Along with lists, quizzes, and cat videos–and, more recently, breaking news–BuzzFeed has long been known for its refusal to host those annoying banner and square ads that clutter the pages of most other media sites. Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti has even been known to wax philosophic about the problems that plague online advertising. “They are slow and show ads that are terrible,” Peretti said of competing media websites in 2015.
“When a site loads slowly, you blame the site, but it’s actually often the banner ad coming from somewhere else online,” he told the New York Times in 2014. The future, he said, was in BuzzFeed’s special sauce: Native advertising coupled with targeted social media distribution.
So it came as a surprise yesterday when BuzzFeed announced plans to introduce ads on its desktop and mobile websites, using existing technology from Google and Facebook.
The reason for this strategic shift, according to Peretti, is so that BuzzFeed can make more money. Why the company needs to do so at this moment in time is not clear. Native ad revenue slowing? Increasing revenue in preparation for an IPO? Not selling enough of those Tasty One Top electric hot plates?
Whatever the rationale, banner ads are likely to have a real impact on the site itself–and not just visually. Programmatic ads do increase the amount of time it takes a web page to load, often adding more than a second, which is why many media sites are so painfully slow (think of the many eons you wait when loading CNN or The Hill, and the endless number of ads on those sites). BuzzFeed, on the other hand, is a breeze.
To see the difference, we used Pingdom’s website speed test analyzer and compared the load time for the home page of BuzzFeed to one of its chief rivals, Vice. The results are striking: BuzzFeed’s page loads in under 2 seconds, while Vice takes over 4 seconds. What’s more, Vice’s home page is actually lighter than BuzzFeed’s (8.7 megabytes vs 13.1 megabytes).
Peretti, in announcing the move to display ads, told Business Insider that programmatic technology has gotten better over the last few years. “Tactically, programmatic has improved in terms of loading times, mobile experience, and ad quality and opens up another way for us to monetize our huge audience,” he said. The only problem is that it’s not entirely true.
I talked with a marketing executive with years of digital ad experience–specifically related to programmatic advertising products–who said that the technology has remained relatively stagnant in terms of page speed. According to that expert, programmatic technology has not gotten any faster. In fact, the problem has gotten worse as publishers have begun using “header bidding,” which makes webpages even slower to load in the name of unifying the ad-buying process.
Indeed, latency is one of the biggest problems that publishing executives wrestle with. Vice, in fact, has been able to speed up its site significantly, but the answer was not thanks to some industry-wide technological upgrade. It’s the result of very bespoke under-the-hood tinkering by its talented engineering staff.
In a memo to BuzzFeed employees, which was obtained by Fast Company, publisher Dao Nguyen admits that the company did once rail against such advertising technology. “Since its inception, BuzzFeed has rejected this kind of programmatic advertising, and for good reason: in the past, banner ads meant building highly intrusive user experiences which served advertising that wasn’t even relevant to the person viewing it,” she wrote. But now, “programmatic advertising has evolved.” She went on:
Companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Instagram have shown that it is possible to do advertising that is both programmatic, relevant, and familiar to users. Today we use Facebook advertising to help distribute BuzzFeed branded content, as well as serve Facebook ads across our Instant Articles.
When we look at the much-improved state of programmatic advertising and consider the opportunity we have to monetize our O&O platforms, it’s clear that we should be open to evolving our perspective. We still believe strongly in our ability to influence our industry with innovative and creative formats that no other media company can deliver. Programmatic advertising is simply an addition to our many revenue streams that, added together, make BuzzFeed an even stronger business.
The first experiments will add Google AdX and FAN ads to the homepage, b-pages, and mobile apps. We look forward to sharing the results with you all. As always, thank you for all your hard work and creativity and for making BuzzFeed so amazing.
It may be true that display ads are now more relevant to readers than before. And while they are also likely to make BuzzFeed slower and more cluttered, who can blame the executives there for wanting to increase revenue? Still, it’s hard not to read the tea leaves on this move and see a bad omen for the media industry as a whole.