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Growth Studies

 

Though BuzzFeed officially launched in November of 2006, the company’s story begins long before. In January of 2001, during his postgraduate study at the MIT Media Lab, Jonah Peretti forwarded an email conversation between himself and Nike to twelve friends. [11][3] The email detailed a dispute between Peretti and Nike over whether Peretti could have “sweatshop” printed across his personalized Nike iD shoes. Those initial twelve friends forwarded the email to others, who forwarded it to others. It reached millions of people, catching the attention of tech blog Lot 49, the San Jose Mercury News, Village Voice, TIME, the Guardian, the Independent, MetaFilter, Slashdot, Salon, the Wall Street Journal, and eventually The Today Show, where Peretti debated labor policy with Nike’s head of public relations. [11] [8] [25]

"I never expected my conversation with Nike to be so widely distributed; the email began to proliferate without my participation," Peretti explained in The Nation in April of 2001.

He continued:

"Although the press has presented my battle with Nike as a David versus Goliath parable, the real story is the battle between a company like Nike, with access to the mass media, and a network of citizens on the Internet who have only micromedia at their disposal… The only force propelling the message was the collective action of those who thought it was worth forwarding… My guess is that in the long run this episode will have a larger impact on how people think about media than how they think about Nike and sweatshop labor." [25]

This early brush with social sharing and virality would make an impression on Peretti, who continued to work with that he called “contagious media,” first teaming up with his sister, comedian Chelsea Peretti on the satirical websites “Black People Love Us!” and “The Rejection Line,” [8] and then going on to found The Huffington Post alongside Ken Lerer and Arianna Huffington in May of 2005. [3]

It was during his time at Huffington Post that Peretti began a side project called Contagious Media, LLC with John Johnson and Ken Lerer, in May of 2006. [3] According to Peretti, "BuzzFeed started as a lab with a small team where we would play with ideas." [11] In September of 2006, BuzzFeed (still Contagious Media at the time) makes its first editorial hire, and BuzzFeed officially launched the following month. [3]

By 2012, the six-year-old company had grown to 30 million visitors per month, most of whom came not from homepage visits or Google searches, but friend, colleague, and celebrity mentions and referrals. [11]

By September 2013, BuzzFeed had reached 85 million unique monthly visitors—that number had risen to 93 million by the following month, swelling to 130 million unique visitors by December of 2013. [25] According to the company’s own numbers, today BuzzFeed’s global audience is greater than 200+ million uniques per month with over 6 billion global content views [27] [107]

 

One of Buzzfeed’s first projects was an instant messaging client called BuzzBot. It used algorithms to examine links from hundreds of blogs and then messaged users that day’s most popular content. The idea ultimately proved to be unscalable and so BuzzFeed instead began to focus on building a site highlighting the popular links found by BuzzBot. According to Peretti, “We found that using the detector worked well, but having the detector plus a person to frame the link was good.” [11]

It wasn’t long before Peretti brought on editors, the first of whom was Peggy Wang—who now serves as Editorial Director of BuzzFeed life to help manage the daily links. At first, BuzzFeed was publishing five or six links per day—some of which came from BuzzBot, while others were discovered by Wang.

Image courtesy The Wayback Machine

Most early sharing was based around friends sharing Buzzfeed’s content. As the site started to attract visitors, bloggers started using it as a resource to find stories. By April of 2008, BuzzFeed was earning 600,000 monthly uniques and was being cited often by notable bloggers. [11] It’s at this point that the company decided to raise funding. They created an investor deck, the highlight of which was native advertising [28]. They managed to raise a $3.5 million Series A lead by Softbank and Hearst Ventures.

 

via GIPHY

 

From Peretti’s viral Nike email to BuzzBot to the current iteration of the BuzzFeed website, the guiding principle for both Peretti and BuzzFeed as a whole has been gaining insight into why things go viral. Peretti explains:

 

This focus on why people share things and what makes ideas spread has been integral to BuzzFeed from the beginning. [29] One of BuzzFeed's first viral posts was a meme it created called "Disaster Girl." [113] It was a picture of a girl standing in front of a house that was burning down, and she had a sly look on her face like she set the house on fire.

Image courtesy BuzzFeed [113]

The picture was being sent all over the Web, and BuzzFeed saw an opportunity. The editors cut the girl out of the photo and placed her in front of other things that made her look guilty.

 

BuzzFeed also found another viral tactic early on: cute animals.

 

These images turned out to be a great way to share content among friends and family, where the sharer looked cool for finding something funny. If you saw #TheDress debate float by your screen (and who didn’t?), that was a prime example of viral BuzzFeed content. With deep insights into what makes people want to share, supplemented by a culture of data and testing and a strategy that distributes BuzzFeed’s content everywhere, its global audience has now grown to greater than 200+ million uniques per month  with over 6 billion global content views.

By 2009, Buzzfeed grows even faster by expanding its content into internet native formats like gifs, pins, tweets, lists and so on. The key was to treat these kinds of content the same as traditional long-form writing from the perspective of their shareability.

Catering to what Peretti calls the “Bored-at-Work Network,” BuzzFeed perfected the listicle, scoring with “14 Things You Need to Know About Drinking Hand Sanitizer” and “103 Pugs Wearing Little Jackets” [8]

Peretti said, “

 

Peretti says. "

The most recent, and famous, example of viral content arrived on Feb 26, 2015 with “The Dress[114] (or #dress or #whiteandgold or #blackandblue).

Image courtesy BuzzFeed [114]

This wasn’t even original content. A BuzzFeed staffer essentially reposted something happening on Tumblr. But it felt like for a day or so, that everyone in the world was debating the color of this dress. The debate was so fervently viral that BuzzFeed couldn’t cope with the traffic for a short period of time. Feb 26, 2015 became one of the most viral days in social media history. [104]

At the time of this writing, it had over 37 million views.

 

Integral to BuzzFeed’s use of Facebook and other social networks (and, by extension, humans) as a distribution network is the distinction between content that’s clickable and content that’s share-worthy. A core component of BuzzFeed’s growth strategy has been a focus on the latter. This focus was helped serendipitously because of a bug with Google that took away all their search traffic at one point in 2011. [35] Moving forward, Peretti said in 2012 that he’d rather visitors tweet an article than click on it. [11]

When creating share-worthy content for the site, BuzzFeed editors refer to a list of the “Golden Rules of Shareability,” including:

 

Since social sharing, rather than search, is the primary means by which content is discovered, BuzzFeed editors don’t have to become slaves to SEO. Peretti explains that the company spent years looking at Google search numbers until he had "a sort of 'aha' moment.”

