Episode 144
February 14, 2020

"Affiliate Is A Very Tricky Word"

How can content drive the consumer journey? Nilla Ali from Buzzfeed joins Phillip & Brian to chat about the role of content and affiliate publishers in gaining consumer trust and loyalty. Listen now!

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Main Takeaways

  • Brian and Phillip are joined in today’s episode by Nilla Ali, the SVP of Commerce at BuzzFeed.
  • The role of publishers has shifted in recent years when it comes to commerce, but is the attribution model in need of an update?
  • Recent updates in the protection of consumer privacy are changing the way publishers are acquiring consumers. 
  • How are brands reaching and connecting with younger generations like Gen Z?

What is BuzzFeed Today?: Evolution Through the Years

  • Nilla has been at BuzzFeed for three years and describes BuzzFeed today as a cultural soundboard that has made huge strides with its news organization
  • Commerce has become a big part of BuzzFeed’s business and has seen success in helping people with shopping and making shopping decisions. 
  • BuzzFeed recently had a viral article about Millennial burnout and are covering topics that people want to hear about with a very raw perspective. 
  •  BuzzFeed’s investigative journalism is solidifying them in history as opposed to just a fleeting cultural relevance. 
  • BuzzFeed has used its cultural relevance to contribute to real journalism and to promote social welfare for us to be better as people. 

A Meteoric Rise

  • Nilla has had a meteoric rise to where she is in her career at a very young age by comparison to others in her position. 
  • She started her career at Ann Taylor as a merchandizer but very quickly found out she was interested in the other side of commerce and how people make their buying decisions. 
  • She started a position at Time Inc., where she focused on affiliate business and how content can drive commerce.
  •  Towards the end of her time at Time Inc., Nilla got the opportunity to work under Ben Kaufman, and from there, her career has taken off. 

The Scoop on Affiliate Commerce: A Modern Model?

  • Affiliate is a more so a tool that powers commerce and lead generation as opposed to its commerce channel.  
  • From a consumer’s perspective, it has become much more common to see publishers creating comment that drives you to take action from that content. 
  • The acquisition of The Wirecutter by the New York Times was a significant shift in the industry that showed publishers that affiliate commerce could be a serious business. 
  • Affiliate commerce has evolved, but the model and structure has stayed the same and is how most publishers are currently powering their commerce business.

The Role of Content: Shifts in the Path to Purchase

  • Given that most businesses have mostly shifted to digital, there is an increasing need to curate the best of the best products. 
  • Content is increasingly driving discovery or helping validate a purchase ushering in a new era in which content plays a more significant role in discovery.
  • Frequently there are instances in which BuzzFeed has to work directly with partners to get appropriate attribution due to the outdated last-clicked model. 
  • Measuring the impact of content has proven to be an ongoing challenge, and the attribution process does not reflect how customers shop.

Technical Hurdles: Protecting Consumer Privacy

  • Cookie changes and the idea of putting the power of privacy back in the hands of the consumer can directly affect the attribution for attribution models. 
  • Nilla states that the changes that are happening with user privacy are to the benefit of publishers like BuzzFeed, whose visitors are drawn to content that is beyond targeted personalization. 
  • The big question is whether or not publishers will be able to track attribution in a cookieless world. 
  • How do you get visitors to return to your site without personalization?

The Power of the Publisher: Empowering Retailers

  • How can consumers make direct purchases through BuzzFeed without needing to leave the content that drew them to the site in the first place?
  • Nilla finds that there is a lot of power in publishers empowering retailers due to the retailer’s expertise in upselling, cross-selling, and guiding the customer through the path to purchase. 
  • The consumer trusts retailers, and it can sometimes be problematic if the publisher tries to step into the role of the retailer. 
  • It is exceedingly important that the process of discovery is smooth on a publisher site to best lead consumers through the path to purchase. 

A New Approach: What Does Commerce Mean to BuzzFeed?:

  • To Nilla, commerce is understanding what your consumers are in-market looking for both from an entertainment standpoint and a shopping/action standpoint. 
  • It’s essential to think about curation as BuzzFeed plays a large part in curating what people are watching on popular streaming services. 
  • Helping consumers navigate through decisions in a saturated world is a goal of BuzzFeed’s when it comes to their commerce decisions. 
  • Shoppable recipes are an example of getting people to take action and convert when researching recipes online.

New Expectations: Weaving the Customer Journey Through Disparate Properties:

  • BuzzFeed is weaving the customer path through many different properties to make the path to purchase easier than ever before when it comes to integrating content and commerce. 
  • With modern technology like the Tasty App, you can schedule a grocery delivery curated directly from the ingredient list of a recipe video you are watching online via various grocery retailers.
  • What are the further implications of linking separate properties with a single path to purchase?
  • Content brands like Bon Appétit could have limitless commerce potential with integrations like this.

The Content Game: Is DIY the Best Choice?

  • How can retail brands partner with a content provider like BuzzFeed to better improve their content strategy?
  • Establishing yourself as a thought leader in your space is extremely important, and content can help you achieve this. 
  • Consumers can sometimes be skeptical when content comes from the brand itself and is intended to drive conversion. 
  • BuzzFeed has found a lot of partners that boost publisher content on social because content has become a reliable acquisition channel.

Capturing Gen Z: Untapped Potential:

  • BuzzFeed is very focused on Gen Z since it has already succeeded in capturing that Millennial audience. 
  • As a publisher, you always run the risk of trying to do too many things too well. 
  • The best way to capture a young audience is to have people from that generation be a part of your team and advocate for what they want to see. 
  • What are some ways in which you can reach younger generations?

Brands Mentioned in this Episode:

Phillip: [00:00:00] Welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about cutting edge and next generation commerce. I'm Phillip.

Brian: [00:00:04] And I'm Brian. And today we have Nilla Ali, the Senior Vice President of Commerce at BuzzFeed with us. Welcome, Nilla. So excited to have you.

