Virgin Mobile’s Faris Helps Steinberg Pitch Buzzfeed

Brand's manager, site's president talk up social content's success

Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg took the stage at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO Monday, to make the now-familiar case for his publication's unique, content-based advertising model—this time, with the help of Virgin Mobile brand director Ron Faris.

During a seminar titled Social's New Starting Point: Brands as Publishers and Harnessing Supersharers, sponsored by Buzzfeed and part of the Creative Week 2012, Steinberg ran through a slideshow presentation that included pictures of Basset Hounds running, and offered his (interested) perspective on the future of news. "Social is actually bigger than most people think it is…It's completely transformed how we get our information and our content," he said. More pointedly, he says—Buzzfeed's readers come to the site actively seeking content they can pass along. "About 75 percent of people come to our site looking to find things to share."

Part of Steinberg's pitch noted the need for better forms of online advertising to match the new way of consuming media. "Banners don't work," Steinberg said. "They really don't work for anything [except maybe direct response]. They don't work from a branding perspective. They don't work from an engagement perspective and they don't work" in social.  Faris, offering his perspective on the new social media power dynamic, turned to another popular punching bag: Williamsburg hipsters. Gone are the days when marketers should be trying to turn them into brand ambassadors, according to Faris. "That's all bullsh*t right now. Your influencer is your aunt, your mom, your friend."

To succeed in the new environment, "Brands have to start thinking like political campaigns, start thinking like news rooms, and basically get off their asses on a weekly basis and promote their voice," said Faris. "Kind of like a hyperactive friend on Facebook who almost annoys you."

Before long, the conversation shifted focus to the ads that Virgin Mobile have been running using Buzzfeed's partner content platform—which takes branded posts (marked as such, of course) created to mirror the style of Buzfeed's editorial and serves it up in the same feeds as the site's own content. Virgin uses "the same [content management system] that's used by Ben Smith and Michael Hastings at Buzzfeed," Steinberg said. "Everybody uses the publishing system, everybody is creating content." 

Faris and Steinberg also pointed to several examples of Virgin-crafted posts they deemed successful, including 11 Things No One Wants To See You Instagram, which according to Steinberg was only clicked some 20,000 times, but saw more than 329,000 page views thanks to sharing.

Not all posts are such hits, Faris cautioned. "To be clear, we fail a lot too. These are three home runs out of sixty [attempts]." But Steinberg defended the success rate with a financial analogy. "We're building a stock portfolio here. We're investing in a lot of stocks. Some are out-performers."

When an audience member asked how the marketer got buy-in on such an unconventional approach from upper management at Virgin, Faris credited the chief marketing officer parent company Sprint brought in last September as a "turnaround" guy.

Bill Malloy, whose other moves included shifting Sprint's advertising account from Omnicom's Goodby Silverstein & Partners to a dedicated Publicis Groupe unit led by Digitas and Leo Burnett, and its media account out of WPP's Mindshare, also to Publicis, "bet on me and bet on my team," Faris said, in supporting the marketing. "It's rare that that happened. Once that all fell into place, everybody started playing nice." Or, he added "I got stupid lucky."


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