How and why Buzzfeed is kicking ass

I’m a big fan of Buzzfeed. I’m the odd guy in the newsroom. Every time I mention Buzzfeed as an inspiration eyes roll. Some days ago I read this wonderful piece about Buzzfeed. Like I said, I’m a sucker for any information on how the company operates. I’ve highlighted some parts of the article that I believe give great insights into the future of content and media.

“Instead of trying to lure eyeballs to its own website, the way most publishers do, BuzzFeed would publish original text, images, and video directly to where its audience already spent its time, some 30 different global platforms.” (Emphasis mine)

We’ve talked about this before. The content landscape is becoming increasingly competitive. Brands can’t compete if they don’t staff their content departments correctly. That’s if they have one in the first place. What’s fascinating about the previous comment is how clearly Peretti understood the power had shifted to platforms. The game isn’t about bringing traffic to your website, but to create native content on each platform. Something that requires a deep knowledge of the language and culture used on each platform (i.e. Snapchat’s unique culture).

“Traffic to the website has remained steady — 80 million people in the U.S. every month, putting it ahead of The New York Times — even though as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.” (Emphasis mine)

Once again, the former quote shows how important it is to the company to own the platform channels. It’s not surprising how well the gambit has paid.

Credits: Manuel Gonzalez Noriega / Flickr

Video is just for teenagers, or is it?

In the fourth quarter of 2014, “15% of our revenue was derived from video,” says BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman. “Fourth quarter of [2015], 35% of our total revenue is video.” (Emphasis mine)

That video is a reality can’t be clearer. Not long ago, one of El Mundo’s staff journalists highlighted how poorly video is understood. The journalist got dispatched to do an interview with Elrubius, the top YouTube star in Spain. The guy in question commands 16 million subscribers and more than 3 billion reproductions. The journalist, who clearly thought it was a waste of his precious time, wrote one of the most scornful and terrible interviews I’ve read in a long time. I won’t detail here how the story unfolded, but bring it up as another case of how frequent it is for old-school content creators to look down on the video format.

A seven-step web recipe for slow-cooker chicken becomes a 46-second Facebook video, and then a 15-second Instagram clip with the instructions written as a comment, and finally a Pinterest post with two images and a link back to the Facebook video. And if it’s going on Snapchat, it needs to be shot in portrait mode as well.”

If Video is poorly understood, just take Instagram and Snapchat and you’ve got yourself a wonderful recipe to be ignored by most “communication experts”.

“The [Pound] team is even beginning to grasp how an idea spreads if it’s seeded among certain types of people on a specific social network.
From a technical perspective, Hive is both simple — maybe five tables in a relational database — and absurdly abstract. [..] Hive will be increasingly important as BuzzFeed expands globally, to identify what works across borders.”

The neglected fact is that Buzzfeed isn’t just about crafting and distributing content on all platforms. What Peretti and his team have created rests on the shoulders of heavy data processing. The way the Pound or Hive teams are working enables the company to have a deep understanding on how content spreads through each platform. In turn, it allows the editors to fine tune their content and own the channels. It might look as magic, as Buzzfeed “gaming” the platform’s algorithms, but in truth, it’s all about metrics and knowledge of content dynamics.

“BuzzFeed wants to sell companies on the idea of rapidly iterating through a series of videos around a key message in an attempt to find the best fit for a particular platform.” (Emphasis mine)

Is it possible to marry creative content with data?

While Buzzfeed is very successful at what they do, many brands still remain skeptical about their approach. The biggest roadblock in many companies comes from, surprisingly, the creative marketers. They see data-driven approaches as something that devalues and demerits their work.

There seems to be a prevailing idea that data can’t achieve what human editorial taste can. Truth is, data-driven approaches won’t substitute humans anytime soon. These systems enhance creative people, not the opposite. Buzzfeed is still staffed by a large editorial team. The major difference is that they don’t write their pieces armed solely with their wits. They inform their editorial ideas with metadata. Look at it as “one-click” research information on any topic you want to share with your audience.

Will Buzzfeed own the space?

It’s hard to predict what will happen in the content space. What’s clear is that data-driven approaches are here to stay. During the next year, we’ll see the rise of content tools that enhance the work of the content department. As we move forward, Buzzfeed will start losing ground to other organizations that will produce similar tools.

Time will tell if Buzzfeed will be able to stay ahead of the herd with new innovations. Chances are that they’ll do, but they could also get so caught up in their own success that they won’t see the next thing coming their way. Will Buzzfeed join the VR wave like Facebook is doing or they’ll stick to their own feuds? Place your bets.