BuzzFeed used to be known primarily for its viral cat-related listicles (“29 Cats Who Failed So Hard They Won”). Now www.buzzfeed.com has expanded into producing serious reportage, hiring top investigative reporters and foreign correspondents. It is as popular as ever, and is valued at close to a billion dollars. How has BuzzFeed become such a hard-hitting force in the media industry in less than 10 years?
Jacob Loewenstein is part of the engine driving this popular website. An account manager at BuzzFeed, he builds relationships with major brands like PepsiCo, Amazon, and Microsoft, working with them to create content — more specifically, native advertisements — that tell each company’s unique stories. Native advertisements blend the voice of the platform — in this case, BuzzFeed — with that of the advertiser.
“My passion is the business of media. My passion is how do you build sustainable media enterprises that can achieve your editorial goals, whatever they may be,” Loewenstein says.
Loewenstein will speak Saturday, April 11, at the Reach 2015 advertising and marketing conference. The conference, which will feature marketing executives from companies like the New York Times, Audi, Google, Nike, and Venmo, runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Dodds Auditorium at Princeton University. Tickets are $25. Register at www.reach2015.com.
Loewenstein will appear on a panel with the vice-president of advertising at the New York Times, Sebastian Tomich. One panel will address the question of how companies, both old and new, must adapt to evolve with the changing market. “How does one company that is 100 years old continue to evolve and continue to make itself relevant through different generations? And how does the other one that is starting up approach this wide audience that they have in front of them?” asks Samvitha Ram, a sophomore at Princeton University and the president of AdThis, a student organization organizing the conference.
Says Loewenstein about the BuzzFeed approach: “Our mission is really to empower brands to tell stories in unique ways that they haven’t explored before.” Rather than more traditional banner ads that merely use a company’s logo and “hit people on the head with it 10 million times,” BuzzFeed tries to develop a deeper understanding of what the brand is about, what its voice is, and develop content that resonates with readers.
“Who’s the audience? Who do you connect to? Why do they care about you? What are you about? What’s different about your product? What experiences does it facilitate? These are the questions that BuzzFeed tries to answer as it collaborates with brands to create content that is fun, emotional, and even sentimental,” says Loewenstein.
“The point is that it should give a person pause in their day to actually feel something and connect with the brand instead of just being an opportunity to get their logo registering in front of someone’s eyeballs for two seconds, 30 times a day,” Loewenstein says.
BuzzFeed partnered with IBM, for example, to produce a piece on the struggles of women in technology and how IBM empowers women to achieve positive results in the tech space. The reader or viewer knows the piece is sponsored because it is identified as “IBM Brand Publisher.”
As Loewenstein says: “The idea is less to create advertorials — ‘11 reasons why you should love Amazon’ or something like that. BuzzFeed has a belief, they know what works. People come to BuzzFeed expecting to consume a certain type of content. And so we partner with brands, trying to find an intersection between their voice and BuzzFeed’s voice and trying to create content that way. We want to develop a deeper understanding of what the brand is about, what is their voice, and then find content that tells story that way.”
Loewenstein’s goal is to discover sustainable business models that will shape the future of the media industry. More broadly, he is exploring the potential to expand the human experience through socially resonant content.
Loewenstein, whose father is a Long Island-based gastroenterologist and mother is a bilingual speech pathologist, has always been interested in the media. As a student at Princeton (Class of 2011) he majored in German culture and politics and has studied media theory closely.
“I really fell in love with thinking about questions of how we consume information, how that shapes who we are with other people, how it shapes who we are collectively as a society, and how we identify,” he says.
It didn’t occur to him that he could approach these questions professionally, however. After graduating, he worked for two years as an internal management consultant at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. The idea of shaping and building a business was fascinating, he said. “The questions of media theory were ever present — how do you shape how people behave, identify, and work with one another?” Yet ultimately, he felt that his passion didn’t lie in the financial services, and so he redirected his career towards the media.
“At the end of the day, I want to empower people to enrich their lives through content,” Loewenstein says. “That could be to learn about an important matter in the world. It could be something political, it could be reading hard news, or it could be escaping from the world through a more light-hearted piece of content.”
At their core, both BuzzFeed and the New York Times are media organizations, though one may be a legacy organization and the other more of a startup. Yet legacy media companies these days are struggling financially because their business models don’t necessarily work anymore. Loewenstein finds this disheartening. He sees himself as part of a “new guard” that is trying to revamp media companies by building a new, sustainable business model.
“BuzzFeed’s mission, at the highest level, is not necessarily different from the New York Times,” Loewenstein says. “It’s really exciting to be part of a company that is succeeding in figuring out how to innovate and develop a new concept of media company that can live and thrive given the habits of the current generation of readers.”
One of the most important things Loewenstein has learned at BuzzFeed is the importance of connecting with people on an emotional level. Humans are emotional creatures, he says, and even rational decisions come down to values that have a certain emotional hinge to them.
“You need to recognize that, if you’re a business owner trying to sell something, it will ultimately come down to your ability to emotionally connect with people,” he says. “No matter what you’re doing — you could be selling paint brushes, you could be a doctor, you could be in any profession — you need to recognize that people will continue to utilize your services and buy what you’re selling if you can give them an emotional reason to do so.”
Of paramount importance is to recognize and prioritize the “true humanity of your customer,” Loewenstein says. “And don’t undersell that, because if you do you will find yourself being unsuccessful.”