Buzzfeed, like Google, is the ad agency of the future. But shareability != sales.
Jonah Peretti founder of Buzzfeed has been riding the viral wave ever since his stunt email exchange with Nike in 2001. Buzzfeed is the viral headquarters if you will, where imgur gifs, tumblr jokes and reddit best photo threads are repackaged with smart headlines, cleaned up with snarkier comments and sent out into the world with big yellow "WTF" buttons on them. A machine of memes, with an editorial staff skilled at making them who will sell this ability to the highest bidder, like Virgin Mobile and other brands targeting the younger demographic.
Buzzfeed have been touring the ad agencies with their spiel, enticing them to put brands on Buzzfeed. They offer to do the creative, or work with the agencies, and soon found that most agencies aren't so keen. Native advertising marries editorial with advertorial which makes for a dangerous mix. The Meme-machine finds twenty gifs of kittens and brands them Virgin Mobile. Is a brands name on a meme simply like the brands name added to the Soap Opera or sports stadium? Is it like a bad sponsored skit on FunnyorDie? More importantly does it sell? Peretti might hope that he's divined that secret, that he can reliably manufacture, at mass scale memes that you want to share. If he has cracked that he will have developed an asset of immense value. Speaking of "Cracked," remember when they were the kings of the web with their top lists like the six grossest anti smoking ads of all time?
Social networks, with their unforgiving chorus of voices, can be dangerous places for brands—as Peretti knows from experience, viral stunts can backfire. But ad-world veterans point out a more immediately obvious drawback: Most advertising produced by publishers just looks amateurish. “Ninety percent of it is really bad, and it makes creative agencies cringe,” says Jason Clement of TBWA\Chiat\Day, who oversaw the digital portion of the successful Old Spice campaign when he was with a previous firm. “I’ve never seen anything on BuzzFeed that felt ownable by the brand. That didn’t feel like LOL, OMG.”
In my conversations with agency executives, I heard this observation many times. BuzzFeed’s advertisements may draw traffic, but are they really selling anything? After all, even Faris admits that he uses BuzzFeed to introduce Virgin Mobile to an audience—only to hit them with a banner ad elsewhere. “It’s not enough to get someone’s time with a bunch of cats,” Gerry Graf says. “It’s not enough to entertain somebody, if you’re actually trying to do marketing.”
This has always been the heart of the issue. While some preached that ads should entertain as we steal those precious 30 seconds away from the TV viewer, there was always a message that had to be delivered with that joke. These days we aren't interrupting your TV show, we're trying to be shared by you on the web. How do we make an ad-page that people spread?
So one reason why BuzzFeed’s attempt to reinvent advertising is going to be a lot harder than it looks would be simple resistance from the ad industry itself: for all of Peretti’s talk about how sponsored content can bring back the creativity and storytelling aspect of advertising, many agencies and other players don’t seem convinced that putting their brand name on a piece about dogs who look unimpressed is going to help them move more product. The BuzzFeed founder may see this as short-sighted, but it is still a hurdle.
Another barrier is related to this one: namely, the fact that some of BuzzFeed’s sponsored content winds up doing the exact opposite of going viral. According to the NY magazine story, some of the content that Virgin America and other brands spent hours creating in collaboration with BuzzFeed — tinkering with it until they were convinced they had engineered it to be as viral as possible — more or less fell flat and disappeared without a trace. One post had just 350 shares on Facebook, which is the equivalent of a damp squib in social-networking land.
Like Huffpo, which Peretti points out wasn't taken seriously until the AOL buyout, Buzzfeed siphons traffic away from other content producers by old-school re-posting and linking. Posts like Creative New York Post headlines. It's like aggregation on steroids and while not invented at Huffpo, was put into mass production there.
So while Buzzfeed are showing us today that creative content production is the ad agency of the future on a web where banners just hide, will shareability ever equal sales? Is it just branding? If so, is it Virgin Mobile or T-mobile that are the cat-gif loving telecom?
Brands can go viral on their own, with a bit of tongue in cheek humor. Remember the I love DP T-shirt? More recently there was the Carl's JR We wake and bake every morning which coincided with the one ad that had product, not sexy lady, as hero for their breakfast biscuit.
The law of diminishing returns is alive and well in meme-factories. Producing more funny gif lists doesn't make more money. And advertisers know that trying to capture lightning twice with the same idea as the first time often fails as it waters down the "magic" that made the first so successful. This is why the Coke Happiness Machine, went on to become Coca Cola "Hug Me" machine and then eventually the happiness truck in Brazil.
Peretti might have found the secret to capturing lightning in a bottle, but can he keep it? Will shareability ever result in sales? Will Coke make a kitten machine? Because a kitten would make me happy.