What is Buzzfeed?
Around 30 million people per day visit Buzzfeed, so you probably already know of it, but let's consider what exactly Buzzfeed is in a bit more detail.
It's a news website that lists everything from trivia to in-depth political reporting. It aims to be:
Sticky - meaning that visitors come back again and again. They know something interesting will be on the front page that can entertain them.
Contagious - the internet allows popular content to spread exponentially like a virus. This relies on making the article highly shareable, which is a function of the design of the page and the content itself.
Making a sticky website with contagious content leads to more visits and longer visits, hence more potential for ad revenue, a central concern in the digital age.
Social networks have helped boost the virality of Buzzfeed content to a new level, with more than 75% of the site's traffic coming from Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. The website is only 9 years old but already employs over 550 members of staff in New York, London, Sydney, Paris. The company is valued at $850m, which is three times more than what Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post . Best of all, Buzzfeed is already profitable, with $100m revenue expected this year.
Traditional media outlets are increasingly frustrated at not being able to crack what it is about Buzzfeed's that makes it so popular. I don't know why because I can list out the main reasons here, though I appreciate some are harder to implement than others, especially in a large, established organisation.
What most people don't understand about Buzzfeed is that it's more than just entertaining content - the entire technology platform is a tool for tracking online social behaviour, finding which articles are likely to be popular and squeezing the potential out of them so that they go viral. The editorial staff now sit on top of this engine for creating page views.
Let's find out where this publishing phenomenon came from and what you can learn from it.
Where did Buzzfeed come from?
Jonas first gained attention on the internet with a series of stunts that helped to define the notion of 'viral content' on the internet. His first viral success was a dialogue of emails between with Nike customer service concerning his use of the word 'Sweatshop' on a customised pair of Nike iD trainers. Jonas then had two more viral successes, before forming the Huffington Post in 2005 with Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer and Andrew Breitbart. He seemed to have an innate talent for creating content that would spread quickly and cause a buzz.
The Huffington Post started as a sort of aggregator, summarising and linking to lots of other articles so that they could be quickly digested by time-starved intelligent readers. Interestingly, this was the original concept behind Time magazine. In a similar way, eventually The Huffington Post gained an editorial team and you'll notice that Buzzfeed is also now doing the same.
One of the interesting innovations at The Huffington Post was a trend detector that looked for articles that were becoming popular, allowing the publication to comment on or link to them sooner than other sources. This helped cement the publication as a place to go and find interesting content.
Jonas was convinced he could re-create the popularity of The Huffington Post and launched his own side project called Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed had a link on the front page of The Huffington Post until it was bought by AOL. This was an important source of early traffic and because the platform was sticky, these visitors continued to come back and share content.
Jonas often talks about the bored-at-work network, the biggest social network of them all. This is where all the articles like cat posts, 'WTF' and celebrity gossip act as a magnet. You'll notice that Buzzfeed also publishes less trivial articles, such as breaking-news stories.
We realized that the social web moved beyond that content; it started to be about things like the Arab Spring and long-form stories and scoops. When asked if this is the same audience, Jonas explained his theory of the Paris cafe.
You go to a cafe and you bring a copy of Sartre and Le Monde. There's a cute dog under the table next to you. So after you read the news and the philosophy, you may pet the dog, flirt with someone at another table, and talk about some trivial gossip. All these things are part of being human. You don't become stupid when you turn away from the philosophy and pet the dog. People are complex and multifaceted. When you talk to people who say it dumbs down the audience to have cute animals, the truth is nobody has a choice: because Facebook and Twitter are perfect Paris cafes. Former Politico writer Ben Smith leads the editorial department, which now includes 200 staff covering politics, sports, business, entertainment and travel.
What you can learn
I've read hours of interviews with Jonas and have summarised these points, which will help you learn from Buzzfeed's success and use some of those same techniques to attract attention to your own brand.
1. Technology and design are central
Engineers are first-class citizens at Buzzfeed. Everything is built for mobile devices from the outset. Buzzfeed has a clear technology advantage that helps it create, analyse, publish and promote content better than the competition. The tech, editorial and business teams all work closely together and the structure of the organisation reflects this.
2. Use the advantages of digital media
One of Buzzfeed's critical differentiation is that it doesn't try and recreate a print experience online, instead:
Internet-native formats like lists, tweets, pins and animated Gifs are treated as equals to older formats like photos, videos and long-form essays. This makes the website easier to browse and easier to share, leading to increased engagement and viral potential.
Tactics you can also use:
Make sharing a key call to action on your blog. On mobile, the social sharing icons are the only thing visible on Buzzfeed other than the article once you start scrolling.
You'll notice Buzzfeed includes lot of Instagram and Twitter embeds. Make the most of what can technically be achieved on the web.
Could you use A/B testing to work out how to increase engagement?
Are you catering for mobile visitors? With less room on mobile, what should your articles look like and what should the key call to action be?
How can your article be more interactive or visual?
Buzzfeed has a staggeringly fast page load time. Put some time into speed performance improvements for your website and you'll be rewarded both in terms of people staying on your site longer and Google rewarding you in the search rankings, as this is a known factor in its algorithms.
