It’s the oldest trick in the book: Hire the guy who works with brands at Facebook to make your branded content successful on Facebook.
Ok, maybe we haven’t heard this one before, but it is the latest page in BuzzFeed’s playbook. This month, Jeff Greenspan, formerly a brand strategist at Facebook, set up shop as the media company’s first chief creative officer. He will lead a team of 15 that creates shareable branded content for BuzzFeed’s advertising clients.
It’s a big bill to fill. Instead of buying banner ads, brands pay Buzzfeed to create content on their behalf. The goal is to make the branded content just as shareable as, let’s say, "Underwater Dogs Are Adorably Terrifying" without tampering the marketing message.
Getting online audiences to look at ads is hard enough. How can BuzzFeed convince them to share it? We caught up with Greenspan on day six of the job. He didn't have a plan yet, but he had a theory. In the spirit of his new employer, we turned it into a listicle.
On the Internet,Greenspan is probably best known for the creative projects he orchestrates during his free time. Among his most popular work is "the hipster trap" a cartoonish-looking bear trap baited with PBR, neon sunglasses, American Spirit cigarettes and a yellow fixed-gear bike chain. He and a co-creator left it chained to a street sign in the East Village, where someone snapped a photo that more than 1 million people viewed in one day.
When he's not devising surprising setups like these (another favorite is tourist lanes, Greenspan performs improv.
Success in both these pursuits, he says, has something in common with turning ads into shareable content.
"Really great improv, I think, gets down to the truth of things," he says. "A lot of the projects that get shared a lot were projects that there was a truth in it, that we framed in a way that was a little unexpected or a little to the left of what people were accustomed to. And then that became something really shareable."
"If you start out saying that there’s a truth in this, and how do we frame that truth in a way that people actually want to talk about and share, and feel comfortable with that being in their news feed, you’re starting from a very different place."
BuzzFeed is best known for a specific kind of post. It has large photos and not so many words and fits on one page. For the most part, the media organization has stuck to this archetype in its branded content: "The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out Of Airplane Windows" for JetBlue, "10 Celebrities That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity" for Virgin Mobile, "4 Ways President Obama Will Strengthen The Middle Class" for the Obama campaign.
But Greenspan's theory extends beyond the listicle.
He uses the example of a popular browser extension by Chris Baker (now creative director at BuzzFeed) called Unbaby.Me, which quite brilliantly replaces baby photos on Facebook with "awesome stuff."
"It wasn’t, but it could have been a brand play for, let's say, a diaper brand," Greenspan says. "Now you’ve got a great conversation going about what does it mean to over-share, what does it mean to be a mom or dad in 2012 with the likes of Facebook, which is something our folks didn’t deal with?"
But, he says, there's a risk of going overboard when you're trying to make something shareable.
"[At Facebook] It was so eye-opening to see something very simple and lightweight is much more shareable than something in-depth and dense and all that kind of stuff," he says.
He’s not talking about BuzzFeed animals versus politics. Rather, social ad campaigns that create friction with Facebook apps or complex ideas. No more baby photos? Good. Authenticate this app so you can play a game involving diapers and send an e-card to grandma at the same time? Not so much.
When you think of advertising, you might think of an industry that manipulates insecurities in order to get people to buy stuff. But social advertising, Greenspan argues, isn't like that.
First, there's that truth thing. "Content that doesn’t represent my life, my truths, or my day-to-day just falls away," he argues.
And then there's the reality that people react publicly and immediately to what you give them.
"If you’re a brand playing in a social space, it’s like going to a party. If you’re going to a party and there are a lot of people, and you’re a jerk, you’re not going to be invited to that party again. But if you go to that party and you play nicely, you get to come back."