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The BuzzFeed experiment: Only news, only programmatic

On the cusp of its teens, BuzzFeed is undergoing an identity makeover. Founded as a viral lab in 2006, BuzzFeed, Inc.—the Internet media and news company based in New York City—has become infamous for its online quizzes, “listicles”, and pop culture articles.

But now BuzzFeed wants to be taken seriously, and a makeover is underway. This week, the company launched a new website for its real journalism,

“Our mission is to report to you,” it announces on its new website, making it clear how non-casual this new BuzzFeed is, and continues with a litany of recent news achievements…such as how “A BuzzFeed News story freed a man from prison” and how it “Exposed the attempts to hide the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria” amongst others.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Kate Zasada, BuzzFeed’s Senior Product Manager, said that the company’s own research has found that some readers “don’t completely understand” that while BuzzFeed is famous for GIF-filled lists, it also produces “deeply researched and fact-checked” journalism.

Yet there are certainly deeper, underlying structural reasons for BuzzFeed’s move. It’s no secret that the company has struggled with Facebook’s algorithm changes as well as an audience pivot away from frivolous clickbait headlines, particularly in the US as Americans try to make sense of the tumultuous political climate.

Indeed, while U.S. web traffic to CNN, the New York Times, Fox News and the Washington Post has grown over the past year, unique visitors to BuzzFeed’s website have fallen significantly – according to comScore data, it saw 69.8 million U.S. readers in October 2017, a 10 percent drop from a year before, and a 12 percent drop from 2015 when it had 79.3 million readers.

In the new publishing zeitgeist, high-quality journalism is in, frivolous clickbait news is out.

While BuzzFeed is adopting, in the words of Zasada, “a new domain and a new brand,” news stories will continue to run on the main BuzzFeed site, and BuzzFeed News will also include links to other BuzzFeed content.

But the makeover doesn’t end there. BuzzFeed is also experimenting with another significant change in how it interacts with the world. The company is ditching native advertising and going all programmatic with BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed was already on a “mission” to diversify away from direct-sold advertising, and its standalone news site does not have the native ads that still drive a majority of BuzzFeed’s revenue. The only ads on the new BuzzFeed News site are some display units, which are monetized through open exchanges. The website also plans to sell homepage takeovers, though it has yet to sell any.

“We launched to give the brand a distinct, elevated look and feel to match its world-class reporting,a spokesman informed. “While the site only includes programmatic ads at launch, we’re excited to explore new partnerships as we continue to pursue numerous opportunities to unlock the enormous value of BuzzFeed News.”

Whether the move will stem the drop in visitors to BuzzFeed is a moot point. But if nothing else it underpins the general industry-wide move towards serious, high-quality journalism. It will also be a relief for readers not to have to navigate serious articles such as “Zuckerberg Secretly Called Trump After The Election” next to “This Gross Food Test Will Reveal If You’re More Introverted Or Extroverted.”



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