#aw8 Interview: BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg: Social Advertising, WTF?

October 5th, 2011

This interview article was first published on the Advertising Week Blog.


This is not only the truncated language of the Internet, but to BuzzFeed.com, it’s also the rating system for the hottest content on the web.

BuzzFeed aggregates and creates the coolest (or since they were among the first to break the nude photos of Scarlett Johansson, perhaps I’ll say the hottest) content on the web. Visited by 15 million unique viewers per month, their dashboard and algorithms have been able to monitor and spread everything from pictures of running basset hounds to green technology ideas from GE across its partner network of over 2 billion page views.

For some marketers, “viral” is just a buzzword (pun intended), but to BuzzFeed, it’s the future of Internet marketing – social advertising.

And no one knows that better than Jon Steinberg, the visionary President of BuzzFeed, who is leading the NYC-based startup’s advertising strategy.

It’s been said on the playground. It’s been said between friends. Heck, it’s even been said by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. But the phrase “sharing is caring” may never ring truer than it does in the world of social advertising.

“The value of a shared view is the driver behind social,” Jon explains.

Despite being a collegiate economics and politics major at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Jon believes the copious metrics used to scrutinize the success of online media only report on the quantitative, not the qualitative assessments of the content at hand.

The key is “creating engaging content that people want to spread”.

When you’re watching TV commercials or glimpsing web banners, you don’t need to look at the ads for them to complete their media run. But with social advertising, sharing is imperative to sustain viewership.

But how do you develop content worth sharing?

“Create content that plays on interpersonal connections,” advises Jon.

“Create content that people can relate to – family relationships, boyfriend/girlfriend situations, and of course, nostalgia.”

And when it comes to spreading your brand’s message around the web, BuzzFeed is there to fasten digital rocket boosters to your advertising campaigns.

They’ve worked with clients like Absolut Vodka, Samsung, Mountain Dew, Focus Features and Coca Cola to develop branded content that actually goes viral.

Jon firmly believes that most digital communications fail, ironically enough, because creative and media are often broken into silos. He contends that the best way to develop great work with BuzzFeed is to get his team in early conversations with the media team, creative agency and brand all together.

Razorbombing, a branded effort BuzzFeed recently launched with Schick and Edelman, is a phenomenal example of what can happen when everybody’s on the same page from the project’s onset.

Jon is part of two fantastically relevant panels at this year’s Advertising Week, “Local Matters…More Than Ever” and “Do Agencies Need To Think More Like Tech Companies?” He worked in the Local Markets unit at Google before joining BuzzFeed (which was founded by former Huffington Post co-founder, Jonah Peretti), giving him a unique perspective on the world of local and emerging advertising solutions.

The biggest challenge in local is trying to achieve scale when every metric is lower (e.g. scale), yet the effort to produce good creative is the same.

“There’s an inherent inefficiency in local buys,” Jon explains, “but local media can be incredibly powerful.”

The work BuzzFeed did to promote the Washington State Lottery is an example of this. The company developed geo-targeted inventory to be shared through StumbleUpon, Twitter and Facebook.

And, when it comes to ad agencies having to think more like tech companies, Jon thinks it might in fact be the reverse.

As tech companies continue to see advertising as a means to support their businesses, they need to learn the ins and outs of the media landscape.

“I wish I’d known to ask how media and advertising worked from the beginning,” claims a smiling Jon.

He also says he’s learned an incredible amount about other things during his time at the “Silicon Alley”-based startup, like how crazy real estate can be in NYC and how important it is to recruit talent far enough ahead of when you actually need it.

“We want to double or triple our size on almost every metric,” proclaimed Jon, citing traffic, revenue and product offerings as key growth areas.

“We never want to lose our willingness to disruptively innovate.”

And with a relentlessly motivated leader like Jon Steinberg, there’s no sign of BuzzFeed letting up anytime soon.

Whether you’re looking to give your brand a viral boost or give yourself a good laugh (or a heart attack from Nancy Grace’s DWTS wardrobe malfunction), head over to BuzzFeed.com right now.

And if you’re looking for more insight from a social advertising prophet, swing by Jon’s panels during Advertising Week.

They’re sure to be OMG.

Eric Schlakman is an Associate Creative Director at Tribal DDB New York.


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