Q&A with Rachel Zarrell, Creative Director at BuzzFeed
This week, The Idea caught up with Rachel Zarrell about BuzzFeed’s partnership with interactive video platform eko and her favorite podcasts.
Can you tell me about yourself and your role at BuzzFeed?
I’ve been at BuzzFeed since 2013. I was one of the early breaking news hires (from The Boston Globe where I was also doing news). I ran the weekend shift and did reporting during the week. It was a really fun time to be writing for the internet.
It’s been a really exciting journey since I’ve had so many different roles here. I helped start our social news desk. I was also one of the co-founders of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures New York, our first video bureau in New York. In 2015, I left BuzzFeed for MTV News for a year but came back in 2017, so I’m what we call a boomerang.
When I came back, I helped with video innovation in the lifestyle department, and now I’m a creative director in the branded creative department. I help with our creative process for branded videos and I ideate new ways that we can give clients a presence in our video content. I’m also leading the creative on our partnership with eko, which is an interactive video platform. I’m working with multi-disciplinary teams on everything from ideating creative to distributing our content. The last thing I do is ideate new video products to sell to our partners. That can mean tapping into our tried and true formats to think about how a brand can have an integration in the content that we’re already making or coming up with new formats or strategies.
We’re always looking towards our editorial learnings around format and structure, as our editorial teams are really the ones closest to our audience and are constantly innovating and coming up with new formats and strategies. The role that I’m on is really fun because I get to bridge the gap between the editorial learnings that I used to thrive within and bring them over to our branded side.
Can you tell us more about how you work with brands?
The way that we’re talking to consumers editorially and how we help brands talk to consumers is the same. Our branded video product is one of the ways we accomplish that. It’s a way for brands to be represented in the great content we’ve become known for, whether that’s a one-off video, an episode or an entire series of a show, or a combination. We have dozens of products we offer brand integrations within — some are video and some are written, such as posts and quizzes. I focus primarily on the video products and how we can make the creative the best that it can be.
I also work closely on how we can bring our brands closer to our audience and drive meaningful results for them. We do that through our ad products and partnerships. That’s part of our larger business strategy and that ultimately ladders up to our primary goal of finding truth and joy on the internet.
Can you tell us more about BuzzFeed’s partnership with eko?
eko is an interactive video platform with videos that have many different pathways that let the user lead the narrative and have a role in the content; it could be choose-your-own-adventure but not necessarily. A lot of other platforms have been experimenting with interactivity, and eko has managed to master it in a way that is very impressive and that’s really fun to play with because the technology is really seamless and advanced.
I’m leading the creative on our partnership, which is two-fold effort. One, we have a deal with eko where we’re making 44 editorial videos that eko will put branding within. They run the gamut of content, formats, and themes that we know our audience already loves. That could food, that could be quizzes; we are BuzzFeed after all, and our audience loves our quizzes. I’m thinking about, for instance, what does a quiz look like when the audience gets to have a role in it or when the audience gets to lead where the video goes. How all of the pathways of an interactive video lay out are something I spend a lot of time thinking about. One example is that we’re making an episode of our Tasty show called Make it Fancy, which is a popular show we have on YouTube. On eko, the audience gets to decide how Rie upgrades the dish. Instead of just watching her do it herself, they get to have a role in how it ultimately turns out.
Two, we are also selling eko videos in addition to the few dozen we are making with them through the partnership. I work with sellers on pitching those to their clients as well as helping come up with strong creative concepts that work for interactivity.
How did the idea for this partnership come about?
We are constantly looking for the next big thing and experimenting. A really core pillar for us is testing and learning about the new things our audience gets excited about. Experimenting with new platforms is a part of that. We get to play with these new formats and technologies which let our audience experience the content in an entirely new way, and we get completely new learnings out of that. We get to discover how they want to interact with food, and if it’s a similar way they might on our Tasty Facebook page or our Tasty YouTube or with our shows.
How do you go about creating new ad products?
I collaborate with the team that’s creating ad products and always give my creative two cents. Creating a new ad product always starts with the trigger of what works for our audience and then goes from there. We have dozens of products on dozens of platforms so we get a lot of signal. Those insights are what really drive our actions with our audience and what help guide us into new areas for growth where we could be selling or creating new things.
One product that I worked on recently is what we call Creative Video Sponsorship, and it’s a way for our brands to have a presence in our tried-and-true formats. It helps our clients have a low-touch integration into the great stuff we’re already making.
Can you speak more about what kinds of metrics matter most for your work?
We do have a data research department that we lean heavily on that are great resources for us. For me, first and foremost is a qualitative measurement, making sure that our clients are achieving their goals and that we’re staying true to what resonates with our audience.
How we measure success also depends on the project. For some things, we might be looking at views, for others it might be time spent. For eko, it’s an entirely new thing since we can look at specific pathways that the audience might have gone down or connections between those pathways.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media from organization other than your own?
There are a couple of podcasts that I really love. Who? Weekly is one and Forever 35 is another, actually started by a former BuzzFeed-er. They’ve built these niche communities online that are really amazing at capturing a part of the zeitgeist that is really cool to see evolve. People are mobilizing together to support each other and find common interests in a community that is so organic and authentic that it is almost magical.
I think about them similarly to something we saw really early on at BuzzFeed, which is that people get really excited about the things that they love and they love to share them. Tapping into that is still one of our core pillars.