Native advertising is all the rage – but of course it’s been around in the form of advertorials and sponsored pages for decades, if not longer.

Its renewed time in the spotlight is two-fold. Firstly, it’s seen by some as the answer to declining faith in (and revenues from) digital display advertising. Secondly, the popularity of native advertising has led to claims it is undermining good journalism, letting commercial imperatives creep into editorial decisions.

US site Buzzfeed is famed for its list articles, or “listicles”, featuring throwaway facts, images or cat gifs. It has also more recently been lauded for some of its political and business coverage and earlier this year it launched in the UK.

But one of the most unusual things about Buzzfeed is it is entirely dependent on native advertising for its revenues and has been from the start. So who better to talk to about the rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts of native advertising?

Jonathan Perelman Buzzfeed VP agency strategy and industry development

We spoke to Jonathan Perelman (pictured above), Buzzfeed’s VP of agency and strategy who joined the company in November following six years as Google’s head of industry relations, to learn some of the principles behind their native ad strategy.

1. Integrate with your content model

Buzzfeed applies the same principle to its native ads as it does to its editorial content. It’s all about making things that readers want to put on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or any other outlet their friends/acquaintances can see it. Perelman says:

Our research shows 75 percent of our audience come specifically to find something to share. If you look at why people share, one reason is to form community and the other reason people share on the social worlds is to build their personal brand. People come to find content that makes them look smart, to make them look funny. That’s how we develop content.

It might be business news or political, it might be basset hounds running, but it can also be advertising. A banner ad simply distracts, but advertising delivered as native advertising can add to that. Thirty percent of traffic (to native ad pages) comes from shares.

The creatives writing ad copy are encouraged to share the same mindset as their editorial counterparts and even have a friendly competition to see who can get more shares.

Just as with editorially conceived articles, some branded content does better than others. One article created as part of a campaign for Virgin Media, titled 27 cats that just can’t handle it, has been shared more than 18,000 times on Facebook and got more than 600,000 views via social media.

Other posts do less well, but that’s exactly the way editorial posts on Buzzfeed work. They may be good at knowing what types of post will go viral, but are often surprised by what actually ends up being shared the most.  (Check out Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s famous slidedeck on what virality means).

2. Forget about display

This is easier for Buzzfeed than most – purely because it has never run banner ads in any format. But Perelman makes some clear points on why that focus is important:

Banner ads have been around 18 years, and we have debated the value of a banner ad for 18 years.  We made a decision early on to not accept them. It would have been a lot easier as all the advertisers do it – it’s efficient, it’s easy to buy.

We don’t think banner ads work, and more importantly they are being ignored. And if you look at the stats for banner ads on mobile, 40-50 percent of clicks on mobile banner ads are mistakes.

Perelman says banner ads not only don’t work, but the fact they don’t work underlines how users view them – an obstruction between them and the content they want to access.  

Obviously this isn’t practical, or desirable for every publisher, but Buzzfeed believes it is able to get away with native ads while retaining integrity, in part because it also doesn’t bombard its users with banners that make less money.

3. Collaborate with your clients

Creating ads that get shared means Buzzfeed has to take a collaborative approach to creating them. It has a separate team of around 30 “creatives” who produce articles with an ad buyer or brand. 

The brand and the agency understand the brand and what they are trying to get across. We don’t claim to understand the brand.

The challenge is for us is to make really shareable content. We know what people share and the brand knows its objectives. It’s the intersection. 

4. Don’t be too intrusive

Native ad Buzzfeed bud light

Consumers may ignore banner ads, but the whole point of native advertising is to get the brand into a consumer’s mind without putting them off the content they are looking at (and hopefully sharing). 

Buzzfeed ads are clearly labelled with the brand’s chosen logo, and the brand name is worked into the intro, but it isn’t plastered across an entire post. 

It’s branded and it’s subtle. People know that it’s a piece of branded content from Bud Light (pictured left) and you wouldn’t be able to pass it off as something else.

The brand is buying a piece of media, so clearly they want this to be seen as their brand, yet you have to do it in a way that isn’t going to hit you in the head with that branding.

5. Don’t restrict your ad content with commercial rules

While Buzzfeed emphasises the shareability of its content, it doesn’t charge brands based on how many times their piece of native advertising is shared. Perleman says that’s because Buzzfeed would have to stop an item getting shared if it became too popular:

You pay for the media – it’s a CPM based and we don’t do engagement or shares. 

We care deeply about shares and our hope is something will catch on, you wouldn’t want to turn something off that gets a lot of shares so we don’t want to price for engagement.

Brands also get to keep the content Buzzfeed creates for them, reposting it on their own social media properties or sites. Buzzfeed retains legal obligations, such as picture licensing. 

6. Church and state

Those concerned about the impact of native ads on editorial integrity may have a point. But when even venerable publications such as The Washington Post are experimenting with new forms of native ads, can you afford not to consider an approach that might push up those yields? 

Buzzfeed takes the separation of commerce and journalism more seriously than you may think, says Perelman:

It’s really important. (The creative team) are totally separate from our editorial team. They work from the same CMS, and the same sharing mindset, but they are completely walled off. No journalist would have to write this piece of ad content about a brand and then write a news story about the same company. 

We have a very strict separation, maybe more strict than others. We feel very strongly we have a sacred brand. 

Not every publisher is going to be able to adopt Buzzfeed’s model of native advertising, not least because its whimsical content allows brand messages to fit in, but also because it has been built up without any reliance on the traditional models, processes and relationships that have driven display.