As The Tide Rises For Branded Content, BuzzFeed’s Boat Is Lifted Even Higher

buzzfeed-cro-lee-brownBuzzFeed set its stake in branded content back when display was king.

Today, as publications derive an increasing share of their revenue from branded content, Chief Revenue Officer Lee Brown sees that competition creating a market.

“More awareness and education in the marketplace creates more opportunity for everyone,” Brown said. “We’re excited about our share of that opportunity.”

Brown joined BuzzFeed in February 2015 from Tumblr, following stints at Groupon and Yahoo “back when Yahoo was a startup.”

One of his initial goals as CRO was finding people who could sell branded content. His team hired salespeople with a wide range of backgrounds, including portals, display, social platforms and beyond.

“Some of our strongest performers this year have experience working with clients from the creative department [and] putting together content strategies,” he said.

From its inception, BuzzFeed has used data to drive eyeballs to content. It arms writers with analytics to predict how content will perform and track how it diffuses through social platforms.

BuzzFeed’s tech helps it create and distribute branded content, but it’s also used to analyze how various metrics or content types drive different outcomes for marketers. It might suggest one type of content to increase brand affinity and a different distribution plan to improve purchase intent.

Brown talked to AdExchanger about how BuzzFeed sees the future of measurement and distribution of native content and how the sales team is collaborating with NBC Universal after its $200 million investment in the company last year.

AdExchanger: What is the state of measurement in sponsored content?

LEE BROWN: The KPIs and success metrics for branded content are still evolving. We are still understanding which metrics are driving the most impact and which platforms and formats are driving the most impact. For branded content, we don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all KPI. Some of it can be time-based, some of it can be social-based, whether it’s shares, likes, comments and the analysis of those comments.

Do you advise brands on the best KPIs to measure success or does that come from the client?

A lot of the time clients are working with us because they want to take advantage of the operating system and learn how we are doing it. Because of the volume of what we do across all these platforms, it enables us to be out in front of the marketplace. We can show all our examples for past five-plus years and the learnings from those examples can help achieve those results. Depending on the core metric, we recommend different types of [branded content] if they are looking to drive purchase intent or recall or brand affinity.

How much are you seeing advertisers jump around and try everyone versus committing to one publishing partner?

One trend I’m seeing is marketers looking for consistency of voice and campaign. Early on, they were probably saying, “Let me get two or three pieces from my creative agencies, two to three pieces of content from BuzzFeed, two or three pieces from whoever else is in the marketplace and we’ll mash them together and that will be the campaign.”

With display, you have media planners spreading buys out across 30, 40 or 100 publishers to reach that core demographic. With branded content, you see that shrinking and consolidating. And in a very distributed marketplace, like the one that we are in, you can make and distribute the content across all the platforms and audiences [while having] consistency of campaign.

Branded content used to be sold on a CPM basis, where advertisers paid for the article preview. Now brands usually pay on a CPV (cost-per-view) basis or paying per branded content view. What has that change meant for BuzzFeed?

We have shifted our model to a CPV model, and we think we compete very well because of the duration spent with content. Right now the marketplace equates the value to the lowest common denominator, which is a three-second muted view, because that’s what everyone can buy against. We charge for 30-second views in some of our products. We are starting to think about longer duration, higher value, which is what marketers are looking for. We think that is evolving and there is a lot more room to innovate and develop in that model. 

How did BuzzFeed’s Snapchat Olympics coverage work out?

We got 2.2 billion views with that content during the Olympic games, and had a team on the ground in Rio creating content every single day for 18 days. We could not be more proud of the execution and highlighting our partnership with NBC Universal – I can’t say too much more about the results.

What have been the fruits of the partnership with NBC Universal besides the Olympics coverage?

We work very closely with Linda [Yaccarino] and Scott [Schiller] across a multitude of projects, including how we go to marketers together with combined campaigns and different packaging options in the marketplace. If you think about a marketer working with us on Tasty, it’s how that could be included in a much larger food initiative with NBC. We are testing some of that out together. A great example was [the first sales partnership] campaign we did with American Express. 

What about working with NBC Universal on the content side?

The traditional creation model for broadcast is very different than our model with video. Us learning together what audiences are responding to faster may inform storylines, themes, character universes for broadcast or linear. We are certainly working on co-creation of products. With our talent, franchises and series, are there opportunities to extend them with what NBC Universal is working on? There is more to come there, but not much to report yet.

Snapchat accounts for 20% of all content views on BuzzFeed. How is the app working out as a partner overall?

More and more partners are working with us on Snapchat-specific campaigns. In the beginning we were using our native formats, but now we are using Snapchat formats. Marketers know we are one of the top publishers on the platform and want to see how we are programming it. We can take things that have worked on different platforms and try them on Snapchat, and take things that work on Snapchat and try on different platforms. It’s been a great feedback loop and sandbox for us to innovate in.

What’s your biggest focus for Q4 and into next year?

We are continuing to grow internationally. We have a great operation in the UK in London, we have Australia and Brazil, Mexico, Canada and continue to build out our business globally. As our talent becomes bigger celebrities in their own right, how do we work closer with the Try Guys or Ashly Perez or Quinta Brunson or Kelsey Darragh? Lastly, we are working closely with the franchises we are developing. You’ve probably heard of Tasty, but Nifty is our DIY channel for the creative home. That’s a big opportunity for us to chase down in the next year.

Tasty is part of a trend of “hands and pans” food videos that’s been widely adopted and copied by publishers. As we see content formats like these catch on and then likely fade, how does BuzzFeed break out of that cycle?

I think of Tasty as a network, not just “hands and pans” videos. We’ve launched in six countries and are expanding into different forms of content. We have Tasty Junior, which is cooking with kids, we have Tasty Happy Hour and we have “Mom vs. Chef” – a nine-minute show about moms and chefs with a secret ingredient. We are not just resting on one format to build that business, we are extending and diversifying it quite robustly across that franchise. And it’s even spurred and started Nifty, which is a totally different genre that is applying the learnings of Tasty in a different market category.

This is part of an interview series with media leaders about the future of digital advertising. Check out previous interviews with The Atlantic, Business InsiderBloomberg Media, Brit + CoEvolve MediaE.W. ScrippsForbes, ImgurMic, The New York Times, Purch,Refinery29, Thought CatalogTime Inc.The Washington Post and Ziff Davis – and more to come. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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