BDG publishes fewer stories amid referral traffic declines, focuses on events to grow and monetize audiences

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Bustle Digital Group’s flagship title Bustle published about 150 articles a day in 2022. But that was before search and social platforms changed their algorithms to prioritize quality over quantity. 

That number has since dropped to about 30-40 daily stories, according to Wes Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development and head of social at BDG, who spoke onstage Monday at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado.

BDG has since focused its resources “into bigger reported pieces, celebrity features, photo shoots, video shoots… that really take off and create viral moments,” Bonner said.

BDG hasn’t been immune to platforms’ deprioritization of publishers, and the strategy shift is a reflection of the changing landscape. The company lost about half of its referral traffic from Facebook when the platform made changes to its link posts last May. Bonner said he doesn’t see that traffic returning to pre-May levels.

Fortunately, this drop in referral traffic hasn’t had a “major impact” on BDG’s revenue, Bonner said. “The majority of what our content partnerships are buying from us is a 360 content program. So they’re buying talent booking from us. They’re buying onsite content, social content, video, photography, events… so, luckily, the revenue hasn’t really been impacted by the dot com referral traffic.”

BDG has also streamlined its editorial strategy from covering “as many content categories and capturing as many category specific dollars as possible from advertisers” to making focusing on “three to four categories at most on a lifestyle site and moving the more niche categories like travel or food onto very specific sites, instead of trying to spread them out over the portfolio,” Bonner said.

BDG is also focusing its efforts on social channels other than Facebook and X, such as Instagram and TikTok. A dedicated Instagram team helps create stories that can only be consumed on that platform and BDG creates custom video on TikTok. 

Bonner’s team is about to start testing a new feature on TikTok, which allows URLs on organic videos, to see if it helps drive referral traffic. “We reach hundreds of millions of people through video views on TikTok. If we can even convert a small portion of that non-site traffic that would be really meaningful,” he said. BDG has over 25 million followers on TikTok, according to Bonner. But at the end of the day, “the benefit” of TikTok is selling that audience to an advertiser — not necessarily driving traffic to BDG’s sites, he admitted.

For example, 100 million monthly impressions on one of BDG’s Pinterest accounts might only bring in 1 million uniques in referral traffic, Bonner said. “You just kind of have to compartmentalize and understand what the goal is and publishing on that platform. It’s probably not referral traffic. So why not create optimized content specifically for that platform that can reach as many people as possible, and then you sell that number to the advertiser,” he said.

Live events are also proving to be a successful way to engage and grow BDG’s audience, Bonner said. Revenue from live event sponsorships has grown by 200% from 2022 to 2024, he said. BDG runs five large-scale events every year around tentpole moments — including Coachella, Art Basel, both New York Fashion Weeks and F1 — with about 10 to 20 sponsors paying for full activations, he said.

BDG offers guarantees to advertisers, such as the number of attendees and amount of content created around the event, including recap articles, TikTok videos and Instagram Lives, for example. But the company also recently started measuring earned social impressions coming from its events to prove the added value to advertisers, Bonner said.

BDG has built a “robust tracking system” to monitor attendees’ social accounts to show advertisers how many people posted on social media at one of their events, tagged the advertiser’s brand or posted about their activation, Bonner said.

A New York Fashion Week event in February sponsored by Kate Spade had 800 attendees. BDG was able to measure an additional 55 million earned social impressions that were generated by the event, “by just tracking who was there and what they were sharing in that 24-hour time frame,” Bonner said. 

He added: “Kate Spade immediately signed on to sponsor Coachella. So that’s a perfect scenario.”

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