BuzzFeed will inspire UK digital media brands in 2013

BuzzFeed, the online publisher famed for its endless lists of cat GIFs and funny internet memes, announced a bumper $19.3m (£11.9m) funding round this week, which it is set to invest in – amongst other things – making its advertising offering even more innovative this year than it was the last.

Lara O'Reilly

When BuzzFeed raised $15.5m in financing last year, it used the money to transform itself from a viral content aggregator to a serious(ish) journalism organisation in its own right.

Led by former Politico journalist Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s news content has expanded in the last year to cover verticals from technology to politics – with the site famously scooping rivals in January to reveal John McCain would back Mitt Romney ahead of the Iowa leadoff vote of the presidential election season.

The site has certainly grown up since its 2008 launch but just because users may be interested in the FTSE 100 doesn’t mean they can’t look at a post entitled “the 100 greatest cats of 2012”. There’s still plenty of link bait – helping to attract the near 40 million unique users it registered last month, according to Google Analytics.

Such an audience, viewing content that has a great propensity for sharing across Twitter and Facebook thanks to BuzzFeed’s liberal use of images and lists, helped revenue grow “more than threefold” in 2012, the company claims.

BuzzFeed attributes almost all this revenue to its “content-driven social advertising strategy”, which flies in the face of traditional media advertising where brands play for slots or audiences based on arguably old-fashioned targeting metrics.

BuzzFeed takes on a partnership approach when working with advertisers to blur the line between editorial and advertising to make content that is designed to go viral. Brands don’t pay for banners or intrusive pop-ups, they pay to become journos or aggregators for a day. Its users aren’t tricked into reading advertorial, they actively engage with the branded content and share it.

Recent examples include a slideshow of the “20 coolest hybrid animals” to promote Toyota Prius’ hybrid vehicle, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead takeover (which changed the banner heading of the site to “ButtFeed”) and Dell which has run a series of BuzzFeed articles such as “the most embarrassing places to lose your laptop” and “the top bromances in tech”.

The company says its new round of funding will further its mobile and video development and will help it invest in “new initiatives to be announced later this year” – which should all help brands get more creative on the site. Interestingly, BuzzFeed is also going to spend its newly-earned cash on expanding geographically from its US base – including opening a London office.

BuzzFeed’s move to England could hopefully serve to inspire UK media outlets to take on an approach that advertising online doesn’t have to just be about shoving rectangular shaped banners into square-shaped holes.

Some online publishers, including The Guardian and Metro, are already starting to adopt a more partnership-led approach to the way they sell advertising to ensure their digital offerings start to pay off – for both themselves and the reader – but clearly there is still work to be done to prevent users from averting their eyes from online ads that tend to appear in the same regimented spaces across different sites on the web.

BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO Peretti told The Guardian (in an interview, not in a chat with its commercial team) that his company is aspiring to reform online media advertising. “We work with brands to help them speak the language of the web,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity to create a golden age of advertising, like another Mad Men age of advertising, where people are really creative and take it seriously.”

For all the talk of targeting and using meta-data to ensure someone who was looking at a DIY website five minutes ago gets an ad for a shovel served to them when they then go to browse a newspaper website, it’s always refreshing to hear of visionaries who are looking to make advertising on the web wonderful.

BuzzFeed’s early success and upcoming developments penned for this year should serve to remind media owners and advertisers that creativity should not be forgotten in publishers’ quests to furnish the digital coffers.

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