BuzzFeed Eats its Words


Liadha Madden reacts to the update last month that Buzzfeed has backtracked on the position of 'zero display ads' as part of their commercial proposition

In August, news and entertainment site, BuzzFeed, announced that it would be bringing banner ads back onto the site after denouncing them back in 2013. The ads will be available to buy programmatically and will be served globally through Google DoubleClick and Facebook Audience Network, running above story and home pages both online and in-app.

On one hand, it’s a surprising move for a company that has staunchly rejected banner ads from the outset, going so far as to declare that, “You are more likely to summit Mount Everest than to click on a banner ad” (BuzzFeed’s vice-president of agency strategy in 2013). Ever since, they have lauded native content as the best and only solution for any brand looking to reach their 75 million unique users (Comscore, July 2017), using a dedicated in-house team to create native content in the form of articles, videos and quizzes. This content, and the company’s vehement rejection of traditional display advertising has become synonymous with the BuzzFeed brand.

On the other hand, this was an obvious move for the company for two reasons. The first is, unsurprisingly, profit; BuzzFeed is allegedly preparing for an IPO sometime next year, and selling banner ads to advertisers will increase the revenue stream into the company and drive the value of the business before its stocks go to market. Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO and founder, pretty much admitted this himself in an interview with Business Insider, without commenting on the IPO rumours themselves: “Programmatic advertising is simply an addition to our many revenue streams that, added together, make BuzzFeed an even stronger business”. BuzzFeed has recognised the vast amount of revenue Google and Facebook have generated from targeted online advertising, and want in on the action.

The second reason, one which is more relevant from a media perspective, is that BuzzFeed, along with most other online publishers, has become far too reliant on native content in the past few years. Native has become the go-to solution for brands looking to advertise online, and digital publishers are pandering to this, wanting to offer an alternative solution after display advertising came under scrutiny in terms of effectiveness a few years ago. Of course, options are never a bad thing and native content can be a great solution when the brand, the objective and the publisher marry well together to create a great piece of content that offers something useful or entertaining to the user, as I have seen with some of my own clients. However, this is too often not the case. The content is frequently transparently commercial and of no value to the consumer, or worse (at least from an advertiser’s perspective), is entertaining but offers no connection or relevance to the brand other than the ‘Sponsored by Brand X’ line included at the end, resulting in the publisher, and not the brand, reaping the rewards.

Nowadays, there really isn’t a need for this reliance on native, given the major advancements in display advertising in recent times. Programmatic buying (using data to target display ads to specific users in real time) has transformed online advertising, allowing brands to serve a bespoke, relevant message to consumers who are open to receiving it, thus tackling previous concerns about the effectiveness and relevance of display ads. Currently, approximately 33% of display spend in Ireland is programmatic (IAB Ireland, April 2017) but it won’t be long before all display advertising (as well as other forms of advertising) is bought in this way, meaning the format is only going from strength to strength.

The people at BuzzFeed, it seems, have recognised these points and are going for a more balanced approach to their advertising solutions. This seems to be the optimal solution; relevant, programmatically-served display ads combined with a more selective use of native content.

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