 

Peretti’s “aha moment” meant that, rather than using an algorithm to simply target content that a reader will like, BuzzFeed had to rethink the front page entirely. He explains:

 

This “aha moment” also reinforced to Peretti the importance of the human element of BuzzFeed’s most popular content. He explains:

 

Though BuzzFeed is often criticized as little more than listicles and cat pictures, Peretti maintains that the site’s use of kittens and puppies is strategic and judicious. Even as BuzzFeed has expanded to offer lifestyle content and more serious reporting, Peretti has asserted:

 

 

There’s yet another important distinction between clickability and share-worthiness. Besides the human element, Peretti asserts that people tend to share things that in some way reflect their identities. He asserts:

 

Peretti stays that while it’s commonly believed that content should be “dumbed down” to have mass appeal, smart content is what spreads. As an example, he cites BuzzFeed’s 65 Books You Need to Read in your 20s. “,” Peretti explains, “.” [25]

BuzzFeed’s remarkable success at using social media as a distribution platform has been a major influence on other media sites, inspiring a string of BuzzFeed knockoffs as well as companies like NewsWhip, which aim to help other media companies leverage the power of social sharing. [24]

 

In April of 2014, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann reported that print ad revenues were the lowest they’d been since 1950, the year that the Newspaper Association of American began tracking such data. Furthermore, revenues had declined by more than 50% in the previous five years alone. [26] Wired’s Mat Honan describes the new media landscape as follows:<

 

In this new landscape—in which BuzzFeed’s tech-heavy approach to data and testing, novel social distribution method, and innovative branded content almost certainly provided a competitive edge—BuzzFeed has managed to sustain remarkable growth. And that’s no happy accident. Both the Nike incident and Peretti’s experience at the Huffington Post resulted in ample insight into the evolution of news media that put to use in building BuzzFeed. He explains:

 

Based on how the two industries have been similarly disrupted, Gigaom’s Matthew Ingram compared the automotive-manufacturing industry and the newspaper business, extrapolating on that notion. “,” he asks, “” Ingram continues, “” [9]

He argued that while The Huffington Post fulfilled this role for quite some time, the site now lacks much of its “early innovative energy,” perhaps because of its acquisition by Aol. “”  he asserts, “.” [9] According to Ingram, BuzzFeed has not only doubled-down on many of the tactics that helped The Huffington Post to excel—such as viral content and the aggregation approach—but the company is also shaking up media in its own right through innovations like native advertising and the addition of long form writing, politics, and more. [9]

The data seemed to support Ingram’s claim. In June of 2013, TechCrunch’s Jon Evans reported that, when tracking social shares of various news sources, none of the old media news sources—The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New Yorker—ranked in the top three, which, in descending order, was made up of BuzzFeed, Cracked, and The Onion. [2] Compare BuzzFeed’s numbers to data from The New York Times:

Image via TechCrunch [2]

Image via TechCrunch [2]

Obviously, sharing is just one metric by which we can measure success. Still, when you consider how much time people are spending on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter (as shown by the graph below), along with the fact that many people are looking to those same sites for news, that metric takes on a much greater significance.

Image via Wired [24]

,” Evans asserted, “” [2] Evans was careful to point out, however, that low journalism is not synonymous with bad journalism:

 

BuzzFeed, Evans claimed, “ .” [2] Even so, by mid-2013 BuzzFeed had already begun moving in the direction of more serious journalism, which Evans acknowledged somewhat dismissively:

 

In August 2013, Peretti announced that Buzzfeed was profitable.[53]

 

via GIPHY

 

At the start of 2010, Buzzfeed had partnered with Comedy Central to promote content for its new show, Tosh.0.

For Peretti, native advertising is not just critical to BuzzFeed’s bottom line, but an important step in the evolution of online advertising.

The push to scale and monetize native advertising led to another fundraising round.[30]

Peretti explains:

 

Though they’re labeled “Brand Publisher” It can be tough to distinguish BuzzFeed’s native ads from standard editorial content—yet, as M Magazine’s Matthew Lynch points out, “while researching [BuzzFeed], I clicked on and read through two such pieces before realizing they were ads. ” [8]

That, in short, is why BuzzFeed’s native advertising has been so successful. With increasingly costly and competitive AdWords and notoriously ineffective or loathed display ads, advertisers are understandably excited by the notion that, on BuzzFeed, their ads will not only be seen but also shared, as the goal of BuzzFeed’s branded content is look and feel like highly share-able BuzzFeed editorial content, thus giving advertisers free distribution, or “earned media.” [13] [31]

In late 2012, BuzzFeed hired former ad-agency executive and Facebook veteran Jeff Greenspan to serve as chief creative officer. Greenspan was tasked with boosting BuzzFeed’s native ads. At that time, the ad team was run by BuzzFeed President and COO Jon Steinberg, whose job it was to start conversations the chief marketing officers at brands and agencies with open minds.  [11]

In October of 2012, Steinberg revealed that a standard $100,000 BuzzFeed native ad campaign resulted in between 5 and 10 posts for an advertiser. He noted, however, that rather than charging per post, BuzzFeed charges per thousand impressions for the thumbnail images and “story units” featured on the BuzzFeed site, explaining that the standard CPM across all ad units for a campaign was around $9. On top of that, advertisers paid BuzzFeed cost-per-click for content advertised on Facebook and Twitter and cost-per-view for branded videos seeded by BuzzFeed to other websites. Advertisers could also pay BuzzFeed a daily fee to keep their post on the BuzzFeed homepage, with the unit directly to the right of the editorial headline costing $8,000 a day in 2012 and increasing to $10,000 a day in 2013, while the sponsored content that appears as the second headline in the homepage stream—the “top story unit” was $12,000 a day in late 2012 and rose to $14,000 a day in 2013. [17]

