BuzzFeed is undoubtedly one of the runaway digital media success stories, but its huge push to be known as a serious news publisher often sits uncomfortably with its roots and ongoing approach to making money.

For starters, despite being largely known now for being more than merely cat curation, it continues to play to its old reputation in its marketing materials at the many events its execs speak at.

And describing how BuzzFeed was started, BuzzFeed UK creative director Philip Byrne, described founder Jonah Peretti as “one of the first trolls”, a word with toxic connotations. 

But a more fundamental disconnect was on display during Byrne’s talk at the Festival of Marketing 2014 where he revealed the company’s approach to monetising its news content. As in, it won’t:

“I don’t think we have the intention to monetise news. News is the value that we’d be offering our audience. What we’re attempting to make money from is the branded content.”

That approach is one of BuzzFeed’s defining features. It has strict chinese walls between editorial and commercial content production, more so than many traditonal media companies dipping their toes into native advertising. As Byrne says, that approach is if anything more vital for a media business built on social.

“We have an absolute separation of church and state… We have our own proprietary metric which we call social lift. I think sharing is a very honest metric.”

That separation is also made even more absolute by BuzzFeed’s rejection of banner advertising. A banner ad, afterall, is designed to run alongside an article, whereas BuzzFeed’s ads live a separate existence on the social web.

Audience value

Of course, BuzzFeed’s news content does have a commercial value because not only does it boost BuzzFeed’s brand, but it proves the company knows how to create content its consumers value.

Byrne says creating that value is equally important for both news content and native ads BuzzFeed creates. Under the heading of the ‘Commandments of Being Interesting’, he discussed the fact that while marketers and brands used to exist in a one-to-many environment, the internet means that now everyone exists in the same sphere, a many-to-many space. As a result, brands really have to focus on the value they’re offering their audience:

“Banners [ads] can be all about you, but social content needs to deliver value to the audience. What we’re all doing in the social web is telling a story. That’s where marketing and advertising can come in.”

Acknowledging that the very shareable nature of BuzzFeed’s content means that it has a disadvantage when it comes to creating targeted ad campaigns, he says that it is nevertheless one of its key strengths simply because of the sheer number of people who see the content:

“A lot of the content we create lives in social feeds, so it’s not that easy to measure those demographics… [But] more than 50 percent see Facebook as a source of entertainment, and 45 percent see it as a way to discover content.”

Byrne’s attitude is that we’re living in the third age of the internet – the age of social discovery – as opposed to the first two ages of portals and search. And whether BuzzFeed is publishing branded ads or the serious news that will be a major part of its future, its expertise in creating eminently shareable content works in its favour in this news environment. As Byrne says:

“We’re one of those companies that has fallen into the right place at the right time.”