Notice the clear sharing icons in the screenshot below. As you scroll down the page a set of these icons accompanies you. Another interesting thing to note is that the second article is off the back of the Jennifer Lawrence iCloud hacking scandle. Within 24 hours this light hearted post and many others like it were trending on Buzzfeed, allowing them to ride the wave of interest around the issue.
3. Pick a metric that matters
What matters to your business? Newsletter sign ups? Number of impressions? Time on site? Pick one and use this as a measure of success and as a core consideration in your website design.
4. Don't forget the other metrics
You can create a long, meandering article that gets high engagement but is it really as a shorter article that provides a concise summary?
The problem with having only one metric is that you end up gaming yourself and over-optimising for that goal. So for example if you optimise for page views, you end up splitting an article in half to help meet that objective. To combat this, ensure you have minimum thresholds for your other metrics.
Make sure you have a clear goal that fits within your business strategy, and design your metrics around this. Review them frequently and take action when something isn't performing as it should.
5. Analyse your successful posts
Look at your successful posts and ask "why is this a hit?" and then ask "how can we make variations of this?". Does the article have a specific emotional appeal? Is it useful to a particular type of visitor? Is there some reason it is more shareable than your other content?
Also linked to this idea is content re-purposing, where one piece of content, such as a podcast, is sliced and diced in to different blog posts, whitepapers and email newsletters. This is the efficient way to create good content. If each piece of content you write is only used once you're doing it wrong.
6. The art of the headline
Buzzfeed almost single-handedly perfected the numeric headline. If you don't want to write 'listicles', try start your post titles with 'Why' or 'Which'. So for example, 'Which retailer are you?' or 'Why responsive design doesn't always mean you are fully mobile-optimised'. These articles create intrigue, yet the reader knows what the article is about. Don't use misleading headlines or 'mystery meat' where the user has to click to see what the article is about. Although this might create page view, it doesn't lead to longer term engagement.
7. Launch early and test
This one can be applied more generally to any business.
... Secret ideas rarely work. Coming up with some brilliant secret idea and then launching it and having it work the way we planned, that would be nice if that happened, but that essentially never happens anywhere. Maybe it happened with a string of Apple product releases that Steve Jobs was able to pull off—and was that a rare genius or was it luck or was it both? It’s hard to say, but it’s not a good model to operate a business on for most people. Make sure you test new ideas before you invest the time in perfecting the implementation. You'll quickly learn what works and what doesn't and then you can iterate and refine your concept based on that.
8. Your inspiration doesn't need to be direct
I love that Jonas was reading Foucault, Kant, Marx and Freud in the early days of his career, he was learning about network effects in the early 2000s as was Buzzfeed science advisor Duncan Watts, studying crickets and how their chirp cascades and goes 'viral'. This knowledge is somehow part of the creativity of Buzzfeed and you see the same if you look at Steve Job's love of Eastern Philosophy and how this influenced early Apple, or how Kanye West visited the Louvre in Paris daily whilst recording Watch The Throne. Inspiration doesn't just need to come from within your industry.
9. Harnessing the power of Google
The Buzzfeed lab figured out that Google had begun indexing content much quicker around 2009 and this led to a new technique in journalism, which is to have a regularly updated article, with an overview at the top and a full chronology of events beneath. This is becoming popular on sites like The Guardian. This type of curated, rich and frequently updated content works well with recent changes in Google's algorithm, which gives prominence to quality content that is fresh and original.
Google updates its index even faster today, which you can capitalise on if you can quickly publish quality coverage of breaking stories within your industry.
10. Celebrities can help you grow
Early readers to Buzzfeed were attracted by the odd commentary or post by a celebrity. By definition, celebrities have a large following and this was a way of gaining early traffic. We've seen our clients use this technique for e-commerce, using celebrity partnerships and endorsements to fuel their growth.
Of course, celebrities are also looking to increase their own profile and if you can guarantee some level of exposure you may find this easier than you think.
You could even use this technique with your own customers, who also have their own following on twitter, instagram and facebook. Featuring a customer using or wearing an item of yours is a great way to grow your audience and provide valuable social proof of the quality of your product.
11. Being new to a market can be an advantage
Even now, a lot of prominent news website don't make the most of the web and their websites look like a fight between various departments, with widgets and blocks bolted on to create a confusing home page.
Buzzfeed was able to create a new digital-only paradigm of publishing and also have an organisational structure that wasn't based on any legacy ideas, today this is part of its competitive advantage.
12. Publish frequently
Buzzfeed publishes an average of 378 posts a day which keeps the front page fresh and the readers coming back. Publishing frequency is also a known factor in SEO and can help with your Google rankings.
13. Don't be afraid to experiment
Mistakes are bad, but not nearly as bad as people feeling as if they can't take risks. If you have that kind of culture, then you're not going to try new stuff. I would rather have the occasional critic saying, "Look at this dumb thing that Buzzfeed did" than have people who are afraid of experimenting.
I hope you'll find that useful in making your own brand more 'contagious' and 'sticky'.
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Thank you to the following journalists and publications.
Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti Goes Long on Content (Felix Salmon) - where the majority of the research for this article came from.
Buzzfeed valued at more than three times the Washington Post (The Guardian)
Buzzfeed in the most innovative companies 2013 (FastCompany)