Though BuzzFeed does not use banner ads on its own site, in October 2012, it began experimenting with advertising its sponsored content on websites like The Awl and Cracked.com. For example, Cracked.com featured a “story unit” called “The Most Delightful Moments From Your Childhood in 28 Pictures.” The piece was sponsored by Geico, and clicking on the link too visitors to the sponsored post on BuzzFeed.com. [17] By March of 2013, BuzzFeed had expanded their off-side advertisements for sponsored content to a total of eight partners, including The Hairpin, Thought Catalog, and Dealbreaker, with Steinberg claiming he planned to double the number of sites running BuzzFeed sponsored posts within the following months. [13] A BuzzFeed spokesperson explained to Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici in 2013:

 

Similarly, Steinberg asserted, “We always wanted the business not to be limited by the scale of our site.That means figuring out places do what we do other than on Buzzfeed.com." [13]

Not everyone is impressed by native advertising, though. In a September of 2013 speech to New York University’s journalism school, Wall Street Journal managing editor Gerard Baker warned “of an emerging ‘Faustian pact’ with advertisers that would erode reader trust.” He asserted, “” [25]

Before shutting down the site in early 2015, Andrew Sullivan of The Dish frequently spoke out against what he referred to as “enhanced editorial techniques” in posts like “Guess Which BuzzFeed Piece Is An Ad.” In a debate with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, Sullivan asserted, “.” [25]

Peretti asserts that the company “take[s] church and state very seriously.” He continues:

 

In fact, Peretti and Steinberg assert that branded content holds advertisers to a higher standard than more traditional marketing, since they have to work to make readers not just view but want to share their messages. As evidence of the efficacy of branded content, they cite a Motorola sponsored post entitled “10 Places You Need to Visit Once In Your LIfe,” which had a 6.1% CTR, as well as a Virgin Mobile campaign featuring close to 200 branded stories, which generated 9.7 million “engagements.” [25] As of December 2014, around 3 of every 10 visitors who clicked on a BuzzFeed native ad shared it via email or social. [24]

 

This focus on why people share things and “Big Seed Marketing”[32] had led Peretti to pursue data and testing to a much greater extent than the average media company.

BuzzFeed has found its most popular posts don’t take off because Kim Kardashian shared them but because many people did in small groups—the median figure is just nine Facebook friends.

He explained BuzzFeed’s business this way:

 

And as Ken Lerer explains:

 

Peretti, however, made tech central to BuzzFeed early on. Referring back to the infamous Nike email and his first brush with virality, he explains:

 

And just as BuzzBot tracked and analyzed which pieces of content were spreading the fastest, Peretti and the BuzzFeed staff meticulously measure and analyze what’s happening on the site. BuzzFeed has a data science team that uses machine learning to predict the viral potential of stories, as well as a design team that continually iterates the site’s user interface using A/B testing and analytics. For each piece of content on the site, there’s a dashboard showing how it spreads from the initial “seed views” on the BuzzFeed site to the broader “social views.” [25] Describing the data-centric feel of the BuzzFeed office, M Magazine explains:

 

One way in which BuzzFeed leverages data and testing is a tool called headline optimizer, which combines different headline and thumbnail images and tests them in real time, allowing editors to quickly iterate toward the most effective combination. They also have an algorithm watching early traffic and social activity, helping editors to decide which stories to promote on social media based on what’s most likely to be a hit. [24]

BuzzFeed’s approach to user acquisition and growth serves as yet another example of how the company functions more like a tech company than a traditional media outlet. While media companies have traditionally invested in promotions and display ads to attract new readers, this has never been part of BuzzFeed’s approach. Dao Nguyen, who became BuzzFeed’s director of growth in 2012, explained to Wired in late 2014:

 

It’s especially noteworthy that, in Nguyen’s first two years at the company, traffic more than doubled. She explains that, the data shows that women share more than men, one of her first acts as director of growth was to target Pinterest, a network predominantly used by women, by adding “Pin It” buttons to BuzzFeed mobile, launching Food, Parents, and Style sections, and eventually an entire Life category. As the BuzzFeed’s lifestyle content evolved, Nguyen made changes according to what users from Pinterest seemed to want: removing Twitter sharing buttons when it became clear they weren’t being used, publishing Halloween-themed content in September to give users time to plan their holiday parties, and so on. As of December 2014, Pinterest had become BuzzFeed’s second-largest social referrer. [24][36]

Besides the sharing potential of women, the data shows that content appealing to very narrow demographics tends to perform better. For example, Nguyen’s post 27 Signs You Were Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents is one of the site’s most popular, with close to 2.3 million views. 17 Bizarre Foods Every Russian Grew Up With (Besides borscht.), another popular, highly-targeted post first published in 2013, has racked up close to 1.4 million views.

While it may seem counterintuitive to appeal to a more narrow demographic, Peretti explains that while it makes sense that “.” [24]

Nguyen cautions, though:

 

 

 

She also left a tip about content:

 

 

One incredibly important point to consider is how, as Peretti asserts above, BuzzFeed has used people as a distribution mechanism. BuzzFeed has found its most popular posts don’t take off because Kim Kardashian shared them but because many people did in small groups—the median figure is just nine Facebook friends. [34]

And as Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell points out:

 

By December of 2012, Facebook accounted for “well over 50%” of BuzzFeed’s total visitors, underscoring the importance of sharing to the company’s growth. [11] Peretti maintained that the BuzzFeed’s use of Facebook as a distribution platform wasn’t merely a gimmick, but the next logical step in the evolution of media. He asserted:

 

By the end of 2013, BuzzFeed’s traffic had grown to more than 130 million unique visitors, with most  of this growth being due to Facebook’s shift towards driving traffic to quality publishers.[50] 2013 was also the year that BuzzFeed went mainstream with mentions by President Obama at that years White House Correspondents Dinner [76] and Jeopardy featuring a “Saw It On Buzzfeed” category. [77]

In 2014, while desktop traffic for BuzzFeed had roughly doubled from the past year, mobile traffic was up nearly five times! This make sense however, if you factor in Facebook’s significance to the mobile landscape, which at that time accounted for 20 percent of total time spent on smartphones and tablets combined.[56]

As of March 2016 it was the second most shared publisher on Facebook. [51]

 

