BtoB: What's your view on the content marketing phenomenon?
Jon Steinberg: What's interesting about the whole move to content is that it's not a new thing. When you look at old ads from David Ogilvy, Lester Wunderman and other luminaries from the 1950s, they were heavily content-driven—explaining things, entertaining us and asking for a little bit of attention. But ads over the past 20 or 30 years have been devoid of content. It's more about calls to action and “buy this stuff.” The banner ad bears some responsibility for this, with its confined area and no room for content. But this doesn't work for b-to-b advertisers in particular, who are interested in larger-cost goods and contracts. These people are not impulse buyers. They have to understand what a project will do for them.
BtoB: Native advertising is gaining in prominence. Is this an answer to more content-intensive ads?
Steinberg: First, native units on our site are clearly labeled. Users appreciate content with a firm church-and-state division and branded content clearly identified. Also, branded content itself is vastly superior to banner ads that actually block getting to content and that are totally interruptive. As proof, engagement rates and clicks are going up for our branded content. The clicks are 10 to 30 times higher than a banner would typically get. And we have huge sharing rates on this content. If the content is engaging, interesting, fun or surprising, the performance is going up.
BtoB: That sounds like there is an earned-media bonus to paid media.
Steinberg: Yes. We're finding that for every 1,000 views of branded content, 300 are viewing it because it has been shared. That's the social lift of content advertising. It's a bonus factor. Paid distribution results in earned distribution.
BtoB: What kinds of content-rich campaigns has BuzzFeed conducted for its clients?
Steinberg: We did a campaign for Dell around information security, and [another around] content from General Electric on green energy as part of the company's “ecomagination” campaign. Reading those, you know who created it and that it has a point of view. But it's real information, facts. It's something you get something out of versus just an ad with no informational context. Consider white papers; that's going to be a huge growth area for b-to-b companies. People know there is a subjective point of view with white papers, but they also know that judgments are formed from a mosaic of subjective viewpoints.
BtoB: What is the future of content-driven advertising?
Steinberg: In the coming years content-driven advertising will be the way to buy ads. Yes, advertisers still will place banners on the exchanges programmatically for direct-response marketing. But brand digital advertising in the future will be synonymous with content advertising. It will be the default. It's just a return to the way things worked during the great “Mad Men” period of advertising.