Lessons from BuzzFeed

Highlights from a presentation by Jonah Peretti

Mindy McAdams
Mar 23, 2014 · 9 min read

“Are you a sociopath, or are you an android?”

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, said that’s the question to ask if someone doesn’t like animals. He was speaking to about 500 people, mostly students, on the University of Florida campus, and that quip got a big laugh. He referred to the Voight-Kampff test, used by Harrison Ford’s character in the movie Blade Runner to determine whether someone was an android. (Androids were supposed to stay off-world and never come to Earth. If they broke the rule, Ford’s character had to “retire” them, usually messily and with great violence.)

Sociopaths notoriously torture animals, and perhaps androids share similar tendencies, because — as Peretti reminded his audience—many of the questions on the Voight-Kampff test concerned one’s feelings about animals.

Which brings us, naturally, to BuzzFeed — and the compulsion seemingly most of us have to share photos and videos of adorable animals via social media. Peretti wanted his audience to know he sees nothing wrong with using Internet bandwidth to publish, view and share astronomical numbers of images of kittens and puppies (and baby giraffes, etc.). He did not need to defend that position, because every image of an animal he showed onscreen evoked a vocal wave of appreciation and pleasure from those assembled.

However, Peretti did not spend all of his roughly 50-minute presentation (for which BuzzFeed received a $40,000 honorarium from Accent Speaker’s Bureau, which brought Peretti to campus) talking about the cuteness of animals.

He also talked about the way animals make us feel closer to one another. When families get together on holidays, for example, the family dog is greeted with affection by all — and that moment, when everyone pets and hugs the darling pup and experiences warmth and happiness, might well be the highlight of the entire holiday.

An urge to share positive feelings motivates most online sharing, and that’s where Peretti’s message carries a lot of value for journalists and those who care about journalism.

Giving people stuff they like — newspapers did that for a hundred years. No newspaper contained only politics and civic-minded information. Knowing what people like is how you get them to use and love and promote your product, and that’s how you make a profit, and that’s what you need to do to pay for the journalism.

Peretti said all that too, but with some distinctions.

“It’s dangerous to only follow the numbers. I think there’s a lot of over-optimization on the web. You see this sort of ‘side boob’ trap or something, where you put some picture of a celebrity whose dress lets you see the side of her boob on the front of your website, and you say, ‘Wow! That gets a really high click-through rate.’ If you were a slave to the numbers, you’d start putting more stuff like that and more stuff like that and more stuff like that. And pretty soon you would have a site full of trashy, salacious garbage …

“That’s why exploring lots of different kinds of content, and thinking about things on a human level and saying, ‘Is this actually good content, or are people just clicking this because they can’t resist clicking it because it’s a guilty pleasure?’ is important. You need to have creative, experimental people trying lots of different things. And then the data becomes meaningful.”

(Source: Fortune magazine, December 5, 2013)

I’m not sure if anything in Peretti’s presentation on March 20, 2014, was new. Everything I Googled came up in various interviews and articles and transcripts, in some cases dating back several years. But even though I’ve read many of those, some points shone brightly for me and seem especially relevant to the future of journalism.

Ensure that your content is shared

Mormons spend half their time practicing their religion and half their time spreading it, Peretti said. As a result, their religion has spread around the world. This is what media companies need to do: Spend half their effort spreading their content, or making sure it spreads. (TechCrunch wrote about this in 2010 and included the following bar chart, similar to one Peretti showed in his presentation at the University of Florida in March 2014.)

Graph from Peretti via TechCrunch

BuzzFeed obsessively tracks what is shared, how much, and by what means.

Data analysis showed that people who come to a BuzzFeed story or image from Pinterest almost never re-share that item on Twitter. Learning this led BuzzFeed to change the sharing options that are seen by anyone who comes to them via Pinterest: Those people see a prominent “share on Pinterest” icon, and they didn’t see a “share on Twitter” icon (note: apparently this has changed; see image below). Peretti didn’t give a lot of examples of how BuzzFeed continually tweaks and optimizes its site (and its content) to encourage more sharing, but this one points to a level of attention practiced by few other content organizations.

Screen captures from BuzzFeed, March 23, 2014

Shares of BuzzFeed content on Pinterest increased significantly after that change. Goal: Met.

It’s not enough to get the visit/click/view. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for that one visitor to share with as many others as possible.

Very few people log in at BuzzFeed, Peretti noted, so the company has lots of data, but no personal data. Not even from those pesky quizzes.

Some of BuzzFeed’s current stats, from the top of Peretti’s presentation:

  • 120+ million uniques monthly
  • 75 percent of visits come from social
  • More than half of visitors are ages 18–34
  • More than half of visits come from mobile

Some time ago, so-called portals were important to attracting site visitors. Then, later, search became the dominant means for getting an audience. About.com pages are all about showing up in Google searches, but they are not very shareable, Peretti noted. The same goes for most landing pages. (See more about this in a March 2013 interview with Peretti.)

Portals. Search. Now, it’s social.

And mobile — but mobile is social.

Your content must be shareable on the mobile web — or it can’t be shared, Peretti said. If it can’t be shared, it won’t be seen.