Peretti claimed in late 2012, “.” Since then BuzzFeed has made several changes in an effort to diversify the content they offer and pivot toward a more well-rounded media company. As of January 2014, for example, BuzzFeed had an editorial staff of 140, 11 of whom were devoted exclusively to politics. [25]

 

It’s not that the listicles and cat memes aren’t still an integral part of BuzzFeed, but today they exist alongside more serious journalism and lifestyle content as well. As of this writing, the top article on site’s front page displays a report on Donald Trump’s historical relationship with the Press, while the one below it is entitled “The New Men of “The Bachelorette” Were Revealed And Hot Damn”

One of the earliest steps in this direction was BuzzFeed’s hiring in January 2012 of Ben Smith, formerly of  Politico, to serve as the company’s first editor in chief and help turn BuzzFeed into, as Lerer explained, “a great trusted news brand” that wins Pulitzers. [25] Hard news, according to Smith, "is a huge opportunity if everyone else is pulling back." He asserts:

 

As had been central to BuzzFeed’s strategy thus far, Smith saw the social web as integral to seizing this opportunity. "," he explains, "

,” says Peretti, explaining this phenomenon, “.” He continues:

 

In the year after Ben Smith came aboard, BuzzFeed had nearly doubled its audience, from 24 million visitors in January 2012 to 40 million in December, according to Google Analytics. In August, The New Republic called BuzzFeed “the defining media outlet of 2012.” (Also “a little dumb.”) [21]

,” explains the company’s CEO, Jonah Peretti. [24]

While BuzzFeed keeps getting lumped in with with Upworthy and other viral content mills, unlike these others sites, it sends reporters around the world to try to break news in tech, politics, and culture. These original and exclusive stories are tailor-made for sharing on social networks. At the same time, they’re also less likely to be affected when Facebook suddenly decides to rewrite its algorithm. [78]

,” Peretti says. “

 

In early 2013, they launched the longform ‘BuzzReads’ section. Such a such a page had been part of the plan all along. BuzzFeed wanted to wait until it had enough content to stock its shelves. The goal was still for people discover them through sharing and serendipity just as they would the other viral content on the site because it was believed that this would be just as interesting to the readers.[12].

In January 2014, BuzzFeed published its most popular long-form feature story called “Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500”  which by the end of that year already had over 1.5 million views.

 

In September 2012, BuzzFeed‘s online video presence was a single Youtube channel with under 10,000 subscribers. They hired Ze Frank as EVP for Video and 18 months later, BuzzFeed’s online video content had racked up more than a billion views across several channels, heavily driven by social sharing.[49]

Part of this effort included the launch of BuzzFeed Brews, a live newsmaker speaker series streamed on Youtube where viewers were encouraged to live tweet and ask questions on Twitter using #buzzfeedbrews. [50]. This series featured many prominent politicians and celebrities that people were interested in like Anthony Weiner and Jerry Seinfeld, among others.

In 2012, it also partnered with the New York Times to produce videos during the Democratic and Republican party conventions. [52]

As of April 2016, BuzzFeed’s YouTube videos had crossed over 6.7 billion views and more than 9.6 million subscribers.[55]

In 2014, Jonathan Perelman, then BuzzFeed’s GM of Video & VP of Agency Strategy shared BuzzFeed's magic formula for video content marketing, and confirmed that consumers share video content for 5 main reasons:

  • To be social
  • To express how they are feeling about a particular topic
  • To show off, or humblebrag
  • To prove they were the first ones to find something
  • To make friends and colleagues laugh

The reason Buzzfeed’s videos get shared so much are no different from those that lead to their other content being shared. Buzzfeed produces video content around three main types of data-driven intent: emotional gifts (making you feel something), information (presenting videos in an unusual or unexpected way), and identity (a sense of belonging to a group). [101]

Image courtesy of ReelSEO [101]

Buzzfeed found that with video, the identity-related content has been especially powerful. Instead of creating ones that have broad appeal, targeting specific groups led to higher share rates.  At the same time, views come from outside of these identity groups, too. For example, a list that had to do with first-generation Asian-American parents would often have large numbers of of non-Asian viewers. The behavior of the the “in-group” sharing this content would result in “out-groups” checking it out to learn about a group other than their own. [49]

We’ll revisit Video a little later in this study as well to show how BuzzFeed has been using a multi-platform strategy for distribution.

 

 

Around the end of 2013, Summer Anne Burton, BuzzFeed’s managing editorial director was looking at some stats and what posts had done really well. Their most shared post was a quiz called “Which ‘Grease’ Pink Lady Are You?” She noticed that , while it had not done that well when it was first published, it had a really long tail. She also observed similar behavior with other posts that had a quiz component associated with them. That led to internal discussions that kickstarted the effort to make a lot more quizzes.

As with their other products, they experimented with getting quizzes right as well, from the ease of creation to the look and feel.

.” said BuzzFeed CTO, Mark Wilkie [80]

Then in January 2014, their travel editor Ashley Perez made “What City Should You Actually Live In?” and it became one of BuzzFeed’s most viral posts ever.[70]

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

The graph below shows you BuzzFeed’s traffic before and after quizzes were introduced: [73]

Image courtesy Business2Community [73]

One interesting data point on how engaging quizzes were was something that happened between March and May 2014. BuzzFeed saw a 55% decline in Facebook shares which appeared to be caused by a decrease in quizzes produced by BuzzFeed. Because of this, in May, none of the most shared content from Buzzfeed included quizzes. In June, BuzzFeed was back to producing one big quiz a day after which social shares went back up. [74]

Image courtesy Business Insider [74]

,” Burton says. “”  [75]

As Slate writer, Emma Roller put it:

 

It wasn’t long before editorial quizzes were followed by sponsored quizzes. Early successes included a Mattel-sponsored quiz, “Which Barbie Doll Are You?” and the HBO-sponsored “How Would You Die In ‘Game Of Thrones?[71]

 

The increasing amount of traffic from across the Atlantic prompted Buzzfeed to launched a dedicated UK site in March 2013 [37]

BuzzFeed’s international expansions have followed a similar path: Start with a small team creating the viral content BuzzFeed is most known for, then build out a news team.

