clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

BuzzFeed is building a team of writers to sell you stuff you didn’t know you wanted

Affiliate links are so hot right now.

The New York Times 2013 DealBook Conference in New York
BuzzFeed commerce chief Ben Kaufman
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for the New York Times
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

BuzzFeed isn’t the first media company to try to make money by pointing you to stuff you should buy on Amazon. But it may be one of the most aggressive.

Over the past year, the popular online publisher has built a 12-person team that’s churning out pieces like “26 Useful Gifts College Grads Will Actually Want” and “19 Subscription Boxes For People Who Don't Want To Grow Up” that they hope readers will share on social networks as much as they do its regular posts.

But unlike other BuzzFeed posts, these are crafted exclusively to drive sales to partners like Amazon and other retailers, from which BuzzFeed earns a cut of the sale through so-called affiliate links.

This section isn’t pretending to be The Wirecutter, the well-respected product review site built on affiliate fees that the New York Times spent more than $30 million last year to acquire.

The posts live under a special Shopping section on and come with a short disclosure: “BuzzFeed may collect a small share of sales from the links on this page.”

But if you don’t catch the fine print, they look like any other lifestyle articles you might come across on the site.

The aggressive moves by BuzzFeed come as more publishers are turning to affiliate commerce as a new moneymaker that they hope will make them less reliant on digital advertising. The former Gawker Media group of sites, now known as Gizmodo Media, generates a third of its revenue through affiliate commerce. Recode owner Vox Media has also recently started to experiment with affiliate links on some of its sites, though not on this one.

But BuzzFeed’s operation stands out for the size of the team working on it as well as the lengths it’s going to to grow the business. Case in point: BuzzFeed just built its own software tool that helps onboard more shopping sites that give BuzzFeed a cut of sales, and to help its writers estimate how much revenue a certain post will generate.

If that feels a little icky for a media company that also has a serious news operation, well, welcome to 2017. It’s also worth noting that these writers sit in the BuzzFeed Entertainment part of the company in a group run by editorial director Peggy Wang, which reports up to Ze Frank, not News head Ben Smith.

The first partner integrating with BuzzFeed’s new tool is Shopify, a public company whose software is used by about 400,000 businesses to create and run independent online shops. Shopify merchants that opt in will make their merchandise searchable to the BuzzFeed writers crafting these posts.

The tool allows the writers to sort through all eligible Shopify products by filters such as trending items or ones that have recently dropped in price. With one click, they can add a given product to a post.

Each Shopify merchant gets a recommendation on how big of a cut they should give BuzzFeed per sale, but merchants ultimately can set any rate they choose. Still, the company expects most Shopify merchants to offer BuzzFeed anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent per sale.

That’s generally a bigger cut than most affiliate deals, but one which BuzzFeed commerce chief Ben Kaufman claims is fair since these merchants are circumventing retailers like Amazon, which would require their own cut.

“It’s our hope that as we train this world, we’ll show that developing close relationships with the media world has the same value if not more than driving to retail,” Kaufman said.

He hopes that Shopify is just the first of many e-commerce partners that eventually sign up for what could essentially become a proprietary BuzzFeed affiliate network. One could imagine the potential for similar deals with other e-commerce platforms such as BigCommerce or perhaps marketplaces like Etsy.

Kaufman joined BuzzFeed last year when the company acquired his e-commerce startup Scroll. He previously founded and ran an invention startup called Quirky, which has struggled, and also started the successful smartphone accessory company Mophie. Kaufman reports directly to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.

At BuzzFeed, Kaufman said, affiliate links mark just one of four pillars of its young commerce business — dubbed Product Lab. The other initiatives include selling items built off of existing BuzzFeed intellectual property, such as customizable cookbooks from its food brand Tasty.

BuzzFeed is also hawking proprietary goods designed to appeal to people who identify with a certain group, and which have the potential to go viral, such as its Homesick Candles, which come with different aromas for different states. Lastly, Kaufman’s group is tasked with figuring out new ways to sell goods through other digital mediums, like online video.

In addition to the Shopping posts, BuzzFeed is experimenting with automatically adding affiliate links to other lifestyle or entertainment stories when a given product is mentioned. BuzzFeed News stories, however, don’t include any affiliate links, a spokeswoman said.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.