Nilla: [00:00:13] Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.

Phillip: [00:00:16] I'm excited for you to quiz me and tell me which Sex and the City character I am.

Nilla: [00:00:23] Oh gosh. We'll leave that for the bloopers.

Phillip: [00:00:26] You know, if you're like me, and you're Gen-Xer who, you know, thinks of BuzzFeed a certain way, you might be mistaken. What is BuzzFeed today? It's not just the... BuzzFeed's grown up, and it's like you're a big deal. BuzzFeed's a big deal.

Nilla: [00:00:42] We are a big deal. We are a very big deal. And I would say exactly as you said, it has very much evolved over the years. I've been at BuzzFeed for three years, and it's just insane to see the evolution in my time there. I'd say today we're still very much kind of a cultural soundboard. We still are obviously known for our memes and our quizzes. And I think that's what people typically think of when they think of BuzzFeed. But I think we've made huge strides with our news organization. We're definitely seen as kind of a credible news source for millennials and this younger generation who's looking for a lot more raw, real news. I kind of think of us as curators of culture and obviously selfishly, I think of us as curators of commerce. It has become a huge part of our business. We're continuing to see a ton of success in helping people shop and make shopping decisions. So we've grown up a lot from our cat memes. And I think we're now playing a lot of different roles and different jobs in people's lives. And I think for me it's exciting when I'm sitting in an Uber, and I mention to an Uber driver what I do, and they're like, "Oh, I love BuzzFeed."

Phillip: [00:01:47] That's so cool.

Nilla: [00:01:47] So yeah. I think it's becoming a staple of our generation.

Brian: [00:01:50] Yeah, I remember the first time I was like, "Oh, my gosh, BuzzFeed is something totally different than I thought it was." And that was like, oh, probably six years ago.

Phillip: [00:02:00] Yeah.

Brian: [00:02:00] And you did like this super in-depth look at Paul Ryan. And I was like, I've never read anything like this on my typical Internet... It was like this really, really well thought out, like super in-depth profile on him. And I was like, this is a totally new BuzzFeed. This is amazing.

Phillip: [00:02:22] Also the first time that Paul Ryan has ever been mentioned and the last time that he will ever be mentioned on this podcast.

Brian: [00:02:32] {laughter} This is pre-Trump. Pre-Trump era.

Nilla: [00:02:34] Yeah. I mean, we got a lot of traction recently, especially with millennial burnout article that went absolutely viral. So, yeah, I think we're definitely seeing as kind of cultural trailblazers. We're really covering the things that people are interested in hearing about from a really raw perspective. So it's a very exciting time to be at the company.

Phillip: [00:02:51] And it's not just cultural. I think that cultural moments sort of come and go. But, you know, actually being part of history is something else. And I think BuzzFeed for me today is investigative journalism, especially like the Steele dossier, and other things that I think will be forever remembered in American history. I think that goes to speak as to the power of having cultural relevance and how what you do with that is very important. And the way that you utilize that platform can be used for good and it can be used for bad. And I find it fascinating that you've been able to, BuzzFeed has been able to, use it to not just be culturally relevant, which is always changing, but to actually use it as a force of like real journalism and contributing to a social or political or a social welfare for us to be better as a people. And now commerce apparently.

Nilla: [00:03:53] And now commerce.

Brian: [00:03:55] Wait, wait, wait wait. So how did you end up at BuzzFeed? You're the Senior Vice President of Commerce at BuzzFeed. You have seen some really amazing recognition, well-deserved recognition. You're on Forbes 30 under 30. You've seen sort of like this very fast rise to Senior Vice President at BuzzFeed. How did you initially get involved? Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Nilla: [00:04:22] Yes. Well, first off, thank you. It's been kind of a nuts year and really exciting to see my career get to where it has been. I think as a female and a person who's first generation, it's really exciting. And I think a lot of people are reaching out to me and just really excited to see that it's possible at this age to kind of get to this point of your career. So I kind of fell in to affiliate and commerce in a bit of a funny way. I actually started my career at Ann Taylor as a merchandiser. So very much started in the e-commerce space. Loved what I was doing. Definitely a space that I understand well. I love shopping. But very quickly just was interesting in  kind of thinking about the other side of commerce and how people are actually making their buying decisions. Ended up through a networking event connecting with someone who is at Time Inc at the time. He was the VP of Commerce, and he brought me on because they were kind of looking for someone who was junior enough in merchandising to understand kind of the logistics of it, but not tied to doing it for a traditional retailer. So I started working at Time Inc. And this was like early days content and commerce. So about I would say four or five years ago where when you would attend the affiliate conferences it was mainly cashback and coupon players. There wasn't a lot of content players really seriously thinking about affiliate as being a big part of their business. And it was, I think, just like the merchandiser in me that realized that there's a huge business here that Time Inc was actually at that point and starting to kind of integrate into their titles. Real Simple was obviously doing gift guides, and we were generating some revenue from that. But we weren't really doubling down and seeing how we could make it a meaningful business. So in my time at Time Inc I just hyper focused on affiliate, met with a ton of retailers, really got an understanding of how content can truly drive commerce. And while I was there towards the end of my time at Time Inc, I met someone at BuzzFeed who again as millennial myself just thought BuzzFeed was the coolest company doing super cool and innovative things, and they were actually taking a very big bet on affiliate at the time. And an opportunity presented itself for me to start at BuzzFeed and actually work under Ben Kaufman, who at the time was running product labs.

Phillip: [00:06:35] Yeah.

Nilla: [00:06:35] Yep. So I was initially working in the back of a candle shop in Chelsea.

Phillip: [00:06:40] Wow.