,” said BuzzFeed U.K. editor, Luke Lewis

Throughout 2013, Buzzfeed U.K. focused on the lists and quizzes most identifiable with the site. In 2014 it began to scale up its reporting teams. By the end of year it put in place a team to build “new formats” for UK stories [43], just as it had for the original site back in 2009.

As of March 2016, the UK site had 14.7M unique visitors in the UK alone, according to Quantcast data

One big issue their growth faced was that there was no non-English version of BuzzFeed for potential consumers in such countries to consume.

In late 2013, they launched versions in French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. To do this they adopted an innovative strategy of partnering with Duolingo. [39]  Users who signed up for Duolingo’s language courses would be tasked with translating BuzzFeed articles, one sentence at a time and a patented algorithm would combine the best translations into one professionally translated post.

This worked really well because the reason students signed up with Duolingo was to translate sentences anyway. Duolingo doesn’t charge students for language learning, but BuzzFeed paid it for the final translations, albeit much less than it would have to pay professional translators.

Duolingo had about 10M users at that point which ensured that that BuzzFeed content could be translated very fast. The system combined editorial oversight with the algorithm algorithm to ensure the veracity of the translated post which resulted translations as accurate as those by skilled professionals.

Early in 2014, BuzzFeed Australia launched using the same strategy as with the UK. [41]

Later that year, BuzzFeed launched country-specific sites for India, Mexico, Germany & Canada. The only difference with launching BuzzFeed Canada was that viral and news content launched at the same time because the opportunity to do so presented itself. This was part of an evolving approach to evaluate each new geography and how it could be served that audience with the seed team. [42]

For 2014, they also had a goal to grow their Latino audience. They managed to grow it exactly the same way, they’d grown their English speaking audience - with (more) content that would appeal to that specific audience.[38] As 2015 rolled around, they had a proportionally higher Latino readership than white Americans.

In Jan 2016, in partnership with Yahoo Japan, they launched the Japanese version of their site, their 11th international edition. They launched as a partnership for two reasons. Firstly, Yahoo Japan is one of the largest sites in the country. It claims to reach 88 percent of all Japanese Internet users and generates 56 billion page views per month. Second, to capitalize on Yahoo Japan’s understanding of its home market, especially as it applied to social sharing habits [40]

Across the board, the user’s browser language setting, not their IP address determined which default homepage they see, leading to a more personal experience. Native speaking editors were also tasked with creating original content and manage translated content. They would also be responsible for analyzing sharing habits and look for opportunities to expand into localized teams in the strongest markets. [39]

 

In the early days, there wasn’t a focus on getting users to subscribe to BuzzFeed emails. Over time, though, they’ve gotten better about promoting email subscribe opt-ins throughout the site.

One effective mechanism that Buzzfeed uses to drive new subscribers is by mapping the content of the post to the subscription CTA. This gives people signing up a really firm idea of what kind of content to expect then they receive an email. So content like “19 cute ways the BuzzFeed Animals newsletter will ruin your day” would be associated with an email capture field with an animal specific CTA. They also added subscribe boxes to the sidebar of specific categories on the site. So posts in the Animals category would have a  “subscribe to the Animals newsletter” in the sidebar.This leads to natural segmenting of the audience as they self select themselves with content they’re interested in receiving.[58]

Image courtesy Campaign Monitor [58]

As a result they were able to add 1 million subscribers to their email list in 2014. [60]

When sharing content with their daily list, Buzzfeed’s newsletter team aims for “really broad identities” like gender or nationality because they found that this type of content plays better in email vs social. [59]

Mobile-friendliness is also a huge focus as half the traffic (in 2014) was already coming from mobile.

.” said Dan Oshinsky, BuzzFeed’s NewsLetter Editor

Image Courtesy Campaign Monitor [58]

One practice BuzzFeed also follows is to routinely purge their list of inactive subscribers. If you don't open the newsletter for X number of months, then you get an email saying, "You're going to get removed from this list unless you opt in in the next 24 hours." BuzzFeed doesn’t like newsletters subscriber numbers being high just for the sake of it. They actually want to get people to read them and share their content. [110]

g. Podcasts:

In early 2015, Buzzfeed launched two podcasts dealing with the culture of the web and “literally everything else” respectively, to "connect with our audience in as many ways as we can." [57] It didn’t hurt that podcasts was also enjoying a renaissance around that time. Today Buzzfeed has expanded into five podcasts.

 

 

Buzzfeed has had a native app for a while but it started rolling out a s suite of standalone apps with the release of the silly Cute or Not app in Feb 2015, a Tinder for pets of sorts. [61]. This app mimicked the viral content experience of the site.

 

GIF courtesy reddit

 

In the middle of 2014, Buzzfeed started putting in place the pieces for developing a dedicated news app.

 

Later that year in June In June 2015, BuzzFeed launched its iOS News app. [62] It evolved from an MVP that was a simple newsletter to a refined final product. The cool thing was that this app was built in public, with the team’s thinking and learning documented on the Buzzfeed Blog. The news team even used the hashtag #teamnewsapp to discuss the app on Twitter. By the time it launched, the odds of this app being successful were high and in three months had already been downloaded over 350,000 times. [62].

While many users found the app through Apple App Store, the News team also relied on it’s own properties to boost downloads. They placed links to download the app across the desktop and mobile versions of the site. They also created news quizzes with unmissable links to download the app. Mobile article pages and contained  They even cross-promoted this app within BuzzFeed's main app. [63]

In terms of engagement, the team designed the app keeping the central motivation of Buzzfeed users in mind, i.e., they want to be the ones that share cool stuff - but fast! So the first thing you’d see when you open the app would be "Quickly Catch Up", a short primer on the news at the top of the screen, above the headlines. This allowed users to quickly check their phones when they're out with their friends and be up on whatever was cool at that moment. [64].

The app was also designed for social media and social interactions. Along with all the headlines, they would mix in updates directly from social platforms if a piece of news was especially newsworthy. The stories themselves were optimized for display on social channels.  

