How Branded Content is Feeding the Staff of BuzzFeed

On all sorts of media sites, brands now seek our attention by sponsoring content rather than placing a banner ad. BuzzFeed is a pioneer of this marketing approach and attracts dozens of leading brands to mingle their content among its own articles.

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The company built its brand by taking an analytics approach to social sharing, turning the success of the “listicle” format (here’s a recent favorite of ours) into a branded content business model. At BRITE ’14, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg will share how the company accomplished this and what it is doing to continually build and expand its brand.

All of BuzzFeed’s revenue comes from social content marketing (aka branded content, native advertising, sponsored posts,. . . ok, we will stop here). As Steinberg notes in a Sparksheet interview, “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.”

BuzzFeed helped rejuvenate and adapt this form of advertising in which media companies – including players like The Atlantic and Forbes – now act as advisers, and even content creators, for the brand and its agency. This summer, BuzzFeed began piloting a new accreditation course, the Social Storytelling Creator Program, aimed at training agencies whose clients are sponsoring stories on BuzzFeed. “When you’re innovating a new platform like we are, you have to offer education,” explains Steinberg.

Even with a wall separating editorial and sponsored content staffs, however, this “ads that look like articles” technique has its critics. Take, for example, Andrew Sullivan who questioned its ethics by stating, “It’s more like product placement in a movie – except movies are not journalism.” In fact, Sullivan’s specific analysis and critique of BuzzFeed actually helped spur the company to more clearly and consistently identify all its sponsored articles.

Despite such criticism, with the revenue needs of the media and the interest of brands to develop engaging content, it is clear that sponsored articles will multiply. The evidence of how well this form of marketing “works” is still being compiled, however, but early indications are encouraging for brands. For example, a study conducted last year by IPG and Forbes (.pdf) found that branded content stories were considerably more effective than pure display ads at driving such measures as brand recall and brand favorability.

From a content standpoint, companies must find the most effective ways for sponsored articles to meet the needs of both the brand and the reader. At BuzzFeed, most brand campaigns include at least 5-10 unique pieces of content designed to integrate tone and message for the brand. “The challenge is if you unbalance yourself in either direction,” Steinberg acknowledges. “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.”

REGISTER NOW for BRITE ’14 and catch Jon Steinberg talk about how sponsored content, analytics, and even hard news are shaping the future of BuzzFeed.


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