BuzzFeed’s Native Ad Leader: Create Content That’s Fun And Doesn’t Trick Readers

BuzzFeed’s primary business model is native advertising or sponsored content. It makes money by selling native ads—posts, video, quizzes and other kinds of content—that match the tone of its editorial content.

BuzzFeed has played a big role in expanding the popularity of native advertising, as more publishers lean on it to drive ever-larger chunks of their ad revenues. And brand marketers are leaning hard on native advertising, too: Most recently, snack brands giant Mondelez International said it will partner with BuzzFeed to expand upon BuzzFeed’s Tasty platform to create branded content and to co-create unbranded content.

I (Tobi Elkin) spoke with Summeranne Burton, executive creative producer, BuzzFeed, about the publisher’s native operation.
If there’s such a thing as longevity at BuzzFeed, Burton has it: She’s served in various roles for more than four years. She started out as the site’s weekend editor, running the homepage, copyediting, posting, moderating comments, covering news and doing social media. After a year, she became managing editor of the editorial team.
Then she managed an experimental unit for artists and video producers who make original content for social media—it was a “startup within a startup,” Burton explains. A team of 12 created comics, animated gifs and short-form video for various platforms including Tumblr, Vine and Instagram.

Now Burton’s role is on the business side and she works closely with the tech team on developing new ad formats, products and native concepts.

Tobi Elkin: Can you describe your role at the content studio?

Summeranne Burton: Jonah [Peretti, BuzzFeed’s Founder and CEO] tapped me to lead the creative team. Everything we do now is distributed and platform-agnostic. It doesn’t matter where people consume the content. I’m just two months into the new role.

Elkin: How does BuzzFeed define native advertising or sponsored content?

Burton: We want to make content that’s branded and that fits with what’s already on the Web site. We want to make advertising that’s transparent and  that resonates with people in a meaningful way.
The difference from editorial is that we’re working [directly] with brands. We want to make things that people love and engage with.

Elkin: Transparency is, for better or worse, a big “buzzword” these days. What is it for you?

Burton: I think we’re really transparent. Our goal is never to fool anyone that something isn’t an ad. I think our best branded content would be our Puppyhood branded videos for Purina. It’s very clear that the videos are an ad for Purina, but they fit with BuzzFeed’s tone and style.

Advertising is a much more pleasurable experience when the ads are interesting, cool and fun.  The experience is better for the reader. The goal is not to fool anyone or blur the line, it’s to make really fun, great advertising that people will engage with and enjoy. We label everything as a sponsored piece of content.

Elkin: What are some of the pain points for advertisers with native?

Burton: The hardest thing for us, which is also an opportunity, is to help brands figure out how BuzzFeed works. It’s a process of very quickly testing, learning and iterating on success. It’s very experimental, process-driven and agile.

We’re constantly responding to new developments and trends like Facebook Live, and this doesn’t always mesh with the pace of the branded world. We have an opportunity to educate brands.

Our president, Greg Coleman, says, ‘it’s not that we always know what works, but we’re going to find out what works.’  We don’t always have the answers or secret sauce, but we have an amazing process for knowing what people engage with.

We need more education for brands on how people engage and how we compare metrics across the various platforms. Most brands aren’t agile or experimental enough.

Elkin: What are some of the pain points for publishers with native?

Burton: How do we talk about a view on our site vs. Instagram, etc.? We care most about impact. We are a data-driven company. We need that data, it’s important for our internal creative process to work. That’s a pain point, but [also] a challenge we’re working on.

If you’re a retailer, the metrics you’re looking for from us might be clicks to the product and intention to buy. If you’re a food brand, you want to know if there’s a positive feeling about the brand. These metrics depend on the type of program, goals and brand.

Previously, the metric was impressions. And two to three years ago, we talked about numbers of shares. But on a platform like Snapchat or Instagram, it’s number of subscribers, time spent, impact and experience. These can be harder to measure but more meaningful than impressions. There’s data and research. We do focus group work to explore what impact a campaign had.

Elkin: What are the measurement challenges for native?

Burton: Cross-screen attribution is a big one. There’s no one number you can use to evaluate how a campaign did across all the different platforms. But you have to get away from the number of impressions and take a wider view of metrics and how they work together.

We try to look at an ecosystem of data—we’re working hard to make sense of that. We’re so data-driven that we’re thinking about these questions harder than anyone else, but we don’t have it all figured out yet. We’re obsessed with metrics but there won’t be one perfect metric—there will be a wide variety of metrics.

Elkin: What works well on BuzzFeed?

Burton: On the editorial side of BuzzFeed, we’re continuously experimenting with new platforms and formats to help inform branded content and the newest test subject has been Facebook Live. We tried to do a game show format, but it didn’t work. We did some games shows, like a dance-off with judges, and the audience voted – but we found people weren’t listening to the videos with audio.

We learned that things that required audio and where people have to understand the rules from beginning to end, don’t make sense. Our programs need to be highly visual and visceral.

But we know that people like and gravitate to visual stuff. We had a bubble-wrap-popping video. One day, a couple months ago, we tried to build as many concurrent viewers as possible – people were watching the video at the same time and participating live.

On the editorial side, we had a watermelon with tons of rubber bands, and it got 800k concurrent views on Facebook Live. It’s an inspiring example of what we do best.

Elkin: What about using Facebook Live for native?

Burton: It’s an exciting prospect, and we’re just figuring it out. We’re talking to a couple of brands to do branded content on FB Live. We haven’t launched them yet.

Elkin: How does the industry succeed in raising the bar on native? And how do you avoid cannibalizing the native discipline and stay true to meeting customer needs?

Burton: For me, that question is about caring about your readers and wanting to make a positive impact on them. We want to make advertising that’s not annoying and frustrating, and that can live alongside content on BuzzFeed editorial.

We care about the consumer’s experience and we’re also thinking about the brand and its needs…. One best practice is to put yourself into the shoes of your readers.

Elkin: What are the possibilities for brands on BuzzFeed?

Burton: We see many different kinds of advertising that people can do on BuzzFeed. Brands can plug into an editorial sponsorship, but we also want to collaborate with brands in a deeper way.

Ideally, to me, the best idea is to encompass all of it. Have an aspect that’s bespoke and an aspect that plugs into editorial, has distributed extensions, video and bespoke elements. It’s a 360-degree package.

Elkin: What are some best practices with respect to native advertising that you’ve learned on the job?

Burton: Understanding advertisers and their briefs and what they’re asking for in a deep way. We’re very analytical and data-driven. We’re applying that to brands and their ask. We have creative people on the team, but they need to think of themselves as advertisers and think about what they want the results to be.

Again, transparency is super-important to me: how you make content that’s both a fun experience within an organic browsing experience, but is also not tricking anyone into anything. It’s just about make that human connection, having empathy and making content that connects with people.

We want to take the advertising model about what a brand looks for, and then take the BuzzFeed model of what our reads love, and find a way to mesh those two things together.

Editor’s note: The piece was edited from the original for NAI.

About the author

Tobi Elkin is Editor of MediaPost’s Native Insider and Real-Time Daily email newsletter where she reports on developments within the native/branded content spaces, along with programmatic media and real-time marketing trends. Tobi also has many interests as a freelance journalist and interviewer including podcasting, intergenerational storytelling and creativity–where it comes from and what sustains it. For more information, visit: www.mediapost.com and www.tobielkin.com

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