Lastly, the push notifications themselves were shareable allowing readers to quickly share breaking news they thought was cool. On the topic of push notifications, not only could you turn them on and off but you could customize them specific topics. The team also decided that that they wouldn’t display all stories within the app at any given time. This would give readers a sense of accomplishment about knowing everything there was to know for that moment and could some back again whenever there was more (and there was always more to consume). [65]

Keeping in mind the lessons learned from the iOS app, BuzzFeed launched the Android version of this app in September 2015. [62]

In April 2016, it extended its News app to include original and third party stories from the U.K., Australia, and Canada. Localized push notifications would notify users when big stories break domestically and globally. [109]

 

BuzzFeed noticed that more and more, it’s users were sharing quizzes and their results with individual friends, rather than through "broadcast sharing" on platforms like Facebook. [108] This led to an experiment to attempt to gamify this experience within an app.

In November 2015, BuzzFeed released their Quiz Chat app that let users take quizzes with one another over Facebook Messenger. This added a social twist to Buzzfeed's quizzes. These quizzes are meant to be taken with another person, who also has to take the quiz before you can get your results.

Some of the are framed as contests ("Which of us should sit on the Iron Throne?") that result in a single winner. Some are are collaborative ("Which state should we live in?"), returning a single answer that applies to both people. And some offer binary classifications ("Who's the cat and who's the dog?"). [107]

," a BuzzFeed spokeswoman said. [107]

By integrating Quiz Chat into messaging apps, Buzzfeed is targeting an audience that’s unavailable on traditional social networks.

This also aligns with Buzzfeed's "distributed" model (more on this later) of producing content that’s a natural fit for a specific platform that users are already spending time on.

 

In Feb 2016, they released a dedicated Video App.[67]. At this point, BuzzFeed had been publishing videos to over 30 platforms.[69] This was a move to capture more of that audience with its own mobile video apps. This app made it very easy to binge-watch videos for their hardcore users. While at the time of release it didn’t have any co-branded and native ads, that was on the roadmap. Allowing the app itself to be sponsored was an option being considered at the time. [68]

The app was also a an exception to the strategy adopted in 2015 of distributing content across more platforms (more on this in the next section) versus bringing users to it’s own properties. This was primarily due to an explosion in viewership of its videos that lead to the decision to (also) allow everyone addicted to their videos to find them all in one place. [79] It also afforded the same opportunities as other BuzzFeed apps for notifications personalization and customization to increase engagement among users. Image courtesy BuzzFeed [79]

 

In August 2014, an infusion of $50M US from Andreessen Horowitz fueled more hiring, expanded international and video operations and new products. [44] BuzzFeed split its content producers into three buckets — Buzz or BuzzTeam for socially-oriented, experimental content; BuzzFeed News; and BuzzFeed Life, for lifestyle content like parenting tips, recipes, or how-to guides. Life, the newest category for BuzzFeed, has been grown out in large part due to the success BuzzFeed has had with lifestyle content on Pinterest. [24][36] [45]

 

via GIPHY

One of the benefits of giving Life, Buzz, and News more autonomy was the opportunity to measure success based on their own unique metrics.

” said Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith [46]

As a result of the funding, Buzzfeed video became BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, headed by online video pioneer Ze Frank. to rapidly produce new videos,  from six-second clips made for social media to more traditional 22-minute shows. Initially, they would focus on independent distribution, hosting video content on BuzzFeed.com, YouTube or other digital platforms.  [44] [45]

They also launched a new distributed division creating “BuzzFeed, off BuzzFeed” to make original content just for platforms like Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and messaging apps. [44]. In other words, this would be content that would never be seen on BuzzFeed’s main site.

While this launched as an experiment, it very quickly became the core of BuzzFeed’s expansion strategy, primarily fueled by video. [95]

In early 2015, BuzzFeed content attracted 18 billion impressions per month in total across Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. But that exposure led to only 420 million clicks back to the website. [95]

Image courtesy Re/Code [95]

Instead of doing what most web publishers would do, i.e., push even more content to attempt to bring people back to their site, BuzzFeed took a different approach.

," Peretti said. [81]

BuzzFeed Distributed head Summer Anne Burton, also talking about this topic and internet trends said:

 

Peretti said that this strategy is a huge part of why BuzzFeed's video views have grown so quickly—because viewers don't have to leave their favorite platforms to watch their favorite BuzzFeed videos.

Through this approach, BuzzFeed had already managed to score more than a third of its total views on distributed platforms in early 2015. [83]

The logic of following this strategy seems sound. There’s a subset of apps and platforms that already attract a lot of attention. The likelihood that large numbers of BuzzFeed’s core audience are going to go out of they way to find great content isn’t high. If anything, they’ll come across news and content that appeals to them within their social streams.

Being in BuzzFeed’s shoes in this scenario is actually advantageous because their reason for being is that they do native advertising better than anyone. Their expertise in editorial content on any platform is the gateway to branded content on those same platforms. [85] And this really is their biggest advantage because, for the moment, it can it can still make money on these other platforms with its native ads.

There’s another benefit to this strategy as well.

,” said Frank Cooper, BuzzFeed’s CMO. [89]

Even so, BuzzFeed had to rethink its own internal publishing structure in order to take advantage of this shift. The company moved from its vertically integrated publishing system to what Peretti called a network integration. BuzzFeed creates content in multiple formats and distributes it widely on other platforms. In return, the company gets back valuable data from social networks—and uses that data to make its content, including the content it produces for advertisers, even more effective.

Image Courtesy BuzzFeed [105]

Image Courtesy BuzzFeed [105]

As mentioned earlier, BuzzFeed already knows that the reasons why it’s viewers share their videos, i.e., Identity (what group do you belong to) or something cool (informational or highly emotional). They use these to push branded content that has the highest odds of working on specific platforms For example on Snapchat, for example, BuzzFeed content focuses on content that appeals more to the with teen demographic . Identity related content performs better on Facebook than on YouTube, because viewers tend to share those videos with relevant friends, and it is much easier to share with those friends on Facebook than on YouTube. [95]

 

An example of this strategy at work is Pero Like, a distributed project aimed at making “content that resonates with English-speaking Latinxs”.

 

Buzzfeed staffer, Alex Alvarez posted this about the project’s launch:

 

As of this writing, this Facebook page already had over 500,000 likes.

Another example of this is BuzzFeed’s Cocoa Butter, launched in mid-2015 that exists across BuzzFeed’s social accounts and emphasizes “making fun stuff for and about brown folks” to Buzzfeed’s audience,  one that’s mostly made up of white millennials. The intention was to avoid cordoning off “black content” to a section on the BuzzFeed site. [87]

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

In essence, BuzzFeed is catering to and nurturing niche communities while growing their influence simultaneously.