Nilla: [00:06:40] And I was lucky enough to kind of walk into a commerce business that was fairly established. We had writers who were creating shopping content. But really, in the three years that I've been there, it's just again, commerce has completely taken off. It very much from my perspective is like a relationship business. So during my time at Time Inc, I just again met with as many retailers as humanly possible. So coming into BuzzFeed and having the scale that we did, being able to revisit those relationships and kind of scale them up and translate them to what BuzzFeed was doing is kind of what helped me get to where I am today. So it's been quite a journey.

Phillip: [00:07:18] Question there, though. So when you're talking about affiliate, you know, my mind goes back to like the affiliates of, you know, 10 years ago or maybe the influencers of today that use affiliate models to sort of monetize the content they're creating. Is that the commerce model that you would say is predominant in the publishing industry today? And do you think consumers are sort of aware of how that model works?

Nilla: [00:07:44] Yeah, I think the word affiliate is a very tricky word and at times problematic because I actually think of affiliate more so just as a tool that powers commerce for publishers, because really it just means that we can build a business where we're getting paid for a consumer taking an action, and that action is typically a conversion. So from a consumer's perspective, also, if you think about it, affiliate in theory is lead gen. Most industries have some form of attribution that's like a rev share model or like essentially getting paid when an action is taken. I think from a consumer, it's becoming much more common to see publishers playing in this space and creating content that drives you to take an action from that content. I think really like the biggest player kind of in trade press that brought this form of affiliate to the forefront was The Wirecutter and its acquisition by The New York Times.

Phillip: [00:08:39] Yeah.

Brian: [00:08:39] Yes.

Nilla: [00:08:40] I think a lot of affiliate players existed at that time and publishers were starting to dip their toes in the space. But I think The Wirecutter kind of made publishers stop and realize this could be a serious business. So I definitely think affiliate, in it's kind of traditional sense, has evolved. But at the end of the day, it as a tool and as like a partnership structure, the model is still the same. And I think that is how most publishers are currently powering their commerce business. We obviously have some of our own merch that we're selling. Actually I oversee also our BuzzFeed shop, which is when we're selling some of our own kind of branded products. So I think for most publishers at this day and age, it's like traditional affiliate, but also they're obviously testing and dipping their toes and creating some of their own products.

Brian: [00:09:23] For sure. Yeah, I think it's really interesting. You talk about you feel your model and you know, publishers are engaged in this now, obviously have been for a while. They need a way to monetize the influence they're having. And I love the reference, The Wirecutter. We've been following them since, I think Episode 14, one of our earliest episodes due to a reference from Jason L Baptiste who is a really, really cool guy.

Phillip: [00:09:47] Yeah.

Brian: [00:09:48] But I think one of the most difficult parts about affiliate right now is like attribution, right?

Nilla: [00:09:57] Yup.

Brian: [00:09:57] Credit. Can you talk to us a little bit about your struggles that you've seen with with getting credit? I mean, I feel like content creators are one of the largest influencers on a purchase. And even larger than even reviews, we know a lot of people, and myself...I kind of fall in this category...who hardly even trust reviews anymore.

Nilla: [00:10:22] Yup.

Brian: [00:10:22] I am much more likely to make a purchase based off of something that I've read from someone who I've considered an expert or agree with their tastes, or it's just a well-written piece on a given product. So talk to us a little bit about how you feel the role of content has changed in the purchasing cycle recently and then how you're getting compensated for that original thought creation.

Nilla: [00:10:51] Yeah. So my stance is, and again, just thinking about my own kind of consumer behavior, given most businesses have shifted to digital and given now that we're not limited by shelf space, there's just vast amount of inventory and assortment on any given retailer site. There is increasingly a need to kind of curate the best of the best. And I think millennials especially grew up in a generation where we had so much choice. So we oftentimes relied on the Internet to help us find the best product. And I think we do that, whether it's in our restaurant decision making... We'll go to Yelp and kind of validate whether restaurants are actually worth going to or oftentimes even I'm like looking at a Eater article about like which brunch spots I should go to or when you're traveling, you're looking at Google, and you're trying to find content to help you plan your trip. I think it's just embedded in the DNA of people who were raised in this digital culture. So content kind of increasingly is playing that role of helping either drive discovery, so you're finding something that you weren't maybe even thinking about buying, but you ran into a BuzzFeed article on Facebook and now all of a sudden you actually need to have that Glossier eyeliner, or to help you kind of validate which product is the best. And you're looking at review sites that you trust in order to really make your decision. I think there's like a new era of the role that content plays in the consumer journey. And I would actually argue that most people are probably inspired by something they're reading in a piece of content or they're seeing on social from an influencer. And the biggest challenge when it comes to attribution in that regard is unfortunately, again, given affiliate is this kind of archaic system, everything is built on a last click model. So publishers only get compensated if they're literally the last click before someone makes a purchase within a certain cookie window. And it's actually really funny. Before this, I was sitting with my sister and a Honey commercial came on, and I was like, "Ugh great. They always steal our attribution." And she was like, "What do you mean?" Because no one ever really understands what I do, and my family is still very confused by what my job is.

Phillip: [00:12:56] You're not alone.

Nilla: [00:12:56] But I was explaining to her that as my business will only get paid if you as a consumer literally read an article, click it and buy something. But if you as a consumer read an article and click your Honey little tab, or if you go to Google and you search something and you had a Google ad there, some middle man who's very likely to take our last click, and we then don't get any sort of attribution for that sale. So it becomes very problematic because oftentimes, again, for our affiliate business, what we're hyper focused on is relationships, like I said. So we work with a lot of our affiliate partners directly. So we do have instances where we'll write an article featuring a Glossier product and Glossier will reach out to us, and say, "We saw a huge spike in traffic and sales. Like what happened?" And we can attribute that to a post and understand that obviously we drove maybe more influence than we actually got credit for through the networks. So oftentimes it's kind of like happenstance that we really are able to measure the impact of our content. And that's started happening, I would say, a year and a half ago when I kind of became hyper obsessed with this concept of like we have a massive affiliate business. But I think it could actually be even more massive if we were able to kind of look beyond the last click, and think about things like, I would even argue view through attribution. Because I've also literally sat behind my little cousin at once, I think was Black Friday. And he was looking at a BuzzFeed article, and we were promoting an H&M sale, and he did not click on the link in the article. He opened up a tab and searched H&M and then started shopping. So I think this space is just very obsessed with like the literal kind of attribution process that I don't think reflects how consumers actually shop.

