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Special Report: Media Mavens 2012

Media Mavens: Jon Steinberg, BuzzFeed

President-Chief Operating Officer Is 'Trying to Future-Proof the Business'

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Jon Steinberg
Jon Steinberg

Résumé: Prior to landing at BuzzFeed, Jon Steinberg helped the VC firm Polaris Venture Partners open its Dogpatch Labs startup incubator in New York City. He's also a Google vet.

Challenge: Mr. Steinberg has hitched BuzzFeed's wagon to the idea of social advertising. Can a digital-media company build a big business exclusively on custom campaigns?

When Mr. Steinberg took a job as BuzzFeed's president two-and-a-half years ago, he didn't know there were different ad agencies for creative work and media buying. It turns out that naïveté has served him well.

"I didn't have enough experience in the banner-ad ecosystem to think what we wanted to do would be impossible," he said.

What BuzzFeed does is now well known in advertising circles: It largely shuns traditional online-ad units in favor of branded-content posts that often piggyback on timely online discourse, in the hopes that they will generate buzz on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

The idea for that business model came from a memo Mr. Steinberg wrote for a venture-capital firm he worked with before he joined BuzzFeed -- and which unsuccessfully tried to invest in the site early on. Now that he has helped push that vision from concept to reality, Mr. Steinberg, 35, has set his sights on growing business in a different way.

He oversees an internal trading desk that seeds the advertisers' content from BuzzFeed into ads on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon and even the occasional IAB ad unit elsewhere on the web. Today, that business accounts for 25% of revenue, but he'd like to expand it to 40%. He believes that would help ensure that , even if traffic plateaus on BuzzFeed and ad inventory is sold out, revenue could still grow.

To get there, the targeting of these "social ads" will have to continue to improve, and the advertiser results will have to be better. BuzzFeed says its recent acquisition of a startup called Kingfish Labs will help on both fronts.

"We're trying to future-proof the business," Mr. Steinberg said.

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