Lists, Lists, And More Bloody Lists

If you’ve been reading my columns over the last few months, then you would be forgiven for thinking I am constantly in a state of seething rage about something to do with the online media world. I’d like to reassure readers that I’m not always huddled under a dark cloud of digital despond, muttering away to myself.

That being said, I’m pretty sure that what I’m about to say is the internet equivalent of poking a kitten with a sharp stick. Here we go. I don’t like BuzzFeed.

I know, BuzzFeed has saved the media world. It practically invented native advertising, it doesn’t have banner ads, it’s cool and fun and there are at least 53 reasons I should love it and the last one will BLOW MY MIND.

Okay, let’s put this in some context. BuzzFeed itself is very clever, and I know that they have made some extremely good hires in the UK. You don’t hire someone with the media smarts of Patrick Smith in the UK and Pulitzer-prize winning journalists Mark Schoofs and Chris Hambly in the US just to write lists all day. The company continues to grow quickly. In a letter to employees last year, CEO Jonah Peretti wrote that the company had hit profitability with more than 300 employees and 85 million monthly unique visitors. Moreover, Bloomberg reported that BuzzFeed is forecasting $120 million in revenue in 2014, which would double its 2013 sales. BuzzFeed is an absolute product of our times, knows how to manipulate the Facebook ecosystem better than anybody else out there and is brilliant at creating viral stories in an incredibly short time frame. They do it really, really well.

The problem is that other people don’t. The media world is well renowned for never leaving a band wagon unjumped and now you cannot go anywhere without lists, list and more bloody lists. Some very serious media outlets have resorted to this and it just doesn’t sit well. And it’s even worse when they sell these lists as well. I’ve been to many conferences covering native advertising over the last few months and one of the key learnings seems to be that native works when it fits seamlessly into to the publisher’s own content flow. The reader should not feel that the unit has been shoe-horned in there. So, if you are a serious B2B title that wouldn’t normally post an article headlined, “18 Cool Facts About Email Marketing”, maybe don’t get somebody to pay to post it either.

Native advertising and content marketing is still really in its nascent phase. I’m a big believer that when done well, this is a valid and sometimes entertaining advertising technique. The problem is that the rush to scale up the market has meant that the content sharing and recommendation engines have seemly congregated around the lowest common denominator, which, in many cases, are sponsored lists. There’s nothing more likely to enrage the cynics and put off those on the fence than low-quality content being flooded out there.

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