Phillip: [00:14:38] Yeah.

Brian: [00:14:39] Yes.

Nilla: [00:14:40] Yep. So my big, big focus for this year, and I think the space in general, (I work very closely with a lot of the affiliate networks) is trying to figure out what is that user path from reading a piece of content and then ultimately purchasing, and who are all the players in between that get the consumer down the funnel? I don't necessarily want to completely discredit cash back and coupon, because I do think oftentimes someone wouldn't actually buy something if it wasn't on sale or if there wasn't somewhat of an incentive to do so. But I think we need to like step away from the last click model and figure out a model that enables publishers to really grow their business in a meaningful way, because I think it's actually a very valuable business for both the advertisers and also the consumers. And I think this space is moving in that direction. It's just not moving as quickly as I would like.

Brian: [00:15:30] Yes, I actually have a perfect example of this. I recently bought Nikon camera, and I looked at probably like 10 different articles. I clicked through a couple times on some of the links to the purchase, but ultimately I ended up buying on Google shopping.

Nilla: [00:15:47] Yup.

Brian: [00:15:47] And I guarantee you, Google got the credit. And so I was influenced by several different pieces, I clicked through on a couple, and I guarantee you those click throughs didn't lead to like someone getting paid.

Nilla: [00:16:00] Absolutely. And also, there's certain categories that just have like a higher purchasing... I'm sorry. I can't think of the exact term, but travel, for example... I think it's very unlikely that you would actually come across a BuzzFeed article about a really cool destination and immediately book a flight.

Brian: [00:16:22] Right.

Nilla: [00:16:22] I think that's unrealistic that you're going to pull out your credit card and spend five hundred dollars. But I do think there is a world where you read BuzzFeed article, you read about a really cool place, you share it with your friend who you're likely to travel with. You're then going onto Google. You're searching how to get the best credit card points. You're reading The Points Guy. You're reading NerdWallet. You might sign up for a credit card, and you ultimately end up booking. And that source of inspiration and discovery was actually BuzzFeed. But we're not getting credit for any of that kind of behavior in between. So I think, again, most advertisers or CMOs that I'm talking with there's been like a huge shift in sentiment. Two years ago, I feel like they're looking at me like I was crazy and they're just like, "I don't know what you're talking about. We're going to focus on our very specific and siloed marketing channels." I think in general, the space is realizing the power of content. So it's exciting to see that we're getting to a place where we're kind of rethinking how we evaluate what success looks like for the affiliate channel.

Phillip: [00:17:17] I'm thinking about a sort of technical hurdle or a technical challenge that's, you know, become part of the conversation on the publisher side. In particular, Brian Morrissey, who's Editor-in-Chief at Digiday was talking about how, you know, cookie changes, especially browsers and Safari and Apple and its whole idea of privacy first and putting the power of your privacy back into the hands of the consumer, how that would actually upset publishers who don't have direct to consumer like business models. And I feel like it is a very timely conversation and one I didn't prepare you for. But I think that there's an interesting shift in attribution... This attribution conversation has more nuance to it in that there are technical challenges to overcome, that it's not just changing the mindset of the model in the industry, but it's also that there are obstructions in the way and change in consumer sentiment around being tracked. And businesses like Apple who are enabling that that make your job that much harder.

Nilla: [00:18:32] I could not agree more. I actually I think all the changes that are happening with user privacy and CCPA and GDPR, I actually think are to the benefit of publishers. Obviously, I think there's a lot of risk depending on what your publisher revenue model is. But for BuzzFeed specifically, we're so hyper focused on creating content that drives virality. That's like capturing people because they can really identify with the content or bring some some sort of joy. So I think it's like people are coming to our content because it serves a job that's beyond any sort of necessarily like personalization. And it's not necessarily limited to being powered by personalization. And I think we've set up our business in a way where our revenue is diversified, and we do have different business streams that can kind of adjust to these changes that are happening with cookie tracking or how we're able to kind of monetize our audience. And when it comes to shopping and first party data, I think with the big threat is obviously this concept of, "Will we be able to actually kind of capture affiliate revenue in a cookie-less world?" And again, I know a lot of the affiliate networks have been kind of aggressively shifting their tech stack in order to kind of account for these changes that are happening with cookie-less tracking. But I think this space should be very much prepared for a world where we aren't necessarily able to capture whether or not someone is actually converting after reading a piece of content. And I think we should focus more on really developing our audiences and ensuring that we have an audience who is coming back to our content in order to make shopping decisions. Because in that world, no matter what changes are happening in terms of privacy laws, if we're actually providing a service to our audience and actually helping them find or discover products or make decisions when it comes to shopping, they'll come back to us no matter what. And I don't necessarily think that we have to focus on like how can we get the right content to the right person from like a data usage standpoint. I think if we can focus on what is the site experience, how can they more easily navigate our catalog of content and kind of think more like a retailer, I think we can position our business in a way to protect ourselves and build that audience loyalty, so that they are coming back to us on their own.

