Big takeout in New York mag this week on BuzzFeed and its forays into the frontiers of native advertising/sponsored content/commerce journalism.


Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?

Jonah Peretti’s viral-content machine purports to have solved the problems of both journalism and advertising at once, all with the help of a simple algorithm.

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the website BuzzFeed—though this is increasingly unlikely, as it’s currently enjoying a viral moment. The site is a hyper active amalgam: simultaneously a journalism website, a purveyor of funny lists, and a perpetual pop-culture plebiscite where you can vote on articles with bright-yellow buttons reading lol, wtf, and omg. You can find news there, really serious news by first-rate journalists, about subjects like lobbying scandals and killer drones. You can also find an enormous amount of stuff like “The 40 Greatest Dog GIFs of All Time.” If you’re into that, in fact, there’s an entire section devoted to animals.


Not to mention big chunks devoted to native advertising, which is sponsored content (read: marketing material) that’s virtually indistinguishable from editorial content. According to the New York piece, “[c]urrently, BuzzFeed is running 38 ad campaigns, which usually consist of about a month’s worth of posts, and cost an average of around $100,000.”

And BuzzFeed is entirely unapologetic about the blurring of the line between advertiing and editorial:


Peretti says that twentieth-century media businesses sowed the seeds of their own destruction by treating advertising as a “necessary evil.” He, by contrast, doesn’t care whether a post is produced by a journalist or sponsored by a brand, so long as it travels. He’s a semiotic Darwinist: He believes in messages that reproduce. “Some editorial content sucks, some ads are awesome,” Peretti [said], “and for many readers this line is even more important to them than church and state.”


But others aren’t quite so sanguine. As Felix Salmon writes on his Reuters blog (via the Nieman Journalism Lab):


[The New York piece is] wrong that native advertising is fundamentally “mundane”, and provides just a “modest” uplift to whatever you can achieve through more traditional channels. Native pageviews might hard to come by — but any smart brand would absolutely prefer a single native pageview to a dozen banner-ad impressions. The difference between the two isn’t something marginal, on the order of 20% or 30%: it’s huge — a good order of magnitude, at least.


Beyond that, Salmon says, “[i]n terms of disruptive force . . . native has a huge advantage over banners in that it is much more effective in connecting with consumers. And there’s another way that it’s disruptive, too: it utterly upends the standard ad-agency business model.”

The issue there is not that ad agencies lose their precious 15% commission. It’s that consumers gradually lose the distinction between advertising and editorial, which means they gradually lose confidence in the integrity of editorial content.

Anybody else worried about that?


John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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