For BuzzFeed, The Dress Is One Color: Green

How BuzzFeed Makes Money from Viral Posts

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The dress that launched a thousand arguments.
The dress that launched a thousand arguments. Credit:

It doesn't matter whether you think the dress is blue and black, or white and gold, because the BuzzFeed post that launched thousands of arguments -- it's white and gold, by the way (editor's note: No, it's black and blue) -- really serves as a viral promotion for the strength of BuzzFeed's native-advertising department.

The post, which you've most certainly seen by now, is not a native ad. It repurposes a Tumblr asking readers the color of a dress. And thanks to a trick of the eye, some people see blue and black; others see white and gold.

By midnight on Thursday, more than 10 million people had looked at it, according to a BuzzFeed spokeswoman. The post is now closing in on 26 million. At one point, the spokeswoman said, there were more than 670,000 readers on BuzzFeed at the same time -- 500,000 of them coming from mobile devices. Half of these visitors were reading the dress post. It became the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. and on Friday the morning TV shows wouldn't let it go.

Even Taylor Swift weighed in. She thinks its blue and black -- and T.S. is wrong. (Editor's note: No, she's right.)

Unlike the countless publishers that piggybacked on BuzzFeed's success with their own takes -- including Gawker, CNN and Glamour -- BuzzFeed doesn't run traditional display advertising. Publishers with display ads on their sites would use an article that goes viral to fulfill existing ad campaigns and then sell the leftover ad space via automated technology to make some extra cash.

Not BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed makes all its money from creating lists and videos for advertisers that don't look like BuzzFeed's non-sponsored posts. It has an entire department of 70 people making this content, led by the newly minted, 20-something VP Melissa Rosenthal. Last year, the site generated more than $100 million in revenue from this strategy. BuzzFeed promises to promote the hell out of these posts on social media and offers a wink and nod that maybe, just maybe, the advertiser's article will go viral. Some have, though not nearly to the extent of the dress post.

"The brilliance of Buzzfeed is its ability to spot topics and content on the rise, before they tip, and use all their channels and modes of distribution to spread them to a massive audience," said Adam Shlachter, chief investment officer at DigitasLBi.

What the dress post does is serve as potent bait for advertisers.

"It's simply the latest example of how Buzzfeed owns, sustains, propagates the viral distribution game," Gian LaVecchia, managing partner-digital content marketing at media agency MEC, said in an email. "They have clearly and consistently perfected the art (creative plus content) and scientific precision (algorithmic distribution) of this space and basically owned the internet for hours."

"We could begin to witness some interesting creative applications emerge," he added.

So when ad buyers sit down with their clients on Monday, and the client asks for something viral, the buyers will think of the dress, and think of BuzzFeed, and, because of a dress that is so clearly white and gold (editor's note: I give up), BuzzFeed puts itself in a position to score new business. At the end of the day, BuzzFeed needs the new business -- because advertising is how it pretty much makes all its money.

In the meantime, brands are jumping in to the dress debate with their own real-time marketing tactics, such as tweets or Facebook posts referring to the dress. Watch out for that -- those tactics might get even uglier than the actual dress.

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