What is BuzzFeed? A newspaper for millennials, a social media, a marketing company, a lab experimenting on virality? The website started by Jonah Peretti is all of this, and it could become something else in the future. Numbers, after all, are on its side: 200 millions unique users every month; more than 15 millions total likes on Facebook, distributed amongst more than 40 different pages; local editions in UK, Brasil, India, Germany, France; fast-growing revenues and an agenda filled with further expansion plans.
There are many different reasons behind this success: we tried to highlight thirteen of them, aiming to understand what BuzzFeed could teach to all the players involved in the journalistic ecosystem. Here they are: of course, in a listicle.
1. Newspapers are the technology they build
A news organization that thinks it can survive without investing in its technological development is clearly deceiving itself. As never before, journalism and innovation have now an intertwined fate, they are almost chained to one another: on one side technologies allow us to empower and optimize our storytelling (think of GIFs, “slide” pics, embeds, live-streaming tools), on the other side they are a plus able to appraise the whole company. In 2014, Andreessen Horowitz would not have invested $50 million in BuzzFeed, if the company had not proven it considered its developers and computer scientists “first class citizens” inside its newsroom. Today BuzzFeed acts as a Silicon Valley company: in less than one year it purchased and incorporated Torando Labs and Hyper IQ, to boost its data engineering unit and to develop new apps dedicated to video and news. Not to mention that, in December, BuzzFeed opened a new engineering office in Minneapolis.
2. Contents and containers are equally important
In the US edition, BuzzFeed publishes a daily average of more than 300 new posts. The homepage is constantly updated, so that every reader can come back to it during the day and find something different every time. These contents are devised and ‘handmade’ with care: images are not ordinary, headlines are well-thought and —leaving some plagiarism cases out— texts are genuine and fresh. Be it a long report from a correspondent or a listicle: content is not enough to conquer new audiences when it is not supported and conveyed by an efficient structure. BuzzFeed’s structure seems to be working: whether you like it or not, its website is designed to perform well on any device, whilst a dedicated team is constantly devoted to the optimization of its Content Management System (CMS).
3. Without display ads, you can live better and earn even more
BuzzFeed has neither banners nor paywalls: the website profits from content sponsored by brands, who rely on Peretti’s venture to reach dozens of millions of millennials. This content, capitalizing on BuzzFeed’s highly-recognizable formats and voice, manages to spread brands’ messages effectively. Users interact with promoted posts as if they were pure editorials, as the huge viral success of this campaign for Toyota demonstrates. If BuzzFeed taught us one thing, it is that native advertising can be good —check this one, promoted by Intel: 11 Female Inventors Who Helped Power The Information Age— and that it can respect the unwritten pledge made to the readers. The result? Captivating ads on desktop and mobile, no invasive banners or pop-ups, growing revenues ($120 million expected in 2014), a near-billion-dollar valuation.
4. There is life after Google…
…and BuzzFeed is here to prove it. Today, the vast majority of its traffic referrals come from social networks (75%) and not from search engines. While BuzzFeed should thank Facebook for the current scenario, Google should paradoxically blame itself. Back in 2011, in fact, Big G penalized the ranking of BuzzFeed after evaluating (wrongly) the use of some widgets as a malware. By the time this misunderstanding was cleared up, something had already changed: BuzzFeed had left SEO aside to focus more on its social expansion. A choice that made BuzzFeed’s fortune, and that today nobody regrets. BuzzFeed headlines do not wink too much at SEO and do not use “traditional” click bait formulas like Upworthy’s. Instead, they directly address audience emotions, improving the shareability of the content. In an era of social distribution, it works: why do people need a search engine to find interesting content, if interesting content is reaching them where they already are?
5. Newspapers need communities
Among BuzzFeed’s several “verticals”, one of the most interesting is the Community. Launched in 2013, it allows registered users to publish posts directly onto the website and gives them the opportunity to reach an audience of thousands. With more than 500k members (and counting), the Community throws out more than 100 new posts per day. BuzzFeed has a full-time staff monitoring contents and comments produced by the users, assuring they fit common sense and the Community guidelines. Every day, top posts and top users rank in the Leaderboard, while the most prolific contributors get the chance to increase their “Cat Power”, the official measure of the rank inside the Community. Even though the whole Community idea is nothing new, the way BuzzFeed treats —better, cuddles— its members is attention-worthy. BuzzFeed deems the Community not only as a traffic source, but as a powerful asset of its website.
6. Monitoring your audience is essential
Every time we share on Facebook, click on a link, scroll down a page or swipe right on an app, we leave a trail of precious data. BuzzFeed is very aware of the importance of these data, and uses them to profile its audience, studying feedbacks and behaviors, building tools to feed the needs. For instance, after discovering that a large amount of readers was sharing the images of a post as stand-alone content, BuzzFeed added sharing buttons to every picture to let them become independently viral. BuzzFeed analyzes a lot of different metrics in real time, discovering which content is attracting the broadest audience and shaping its strategies consequently. Knowing how your audience behaves is essential, Peretti said at SXSW. He recently unraveled what is most important to BuzzFeed in terms of analytics: “We never focus on clicks and page views. Shares are a more powerful metric”.
