Video: On BuzzFeed’s ‘Solid Bounce-Back Year’ and Its Plans for the Future

CEO Jonah Peretti and CRO Lee Brown discuss the state of media

Video: Josh Rios/John Tejada; Editor: Nick Gardner

Adweek recently caught up with BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti and chief revenue officer Lee Brown about the state of the digital publisher, the challenges of a changing industry and where they see the company in the years ahead.

We also chatted with them about the evolution of Tasty in the three years it’s been live and the next chapter for the brand. You can hear and read more about Tasty in the Aug. 20 issue of Adweek magazine and here.

Hear more from Peretti in the video above and read Brown’s responses below.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity:

Adweek: It’s a tough time in the media industry for publishers. How is BuzzFeed diversifying its revenue streams to stay competitive?
Lee Brown: We’re in probably perhaps the biggest transformation in our business’ history at BuzzFeed. During the last year, we have evolved from just a purely native advertising business to a full-service suite across native, programmatic, low-touch products, experiential and strategic consulting and product development. We’re really branching out to provide more ways to work with BuzzFeed and to access our audience in scale to marketers.

Can you talk more about the low touch products you’re offering?
BuzzCuts is a way for us to take an existing client asset that they have already made and slightly adapt it for our network, our social distribution. We’re not making it from scratch, but we’re actually doing a BuzzFeed take on a client asset and distributing it to our audience across our network in a way that is BuzzFeed native.

BuzzFeed recently reorganized the team working on branded content.
I’ve made some strategic investments in the business, especially this year, to really align the organization with this diversified product mix. I’ve made some good investments across the organization to bring in talent and to bring in resources against those new diversified products.

BuzzFeed held off on programmatic advertising but introduced it in October last year. How has it performed since it launched?
I’m really excited about programmatic. Jonah [Peretti] is one of the most user-focused people on the planet. We took our time in bringing programmatic to our product suite because we really wanted the tech and the quality of programmatic to be something that complements the user experience on BuzzFeed. When we launched it last year, we felt it was the right time, based on the advancements that have been made in programmatic to bring that offering to our marketing partners and I’ve been extremely excited about the uptick that we’ve had from the marketing community, the demand and interest that they’ve shown in that product, as well as the limited impact that it’s had on user experience on our site. It’s been a win-win for the organization as well as for the marketing partners.

What are you investing in to guarantee success in the short, long term?
Programmatic is a great opportunity for us. We just hired our first dedicated programmatic seller here on the East Coast. We have a verbal acceptance of our second one on the West Coast. We’re investing the resources against that opportunity. We’re also doubling down and investing in more video creatives and sellers as we ramp that part of our business. We think that’s an area of growth across multiple formats and platforms, so we’re excited about investing in that area.

And lastly, business development. That is a part of the organization that we’re really excited about building out the capabilities of that team. They can strengthen our deals with our platforms and [develop] more comprehensive partnerships with clients that work across all the things that we do—branded content, commerce, tech and media, and more.

BuzzFeed has had ebbs and flows in previous years and has reportedly missed previous projections. Can you talk about the health of the company now?
We still have a long way to go, but our new products and offerings are driving a very solid bounce-back year for BuzzFeed in which we’re driving strong, double-digit growth. It’s something that we’re excited about us moving forward with. I’m encouraged and excited about our diversified offerings, the demand in the marketplace and the reception that we’re receiving from the marketers that they’re able to work with us across all these different forms of advertising provides them more choice and more opportunity to work with us and access our scale and our audience.

In terms of revenue, are the pageviews [BuzzFeed had 72 million unique visitors in July 2016, 76 million a year later and 57 million last month, according to comScore] concerning, and how do you make up for the decrease?
We don’t put a lot of stock in comScore numbers since they offer an incomplete view of our largely distributed traffic and video footprint, which we find are better captured by sources like Nielsen DCR or Tubular. Our internal figures put our monthly unique visitors at 197 million in July, up 16 percent over June and at a four-month high.

In any case, decreases in pageviews aren’t of great concern from a revenue standpoint because we’ve only just begun to directly monetize our traffic through programmatic. So, that’s still a fast-growing business for us with a lot of upside. Furthermore, a lot of what we’ve done to diversify our business and traffic over the past year—whether it’s moving into Commerce and Studio development, getting bigger on YouTube or diversifying referral traffic beyond Facebook—protects us from any ebbs in traffic. We’ve evolved into a much stronger business than that and, even as the industry sees declines, we still offer unmatched scale among digital publishers.

Is going public still on the table?
My job for Jonah is to be able to control our own destiny and to provide options for our business that are best for our business. I want to be able to have Jonah and our executive team be able to make whatever decision we need to make for our business that we think is best for our company.

A huge investor for BuzzFeed has been NBC, which has reportedly invested $400 million with BuzzFeed since 2015. What has that relationship materialized in, and how have you worked together?
I’m really excited to partner with the NBC sales team as we go into market. They have been big investors of ours. They have a board member that sits on our board. We’ve been able to go into the marketplace in a few different ways, and the reception has been great from the advertising community. When we think about bringing one of their franchises, like the Today show, to marketplace with a Tasty component, we’ve seen a lot of success and a lot of great opportunities to bring those things together. When we’re able to bring things that are uniquely ours together in a format that works that’s something that’s been widely well received.

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.