Brian: [00:20:53] But then how do you...? And I agree. I absolutely agree. But how do you get paid from like from a brand and retail standpoint? This just kind of gets about the idea of unselfish content. Brands and retailers and merchants need to recognize that investing in unselfish content benefits them. What they need to do is have a strategy that spans sort of both sides of the content, which is basically you've got to go and support the content because that content needs to get made, right? Someone has to make it. And yes, then someone may go and buy something that's competitive. Let's go back to the travel idea. You're supporting an article that's focused on a specific area and delves into all the really cool spots. And your a travel company and you want them to book a flight and a hotel with you or whatever it is. And what you need to do is have a strategy for making sure your brand is clear in the article. And then you need to make sure that the post search process, like you have a strategy there as well. Because I think there's an angle on both sides here. But I think the mindset of investing in unselfish content is something that is changing. Like you said. A couple of years ago, it would be like, "How does that benefit us directly?" I think that people are starting to recognize like there's a way to do this and maybe it doesn't necessarily relate back to direct revenue or we can't draw a line to it, but we need to invest in it anyway.

Nilla: [00:22:32] Yep. And I think in this, again, like new world of data privacy, I think first party data is increasingly important and also leveraging content to kind of identify user intent signals. So what I mean by that is I think there could become a business where if we have a travel vertical, and we're creating content about traveling, to me that is a really high impact placement for an advertiser who's trying to get in front of an audience who's likely traveling. Surrounding those display units, I think is a way that you can actually get really close to the consumer when they're in a mindset of purchasing something in that category without doing it in a creepy way and potentially doing it in a way that's actually really useful to the consumer. So again, if you're a credit card company with points and someone's reading an article about travel hacks, that feels like a really kind of natural way to place your brand where it's beneficial to the consumer. It is not necessarily relying so heavily on targeting an individual user, but you're getting close to the consumer based on their consumption behavior and the signals that they're giving based on where they are in their purchasing journey or what sort of intent they have. So I think increasingly first party data for publishers becomes more and more important.

Brian: [00:23:50] Yes.

Nilla: [00:23:50] And we kind of understand what the consumer is doing at a level that the platforms can't. We know what someone's reading is likely indicative of what they're interested in or what they're likely going to do next. So I think it's an interesting time. I think it definitely has a lot of risk for a lot of businesses. But I think it also opens up a lot of opportunity and positions publishers and content players in a more valuable way.

Phillip: [00:24:14] Wow. Well, I think it also builds the legitimacy in your mind of being connected with the content to the commerce. You know, going hand-in-hand. And it allows you to sort of grow your influence in making purchasing decisions. I'm curious how you then translate that to how would they make direct purchase decisions in your context without needing to leave? Or is that just... Is the marketplace angle one that is just too powerful? Is there a plan in the future that all publishers run their own marketplaces direct, and they just have that direct relationship with the customer?

Nilla: [00:24:59] I personally think there's a lot of value and publishers driving to retailers. I think retailers have spent generations kind of perfecting what the experience is like on their end. They know how to upsell the consumer. They know how to cross-sell. And I think at the end of the day, consumers really trust the brand or retailer that they're shopping from. So I think it becomes a little bit problematic when publishers try to play that role. I think some publishers have done it very successfully and not to say that we would never test that model. But I'm personally more interested in publishers playing the role of curation of marketplaces or platforms that currently exist and creating a really frictionless way to get the consumer from the point of discovery to the point of purchase. I think as more and more people are buying on their phones, and we're kind of limiting the real estate as to how they can kind of navigate between tabs or do their research, it increasingly becomes important that there's a really seamless experience on the publisher side that helps surface the product and alternative image or all images of the product or user reviews and make sure that we're servicing to the consumer, the various retailers, that they can actually buy the products, so that they can price check kind of all in one place. So I think if we can minimize kind of the number of windows that are needed after you discover a product on a publisher's site, that to me is more exciting than a publisher trying to actually play the role of a retailer. Because what I've often found in my experience in working with content, like within a content space, is once you remove the context of editorial and you just have like BuzzFeed promoting a product the way a retailer would, I think you almost automatically lose that like magic spell of what content really offers to the consumer, which is editorial validation, context, who this product is good for, who this product is actually good for, why is it good for them? So I think that's the more special role that content players play. Not necessarily just building a marketplace in the way that a retailer would.

Brian: [00:26:57] Yeah, that makes sense. One of the things that I think was a struggle in the past on the Internet, and this is obviously changed in the past many years, I guess, was I think that was a little bit of a stigma about going from a content publisher to a retailer where you didn't really know... It felt like clicking on an ad.

Nilla: [00:27:17] Yeah.

Brian: [00:27:19] And a lot of content publishers would put a lot of really bad ads on their site. And so I think that there's been a little bit of a mindset switch over the past few years where people are starting to feel more comfortable going from a site that's clearly a content site and understanding that these aren't the sort of just generic ads that people can bid for. You have built up relationships with these other companies, and they can feel confident and safe and good about going from your site to another retailer's site. I think that's been a struggle in the past.

Nilla: [00:27:57] Yeah. And I think the cool thing with affiliate is, to some extent, it's a self-policing model in that if we're making sketchy recommendations or we're surfacing bad products to the consumer, they're not going to come back or they're going to return the product.

Brian: [00:28:12] Yes.

Nilla: [00:28:12] So we actually don't make any revenue. So we're very much incentivized to think about the consumer first and to drive them to a good experience. And again, to actually drive our retail partners, someone who has really high intent, otherwise we can't build a business off of that. So I think it's a model that actually benefits the publisher, the retailer and the consumer, which I think is rare for media. But I again, I think the role that the content publisher plays and I think what the space really should focus on is how to make that content even better and how to get the content in front of the right consumers at the right time and to make it easy for consumers to find that content when they are in a purchasing mindset. So that if there was a recommendation that they maybe saw from BuzzFeed that they can easily find it and kind of validate their purchasing decision and make it really frictionless way.

Brian: [00:29:01] Yeah, totally. Another interesting thing I think that... Well, you know, it's interesting. We've seen a lot more than just affiliate come out of BuzzFeed for the past six months. Right? And this includes everything from a really cool collaboration with Birchbox, which I thought was really fun, to shoppable recipes with Walmart.

Nilla: [00:29:26] Yeah.

