Buzzfeed to brands: ‘native success is about the content not the ad format’

Buzzfeed is amassing a library of content marketing case studies and research from its advertisers in the UK to establish the “international template“ it hopes will unlock doors into the rest of Europe.

If the publisher can’t scale it’s native ads throughout the UK then its hopes for expansion are pointless. It’s Buzzfeed’s closest market to its American heartland in terms of culture and consequently is the intermediary between the region and an as yet untapped continental Europe. The key then, believes the media owner, is showing digital marketers how branded posts can deliver ROI beyond just shares though it won’t rush into what could be a make or break move.

“We need to get the business model right because moving into other markets and becoming hyper local is complicated but also a measure of how successful we’ve been,” Buzzfeed’s general manager for Europe Kate Burns told The Drum. The former Google, AOL and Bebo executive joined in May and is tasked with figuring out how the publisher can get more on more media plans at a time when advertisers are wanting to track more from their online ads.

It’s why Buzzfeed is pushing research as part of its programmes with advertisers and putting together more case studies. “It’s important that we specifically focus on British but also European data as well because we’re already running campaigns in France,” said Burns. “The more data, insights and behavioural trends that I can start gathering back then the more we can offer to our agencies and provide them with a better understanding of how we measure performance.”

Buzzfeed has only just started these discussions but has already taken a step closer to getting its point across to advertisers. The publisher recently penned a yearlong deal with WPP’s media arm, Group M and will make a point of endorsing the former’s analytics platform Pound to agencies, highlighting for the first time how Buzzfeed content is consumed and shared. Partnerships like these are key to the media firm’s expansion dreams, specifically in the UK and Europe where business is predominantly agency-driven.

“We need to perfect our business model [in the UK],” said Burns. “Once we’ve done that then we’ll tweak it for different markets operating with a version of Buzzfeed that’s more local than [our rivals in those markets] that’s giving traditional publishers a run for their money.”

International expansion, the emergence of Pound and an appetite for partnerships are reflective of Buzzfeed’s need to secure long-term revenues ahead of its impending flotation on the stock market. While advertisers have looked on enviously at how Buzzfeed sweats its content to make money, agency experts have questioned how dynamic between its commercial and editorial content will change once it has to appease shareholders.

Much of the concern stems from the ongoing debate around the blurring lines between editorial and advertising. Earlier this year, the publisher, which is often described as an agency that creates content, got pulled into the argument when a reportedly leaked internal email suggested it had deleted published articles due to pressure from advertisers.

The leaked email went on to add that Buzzfeed’s editorial members no longer write about ads that are running on the site unless they are “genuinely newsworthy”. It’s not surprising that a young media company has had trouble sorting editorial from commercial, especially when the hybrid nature of native advertising is still flummoxing agency and brand alike. Buzzfeed is working to create clearer lines of delineation between the two and Burns reiterated its stance at the time that “we are not influenced by the partnerships that we have in place”.

The fallout from the revelation may have set back the credibility the business has been trying to inject into its news offering. However, a mobile app and a push for more editorial hires are being tipped to help build its reputation for hard-hitting stories, which in itself could make it a more premium and respectable alternative in the eyes of advertisers.

Burns said: “The amount of breaking stories that appear on Buzzfeed in comparison to some of the more traditional publishers is astonishing. And that’s because we’re a pure play digital provider of current news.”

That’s not to say that listicles and quizzes will become extinct on the platform. “As we’re pivoting to news but also lifestyle, then that’s not to say that we’re deferring to both solely. We’re just enriching our content,” assured Burns.

When explaining Buzzfeed’s business model, Burns talks about content marketing not native advertising. And while the link between the two is clear and the latter’s importance to future revenues key, her reference points to how Buzzfeed wants advertisers to give content marketing more than lip service. Buzzfeed bills advertisers for the media buy and not the creative, meaning getting more agencies to understand the discipline and not just the rates around a format is key.

“It’s the B2B companies that get us at the moment’ those from the insurance, personal finance and travel sectors, which are really focused on the ROI that are understanding that in order to compel their brand to an audience, content has to be part of that strategy,” said Burns.

“We’re being pushed so much content that we don’t want to see that we’ve turned off. You look at response rates and there’s been a steady decline. Click rates are going down and I can’t remember the last time I responded to an [online] ad.”

Another way the business will be trying to establish that value proposition this side of the Atlantic is with hyper local videos. These videos exist locally on the editorial side of the business but there are plans to make let help brands create their own too. Social discovery is also an area of interest for Buzzfeed so that it can better understand what happens to posts that get shared among its readers’ social circles.

“When we speak to advertisers it's about how they can be measuring the success of not only their brand but also its impact within the social sphere in a different way. And when we share some of the examples they speak for themselves,” said Burns.

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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