Going Native: Virgin Mobile Claims Brand Lift From Branded Content On BuzzFeed

Native advertising is all the buzz this season as everyone looks beyond the display models that are either overbearing, invisible or downright microscopic across screens. As early results from Facebook's sponsored posts in mobile timelines suggest, getting promotions aligned with the ways that people are using their phones gets the sponsor in the user's sightline when the viewer is in the right mode. Or at least so goes the theory of the native ad. One presumes it should work best in mobile environments where mode of use is critical and screen real estate is often too tight for ads at the periphery of content.

One of the most advanced publishers when it comes to genuinely native styles of advertising is BuzzFeed, which encourages its advertisers to sponsor content that is strikingly similar to the headlines and editorial that draw users to this torrent of news by the millions. But BuzzFeed not only has its sponsor post include the list-based content that its readers devour, it also ensures the content is as topical as the regular posts. Prominent advertiser at the Super Bowl Soda Stream, for instance, is behind a sponsor post that highlights 16 famous Bowl ads.

BuzzFeed calls this an “Always On” strategy that it has deployed for the last year with Virgin Mobile. It is a “newsroom strategy” where the branded content is itself responding to news and entertainment trends. If you look at the dedicated feed of Virgin Mobile posts -- over 190 in 2012 -- you see cute entries like 20 animated GIFs of holiday reactions posted in early December or an end-of-year roundup of bad GIFs. It pokes at hot properties like Instagram (“Things You Should Immediately Stop Posting) and Twitter (Awkward Celebrity Twitpic moments).

BuzzFeed tells me that they have a team dedicated to handling Virgin Mobile that includes an account manager, two creative leads, a data analyst and someone assigned to discover these trends and relevant content. The team has a weekly meeting for an hour and a half with both Virgin Mobile and its agency 1Trick Pony. They review content ideas and drafts and coordinate the content scheduling for the items at both BuzzFeed properties and across Virgin’s own properties.

This year-long exercise in being hip and going native has paid off in genuine brand lift, the publisher and sponsor say. Over the course of 2012, BuzzFeed says that Virgin Mobile achieved 9.7 million engagements of its sponsored content. The success of the content strategy is evident in the fact that 4.7 million of the interaction were paid, but another 5 million were earned through consumers to consumer sharing.

More interesting is the brand lift that a post-campaign Vizu study found and how it offered between paid and earned media. When asked to respond positively or negatively to investigating Virgin Mobile as their next phone brand, 10.3% of those exposed to the paid media, a 150.3% lift over the unexposed control group. But among those who shared BuzzFeed content, that lift was 235.2%, or 14.6% of those who saw the content as a result of sharing.

There was a similar difference in relative lifts when consumers were asked whether the Virgin brand “understood me and the things that I like.” Those exposed to the paid content had a substantial lift of 209.2% to 8.7% of respondents and a 323.7% lift to 10.5% among those exposed to the content as paid media.

Finally, BuzzFeed was trying to determine whether the persistence of the Virgin brand in sponsoring content affected lift. The most significant effect was seen among those who had engaged with Virgin-sponsored content 5 to 9 times over the course of the year.

BuzzFeed says that about 40% of traffic is coming from devices. The content seems to proliferate well across multiple social channels. Using an especially popular item of cat freakouts, it showed that of 800,000 engagements with the content, 600,000 came from social platforms, 200,000 along from Pinterest. According to Virgin Mobile's CMO Ron Faris, quoted in the white paper of the case study: “These results are some of the most impactful we've seen showcasing how social advertising can drive purchase intent.” 

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