The site, which publishes highly shareable content, makes 100 per cent of its money through 'social content marketing' or 'native advertising', with brands paying BuzzFeed to create posts people will want to share on Facebook and other social media sites.
Speaking at Digital Media Europe, a three-day conference taking place in London, Andy Wiedlin, BuzzFeed's chief revenue officer, today provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the site, which he said had 40 million unique users last month, operates.
In the same way that television advertisements are created to tell a good story, so too should advertising on websites, Wiedlin said. "If you are an advertiser, stop interrupting people," he urged, arguing against banner ads.
The BuzzFeed solution is to create shareable content for brands. The test is to ask "would you want to see this content in your Facebook feed?"
A campaign for the Toyota Prius car, for example, highlighted the smaller size of the vehicle through a collection of pictures of bad parking, and created a list of hybrid animals (such as the zebroid and wolphin).
So what is the process behind creating content for brands? The BuzzFeed sales team talks to a brand, finds out what messages they are trying to get across to consumers, and the in-house BuzzFeed team of creatives come up with 10 ideas, taking on board any suggestions from the brand. Those ideas are presented to the brand, which then feeds back.
On the front end of the BuzzFeed site sponsored content and editorial is separated, with branded content colour-coded. And behind the scenes there is also a "church and state" divide between editorial and those writing the content on behalf of brands.
Wiedlin said many of the creatives are journalists, and as the site has expanded, the team now includes artists, designers and copywriters.
BuzzFeed knows that "aligning with the zeitgeist" works. For example, after a minor quake hit the east coast of the US in August 2011, the editorial team published '20 stunning photos of the damage caused by the east coast earthquake'. The list includes minor damage, a wonky picture on a wall and a toppled yoghurt pot. The post had 1 million web hits in one hour, according to Wiedlin.
When, earlier this year there was a 36-minute blackout during the Super Bowl, biscuit brand Oreo responded with a tweet to say "you can still dunk in the dark". This inspired BuzzFeed to think of the possibilities of responding to such events with social content marketing. "What if we did real-time advertising and align with the zeitgeist in real-time?" Wiedlin and colleagues started asking themselves.
Some content that responds to news events can be pre-prepared, Wiedlin said. Most sporting events result in a winner and a loser, for example, so in one case BuzzFeed and VolksWagen were able to prepare a post in advance headlined 'So your team lost, but here are 10 reasons why it's still awesome to be a San Francisco fan'.
Asked about the advertising pricing model, Wiedlin said BuzzFeed "still works with digital agencies and they like to buy on a CPM basis".
"Maybe in a year or two they will pay for the cost per engagement," he predicted.
Asked whether he thought a traditional newspaper website should experiment in native advertising, he said: "I can see this working".
If a site is "addicted" to banner advertising, the challenge would be refusing to accept such ads. "It takes a lot to say no to crack", he quipped.