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SXSW 2013: The Future of Online Advertising

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Brands that are working with BuzzFeed on branded content.

BuzzFeed says that the future of online advertising is not in banner advertising, but instead in branded and sponsored content that is shareable on social sites. The founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti spoke at SXSW on Tuesday about the power shift in media. Peretti believes that making content that people want to share is how advertisers are going to endear themselves to brands.

First, a little bit about BuzzFeed. It is essentially a news site. And that news covers everything from serious politics and breaking news, to cute animal pictures. It is full of shareable content and 40 million unique visitors love it. Peretti talked a lot about the diversity of the content available on his site and addressed the accusations that pictures of cute animals dumb down the “real” news on the site by likening the site to a Parisan cafe: you might bring a philosophy book and a newspaper to the cafe to read, then you notice a cute puppy under the table next to you and you reach down to pet that puppy before going back to your book or newspaper. That action of petting the puppy doesn’t dumb down your philosophy reading; instead it enhances and diversifies your experience. So essentially, BuzzFeed is a Parisian cafe.

Next, Peretti talked about shareable and ultimately viral content. He says people are bored at work. And they are bored in line. And things that entertain them during those times are shareable and have the ability to go viral. Because of the bored-in-line audience, it is imperative that all shareable content be mobile friendly (40% of BuzzFeed’s traffic is from mobile).

The viral distribution strategy is as important as the idea itself. Twitter has a half life of an hour. Facebook has a half life of a day. Pinterest has a half life of a week. (All of this is roughly speaking.) What spreads depends on the platform. We behave wildly differently depending on the context and what platform we are interacting on. The points that support this include:

  • Google’s whole focus is on connecting you with information you are seeking.
  • Facebook connects people with their friends and give them a means to communicate and express themselves. The information you encounter is more serendipitous than sought out as it is on Google. You will have hard core news stories shared on Facebook, followed by cute kitten photos. And people are used to this and okay with this and enjoy that experience.
  • People don’t search for Bassett hounds running, but this is great social content.

BuzzFeed wants the best entertainment, the best editorial content and journalism and now the best branded content. Peretti says that social advertising is replacing banner ads. One hundred perscent of BuzzFeed revenue comes from branded content and social content marketing. These are in-stream units posted by a brand, but is actual content that is interesting to the reader. Story units have 1-2% click through rates which they claim is over 10x industry average. And then BuzzFeed can graph the viral shares over and above the paid clicks. They have case studies for Virgin Mobile, Toyota and GE that show how well this is working for these brands.

Peretti’s top takeaways for the audience were:

  • Social is a way of thinking. Not a trick.
  • Have a heart. EQ as important as IQ.
  • Content is about identity. Provide people with content they can identify with and understand.
  • Capture the moment. Brands have trouble doing this. They can’t move that rapidly, but they are going to have to learn and adapt to make it in the social media world.
  • Cute animals deserve respect.
  • Nostalgia is very social.
  • Human rights is social and connects us.
  • Don’t post things that people are embarrassed to share.

BuzzFeed is truly re-imagining online advertising and bringing personality and storytelling opportunities for brands that banner ads can’t provide. This is likely a trend that we will see other sites trying to do effectively. We are already seeing Facebook trying this with sponsored posts and Twitter with promoted tweets. Facebook has not been successful with their approach yet, but Twitter is seeing some amazing results with their promoted tweets. In general, this is a trend to watch and consider as online advertising evolves with social media use by consumers.

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