BuzzFeed Has This ‘Sponsored Content’ Thing Down

The biggest “must read” story making its way around the web this week is New York Magazine’s profile of BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti and his enviably successful approach to paid content.

To sum things up, Peretti, who also helped launch The Huffington Post, was a math student at MIT who grew fascinated with the concept of viral memes and later created BuzzFeed as a tool to identify and facilitate the spread of said memes via algorithm. His goal was to truly capture the magic behind “word of mouth” buzz (the cat GIFs and political reporting came later). Most of the Internet and quite a few of the biggest brands in the world agree that Peretti has uncovered a secret formula for creating native advertising that might just go viral. Here are some revelations from the profile:

  • BuzzFeed editors work directly with marketing specialists from partner brands to create content in a “newsroom”-style environment.
  • The vast majority of traffic for both BuzzFeed originals and paid posts comes from social sharing.
  • The site’s most popular posts don’t go viral after a single big-name personality shares them — they’re simply picked up by several isolated individuals who share them in small groups (average nine Facebook friends) that spawn small “share” groups of their own.
  • There’s a science to this. Peretti has literally devised a formula.

  • The site has a “social discovery” department whose only goal is to score strategically optimal paid placements for paid content! This is how the sharing groups usually begin.
  • It’s all about data. Before it had writers or content strategists, BuzzFeed convinced partner sites to let it “install programming code that allowed the company to monitor their traffic” in order to better figure out which content was most popular.
  • Despite the site’s recent turn toward serious journalism, it’s the silly and/or uplifting stuff that really makes waves — which is why most of the native ads maintain the same lighthearted tone. Here’s an example of an extremely popular post later re-purposed into a native ad for JetBlue.

We feel like BuzzFeed’s main accomplishment is the seamless transition between native advertising and editorial, because we often find it quite difficult to tell which posts are ads.

We would summarize the profile in greater detail, but you should really just go read it. It’s quite good.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.