After quietly piloting the concept for months, BuzzFeed officially launched its own native ad network this March. The mechanics of the network are bizarre, yet intriguing: Participating publishers allow BuzzFeed to serve story previews on their sites which, when clicked, bring visitors to sponsored stories on BuzzFeed.com. The network, whose ads resemble real story teases, is brash and a bit risky, but it may just help publishers circumvent the abuses of today’s established, banner reliant, ad network ecosystem.
The current ad network model, or indirect sales model, is a mess. It functions based on an oversupply of simple display ads and is rife with inefficiencies, opening the door for middlemen to reap profits while devaluing publisher inventory. BuzzFeed’s native ad network, along with others in a similar mold, has the potential to minimize these drawbacks by giving publishers a simple, safe way to make money through indirect sales channels.
How We Got Here
The ad networks we know today came about as a result of the poor economics of the banner ad. A little history: In the early days of Internet publishing, the banner ad seemed to make sense. Just as many publishers began figuring out the Internet by taking content produced for print and slapping it on the web, they took the standard print ad format — selling advertisers designated space on a page — and brought it online too. Instead of selling these ads by the inch though (a measurement suitable for edition-based print publishing), digital ads were sold by the impression, or view, a better fit for the unceasing nature of online media.
Over time, the acceptance and standardization of the banner ad brought a number of side effects along with it, the most important being an incentive for publishers to pack their pages with as many banners as possible. For publishers, the decision was easy: The more banner ads they placed on a page, the more money they stood to make. So instead of running a more manageable (and more user-friendly) three or four banner ads, publishers cluttered their pages with 10, 15 or even 20 of them.
Placing ads on a page was only half the equation though; publishers still needed to sell them. As they soon found out, selling premium, above-the-fold ads was a lot easier than getting advertisers to pony up for the glut of below-the-fold, low-quality inventory. A significant percentage of ads thus went unsold, and into the void stepped ad networks. Even at a heavy discount, publishers figured, it was better to get some money from remnant inventory via ad networks as opposed to making nothing. This would prove to be a poor calculation.
The Dark Side of Ad Networks
Rather than question the logic of creating more inventory than it was possible to sell, publishers stuck with the model, growing their audiences along with their inventory and watching the original ad networks evolve into a multibillion-dollar tech industry fed largely on remnant inventory. Soon, publishers found themselves exposed to more drawbacks than they perhaps initially bargained for, and the original premise of making more money with more ads came into question.
As it grew, the indirect ecosystem not only enabled advertisers to buy publisher inventory at cheaper prices, devaluing even premium inventory, it also allowed them to buy premium publisher audiences on non-premium sites, thanks to the third-party cookie. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal zoomed in on this problem in a long piece about the tough economics of the online publishing industry.
“Advertisers didn’t have to buy The Atlantic,” he wrote. “They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us.” The indirect system, in other words, commoditized his audience, leaving his impressions as valuable, in some ways, as those on third-rate sites.
Recognizing these and other abuses as endemic to the system, publishers today are starting to fight back. Many are trying to limit their dependency on banner ads either by cutting them out of their business completely or by constricting supply. David Payne, the chief digital officer at Gannett who oversaw a major USA Today redesign which dramatically reduced the site’s supply of banners, put it this way when I spoke with him for an article for Digiday: “I think we’ve all proven over the last 12 years that the strategy we’ve been following — to create a lot of inventory and then sell it at 95 percent off to these middlemen every day — is not a long-term strategy.”
Publishers have started looking for alternative forms of revenue to fill the gap and, so far, the hottest alternative is the native ad. Everyone from The Atlantic, to Tumblr, to the Washington Post, to Twitter is giving it a try and BuzzFeed, perhaps the extreme example, is all in. It sells only native ads, no banners.
BuzzFeed Susceptible to the Same Problems?
Which brings us to BuzzFeed’s ad network. At this early point, it seems like the network should indeed be free of many of the abuses listed above. Its simple nature, for example, ensures that most of the value won’t be siphoned out by a group of tech middlemen and will be largely shared by BuzzFeed, participating publishers and minimally, the ad server. Participating in the network, furthermore, should not devalue publishers’ existing inventory since it will not provide advertisers access to the same inventory at cheaper prices.
BuzzFeed also claims its networks steers clear of third-party cookies, the audience-snatching culprit that The Atlantic’s Madrigal railed against.
“We believe the ultimate targeting is real human-to-human sharing, digital word of mouth, so we don’t do third-party cookie targeting,” BuzzFeed advertising executive Eric Harris told me via email. “We’re not collecting individually identifiable data and will not sell any data.”
The approach should help participating publishers breathe a bit easier — and they may just want to consider demanding the same from any network they engage with, not just BuzzFeed’s.
“It’s cleaner; it’s more straight up,” said Fark.com CEO Drew Curtis of BuzzFeed’s network. His site, which is one of the partners participating in the launch, embeds BuzzFeed sponsored story previews on its home page, marking them as sponsored. “I just like the fact that there’s no screwing around,” Curtis explained in a phone interview, “It’s exactly what it appears to be, no more no less.” Rates from BuzzFeed’s ad network, he added, are significantly higher from other indirect channels. “Advertisers,” he said, “are willing to pay for less bulls#*t.”
Of course, one question participating publishers might ask themselves is why they are helping BuzzFeed profit from sponsored posts instead of selling them on their own sites. The answer might worry BuzzFeed — at least until it can get its traffic up to the point of advertiser demand — but if publishers decide to go that route and withdraw from the network, they may be able to pull themselves away from the bad economics that brought them into the network game in the first place.
Alex Kantrowitz covers the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com and PBS MediaShift. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and the New York Times’ Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.