7. Readers are, first of all, people
Knowing its readers, Peretti’s website also knows what language works better to establish a connection with them. BuzzFeed’s Holy Grail is the “identity post”: a content that addresses the identity and the background of the reader, more than his/her general need of news; a content that sees the audience as a group of real people rather than a number; a content that relates to the reader’s hometown, generation, school, ethnic or religious origin, favorite band, TV show and so on; a content that builds a link between who creates the content, and who enjoys it. Some examples? “25 Ways To Tell You’re A Kid Of The ‘90s”, “27 Signs You Were Raised By Immigrant Parents” or “17 Signs You Went To A Catholic School In Australia”. This is the connection BuzzFeed’s sponsors seek and rely on. I can hear you say: ‘wait a minute, this kind of approach does not suit every newspaper’s need’. Yes, you are right. But still, it raises some relevant questions: how imbalanced is the relationship between journalists and readers today? How much are we really listening to our audience’s requests? Do we need to?
8. Deep journalism and entertainment can coexist with dignity
People hate hard news, but love pretending otherwise: this is how The Atlantic summarized the results of a research study conducted in 2014 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. If we were asked what we want to read in newspapers, we would most likely answer ‘breaking news, in-depth long form articles, courageous interviews’. Yet, the most read posts of the day are often pointing towards the very opposite of this apparent demand for hard news. We require watchdog journalism, but we yield to cute kittens. Someone put it this way: “Ask audiences what they want, and they’ll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they’ll mostly eat candy”. Is it really like that? In the last approximately three years BuzzFeed has been walking a winding road, combining entertaining and light-hearted content with reportages, investigative journalism, live coverage from the frontline. The choice of Ben Smith as editor-in-chief in 2011 was the first clear expression of BuzzFeed’s ambition to strengthen the “info” part in its infotainment scheme. The challenge is to create the conditions for soft news to sustain hard news, without compromising the overall quality of the product.
9. The real success is being able to wait
To people in their 40s who don’t work in the media, BuzzFeed’s name may sound relatively new. The website, however, was started 9 years ago as a “viral lab” for analyzing the spread of the content on the web. Back then, just to be clear, Twitter was no more than an experiment and Facebook had just opened its doors outside Harvard. Despite a good first round of investments in June 2008 (US$3.5 million), BuzzFeed’s real success in terms of audience and brand awareness started between 2011 and 2012, after AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post for $315 million. At the time the blog, founded by Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer, Andrew Breitbart and Peretti himself had roughly 25 million monthly users; today, BuzzFeed shows off a figure eight times higher. Moral of the story: in a market where the average allowed time for journalism startups to succeed is far too short (in Italy, two or three years), the BuzzFeed case proves that it takes patience and steadfastness to build a well-grounded reality from scratch.
10. Boundaries among newspapers and social networks are disappearing
BuzzFeed’s goal is to “distribute emotions”: it doesn’t matter where the content reaches the reader, as long as it does. If this indiscretion is confirmed, BuzzFeed will be among the very first news organizations to host its contents directly on Facebook. This is not something completely new: BuzzFeed has long experimented with social distribution by creating contents that sprout, grow and live on social feeds without driving any traffic back to the mothership. Think of YouTube, where BuzzFeed publishes native comedy clips gathering millions of views. Video —produced by BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, the company’s dedicated arm in L.A.— is now a large part of BuzzFeed’s business: it does not increase the website traffic, but it brings money, which comes from pre-roll ads. The same revenue sharing model could be used on other digital platforms like Facebook. Speaking to Re/Code, Peretti put it this way: “Our goal is to really be agnostic about [where people read BuzzFeed]. In an ideal world, we would be indifferent to where our content is consumed. We would want to do whatever is best for the consumer”.
11) Mobile and video are the present and the future
Mobile has risen as the primary platform for social network activities; today, 60% of time spent on social is on mobile. A huge growth pushed by millennials, who browse on their smartphones for an impressive daily average of 5 hours and 12 minutes, against the 2h 51m of adults (source: eMarketer). Two-thirds of BuzzFeed’s readers access it through mobile devices, generating two times higher share rates than desktop users. And mobile is also where most people of every age watch video. If mobile and video are today’s web winning horse, BuzzFeed starts the race in pole position, having bet years ago on a mobile-first and video-centered approach.
12) The biggest mistake is not making mistakes
If something is not working, you need to acknowledge it and determine the root cause of the problem. BuzzFeed quizzes, today one of its biggest traffic drivers, were not always a treasure trove of engagement. At the beginning they got very few interactions from the users: to unearth what had thrown a monkey wrench in the works, BuzzFeed constituted a dedicated team that discovered that quizzes were penalized by a nonfunctional design. Once redesigned from the ground-up, they became the powerful entertaining tool that we see today. Making mistakes is fundamental, because we can learn from them.
13) (Don’t) stop at the top
If to innovate in publishing and journalism is hard, to keep doing it once you are at the top is even harder. But BuzzFeed teaches us that the opportunities of disruption never stop. Don’t settle for anything less than the best, don’t feel completely satisfied: if we do not innovate, others will. Here is the challenge: BuzzFeed got to the top, will it be able to stay there for a long time?
pic credit: IBoom Media Flikr CC