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Recently, Impact’s Richa Dani, Director of Strategic Partnerships, sat down with BuzzFeed’s Nilla Ali, VP, Strategic Partnerships, to find out just how this remarkable media company was able to maximize its partner relationships to grow its business like few others can. Take a look at the innovative, responsive ways BuzzFeed takes a holistic view and implements data, keeping its finger on the pulse of its audiences.

Richa Dani: Digiday has reported on ways that affiliate and ad businesses complement each other, such as driving ad performance and more. How has BuzzFeed’s affiliate business affected/helped fuel/changed your ad business?

Nilla Ali: Affiliate has and continues to be complementary to our ad business, and has enabled BuzzFeed to evolve our business to better serve both our audience and advertising partners.

Advertisers are actively exploring the most efficient and effective way to get their products and value proposition in front of highly qualified prospective shoppers, and consumers are actively seeking recommendations for the best brands and products that fit their specific needs. Affiliate has enabled BuzzFeed to lean into a data-driven strategy that drives utility for our audience, while creating an ecosystem of consumers with high intent. BuzzFeed is now able to offer a full-funnel approach to advertisers, with products that drive brand awareness at scale and content that drives discoverability and high intent, which ultimately drives lower funnel conversion.

At its core, affiliate is a data-driven channel, enabling BuzzFeed to develop an overall advertising strategy that is rooted in real consumer behavior, and that utilizes best practices and learnings from our affiliate business.

Richa: More premium publishers like BuzzFeed have looked at the partner channel as a growing revenue channel. What spurred that? What were BuzzFeed’s reasons for activating this revenue stream and how did you go about it? What would you say to the detractors of this trend?

Nilla:Advertisers are understanding that consumer behavior is shifting, and that there has been a rise in customer acquisition through storytelling. This form of advertising feels natural to how consumers shop in their day-to-day life. When your friend or someone in your life whose opinion you trust recommends a new product they love, you’re highly inclined to learn more and try it out for yourself. BuzzFeed has simulated that dynamic by cultivating a strong relationship with our audience; over the years our authentic storytelling and dedication to identity-driven content has created a deep feeling of trust in the BuzzFeed brand and its endorsement of select brands or products. BuzzFeed leverages insights from our highly engaged audience to create content that we know will resonate, and there have been clear signals that our audience looks to BuzzFeed to determine where and what to shop.

Affiliate enables BuzzFeed to better understand what product recommendations and brands resonate most strongly with our audience. Leveraging this data, we’ve been able to scale a business that services our audience through utility-driven content, while giving brands an effective channel to showcase the best products in an authentic way.

The biggest blocker in the rapid growth of affiliate is a lack of reliable attribution models. Given BuzzFeed’s massive scale and highly engaged audience, when a product is featured in our content, we’ll see a “network effect,” meaning the product will likely have a large uptick in sales, which may be unaccounted for through the last-click model. We know consumers often have a consideration period before ultimately making a purchase, so although discovery and high intent is driven from BuzzFeed’s content, users might then research and validate whether the product is a right fit for their specific needs. Unfortunately, in that process the attribution for the content publisher is lost, which undermines the true value of the affiliate channel. It’s challenging to scale a business where accurate attribution is limited, but we’ve explored innovative ways to prove the value of our shopping content despite the challenges with affiliate attribution.

Richa: BuzzFeed maintains editorial integrity while also monetizing links within your editorial better than anyone else—how do you do this, and do you have tips and advice on balancing on this tightrope?

Nilla: The beauty of affiliate is that it’s a self-policing monetization strategy. You cannot build a sustainable affiliate business if you’re creating inauthentic content or recommending products that the editorial team does not truly endorse. The core objective of BuzzFeed’s affiliate strategy is to build a sustainable business, and we know that preserving editorial integrity is essential for long-term growth, so we’re highly committed to maintaining that.

For other publishers looking to scale an affiliate business, I’d recommend staying authentic to your brand, and placing editorial integrity as your highest priority; from there follow the data to evolve the business by analyzing and unpacking what resonates the best with your audience.