Brian: [00:29:27] So I want to talk about that in a minute because that's super exciting, but also just want... Give me a little bit more context about how BuzzFeed is thinking about commerce. You've said you're not interested in becoming a marketplace. You are interested obviously in affiliate. You're doing these really interesting collaborations with Birchbox and Walmart. What's sort of like the overarching strategy around commerce? What does commerce mean to BuzzFeed?

Nilla: [00:29:56] Yeah, that's a great question. To me, commerce is more so really understanding what our consumers are in market looking for, both from like an entertainment standpoint and also again, from a shopping or action standpoint. I think what's really important to think about, too, is oftentimes when people think affiliate or commerce, we're very much limiting it to the retail category. Something we're really excited about kind of tackling for this year is as the subscription wars are ahead of us, we also play a huge role in curating what to watch on Netflix or what to watch on Disney+. And I think we continue to kind of play this role of helping consumers navigate the many decisions that they currently have in this new digital era. So to me, commerce is 1) identifying what do consumers want and why are they coming to BuzzFeed? 2) actually like creating that content. And then again, once we're creating that content, what is the next step they're likely looking to take that we can make for them in a much more frictionless way? So shoppable recipes very much was kind of a product of that thinking. We knew that we have the number one kind of food network or food brand on the Internet. And we know that our audience is coming to us to not only discover recipes, but that they're actually making those recipes at home. Like within the Tasty app, there's actually a functionality where you can upload photos of the food that you're making. And we have an audience and community who is really engaged with that feature. So when thinking about what could we create with an app that benefits the consumer and obviously allows us to do a really cool partnership with a retailer that we're excited to work with, Walmart came to mind because they are the largest grocer in America. So we essentially... I think my kind of lesson in my time at BuzzFeed is we actually tried shoppable recipes when I first started two years ago, and our initial implementation of it was actually just putting units within the tasty app that kind of included ingredients that were somewhat related to the ingredients in the recipe. And at the time we thought we're doing something super revolutionary, and we were helping get people from the recipe to the Walmart app. And obviously it totally bombed and did not work because when you're just reading a recipe passively, you're very unlikely to then want to just randomly buy oil or pepper.

Phillip: [00:32:22] Right.

Nilla: [00:32:22] I think there has to be a lot more kind of utility in the experience. So I learned a lot from that experience. And again, I think from like a brand awareness and exposure standpoint, it was actually a pretty smart integration. I think it helps keep a retailer top of mind to see them constantly when you're in this kind of shopping mindset. But for actually getting people to take action and convert for kind of phase two, we much more thoughtfully approached the problem statement and that was, "How can we make it easier for our audience to shop a Tasty recipe?" And again, knowing that once you're in the app experience, we knew a lot of our audience was kind of using the app to actually make shopping lists and likely go in person to the grocery store to buy those ingredients. We really wanted to kind of take that user behavior and think about what it would look like from a digital experience and how can we get someone easily to the Walmart apps, so that they could do pick up or delivery. So we actually essentially took a full week and brought in experts from internal BuzzFeed, from Walmart, from people in the grocery space and really thought through kind of what the problem statement is and developed a few different user paths, which as a media company it's a very different way for us to think because essentially we're thinking like a like a product development team at a commerce company. And from that, we kind of jointly developed what is now the Tasty app experience where a consumer can actually literally see a recipe and with the click of a button, add all the ingredients to their Tasty bag and you can actually swap certain ingredients literally directly within the Tasty app if you have different preferences or different price points.

Phillip: [00:33:57] It's so cool.

Nilla: [00:33:57] You can even do cool things like increase or decrease the serving size of the recipe, which will actually impact how much of the ingredient we're recommending. And it can actually, based on your geo location, identify the Walmart closest to you and then you have the opportunity for a pickup or delivery based on whatever that location has available. So it's been a really, really cool process, and we actually towards the end of the year last year rolled out a new feature which is shippable bundles. So the idea there is giving consumers the opportunity to buy multiple recipes at the same time. And we launched it around Thanksgiving. So we did things like the appetizer, dinner, and dessert for kind of a full Thanksgiving meal and made it super easy to shop multiple recipes and essentially use it as a meal planning tool. So our kind of goal for this year is how can we continue to really understand what is the user behavior in the Tasty app and continue to iterate on that and follow the data and not kind of do what we did initially and just make assumptions? It's been a really, really cool experience.

Brian: [00:34:58] I'm going to totally download this app as soon as we're done. It's a done deal. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:35:06] What's amazing is you're hinting at, you know, creating a journey of a consumer that lives in a bunch of different properties. But that's the new expectation. The expectation of the consumer is that you have this like journey experience that takes you from content into commerce and then maybe turns back around eventually into like user generated content. And it's this incredible cycle that you're weaving together across a bunch of different properties. And, you know, not for nothing, it's to be commended because getting big organizations to make decisions that are mutually beneficial seems like a hard thing to pull off. But yeah, in thinking through that, not to mention I don't know if they're content competitor... I'm sure they are in some way. Or peer. Peer is the word we use. They're a peer. I think about Bon Appetit, and they're digital, their YouTube properties, like their video properties. And there's just such a world of opportunity in just that one vertical around food and entertainment...infotainment. And I just I'm fascinated at the possibility, and the commerce opportunities are endless.

