BuzzFeed has been around for six years, but it's basking in attention usually reserved for hyped startups or much larger companies.
Recent media interest in BuzzFeed was triggered by high-profile editorial hires that began in December, following a $15.5 million funding round. Women's Wear Daily, the New York Times, New York Observer, Yahoo, and others have lavished headlines on the New York City-based publisher for scooping up boldface names like Politico blogger Ben Smith; Matt Buchanan from Gawker Media; Doree Shafrir from RollingStone.com; and Amy Odell from New York magazine. Buzzfeed.com had 7.9 million U.S. unique visitors in January 2012, up from 4.2 million in January 2011, according to comScore. But it's not clear whether the hires had much to do with that growth.
The spotlight's not hurting BuzzFeed's ad sales efforts.
"It's great to have the attention around the verticals and the reporting we're doing," said President Jon Steinberg, speaking with ClickZ at the company's Union Square West offices. "It gets our name out there."
But advertisers may be surprised to learn they can't just plunk down a stack of lucre in trade for display ads adjacent to popular BuzzFeed posts. On the contrary, the site carries no Interactive Advertising Bureau standard advertising - not since last summer when it scrapped the sole 300x250 placement it had on offer to ad buyers.
"It wasn't native to the site," said Steinberg. "It didn't perform nearly as well, and it wasn't the advertising that we felt really fit from a content-driven standpoint."
Now BuzzFeed sells sponsored posts, helping brands develop content to populate them. The posts, slapped with an arguably inadequate "Featured Partner" disclosure, are published using the same content management system used by BuzzFeed's editorial staff. The homepage screenshot at left shows the sponsored posts in yellow (red border added by ClickZ).
Sponsored posts are hardly innovative, but according to Steinberg, BuzzFeed's CMS optimizes placement of the stickiest brand content, surfacing it on the homepage and other high traffic zones. A brand may start out with five creative versions, and BuzzFeed automatically promotes those that drive the most interest.
"We work with brands as publishers," said Steinberg. "They're not so much advertising on the content as using the same platform and the same kind of techniques for social distribution and sharing as the content side of the business is using."
While the ads aren't standardized, BuzzFeed uses DoubleClick DART for campaign reporting. "I like it because no one can dispute how good we are," he said. I'm very proud of our social statistics. If we supplement that on top of a DART report, it's the ultimate way for us to portray ourselves to all our constituencies."
BuzzFeed has seven ad sellers and about that many again in ad operations, account management, and related roles. At left is a snapshot of a sales meeting Steinberg recently posted to Instagram. The photo shows a mix of planners, account managers, and salespeople in the New York office, with two West Coast reps joining via video conference.
This team was responsible for BuzzFeed more than tripling its ad revenue from 2010 to 2011, though the company didn't disclose actual numbers, and Steinberg said it expects to triple it again this year. The company had more than 100 advertisers last year and average buys now come in at between $50,000 and $200,000, according to Steinberg.
This week an Arby's campaign went live on BuzzFeed, promoting a new Reuben sandwich. The posts performed well in the first five days, especially those Arby's posted to its own Facebook and Twitter accounts.
For example, posts about the history of sandwiches and Reuben variations have drawn more than 500 likes apiece on Arby's Facebook page - higher than the 100 to 300 likes showing up on most of the brand's recent posts.
Here's how the Arby's campaign came together, and how BuzzFeed campaigns generally work. After moving through the RFP process, Arby's and its agency provided creative assets, then BuzzFeed uploaded those assets and formatted the posts; after that, Arby's provided feedback and Buzzfeed tweaked the post further before publishing.
While the posts may be buzzing on Arby's Facebook Page, it's less clear how well they've performed on BuzzFeed. As of Friday, one of the them had been tweeted 35 times and shared on Facebook 135 times, according to BuzzMetrics' on-page stats - not shabby but not a home run either.
Still, last week's posts were just the opening salvo in the Arby's campaign. Over the next three to four weeks, it will release more ambitious content on BuzzFeed - including a montage of user-generated Arby's Instagram photos presented as a mosaic.
Like many brands, Arby's is producing more content in-house, and it's looking for partners like BuzzFeed to host that content - legitimizing it in a way that can't be achieved on Arby's website.
"We thought we would use these guys to hold and promote some of our content and use them as a viral intermediary," said Bob Kraut, Arby's SVP of advertising and marketing communications. "Wherever people who want to interact with Arby's want to be, we'll be there with some content to engage them."
At Buzzfeed, Steinberg is yin to CEO Jonah Peretti's yang. From 2007 to 2009, Steinberg worked on a Google product for small- and mid-sized businesses called Local Markets and later served as executive-in-residence at New York VC firm Polaris Venture Partners. As president, he focuses on BuzzFeed's business development, sales, financials, and operations.
Meanwhile Peretti brings a savant-like knowledge of what makes people click, and is a celebrity in New York tech circles. Among his endeavors are both jokey thought experiments - like BlackPeopleLoveUs and the New York City Rejection Line - and serious businesses, namely The Huffington Post, which he co-founded.
Long before it started hiring respected journalists, BuzzFeed functioned as a sort of viral cabinet of curiosities. A less kind phrase would be "link bait." A scan of the site on Friday revealed top headlines such as "39 Cats Eating Ice Cream" and "The 25 Most Depressing Justin Bieber Birthday Tweets."
BuzzFeed's recent editorial hires are partly a bid to boost the site's brand and shed some of its tabloid associations. The trick is to do it without sacrificing the site's already established social cred, which may do as much for sales as any political blogger could, however beloved.
"We're positioning it as a mix of a social buy and a display buy," said Steinberg. "We're in the consideration set of StumbleUpon, Facebook, and Twitter."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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