An identity-based example that doesn’t necessarily have to do with ethnicity is BuzzFeed’s Tasty Facebook page launched July 2015 to feed their audiences love for food related content. This page was so successful, they launched Proper Tasty in December 2015 to cater specifically to their British audience’s love for food. At the time Proper Tasty was BuzzFeed’s fastest-growing Facebook page gaining 3.7 million followers and over 190 million video views in just a month. In contrast food related content on Buffzeed.com at that time had only 14 million views. [89]

 

,” said Frank Cooper, BuzzFeed’s chief marketing officer.

Of course, this also works great within the confines of Facebook’s algorithm because it favors content that keeps people on Facebook longer.

ReelSEO writer, Carla Marshall captured the learnings from BuzzFeed’s distributed video strategy effectively (abridged below): [102]

An Effective Multi-platform Video Strategy: If a social or video platform is active and drawing a large audience, then Buzzfeed will have at least one, but more likely several, channels or accounts. But, the brand doesn't just upload the same video to different sites, it identifies its target demographic and where they are most likely to engage, and uploads content where it's going to be shared.

Consistent and Pro-active Social Sharing/Cross-Promotion: Buzzfeed makes video content to be shared, not consumed, and it will cross-promote content from different properties everywhere it thinks it will work. Their in-house algorithmic software confirms what's blowing up on social and will do what they can to squeeze as much engagement out of the videos as possible.

Created a Trusted Brand: Viewers have grown to trust Buzzfeed's video content, and that's one reason why they are so willing to share.

Creates Strong Tentpole Content: BuzzFeed has produced videos around everything from 'Back to School', Halloween, Super Bowl, National Dog Day, Valentine's Day, Christmas, and all points in-between. If it's a cause for celebration or a landmark event, Buzzfeed will think of an angle and create some killer content around it.

Enticing Titles and Thumbnails: Viewers are fickle and will spend just a few seconds to decide whether they will watch a video, or scroll on by. A winning title, and compelling thumbnail are your two main weapons in the battle for views. Buzzfeed excel at both.

Sticks With a Winning Formula: The 'X tries X Food' series has been a phenomenal success for Buzzfeed. It works because it taps into that 'community' spirit that gets viewers to share, it's engaging, educational and incredibly entertaining.

Tests a Range of Video Content: A multi-video platform strategy allows them to test what content works where, why it works, or doesn't

Branded Video Collaborations: Buzzfeed's unique influence across different demographics enables brands to reach new target audiences through engaging, compelling, and authentic content that's highly likely to get shared.

So what has all this resulted in, with traffic to BuzzFeed’s content?

In an interview with Re/Code, in September 2015, Jonah Peretti provided this summary: [111]

  • 27 percent: Facebook native video
  • 23 percent: Direct to the site or apps
  • 21 percent: Snapchat content views
  • 14 percent: YouTube views
  • 6 percent: Facebook traffic to the site
  • 4 percent: Images on Facebook
  • 2 percent: Google search to the site
  • 3 percent: Other distributed platforms

In other words, half of BuzzFeed's monthly content views—about 2.5 billion at that time, were a result of its Facebook videos and its Discover channel on Snapchat. The Snapchat statistic is particularly amazing because BuzzFeed towards the end of July 2015

BuzzFeed has also jumped on capitalizing on this distributed strategy. It launched is “Swarm” ad product that “allows advertisers to run campaigns simultaneously across all the company's Web and mobile properties and six of its social platforms: Snapchat Discover, Vine, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.” In total this allowed for a potential 6 billion ad views [90]

 

This approach also required “new ways to understand and learn from data.” [79]. According to Dao Nguyen, “”

To understand this behavior, in April 2015, BuzzFeed built Pound (Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion) to measure how BuzzFeed stories spread on the social web. It follows propagations from one sharer to another, through all the downstream visits, even across social networks and one-to-one sharing platforms like Gchat and email. [91]

Image courtesy BuzzFeed [91]

But Pound is just one piece of bigger data initiative called Hive that promises to make its editorial content more shareable than ever. One key goal of Hive is to track every editorial idea, across every BuzzFeed platform.

As Noah Robischon of Fast Company reported:

 

This naturally allows Hive to track how well any piece of content performs as it migrates across platforms.

 

In August 2015, Buzzfeed announced a strategic partnership with NBCUniversal towards “collaborating on television content, movies, the Olympics, and joint partnerships with ad agencies and brands.” [93]

," said Jesse Redniss, co-founder, Brave Ventures, a media consulting and investing firm. [94]

An early example of this collaboration was when NBC did traditional TV segments on prospective American Olympians. At the same time, BuzzFeed did its own interviews, asking athletes goofy questions. [92]

 

Image courtesy eil.com

 

All hasn’t been smooth when it’s come to constantly generating shareworthy content.

In 2012, BuzzFeed published the highly popular “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” list.Investigations showed that most of the content had been taken from pre-existing sources. This lead to a broader claim of Buzzfeed lifting content from around the web, mostly Reddit and repackaging it in a way that made it hard to trace back to (and hence need to to credit) the original source. [20]

Peretti compared the site’s editors to writers on a television show always looking out for new ideas and figuring out which ones broadcast. He also offered that few things on the Web were original content. Ben Smith likens BuzzFeed's listicles to works of literature in a New York Times interview in 2013.[21]

GIF courtesy Know Your Meme

Again, in 2014, one of BuzzFeed’s writers is revealed by Gawker to have lifted multiple pieces of content straight from Yahoo! Answers for at least 50 listicles and posts, without citing the original source [6]. Buzzfeed fired that writer, updated its editorial guidelines and by the middle of the year, had removed almost 5,000 posts that no longer met their updated “editorial standards.” [14] While there haven’t been any plagiarism reports since, there’s no guarantee that it may not happen as pressure to churn out shareable content increases.

 

It’s not just Buzzfeed that does this. Publications like the New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes and others have dedicated native ad teams now.

Image courtesy of Sharethrough [100]

Native advertising it seems is here to stay. [47] So even if BuzzFeed manages to strike the perfect balance between the editorial and business sides of the house [48], there’s no guarantee other publishers will.

