Our friends at Jezebel pointed us to this post on BuzzFeed: "The Hottest Guys In The NHL." It's a standard BuzzFeed numbered list of large photos, with a sentence or two apiece, perfectly designed to be shared around Facebook and Pinterest by a very specific subset of the internet. But the top text is slightly off the usual brief intro. It specifically mentions the times and channels of the night's playoff games. And the author is "NHL Stanley Cup, BuzzFeed Partner."
It's an advertisement, or more strictly, a sponsored post. BuzzFeed has an entire Stanley Cup playoffs page, with BuzzFeedy posts like "The Best Celebrity Moments With The Stanley Cup" and "16 Awesome Hockey Fan Signs."
Sponsored posts—"engaging, sharable content," as BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti puts it—seem like the wave of the future for online advertising. It's an update of the old magazine advertorial, and yes, it even happens on this site every once in a while. With direction (and money) from the NHL, BuzzFeed's copywriters craft something that looks for all the world like a regular post.
Branded content is much more likely to be clicked on than typical ads, which readers have long conditioned themselves to tune out. How much more likely? Peretti won't share the metrics on the NHL's campaign, but says BuzzFeed's sponsored posts "have click through rates 5X to 10X that of standard banner ads."
More than ineffective, standard advertising can be alienating. Devoted hockey fans like being in on a secret club, not "consumers" to be "targeted" by a "corporation's" "strategic promotional alliance." They like transparent catering to casuals even less. Witness the backlash over Nickelback, one of the most popular bands in the world, being used to pimp an offseason awards show. What other sport requires regular warnings to diehards not to resent or chase off the newbies? A traditional ad, especially on one of the hubs of viral populism, runs of the risk of angering the core, and being ignored by the targets.
The trick is marketing without seeming like you're marketing. The league has always been gung-ho about trying things the other leagues won't touch. As Steve McArdle, NHL senior VP of business development and strategic planning, told Mashable last week:
"This year is a lot more comprehensive with more platforms and points of contact that we haven't been a part of in the past. It's a combination of new technologies and corporate partners who want to become more aggressive in the social space. The concept of understanding fan needs and behaviors has really evolved."
BuzzFeed, the "most shared site on the internet," certainly fits that plan. Peretti says that their sponsored posts "get an average lift from sharing of 1.6X, which means for every 10 people who see the content another six discover it because of sharing." Hockey fandom, always something of a shibboleth among a small but diehard group, doesn't like to see the game pimped to a nationwide audience of heathens. But they'll happily do word of mouth.
The NHL, through a spokesperson, declined comment beyond this: "We are using a variety of platforms to get the word out that as part of our new NBC media agreement, every Stanley Cup Playoffs game is available on national TV in the U.S. for the first time."
An understated acknowledgement, considering this is a chain of events that led to the existence of "The Best Hair In Hockey." That's BuzzFeed at its BuzzFeediest, and there's no way that isn't getting passed around. It's manufactured organicness, a way to make the tribe feel tribal while unwittingly admitting their not-so-hip Facebook and Twitter friends. The NHL might be the only sports league that truly gets the internet.