BuzzFeed, Sharethrough Battle to Bring Native Ads to the Masses

Networks Broaden Reach, But Some Say Genre Should Be Only One Part of Media Plan

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You can have custom content or scale, but can you have both? A pair of players are reigniting the debate.

Last week BuzzFeed said it's starting to sell to agencies its own version of an ad network to get more scale for its "native-advertising" posts.

The BuzzFeed ad network consists of about eight niche sites, such as the Awl and Dealbreaker, which display headlines and images on their home pages that link to BuzzFeed advertiser posts. BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg said he'd like to double the number of participating sites in the next few months. BuzzFeed also distributes its native ads beyond BuzzFeed.com by advertising on social networks.

Mr. Steinberg argues that BuzzFeed's reach of 23 million monthly unique visitors in the U.S., including mobile, according to ComScore (and 40 million globally according to internal numbers) plus the added reach it secures by buying "sponsored stories" on Facebook, provide enough inventory for any social-advertising component of a campaign. The new network, he said, is less about scale than about diversifying distribution, especially when it contextually makes sense.

"Fark might be an ideal place to seed content for a consumer-electronics campaign in addition to BuzzFeed," he offered as an example. And he argues the scale criticism is misguided—that a BuzzFeed campaign shouldn't be a whole media plan.

Virgin Mobile CMO Ron Faris said he agrees.

"The scale issue is annoyingly overblown," Mr. Faris said. "Smart marketers don't bet on one silver bullet."

The work his company does with BuzzFeed is powerful, he said. But combining it with other tactics on a media plan -- for example, retargeting those who have read a Virgin Mobile BuzzFeed post -- is critical.

While BuzzFeed tries to create the native ads and distribute them to a wider audience, Sharethrough is focusing solely on the distribution of branded content across publisher sites of all sizes and betting that enough marketers do crave more scale out of native ads.

Until recently, Sharethrough focused on getting branded video content in front of readers however it could. Now it is focusing on placing the video content within a design format that meshes with the rest of the content of third-party publishers. It just announced it is looking to do the same thing for other types of media beyond video, such as infographics and sponsored posts -- like the ones BuzzFeed creates with its advertisers. An average campaign, it claims, can reach 5 million to 15 million.

If BuzzFeed is the rich-media provider of the native-ad world, Sharethrough is gunning to be the ad server and the ad network, said CEO Dan Greenberg. "Brands can have BuzzFeed do a little distribution," he said. "But if you want native at scale, Sharethrough is acting as the third-party platform for it."

Game on.

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