Last summer, just as the fidget spinner craze was cresting, a glossy spin on the trend hit the internet. The Glamspin is a fidget spinner, the virally popular toy for distracted hands, but with pots of lip gloss appended to the end of each lobe. Voila! Glamspin wrung a little extra life out of the fad, and the $10 impulse item was a best-seller upon its release.
This kind of genius is not an accident, though: The Glamspin was conceived for the teen-oriented Taste Beauty by employees of BuzzFeed Commerce after they saw that many people reading articles about fidget spinners on the site were also clicking on articles about lip gloss.
Fast forward a year, and BuzzFeed has created a new line of business out of generating insights for brands, and helping them develop products and solve business challenges: BuzzFeed Partner Innovation.
The name might not be profound (or clever), but the challenges that this division of BuzzFeed Commerce is designed to address are. Traditional brands have lost their way between Amazon on one end and Instagram on the other, and those that realize this are increasingly experimenting with how to create products to respond to consumer trends more quickly and reach their audiences directly.
For BuzzFeed, of course, the issues are no less significant. Amid increasing pressure for digital media brands to generate revenue from unexpected sources, consulting is a potentially rich source of high-margin income for BuzzFeed, which reportedly missed its revenue target by 15% to 20% and cut 8% of its staff in 2017.
Partner Innovations, has quietly been providing services to companies since last August, from lawn-care giant Scotts Miracle Gro to cosmetics brand Maybelline, and is overseen by two pioneers in digital commerce. Ben Kaufman, who runs BuzzFeed Commerce, joined the company in 2016 to start the division after having built the crowdsourced products startup Quirky, which is best remembered for its internet-connected egg tray (and perhaps also for Kaufman having raised $185 million only to see Quirky sell for $15 million in a bankruptcy sale). His partner, Jake Bronstein, made his name off the wildly popular desktop fidget toy (and consumer safety hazard) Buckyballs, and then he followed that up with an early crowdfunded hit in Flint & Tinder American-made apparel.
Kaufman and Bronstein are using data from BuzzFeed’s e-commerce and editorial operations, as they did for Taste Beauty, to develop new products for clients. BuzzFeed’s name is often not associated with the products or campaigns it helps develop. Relatedly, the team does not disclose the identity of most of the companies it works with, but Bronstein says, “Clients are coming to us for solutions that are bigger than BuzzFeed. We use the unique insights we have to help them.”
A sprint to the finished product
Partner Innovation works with clients in five-day “sprints,” charging them a flat fee for the time. Kaufman says that the sprints are meant to produce “fully baked products and marketing campaigns along with manufacturing cost estimates.” He adds, “On day five if we are building something, we will have functioning prototypes and the creative will all be done.” (This sounds like a notable departure from Quirky, where Kaufman later admitted that he spent too much money chasing ideas he couldn’t scale.)
For each project, the leaders assemble a team of BuzzFeed editorial and commerce employees, along with outside experts such as startup founders, Instagram influencers, and business leaders in fields related to the client. “The experts who work with us are often drawn to the project because of BuzzFeed,” Bronstein says. “They might not answer a call from Scotts, but they think working with us on a project for Scotts is intriguing.”
For Maybelline, whose project launched last week, the BuzzFeed team helped create “summer fundles”–beauty bundles of best-selling Maybelline products intended to provide customers with “everything they need for an Instagrammable summer.” Kaufman and Bronstein convened beauty editorial staffers, experts on Amazon, and influencers, merchandisers, and illustrators, and Maybelline contributed its own experts, including employees from its social media and PR teams. The challenge was to design a product and marketing strategy that would break through on Amazon’s Prime Day, an event where customers typically look for big “door-buster” deals rather than relatively inexpensive items such as makeup.
BuzzFeed had previously produced sponsored content articles for Maybelline, so the company was receptive when they were approached by Partner Innovation about a sprint session. “BuzzFeed could tell us what younger people are looking for and what’s on trend and what people will buy,” says Maybelline senior VP Amy Whang. “We’re always looking to respond to the market quickly, so we wanted something that we could put together in a couple of months.”
The work started on a Monday, and by Friday the group had a prototype ready and a production plan in place. Seven weeks after the sprint–and in time for Prime Day–thousands of fundles had been made. Bronstein says that his team’s approach enabled Maybelline to make a quick decision. “At a lot of companies, 80% of projects just die because it’s so much work to push them through, but we’ve found that for our projects, because we have everything ready, decisions are often made on the spot.”
Similarly, when Scotts Miracle Gro was in search of a subscription product that could get millennials interested in gardening, they turned to BuzzFeed. “The insights they were able to provide on millennial behavior were narrower than anything we could have focused on ourselves,” says Patti Ziegler, VP of marketing and communications.
Following the brief from Scotts, the team developed Lunarly, a subscription plant service that will be available soon. Lunarly will deliver a new plant according to the moon phases and comes with ceremonial accessories like crystals or palo santo and sage.
The fifth pillar
Partner Innovations is now one of two-year-old BuzzFeed Commerce’s five pillars that operate as discrete businesses. The division makes money from licensing BuzzFeed brands–Tasty branded cookware is sold at Walmart, and the company also makes custom-labeled wine, for example–as well as merch events, and its aggressive strategy to draw money from affiliate links. Kaufman said that BuzzFeed is projecting triple-digit growth for its Commerce business this year.
Agencies have dabbled in launching brands and products for a while, as clients cut ad spending and agencies need to find other sources of revenue. But according to Kaufman, “The sprints aren’t necessarily a growth lever for BuzzFeed, they’re more like an additional resource to offer partners.” Bronstein adds, “If a partner is happy with our work and able to see the value of our insights through sprints, they might collaborate with BuzzFeed commerce in other ways.”
Still, if you want to reach younger people, the egg-tray guy and the Buckyballs guy argue that there’s no better team to tap than theirs. As Bronstein says, “If you need to think about millennials, then why would you call McKinsey for help?”