BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman on how it will use its $50m investment to court brands

Marketers have already been given enough reasons to take notice of BuzzFeed to write their own BuzzFeed-style listicles on the company – in recent months there has barely been a publisher more commented on, compared to or criticised.

But now, with its recent cash injection and newly-hired president Greg Coleman now firmly in situ, BuzzFeed is on a marketing drive of its own to ensure the world’s top brands are taking advantage of what it proposes is the new advertising medium: tone of voice.

BuzzFeed
Marketing Week speaks to BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman on how he plans to use its recent cash injection to transform the services it offers marketers.

Coleman joined BuzzFeed from ad tech firm Criteo, where he also served as president, at the beginning of August. Just a week later BuzzFeed announced it had received $50m in financing from venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz, valuing the company at $850m.

Amongst plans to invest in editorial content and broaden its international footprint, BuzzFeed also said it would use the investment to “create offerings for advertisers to centralise and expand under the BuzzFeed creative unit”.

Plans for the unit fall firmly under Coleman’s control, with founder and CEO Jonah Peretti taking responsibility for everything tech and editorial-related.

It is understandable that Coleman wants BuzzFeed’s offering to marketers to come firmly under his stewardship. An advertising and publishing veteran, noteable roles during his career have included taking on the presidency of Huffington Post – which Peretti also co-founded – and serving as the president of Huffington Post owner AOL Time Warner’s advertising platforms. Before moving into digital media, he was also the president of Readers Digest for more than a decade during the 1990s.

BuzzFeed’s ambition to ‘quadruple’ revenues

Coleman tells Marketing Week he is setting out an ambition to “quadruple” revenues in the next three years. While he won’t reveal current financials, he says the business is already “extremely profitable” and another goal, now it has a $50m war chest to play with, is to “never have to raise money again”.

With BuzzFeed attracting more monthly unique visitors (42 million) than The New York Times (40 million), according to ComScore data for July, it has a sizeable userbase to be able to monetise. BuzzFeed’s said in November it has grown the size of its audience more than 350 per cent year on year – and the forecast looks good for 2014.

He adds: “I’ve joined a company that’s unbelievably successful and if we want to get forward I need an intermediate finish line. So in three years – and this might not be [fixed but it’s more about] getting team buy-in – if we’re going to quadruple growth can we do everything the same as we’re doing now? It’s creating some really good internal conversations.”

To achieve what appears to be an ambitious mid-term goal, Coleman says he is going to place significant focus on around 10 different areas and set up individual “task forces” around the business for each.

Among those areas of focus is a look at expanding the suite of ad products BuzzFeed currently offers, which include Custom Social Posts, Promotion and Story Units and Social Discovery. Coleman wants to find a way to scale this part of the business faster in a way that does not dilute the efficacy of organic posts.

Buzzfeed and programmatic

Greg Coleman
BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman

Surprisingly, for a publisher that doesn’t offer traditional display ads and instead sells “native” advertising in the form of sponsored posts, programmatic advertising is also an area Coleman says he will be looking at.

He says: “Right now it’s not obvious when you’re not taking banner ads how programmatic will work, but there’s enough money out there to make it worthwhile us thinking about.”

The global programmatic ad market is forecast to grow from $12bn in 2013 to more than $32bn in 2017, according to IPG’s media unit Magna Global, and BuzzFeed is keen for a slice.

“I have no idea right now how that will be accomplished but I did spend three and a half years in this space [at Criteo]. It will warrant a task force unto itself to just look at that possibility of taking those programmatic dollars without a banner,” Coleman adds.

Elsewhere, Coleman is keen for BuzzFeed to spend a lot more “time, energy and money” on research to make it clearer to both its own team and its clients how marketing on its platform works. It is likely “shareability” will remain the key proxy for brand success on BuzzFeed, but it will also look to other metrics.

Coleman says: “Between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of our users are sharing not just posts, but advertising. It’s one thing to say they’re sharing editorial, but people sharing stories about a cornflake brand, or a cat food story? That’s pretty remarkable. There’s not many things more powerful than friends sharing a story with you.”

BuzzFeed and the new advertising medium: tone of voice

BuzzFeed buttons

Another priority high up the list for Coleman is improving advertiser perception of BuzzFeed and ensuring top marketers understand its nuances between its platform and other publishers like the CNN and the Guardian or social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

BuzzFeed still faces criticism from media commentators. This week, for example, Frédéric Filloux, general manager for digital operations at leading French business media group Les Echos penned an open letter to the confounder of BuzzFeed’s investors Andreessen Horowitz.

It said, amongst other impugnations: “BuzzFeed is to journalism what Geraldo is to Walter Cronkite. It sucks. It is built on the meanest of readers’ instincts. These endless stream of crass listicles are an insult to the human intelligence and goodness you personify.”

But Coleman believes most marketers have got past both the “lists and cats” or “lists of cats” clichés often ascribed to the site and have also overcome “box checking” exercises of trialling social platforms like BuzzFeed. He now wants to move the conversation on to BuzzFeed’s benefits as an additive medium to marketers’ full media mix.

“I was looking at some research of advertisers’ perceptions of BuzzFeed and brands have been saying ‘we see how many people you reach, we like BuzzFeed, but it speaks in a more casual voice – it doesn’t speak in my brand voice’.

“I read that and I said ‘you know what, when I go and talk to my friends, I talk to them in my friend voice, I don’t talk to them in my president of BuzzFeed voice.

“And I think CMOs are going to want to know there’s a different way to get through to a consumer who is being bombarded with messaging in a different way but also in conjunction with the great advertising they’re doing.”

Coleman describes BuzzFeed’s humorous tone of voice almost as a medium unto itself. He envisages a brand like Range Rover, for example, not only creating a brand video for its YouTube channel but a separate creative given the BuzzFeed treatment from its Motion Pictures division – another area set for “considerable investment” and its own task force.

How BuzzFeed will market itself

BuzzFeed president Jonah Peretti
BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti

Also on the agenda in the short-term is how BuzzFeed goes about marketing itself.

While Coleman has ruled out consumer marketing activity for at least a couple of years – given its spectacular growth rates from a standing start driven by organic social media and word of mouth – he will be looking to improve the company’s trade marketing strategy.

“A big part of our marketing will be our research but if we’re going to practice what we preach, we are going to have to stay in a casual voice when we’re talking to the marketing community. You’ll never see a trade ad for BuzzFeed saying ‘look how strong we are, look at our user growth’ – that’s just not going to happen,” Coleman says.

Over the next few months Coleman will assess all elements of BuzzFeed’s marketing approach, from product, to research, to positioning and speaking appearances and assess how they sit in order of importance to the business.

”We have two main stage sessions at [the annual German digital marketing trade show] Dmexco and I know my friends at big media companies are killing for even one – I’m not kidding. But I need to look at where we prioritise our time.

”We might be the nice darlings today, but I need to prioritise everything we do under the uber marketing role we are taking right now,” Coleman adds.

Coleman’s colleague Peretti has made it his mission to build BuzzFeed into a “significant” media company that will rival the biggest publishers and broadcasters of today. BuzzFeed certainly already has the scale and attention to be well on its way, but Coleman hopes that refining the way it approaches clients and advertising will help it move from start-up challenger to grown up contender in a very short space of time.

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