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The business behind BuzzFeed’s growth and expansion: 8 good questions with BuzzFeed’s Eric Harris

When Eric Harris started at BuzzFeed, they were a six-person technology lab experimenting with how content was being shared. As the only “business” person then, he was responsible for everything from HR and payroll to analytics and business development.

Now, as BuzzFeed’s executive vice president of business operations, his focus has shifted to building and growing its advertising business and partnerships. He leads the business operations team, which works closely with the sales team on the presale side, including research, marketing, ad products, and sales strategy, and account management, ad operations, client analytics, and social discovery/outreach on the post-sale side.

We talked with Harris about how BuzzFeed sells and prices native ads, the art and science of social sharing, and why they’re betting on video.

How do you think BuzzFeed’s expansion from listicles and cat pictures to more “hard” news reporting, including longform and investigative work, has benefited the organization?

We hired Ben Smith from Politico over two and a half years ago and we’ve been doing original reporting and hard news ever since. We now have an editorial team of over 200 journalists and writers covering everything from politics to business to entertainment to what’s happening around the globe. While there will always be “cat pictures” on BuzzFeed, it’s the breadth of our editorial coverage that’s made us one of the biggest social news and entertainment organizations on the web.

In addition, as part of our expansion announcements last month, the “hard” news and much of the investigative journalism and long form stories will now be part of a new more defined editorial division, BuzzFeed News.

From a business perspective, does that push for “serious” news help you sell native ads? Or what else motivates this?

I think it absolutely helped us attract advertisers who hadn’t been interested in the past.

There were certainly a number of other industry and company factors at play, but there is no doubt that as part of the transition to creating serious news, we have also created a much broader spectrum of branded content that spans from the silly to the serious.

We have partnered with great brands across the board from GE to Geico to P&G. Some brands that were reluctant to work with us in the past because they saw us solely as a humorous pop culture site, now take us more seriously and allocate bigger budgets to their partnerships with BuzzFeed.

Native advertising’s been around for a while now and is BuzzFeed’s primary revenue source. There’s been a lot of skepticism, as well as a lot of hype. Where do you think we are in the “arc” of it?

We’re still in the early days. At BuzzFeed, even though we’ve been doing native advertising for over four years and have run more than 1,000 programs, we’re still constantly learning, experimenting and improving our offerings and services. To date, we have already worked with over two-thirds of the top 100 brands across every vertical.

Do you think all publishers should be trying native advertising in some form? Or are there some types of news sites where you think this would not succeed?

BuzzFeed’s social advertising is successful because we’ve taken lessons on how content is shared on the internet and applied those concepts to create great, shareable branded content. That said, what works for BuzzFeed won’t be a hit for every media organization.

On mobile, I think native advertising is really the only monetization strategy that’s working right now.

I do believe there is some form of native, content-driven advertising that will benefit every site out there. On mobile, which is now more than 50 percent of our traffic and growing, I think native advertising is really the only monetization strategy that’s working right now.

How does BuzzFeed price native ads? And is price based on results in any way?

Currently, most of our programs have been sold on a CPM (cost per thousand impression) basis where the advertiser is charged for the media to promote the social advertising content that BuzzFeed creates with them. That said, we are always evaluating and testing different pricing models as we introduce new products (i.e. branded video) to the market.

What are some of the best results brands have received from your native advertising campaigns? What have you learned about approaches that don’t work so well?

We’ve seen some great results when it comes to our social advertising programs. Overall, BuzzFeed brand customers see an average lift of 55 percent in brand affinity and 88 percent in purchase intent from our custom social content across our Nielsen Online Brand Effect studies.

We work with our clients to create engaging content that communicates the attributes and aspirations that the brand wants to be associated with, and less successful programs are often the result of forced or too much branding diluting the human element of the content.

You’ve described the process of getting people to consume and share your digital content as part art and part science? Can you explain this?

When creating content for the social web, in addition to creating quality content, you also need to think about how it’s going to be distributed and shared. The art is creating interesting, engaging content that often reaches people on an emotional (i.e. humorous, nostalgic, heartwarming, inspirational) level or that people can use to express their identity or interests, and the science is about relentless experimentation, measurement, and optimization towards what’s being shared.

BuzzFeed made a bet that social was going to be the way that people discover and consume content — what’s the next wave BuzzFeed would bet on?

Video. As Jonah Peretti, our CEO and founder said recently, “video is a huge, mega-trend, and the fact that it’s being viewed on mobile at such a high rate and being shared at a high rate aligns all these things together.” With the newly formed BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, we’re also ramping up BuzzFeed Branded Video efforts that focus on creating engaging, web-native videos for brands that go beyond the 30-second spot.

One of our most successful video to date, ‘Dear Kitten’ came from BuzzFeed Branded Video and has over 15 million views on YouTube. The most popular video is constantly changing because BuzzFeed distributes videos across a few platforms but on YouTube, ‘Sad Cat Diary’ is one of our largest.

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