This is a lucrative source of revenue and given the pressure on print media publishers, it’s not unreasonable to think that some big names(s) might succumb to the dark side. Now that alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as native ads continue to provide value to their readers, whether that's entertainment or education. The problem could arise, if the lure of profits supersedes the quality control exerted on native ads. If that happens, you can visualize a scenario where people get so sick of native ads being presented to them as news, that it leads to an industry wide backlash against this practice. BuzzFeed would suffer along with everyone else, perhaps through no direct fault of its own.

 

In one February 2016 report by DigiDay: [96]

“Ian Schafer, CEO of digital agency Deep Focus, said clients have cooled on BuzzFeed’s content creation abilities, pointing to instances where clients used BuzzFeed for distribution but had the content created elsewhere.”

,” he said. “

This is important because of two reasons. First, a huge chunk of BuzzFeed’s revenues come from their Creative Department. Secondly, occasionally great branded content surrounded by crappy native ads will ensure that readers will eventually click less BuzzFeed’s sponsored content.

As Josh Constantine pointed out in his TechCrunch post:

 

 

By embracing a distributed strategy, BuzzFeed has deprioritized it’s own brand by blending content into social feeds. Any premium that may have been charged as a result of being associated with the BuzzFeed brand is automatically diminished.

 

via GIPHY

Ironically, thanks to BuzzFeed’s success, competition for branded content has only gone up. Many publishers offer“content studios” that makes high quality native ads, contributing to the competition with pricing. downward price pressure on the market. [97]

While perhaps not as seamless as with BuzzFeed, getting significant distribution across platforms is not necessarily a challenge for many brands. According to a whitepaper by Cision:

“Services like Outbrain, AddThis and others offer self-service ways to promote content in the context of large publisher’s sites without having to directly deal with the publishers and their budget minimums. Bid-based marketplaces encourage experimentation and give marketers a chance to hone their messages and content types while controlling spend. These services can help make an already popular post more widely shareable. Nativo, Sharethrough and others put brand content right into the feed on multiple publishers’ sites, with targeting and analytics to measure the results.” [98]

This may have been, at least partly, the cause for slashing its 2016 revenue projects by about half on the heels of missing it’s 2015 projects by $80 million. [112]

 

 

via GIPHY

Marketers also are demanding more proof that native ads are effective at more than just getting clicks and shares. While being able to tie its native ads to business results has been a focus for BuzzFeed, there hasn’t been any significant breakthroughs in this area yet.

,” said Jonathan Perelman, VP of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. “.” [103]

One early solution to tackle this problem: more call-to-action buttons are showing up in native ads.

,” said Todd Sawicki, CEO of Zemanta, a programmatic native ad platform. “.” [103]>

 

As we look to the future of Buzzfeed, perhaps, this rumination from the Atlantic sums it up best:

 

 

Contibuting Authors: 

Anuj Adhiya

Morgan Brown

Written by
AA
Anuj Adhiya
  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    11 months ago #

    Writing this was a super educational experience. @morgan is the man for providing direction and what ultimately became the bones on which this study could be fleshed out to this extent.

    While researching this I was blown away by two things:
    a. the sheer scope of what BuzzFeed is attempting, which explains the length of this study
    b. their keen understanding of human psychology, which is heavily informed by their data-centric approach.

  • LS

    Lauralynn Stubler

    11 months ago #

    this is fabulous!

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    11 months ago #

    Amazing job on this @AnujAdhiya (with help from the growth study master himself @morgan ). There is a ton of learning in this growth study!

    Pro-tip for anyone who doesn't want to sit inside and read this on a nice spring day, save it to Pocket and listen to it while you are on a long walk. Here's a screenshot of how to do it https://www.evernote.com/l/ACnTqSB29UdG6r5RlyjdX3fPJuEodnWRTaM.

  • BW

    Brand Winnie

    11 months ago #

    Great job @AnujAdhiya and @morgan!

  • ES

    Edward Stephens

    11 months ago #

    This is one hell of an effort. I can't wait to bed down and read this one!

  • SM

    Sachin Maini

    11 months ago #

    Great, comprehensive study on Buzzfeed & the meteoric rise of digital native media. Excellent work @AnujAdhiya & @morgan

    By the way, liked the bit at the end from The Atlantic - the lamentable decline of Time into a Buzzfeed knockoff was tragic.

  • MM

    Mickey Mork

    11 months ago #

    Lots of "aha" moments while reading this. Thank you for this very good article.

  • PV

    Philip Verghese

    11 months ago #

    Hi Anuj Adhiya and Morgan Brown,
    What an Epic post, great compilation of Buzzfeed posts
    This is indeed a great guide or reference to check again and again. Thanks for providing those funny Gifs in between and the connected links along.
    Yes, someone said, it's indeed a great study material pregnant with a lot of information.
    Thanks for posting it here at Growthhackers,
    May you have a great and profitable days of sharing ahead.
    Best Regards
    ~ Philip Ariel
    @PVAriel

  • MM

    Mary Morgan

    11 months ago #

    Really great article!

  • CM

    Claire Maggio

    11 months ago #

    Packed to the brim with helpful information. Thank you for sharing this.

  • TF

    Terrence Freeman

    11 months ago #

    Superb!

  • IL

    Imelda Lockhart

    11 months ago #

    I remember that viral dress! Great article!

  • CL

    Ching Law

    11 months ago #

    Thank you for this awesome compilation.

  • ML

    Michael Lambourne

    11 months ago #

    What a great and very in-depth article! This was a very interesting/fun read!

  • AR

    alice rose

    6 months ago #

    Love the section on "What Makes Things Go Viral?"

  • MM

    Megan Mosley

    11 months ago #

    Good read!

  • RH

    Raviraj Hegde

    7 months ago #

    Really interesting article! In-depth article.

  • JH

    James H

    7 months ago #

    interesting case study. Very long but can take away plenty of things

  • MP

    Maxime Pico

    5 months ago #

    That was great! However it felt like some pieces of the text were missing, I couldn't even see them in the source code so I don't think it comes from my browser. It frustrated me a lot while reading :D
    Thank you very much for that article!

  • DE

    derrick evans

    17 days ago #

    Great intel for the attack. :-)

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