BuzzFeed is often referred to as an advertising agency that creates content. Though most of the outside world views it as a digital media juggernaut, BuzzFeed's real innovation isn't listicles or GIF-based storytelling, but native advertising.
Though it gets over 200 million unique visitors a month, BuzzFeed has chosen not to monetize its traffic in the typical way, with banners or takeovers. Instead, the company crafts native ads that look very much like BuzzFeed content -- maybe too much.
Most of the time, this arrangement works great. The company was recently valued at $850 million and has won grudging respect for its coverage of politics, tech and business. Last month, though, a fissure emerged that illustrated that even BuzzFeed is still figuring out this native advertising thing.
The trouble started last month when Gawker noticed that BuzzFeed had taken down a post critical of Unilever's Dove, and then another one that took aim at Hasbro's Monopoly. Later, an internal audit showed BuzzFeed deleted three posts about Unilever's Axe body spray, Microsoft and Pepsi, and Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith admitted that the posts were taken down after the advertisers complained.
This may just be bad editorial judgment, but it could also be indicative of something else: When you are a publisher that peddles native advertising, you're more vulnerable to advertising pressure. With native advertising, the walls separating the editorial and ad departments are a bit more porous. This is a logical tendency that's unavoidable, since the hybrid nature of native advertising is apt to confuse both advertisers and editorial staff unless they create very clear lines of demarcation.
In BuzzFeed's case, there seem to have been some blurred lines. That's not unusual in such a young organization. While a mature media outlet like The New York Times is unlikely to have a problem sorting out advertising from editorial, startup media firms are especially vulnerable, since they often lack resources.
It's not unusual, for instance, for a media startup to have editorial staffers who also write native advertising articles for the site. While most of us are capable of compartmentalizing, this sets a tone. If your writer is penning a Coke-sponsored post one day and then slamming Pepsi in a news story, the dissonance will become evident to everyone.
Another challenge for young media companies is that sometimes the content they're creating isn't news per se, but some sort of hybrid of commentary and listicle that exists merely to entertain the reader. Although BuzzFeed is not set up this way, sometimes young media companies can run into trouble in this area.
In a post titled, "These Brands Are Going To Bombard Your Twitter Feed On Super Bowl Sunday," BuzzFeed included a GIF that BuzzFeed's creative team had made for Pepsi. BuzzFeed took the post down after Pepsi complained, but you could argue that it hurt BuzzFeed's brand more than Pepsi's since in this case, advertorial content was trotted out as editorial. While this was an apparent oversight and fairly unusual, it demonstrates the gray area in which new media firms often operate.
Finally, another problem particular to media startups is the tendency to take down posts or make corrections without acknowledging either. In the days of print, this wasn't possible, of course, but this option gives a lot of latitude to weasly half-measures. If an advertiser complains, you can just take down a post and hope no one notices. (BuzzFeed doubtlessly would have gotten away with its covert actions if not for that meddling Gawker.)
As all these cases illustrate, if you're a media startup that uses native advertising to pay the bills, you have a unique set of temptations. If you want to build a sustaining media brand, though, you have to do your best to resist.
What's the solution? Write a code of ethics and post it for all to see. Include a policy in which you acknowledge all corrections and deletions and vet listicle-type posts for apparent plugs. In practice, it's also a good idea to appoint a project manager to make sure a native ad campaign is executed without transgressions.
This person ideally acts as a referee with no alliances to shepherd the process through as fairly and ethically as possible. The most sensible approach is to appoint a third party -- someone who is employed by neither the publisher nor the advertiser -- to fill this role.
Native advertising isn't a fad. "Advertorials" as they were previously known have been with us since the early days of print. BuzzFeed's success illustrates that it's a valid business model for digital media as well.
There's no doubt about it, though: This is a trickier path to navigate than the old church-state arrangement, but it's not impossible. The good news is -- the advertising works. BuzzFeed may have stumbled a few times, but that's a small price to pay for creating such a winning native advertising model that the company has created in a short space of time.