Nilla: [00:36:24] I could not agree more. I think it's a really exciting space to be in. It's a little challenging because to your point, there's so many different paths you can take at any given time. So it's really important to stay the course and kind of take a big bet on certain things and make sure that you're taking the right bets, because a lot of what we're doing also, to some extent, is completely shifting consumer behavior, because I think that was, even when we first launched a Tasty app, there was a sense of skepticism. As you said, internally, it is kind of hard to get a media company or even a grocer like Walmart to kind of rethink what their relationship with a media company looks like all surrounding behavior that is to some extent unproven. Like, yes, you can go out to market and talk to some consumers and ask them if they're likely to use the app. And I think most people would say, "Yes, sure, it sounds interesting," but whether people are actually going to do it at scale in a way that can drive a meaningful business, you kind of don't know until it's live. And I think we're also learning that it's not like a set it and forget it kind of implementation. We actually have to kind of continue to iterate on the feature, continue to educate the audience as to what this feature is, and also increase the adoption rates. Yes, a lot of people are using the app in a way that even surprised us. But I think  again, there's only room for growth if you're really focused on ensuring that more and more people are using the app in the way that it was intended. So from just my own experience, what I'm learning is, again, now, it's like we're thinking about video, and we're thinking about how can you integrate commerce and video, and how can you not only track it, but what is the likely next path of the consumer if they're like seeing something on a channel like Bon Appétit and maybe want to buy the cooking utensils. Do you create an article to help them find the best cooking utensils? The kind of options are endless. But I think it's just really important to make both big and small bets, but make sure that you're kind of like staying the course. Otherwise, I think it's easy to get distracted by what your competitors are doing. So it's an exciting time, but definitely a little overwhelming at times because there're a lot of opportunities.

Brian: [00:38:33] It seems like infinite opportunities no less. That's one of the challenges here is that there's so much opportunity in the content to commerce space that it's really hard to know what to invest in. We've talked a ton about content and commerce on the show. And, you know, I feel like retailers and brands are starting to to blur the lines between what it means to be a content creator and a publisher. You look it out to Outdoor Voices, and they launched their own content platform this past year. You're coming in as a content first company coming into commerce. A lot of these obviously brands and retailers are coming in from the commerce side first. So maybe give our listeners a little bit of advice about how they can better leverage, you know, content that's created outside of the company by third party such as yourselves. But also, what can they do with their own content and how can they... You know, sometimes it seems a little bit selfish when you create your own content. How can they sort of partner together with someone like a BuzzFeed to better improve their content strategy? Does content...

Nilla: [00:39:53] Yeah.

Brian: [00:39:54] Their own content... Is it even worthwhile vs. using third party content?

Nilla: [00:40:02] I think I mean, I think that's the question of the hour. I do think it's important for retailers to carve out space for themselves and really kind of develop that relationship with their audience and build a community. So I think it's a huge miss to not invest in content that gives credibility to your brand and positions you as a kind of a thought leader in your respective space. And I think some brands, again, like I keep mentioning Glossier, but I think they did that in a really, really interesting way. And even myself, there's like an Adaptogen shop in Greenpoint that I love going to. And they have a blog that really talks about the things that someone who would be interested in Adaptogen would likely be reading, and actually do read a lot of their newsletters and content. And I think that is very like a valuable thing to offer for your audiences. That being said, I do think that consumers are typically a little skeptical when the content is coming from the brand itself, especially when it's coming in kind of like a self-promoting manner. I think it's different to create content like Outdoor Voices, maybe creating content about working out or being healthy that doesn't necessarily tie back to a purchase. I think if the intention of the content is to actually drive conversion, it becomes, it seems less authentic when it's coming from the brand itself. And that's where we've actually seen a lot of success in the past year, especially as we found a lot of partners. And I think you'll hear a lot of other publishers saying this, but you'll find partners who are actually boosting publisher content on social, which initially when it was happening, we thought it was very interesting that someone would pay to drive people to our pages. But when we kind of looked into it, we realized it's because it actually content becomes a really efficient acquisition asset for them, even more so than their own marketing assets or their own content. And that's because people trust BuzzFeed or trust the publishers that they follow. So when we're saying that a product is our favorite or when our editors are kind of giving their point of view, that is coming from a very personal place, I think it has a different level of credibility that unfortunately I just don't think a brand can achieve on their own. So my advice to advertisers would be while it's important to invest in kind of growing your audience and building content that might get more and more people into your ecosystem, if the ultimate objective is using content as an acquisition tactic, we've seen it from our own experience that it's much more efficient to do so through the lens of a publisher that has a new audience and an audience at scale. I also to some extent think it's a little bit of a waste of money to invest heavily in content that's targeting an audience that you already own. So I think like the best kind of hack is to partner with someone who has an audience outside of your audience, especially given most retailers currently are just focused on growth and new customer acquisition. I think it's a little challenging to do that when you're hitting your own audience with content. So it feels to me like a more expensive way when there's a vast number of publishers or influencers who could do that more effectively and more efficiently. So it's something we're seeing, or I'm seeing, kind of a big trend in the space... Advertisers utilizing content as an acquisition channel and also understanding that while branded content is very effective, kind of letting go and letting publishers talk about their products in a way that is truly authentic and coming from the perspective of their writers is a lot more impactful than telling a publisher through branded content like, "This is how you have to position my brand. And these are the talking points you have to use." I think consumers are smart enough to see right through that. So it's really letting kind of publishers do their job and what they do best. Like we are content creators and I think we do it most effectively and advertisers could be utilizing that much more effectively.

Phillip: [00:43:51] You're talking about reaching an audience that you already own or sort of, you know, investing in that seems to be a little bit ill-advised maybe. I don't know how to say that specifically. What about reaching an audience that no one's really talking to yet? You know, we're creating at Future Commerce the psychographic of a consumer that's probably falls into Gen Z as a demographic, but, you know, maybe not always, but somebody who's younger and who has a particular view of the world. We call her Carly, which is an acronym for Can't Afford Real Life Yet.

Nilla: [00:44:30] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:44:30] Somebody who's spending a lot of money that maybe she didn't earn or is doing without, you know, from day to day. Skipping lunch so she can afford to buy up and spend a little bit more money on the things that maybe aspirationally she wants. I'm curious how you're speaking to that kind of consumer at BuzzFeed. Is that already your audience? Are you already capturing that audience by other means? And how do you like turn those in to, you know, shoppers or how do you turn those into consumers that use BuzzFeed's retail partners to make purchasing decisions?

