lets people mark posts with badges such as “LOL,” “WTF,” “Cute” and “Win.” These may seem like innocuous additions, but it encourages users to see how other users are interpreting the content, and makes the “social lift” data—a BuzzFeed term used to describe how much a brand is mentioned after a BuzzFeed post – known to anyone who cares.

This cleverly lets BuzzFeed be simultaneously transparent and boastful about how many hits it gets (more than 60 million monthly unique visitors). According to BuzzFeed’s advertising site, for every 100,000 views generated through paid media, an extra 30,000 earned media views are generated through social media sharing. BuzzFeed also gives paying brand’s a byline – a recent post entitled “10 Reasons You Wish You Could Take Your Pet Everywhere” that was sponsored by Purina clearly states this where the author’s name would typically go.

“No one comes to BuzzFeed for the ads,” says Perelman. “What people come to BuzzFeed for is content. My hope is that the advertising content is as compelling as a piece of editorial content.” Anyone in the branded content business surely shares this hope.

Enter Contently, a New York-based startup that brokers the relationship between brands who need shareable content and writers who want to create it. Its founders correctly predicted that many journalists would be forced into branded content given the bedlam in the publishing industry, and its platform is designed to make its creation run smoothly on all sides, which it achieves by overseeing logistics and managerial tasks such as approvals and negotiating.

Co-founder and chief creative officer Shane Snow spent his days as a Columbia University journalism school student pondering a better business model. He believes the BuzzFeed-led branded content approach is it, and so he and his colleagues have positioned Contently as another option for responsible branded content.

“There’s no reason why a brand can’t sponsor everything that comes after the front page,” says Snow, who draws the line at having the news and politics sections of the newspaper partner with brands (lifestyle, culture and entertainment are fair game).

Snow says he’d like Contently to eventually foray into other mediums such as photojournalism, animation and radio. For now, the company is staffed predominantly by writers, and won’t venture beyond the current scheme until measures are in place to ensure Contently’s strict code of ethics can remain adhered to. “It’s easier for us to vet quality with text,” says Snow. “Being discriminating about the things you want to talk about and the ways you want to tell the story is going to be increasingly important for brands.” As branded content continues to intrigue, as clients continue to experiment with new ways of marketing, and as brands who get it wrong learn the hard way how to do it right, codes of ethics such as Contently’s will become more common.

The content marketing code of ethics on Contently’s site adopts a set of standards akin to what one might find at the world’s most respected publications—be honest, be accountable, disclose any conflicts, minimize potential harm to sources, avoid repurposing the work of others, tell the truth, avoid deception.

Similar to how BuzzFeed tells readers which brands paid to reach them (“tricks don’t work,” says Perelman), Contently employs a “no pseudonym” rule—writers can use their real name or no name at all, but they cannot make one up. “The best stories shouldn’t have to hide who’s behind them,” says Snow. Since good branded content tells a story to the consumer, brands would be wise to embrace this philosophy now.

“People are becoming increasingly comfortable with the entertainment and information they consume coming from a brand,” says Snow. Consumers and readers alike seem willing to devour and share branded content, they just want to know what it is. Whether by believing in false advertising or reading an article without recognizing it was sponsored by a brand, no consumer wants to be lied to. The future of branded content will be conspicuous, ethical and supplemented by a lot of cute cats. 

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