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BuzzFeed is Winning Native Advertising, But Not Without Controversy

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With real headlines like these, it’s not hard to see why in some circles the name BuzzFeed has become shorthand for “junky clickbait.”

But while it’s true that BuzzFeed is responsible for many of the attention-seeking list articles that pepper your social feeds on a daily basis, BuzzFeed’s content is far from just junk. In fact, it’s the shrewd and highly calculated way the company earns its revenue — reported to be more than $100 million in 2014 — and it’s called native advertising.

When ads become content and content becomes ads

We’ve covered native advertising before but it’s time to revisit the topic in light of BuzzFeed’s successes. A quick refresher: native advertising is advertising that looks just like the rest of the content in your streams. Facebook’s Sponsored Stories are a form of native advertising, as are Twitter’s Promoted Tweets. These ads are meant to blend right in with other posts from your friends and family, making them harder to ignore than traditional display advertising that appears separately in headers and sidebars.

BuzzFeed, along with other content-generators such as Huffington Post and even the New York Times, has taken this technique and applied it to their own articles. Of BuzzFeed’s 550 employees, 75 work for BuzzFeed Creative, a division of the company dedicated exclusively to creating advertorials for brands. The branded ad content is nearly indistinguishable from BuzzFeed’s other organic (read: ad-free) content save for a small banner marking it as promotional.

Here’s a recent screenshot of BuzzFeed’s homepage with the “sponsored” articles outlined in purple boxes.

buzzfeed-home-sponsored

As you can see, the branded content is made to look just like the rest of the content — highly clickable. And the clicks are where the money comes in.

BuzzFeed and the high-earning art of virality

Remember #TheDress? Unless you were lost in a forest far off the grid on February 26, you probably do. That day BuzzFeed published a repurposed Tumblr post debating the colors of a dress and in the process nearly broke the internet. It seemed as if everyone nearly lost their minds over whether they were seeing blue and black or white and gold.

At the time of this writing that BuzzFeed piece has an absolutely staggering 38.5 million views. And this is arguably BuzzFeed’s biggest talent: culling and curating viral content.

“The brilliance of Buzzfeed is its ability to spot topics and content on the rise, before they tip, and use all their channels and modes of distribution to spread them to a massive audience.”

– Adam Shlachter, CIO, DigitasLBi

#TheDress was not branded content, but it very well could have been. And that’s what brands are buying when they buy native advertising with BuzzFeed: the company’s unique ability to leverage precise algorithmic distribution against imprecise human compulsion. They know what makes people click, and they have the power to push that clickable content in front of a huge number of faces.

Which is all well and good, but what if some of those faces looking at a native ad don’t know it’s actually an ad?

Is native advertising dishonest?

A huge part of advertising is establishing trust, and for some native advertising crosses that line.

Many in the industry feel that as long as sponsored content is clearly marked as such, there’s no ethical problem with it. Others argue that sponsored content is not in fact clearly marked, citing a recent Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study that showed only 41% of online general news users recognized material as advertising.

We’ve seen how BuzzFeed labels sponsored content; let’s look at how another publisher handles it. Below is a screenshot of a New York Times article that at first glance appears to be strictly serious journalism — there are even illustrations:

NYT-sponsored-content

A closer look reveals a “Paid Post” label at the top and logos. At the bottom of the page there’s a banner ad promoting the TV series “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix, and an advertising disclaimer in tiny, barely legible type.

Are the labels visible? Yes. Could you miss them? Yes. Does any of this even matter? It’s up to you.

Awkward: when ad money gets in the way of editorial

Another sticky ethical area in BuzzFeed’s native advertising solution is when its editorial articles end up criticizing its own advertisers. Gawker recently ran two pieces alleging that BuzzFeed had deleted two posts criticizing advertising clients Dove and Hasbro. BuzzFeed quickly restored the posts and editor in chief Ben Smith sent out a memo stating that the reason they were deleted wasn’t actually advertiser pressure at all — it was a question of whether or not BuzzFeed editorials should “advance personal opinion.”

Whether that’s true or not, for many the damage to BuzzFeed’s reputation is done. On the other hand, BuzzFeed is still landing as many clicks as ever, so does the truth even matter?

Upward trend

Despite any setbacks, BuzzFeed is still racking up more successes than ever in its native advertising campaigns, and we can expect that trend to continue.

What do you think of their approach? Let me know in the comments below.

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