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Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?

A BuzzFeed creative strategy meeting.  

Virgin Mobile is now a constant presence on BuzzFeed, publishing several posts a week. The company acts not only as a sponsor but also as a collaborator in creating the content, working with BuzzFeed in an arrangement Faris likens to a “newsroom.” For the weekly meeting, Faris sat at the head of a conference-room table, like a managing editor, batting around ideas with a team of BuzzFeed advertising staffers led by Melissa Rosenthal. A curly-haired woman with a nose stud, Rosenthal originally worked her way into an internship at BuzzFeed by posting to the site as an unpaid community contributor and now holds the title “managing creative strategist.” She is 24 years old.

“We have the bait, now we have to bring them into the Virgin Mobile family,” Faris told the meeting. He sometimes likens his BuzzFeed posts to the joke that opens a sales pitch: Maybe it will lead to a “like” on Facebook, and then, using cookies to track the reader, Virgin will deploy display ads on other sites the reader visits. Faris brought up a recent video tied to Valentine’s Day, urging consumers to “break up with their carrier.”

“We got like a 95 percent spike in sales that day,” he reported.

The upcoming week’s paid-for posts included a gag involving unclaimed domain names (“,” “bieberin”); another about “bros getting friendzoned on Facebook”; a list of pictures of “people that just got screwed by life”; and a G-rated post with a headline that played on the word porn. Rosenthal and Faris particularly liked the last one, which was modeled on the previous week’s big hit: a collection of images written on dusty surfaces, headlined “15 of the Dirtiest Pictures on the Internet.” It already had 97,000 views.

“I think it’s totally clickable,” Rosenthal said.

The site would go on to publish all four of the posts, but the group had to decide which to promote most heavily. The vast majority of BuzzFeed’s traffic comes via links on social-­networking sites, but placing an ad on the home page is still useful, because an important sliver of users—so-called super­sharers—come to the site specifically looking for material as they blast away all day on Facebook. BuzzFeed also has an entire department specializing in social discovery, or “disco” for short, which pushes ads through paid placement on social networks. (Last year, the company acquired a failed dating service that had developed technology that was useful for targeting people on Facebook.) Still, predicting what will go viral requires a fair amount of instinct. This is part of what Virgin is paying for.

At the meeting, Rosenthal got behind the “screwed by life” ad, which featured bloopers like a picture of a dog turd left in someone’s shoe. “These posts tend to do really well,” she said. There was animated discussion about the proper presentation of the turd—someone suggested a “poop arrow.” Rosenthal suggested that adding gifs (truncated loops of animation) to another post would make it more shareable, while Faris policed the boundary of edginess, nixing one joke for being too mean to a celebrity. He seemed befuddled by “bros getting friendzoned.”

“It has a younger demo,” BuzzFeed’s Jen Wolosoff, age 26, assured him.

Brands have always courted youth, but it’s not just demographics that attract advertisers to BuzzFeed’s methods. While Google’s search ads and other targeting technologies are potent tools for directing consumers to products they already want, most advertising is meant to be diffusive—to spread a general positive feeling about a given brand. To date, web advertising has relied mostly on banner ads, which resemble print advertising. But some advertisers aren’t convinced of the efficacy of banner ads, and digital-media consumers get annoyed when they intrude on their reading.

“People gave up on doing great, compelling brand advertising,” says BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg, the company’s day-to-day business manager. Steinberg has no background in advertising; he previously worked for Google and at finance firms. After he took the BuzzFeed job, he read some foundational texts, like Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, and he’s come to the conclusion that the present moment looks a lot like the early days of television. Back then, traditional ad agencies couldn’t figure out the new medium, so the TV networks stepped into the void with branded content like Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. Steinberg argues that the advertising industry has similarly failed to capitalize on the marketing potential of the Internet.

“The past twenty years have been an absolute low point,” he told me. “Nobody really spent much time thinking about what the creative was going to be. It’s almost like the absolute opposite of what you see on Mad Men.