Nilla: [00:45:10] Yeah. Great question. We are very focused on Gen Z, as I'm sure every publisher is saying they are right now. But I think we've definitely captured and succeeded at capturing the millennial audience, and I think we've spoken to them kind of since the inception of BuzzFeed. And I think what we're learning very quickly is the Gen Z audience is completely different and the behavior is different. I actually, recently we had someone come in to kind of teach us about what the Gen Z audience... How they're thinking, and how they're feeling, and making sure that we're looking at it from a Gen Z lens, and not kind of "othering" them and talking about Gen Z from a millennial perspective because that's kind of the worst thing you could do. So we're very much trying to understand what their consumption behavior is and what their shopping behavior is and make sure that we're developing a content strategy specifically for that. I think as a publisher, you always run the risk of trying to do too many things too well. But given the scale of BuzzFeed, it's like we do kind of reach a very wide net, or cast a wide net. So it's important that we're speaking to all audiences in a way that's authentic. From my perspective, the only way to do that successfully is to truly hire and have people who are as close to Gen Z as possible to be actually creating the content. Because I think whenever it's forced, or like a millennial person trying to speak to a different generation, it's just it's never gonna be as effective or authentic, especially when you're working on platforms like Tik-Tok.

Phillip: [00:46:41] Right.

Nilla: [00:46:41] I think that generation is...

Phillip: [00:46:42] Or a Gen Xer {laughter}

Nilla: [00:46:44] I mean, bring on the Gen Xers and have them write for their audience. Like I think it's just like you need to have those people in your organization making decisions or at least being a voice in the room and like kind of advocating for what they think their generation would likely actually resonate with. I actually have a few Gen Zers on my team, and I've never felt more old in my life. They will say things that I have no idea what they're talking about. But it is a really interesting way for us to kind of keep our content fresh. And even when I'm talking to retailers, I'll oftentimes bring them into the room because they do have a completely different perspective. And honestly, I just don't think that's something you can fake. You need to have those decision makers in the room, which sounds funny to say you have to have 20 year olds in the room.

Brian: [00:47:29] Yes.

Nilla: [00:47:29] But I do think it's increasingly important if that's who we're trying to actually get in front of.

Brian: [00:47:34] That's awesome. Well, we're coming up on the end of our time. This conversation is flown by way too fast. I want to talk to you for like three more hours on this podcast.

Phillip: [00:47:41] Yeah. Oh my gosh.

Brian: [00:47:42] But one of the things we like to ask you at the end of our episodes is what challenges do you expect to overcome with content and commerce in the publishing industry in the next three to five years in order to be successful? What do you see coming down the road?

Nilla: [00:47:58] In terms of what I see ahead as more and more publishers and influencers are starting to play in this space, it's exciting because it continues to require everyone to kind of be on their A-game and ensure that their content is up to par with their peers and competitors. But it also means that we are constantly running the risk of losing our audience to another publisher who's doing what we're doing better. So it's increasingly important for us to understand who are loyal audience is and how to convert more people into that loyal audience pool so that they are actually coming back to BuzzFeed when they're thinking about shopping or looking to make a decision surrounding shopping or also just again using us as a kind of source of validation in their purchasing decisions. So it's increasingly important for us to kind of double down on what BuzzFeed shopping as a brand looks like, because I think within the next three to five years, we do run the risk of kind of losing our audience to all the other players who are starting to enter the space and take affiliate and commerce or consider affiliate and commerce a serious part of their business. And kind of the second big threat that we touched on earlier in the podcast is this attribution issue that I think will forever keep publishers up at night. I think it's kind of a twofold problem. And one is building the technical infrastructure that allows us to accurately measure the impact that content has on both acquiring new customers and just generally driving conversion. And I think we're a couple of years down the road from like truly implementing those technical changes. And I think as there's more and more privacy laws that are coming into place, it's continuing to shake up even like kind of the path that potentially was going to get there even six months ago. Beyond that, I think it's just an education piece of educating marketers and CMOs that content does have an impact beyond just the affiliate channel and that we are essentially driving discovery and oftentimes other channels are getting the credit for the discovery that's being driven by content. And I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. It's just thinking about your marketing channels from this more omni channel approach and not thinking about it as such silos. Those, I think, are the challenges, but I also think they're the biggest opportunities because I think we can overcome them. It's just hopefully the space kind of collectively starts to move in that direction.

Brian: [00:50:15] We couldn't agree more as content creators. This is the truth, and we are looking at the same things coming up here. So thank you so much, Nilla, for coming on the show. It was such a pleasure to have you. Such a engaged conversation. As I said before, we've definitely got to have you back on because there're so many more hours that we can spend talking to you about content and commerce and beyond. And so we really appreciate your time. Where can people find you?

Nilla: [00:50:44] People can find me on LinkedIn. That's my new platform of choice.

Brian: [00:50:50] Yes. I love LinkedIn. I totally agree. Linkedin is killing it right now.

Nilla: [00:50:55] It is. And as someone who just is managing many Slack messages, emails and text messages, it's easy to just focus on one platform. So find me on LinkedIn, and we'll chat there.

Brian: [00:51:05] Great. Well, thank you to our audience for listening. As always, we want to hear your feedback on today's show, and we want you to lend your voice to this conversation, so you can do that at FutureCommerce.fm. And while you're there, don't forget to sign up for our newsletter. It's an unbelievable newsletter called Future Commerce Insiders, and you get unbelievable insight from Phillip and from me and get ready for "from others," as well, in months ahead. So be on the lookout for that. Sign up today. And thank you for listening. And as we look ahead to our next episode, keep thinking about different ways that you can not just predict the future, but shape your future. And we look to be a part of that thought process. Thank you for listening. Thanks, Nilla.

Nilla: [00:51:50] Thank you so much.

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