Some more ideas about what people share, and why

Powerful human stories such as “A love story in 22 pictures.” It’s not all fun and humor and cuteness. Love and deep emotions are highly shareable, even if bittersweet.

Things a small number of people are really passionate about. Example: Left-handed people, who make up only 10 percent of population (Peretti mentioned that he is a lefty).

People don’t share things that they would be embarrassed to be caught viewing. Like nude photos and porn (sexting aside, apparently). Nude photos have extremely high search numbers, extremely low share numbers. You’re not going to put a link on Facebook to some hot naked pictures you found, and not only because your grandmother might see it.

BuzzFeed invests in journalism

More people are reading long stories on their phones, such as “Why I bought a House in Detroit for $500” — 6,000 words, lots of reads, and an average of 22 minutes spent on the page—according to Peretti.

So now BuzzFeed is interested in longform.

BuzzFeed is not only hiring credentialed reporters; it’s supporting them in hard-news hotspots. There are two BuzzFeed reporters in Ukraine right now, Peretti said. The staff is expanding with stringers around the world and expanding into global cities, including London, Sydney, Tokyo, Berlin, and São Paulo.

“The social web is global,” Peretti said.

One idea behind this diversification of content, Peretti said, is that “Publishing is now a Paris cafe” (also discussed in this March 2013 interview). Imagine yourself sitting at one of the iconic tiny tables facing a sidewalk in the City of Light. When you turn away from your serious conversation about Sartre or Proust (you are in Paris, after all) and pet the little dog sitting sweetly under the next table, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid, Peretti said. It doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy discussing philosophy and literature.

“People enjoy this variety all in one setting,” Peretti said. They want to be entertained, informed, and intrigued. They don’t just want one thing all the time—and they don’t mind having different types of things all mixed together.

People are complex. (Maybe this is something serious journalists tend to forget.)

“If you only do news, you have worse reporting—because you can’t fund it,” Peretti said.

Profits at BuzzFeed

“All our money comes from branded content,” Peretti said. “Our revenue has been growing rapidly.” He added that the company is now profitable.

Although he didn’t mention any real numbers (but see this Bloomberg story from December 2013), Peretti did talk about the logic behind publishing branded content instead of traditional display ads — especially banner ads.

“Our audience doesn’t have to have ads popping up and blocking the content,” he said. (Aside: The intrusion of such ads on my reading experience has driven me away from many a news site and mobile app. I understand the need to get income, but when your ads make my experience unpleasant, I can leave. Immediately. And often, I do.)

However, some ads add value. Some ads are not unpleasant at all. If you took all the ads out of a fashion magazine, or out of the Super Bowl, Peretti said, that media experience wouldn’t be as fun, or as interesting (see also this interview with Fortune magazine).

“That’s what we’re trying to do with our branded content,” he said.

Staffing and organization

In a Q&A after his presentation, Peretti spoke about BuzzFeed’s corporate culture. One way to keep the ideas flowing is to organize the staff into very small groups, each working on different projects. In smaller groups, people are more comfortable sharing ideas freely (in meetings, for example), and smaller groups can be more accountable than large ones.

One area of growth is BuzzFeed’s original video, with a team based in Los Angeles and led by well-known vlogger Ze Frank.

“You have to constantly reorganize the company” as it grows, Peretti said. BuzzFeed’s staff now is 450 people. Nine months ago, it was half that size.

“One of our goals at BuzzFeed is to build a real, sustainable business that generates profits, to build a media company for the social age. There are all these big media companies that, 10 years ago, Time Inc., The New York Times, all these companies were worth $10 billion and were seen as really great businesses. But you haven’t really seen that with digital yet. … [Y]ou have to be native to digital. You have to have a business model that works for the web and for social.

“[I]f you start with journalistic goals, where you say, ‘My goal is to have great journalism like we used to have,’ or, ‘My goal is to have great journalism like the kind that’s really expensive or whatever’ … it works against the long-term goal of having good journalism, because you end up starting with this assumption that you need a rich billionaire, a non-profit or a public service philanthropic organization to fund it. And people aren’t trying to pull their own weight. You end up, at the end of the day, with less resources to invest in journalism.”

(Source: An interview with Martin Nisenholtz for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, March 7, 2013)

Earlier this month, Peretti posted a memo here on Medium about the role BuzzFeed will play in “a new golden age of media.” Danny Sullivan summarized some highlights at Marketing Land. As is true of many posts on BuzzFeed, the summary is more satisfying than the original.

“A lot of what we do is entertainment,” Peretti told his audience at the University of Florida. “We’re an entertainment company and a news company.” He was asked about this combination during an interview with the BBC, one of the greatest journalism organizations in the world. After mentioning that, Peretti asked us to think about content produced by the BBC (Doctor Who, for example). Well. Enough said.

Author’s note: The beautiful photo at the top of this post is by Flickr.com user Randy Durrum, with a Creative Commons license. Thanks, Randy!

    Mindy McAdams

    Written by

    Digital journalism professor, University of Florida. I love code, Vespa, cats, world travel. https://mindymcadams.com/

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