Richa: Fast Companyrecently named BuzzFeed a “most innovative company,” citing your knack for creating highly shareable content and high-performance social campaigns. What are some of the innovations that you have employed when it comes to working with advertisers on an affiliate/partnership basis?

Nilla: BuzzFeed’s main objective is two-fold: servicing our audience, and creating innovative ways for advertisers to engage with highly qualified prospective shoppers. With that mission in mind, last year BuzzFeed launched BuzzFeed Reviews, a review site dedicated to surfacing the best products at three different price points. Identity-driven content is at the core of BuzzFeed’s DNA, and we believe that the same sentiment applies to shopping habits. Different people have different price point sensitivities, depending on the products they are purchasing. You may be unwilling to pay a lot for a hairdryer, but you’re willing to spend on the ​best ​tooth whitener. We believe it’s possible to purchase quality product across a range of price points, so we’ve done the work to surface the best products depending on your willingness to spend and catered to everyone’s specific needs.

BuzzFeed Reviews showcases the best products selected by our editorial team, and is an effective way for BuzzFeed to service an audience with high intent to purchase a specific product. The navigation and intent of the site is an evolution and extension of our core shopping experience, and was born out of BuzzFeed’s commitment to constantly evolve our strategy and to create new opportunities for affiliate partners to work with BuzzFeed.

Richa: What types of content work particularly well for increasing affiliate-ad effectiveness and why do you think that is?

Nilla: Ultimately the success of affiliate is rooted in surfacing the best products and effectively showcasing why a particular product is worth purchasing. The formula that we have found to be effective is:

  • Featuring products with strong user reviews
  • Highlighting reviews that demonstrate why the product is a good fit for specific identities or needs
  • Sourcing the product from retailers who offer the most competitive price and most cost-efficient shipping options
  • Offering an exclusive incentive
  • Creating a frictionless opportunity to purchase the product or to learn more

Of course, these methods work best if the publisher understands its audience and the audience trusts the publisher. This two-way dynamic is essential, and at BuzzFeed, we’ve cultivated a strong relationship with our audience in order to optimize our affiliate work.

Richa: Can you share traffic metrics such as increases in visitors or time spent on your site, and insights about how partnerships have been affecting these figures and the quality of your audience?
Nilla: BuzzFeed reaches hundreds of millions of people globally, and our main objective is to continue creating relevant and engaging content that services our loyal audience. Our audience continuously returns to our site and spends lots of time consuming BuzzFeed content – on average our audience spends 2.4x more time with BuzzFeed content on site and on Facebook per month than top tagged entities in Nielsen’s Digital Content Ratings.

By focusing on partnerships that align closely with our audiences’ affinities, BuzzFeed is able to scale a sustainable business that drives value for both our partners and audience, while continuing to unlock more content that strengthens our onsite performance metrics.

Richa: How does the affiliate strategy fit in within your broader ecommerce strategy? What kind of changes have you observed in the past couple years? What do you think space will look like for a publisher like BuzzFeed in 3-5 years?
Nilla: Affiliate is complementary to BuzzFeed’s overall e-commerce strategy as it enables BuzzFeed to be agile, and to test and learn the most effective tactics for driving conversion. Consumers continue to rapidly evolve their shopping habits, and each platform requires a bespoke strategy in order to efficiently and effectively drive conversion. Through the affiliate channel, there is no limitation to testing new categories, products and brands, which allows BuzzFeed to develop an ecommerce strategy rooted in ​data. ​The key to a successful ecommerce business is understanding your audience’s behavior and affinities, and affiliate enables BuzzFeed to gather that data at scale.

BuzzFeed has always been ahead of the curve when optimizing for new formats and trends. With this spirit of innovation, in the next 3-5 years BuzzFeed will continue to create new channels for audiences to discover new brands and products that best fit their needs.

Since consumers will continue to rely heavily on content when starting their shopping journey, I believe content publishers can play a big role in rapidly increasing the value and utility of ecommerce for consumers. For example, publishers will help consumers save time by curating the highest quality products at the best price. A publisher’s main job is servicing their audiences, and through our affiliate strategy, BuzzFeed is able to carry out that mission by connecting consumers to the best products and services.

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