Looking through lists of cute cat pictures, or 49 Things That Taste Like Christmas, and tags that include “LOL” or “trashy” or “wtf”, it would be easy to dismiss BuzzFeed as beneath the attention of serious editors and journalists.
But listening to the site’s editorial director, Scott Lamb, speaking in Paris at Sciences Po university’s New Practices in Journalism conference last week, it became evident that there is more to the site than first meets the eye, and that it can offer lessons that could be useful for publishers of all journalistic products.
Lamb was clear that BuzzFeed doesn’t aim to simply provide mindless entertainment. “We think of ourselves as a news organisation,” he said. “We are not going to be able to compete with The Wall Street Journal, but we can cover things that other people don’t.” It is this sentiment that led to the hiring of Ben Smith, a well-regarded political journalist who had been at Politico, as editor-in-chief in December 2011.
Lamb doesn’t see the mix of serious and entertainment news as a negative issue. Yes, BuzzFeed gets a good deal of traffic from its “animals” section, said Lamb, “but what we are excited about is the longform writing.”
You can’t trick people into sharing
The site’s goal is to help users find their “new favourite thing,” said Lamb, ideally, “a new cool thing to share.” If a million people share something, it has fulfilled its goal.
Unlike most news organisations that count page views and see their direct traffic as extremely relevant because it shows reader loyalty, Buzzfeed does not consider direct traffic particularly vital. “The dynamic that we are most focused on is sharing,” Lamb said: BuzzFeed is going for virality.
Sharing rates are a better way to judge popularity of content, Lamb thinks. “You can’t trick people into sharing things,” he said, in the way that you can trick them into clicking on a link. They will only share a piece of content if they actually like it. In this way, “sharing is the new meritocracy of content,” commented Andrew Gruen, Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, who was interviewing Lamb at the conference.
“Search is not as powerful as it once was,” Lamb said, and outfits like BuzzFeed are profiting from increased social distribution of content.
GIFs are not just for fun
BuzzFeed has become known for using an abundance of animated GIFs, such as Animated GIFs are not used just to make people laugh, but they can highlight aspects of a story and make readers things that they might not otherwise have paid attention to, Lamb said.
He believes that 2012 has been the year of the GIF because improved data speeds have made bigger files easier to download, and because they have become easier to create, with new Photoshop web services, for example. 2012 has also been a year punctuated by huge international visual spectacles, Lamb added, notably the US elections and the Olympics.
BuzzFeed is less hierarchical than most legacy publications, Lamb said, describing it as “a guerrilla organisation” where people often operate independently. Although teams do have regular meetings, these are kept informal and on they whole they are “for brainstorming rather than pitching ideas.” Some of the best ideas come out of staff having lunch or drinks together, he added.
Contrary to what one might imagine, BuzzFeed editors don’t have to produce a fixed number of posts each day: Lamb believes that if meeting a target number is their only goal, this could encourage staff to be lazy.
Buzzfeed has a leaderboard that shows the most popular stories and this encourages editors to go for more traffic, or more shares. “They are competitive people,” Lamb explained, and when a new sharing platform launches, such as Pinterest, “People want to figure out how to crack the code.”
Journalism school qualifications are not necessarily what BuzzFeed looks for, Lamb said, but they look at what people have done using their own initiative, such as creating a popular parody Twitter feed. “If I was at journalism school now,” he advised, "I would be making a lot of stuff.”
It can be hard to find the type of staff that BuzzFeed is looking for, he said, and in response to this, the company has started a fellows programme during which it teaches people to make animated GIFs.
The changing nature of advertising
BuzzFeed has shied away from traditional advertising. The site launched with venture-funding so didn’t need to advertise in its early days. The team tried Google ads, Lamb explained, but these were not effective so they were discontinued. “We never wanted banner ads, because they are terrible,” he continued.
Native advertising, however, is working much better for BuzzFeed. Its sponsored content is very clearly marked as such but is created in a way that makes it feel very similar to the site’s editorial content. BuzzFeed is probably best known for its compilations and lists, and branded posts currently on the site include 20 Places That You've Probably Never Heard Of But Should Totally Visit, which is a compilation of scenic photos produced in partnership with Samsung Galaxy Camera, and 15 Best Ways to Break Up, which is sponsored by Virgin Mobile and offers several (humourous) ways to end a relationship via text message.
The "partners," as advertisers are called, have the choice of posting existing content or this advertising content is produced by a creative team that is separate from the editorial team but divided by a “porous membrane” rather than a wall, Lamb said. “Ideas flow back and forth,” he added, and the creative team act as editors for brands, applying similar skills to the commercial stories as journalists do to the editorial ones.
Lamb doesn’t see sponsored content as a major ethical problem, and he stressed that the editorial team understands that it would be wrong to let their work be influenced by who was sponsoring content. “We have to have a very clear divide there if we are going to take ourselves seriously as a news organisation,” he said.
Readers don’t seem to mind, either, he said. “We expected a huge backlash from sponsored posts, but we didn’t get it.” The posts are labeled clearly enough, Lamb believes, and he said that the team is constantly surprised by how popular some of the sponsored posts are.
Revenue has exceeded expectations, Lamb said, and BuzzFeed is in the unusual position of being unintentionally profitable. Its latest round of investment was aimed at hiring people and expanding: breaking even is as yet not a priority. Being “leaders” in effective sponsored advertising has been vital, Lamb explained.
Much of the technology behind BuzzFeed is made in-house. Developers have been a prominent presence in the company since the site launched, Lamb said. The CMS was made internally, as is the ad-serving platform, and the metrics. “I think that has been a tremendous advantage,” Lamb said. When the site was taken down by the recent Hurricane Irene, BuzzFeed’s team physically moved the servers to safety.
How to better integrate editorial and development is a challenge that BuzzFeed is also focusing on, Lamb said. New director of growth, Dao Nguyen, formerly of Dow Jones Ventures and Le Monde Interactif, will be working on this, he added, and new hire Dan Oshinsky will focus on newsletters.
"The Best and Worst Celebrity Instagrams of the Year" might not be for everyone, but as traditional publishers seek to go beyond merely putting their print product online, they would be wise to study the aspects of an outlet such as BuzzFeed that make it truly native to the web, both in terms of its content, and its business model.