How BuzzFeed Discovered the Secret to Success on Social Media
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Media historically has been created and distributed to audiences in a very specific way. For example, a radio or television program was written and produced, then broadcast to an audience who would consume it. The audience may or may not have enjoyed the final product, but either way, they had no recourse or input into the creative process. It was a one-to-many distribution model.
All of that changed with the introduction of BuzzFeed and other like-minded content platforms that produce open-ended “listicles” which allow the consumer to ascribe their own meaning to a particular piece of media. Ten years ago, no one would have thought a top-performing digital article could be titled “19 Reasons You Should Fall in Love with a Turkish Person.” But BuzzFeed has flipped the model of engagement on its head, and discovered the key to connecting with audiences that many brands haven’t figured out:
Great content isn’t about the content itself, but the emotion it can evoke from its audience.
As a result, the new norm is a many-to-many content distribution model. While many traditional content producers have desperately clung to the old way of doing things, BuzzFeed and publishers like it have reaped the benefit of younger audiences who engage deeply with ideas they are passionate about.
Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, has had a knack for drumming up emotional reactions since he was a college student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Back in 2001, Peretti submitted a request to Nike to customize a sneaker with the word “Sweatshop” printed on the side, a not-so-subtle jab at the corporation’s long history of alleged immoral labor practices. The company refused, citing the word as a “slur.” The back and forth that ensued resulted in a humorous email exchange between a regular consumer and a massive brand. Before the days of Facebook or Twitter, going “viral” was a foreign concept to most people. But chain emails (you may remember) where quite popular. Peretti forwarded the email string to 12 of his friends who pushed it to their networks, and quickly he was getting responses from all sorts of media outlets. Remarkably, he ended up on The Today Show discussing labor practices with the head of corporate PR for Nike.
After a couple of additional viral hits, namely “Black People Love Us” and the “New York Rejection Line,” which both resulted again in appearances on national television discussing social issues, Peretti realized that evoking emotion was more important than the journalistic quality of the content itself.
Fast forward several years, and Peretti has connected with other change agents like Ze Frank, who became executive vice president of video at BuzzFeed, and Ben Smith, who became editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. Smith had been working at Politico and was known for pulling city politics into the digital era with The Politicker, a blog he started for The Observer back in 2004. While other print reporters were waiting for deadlines to print relevant news, Smith would publish what he knew immediately to the Web and let readers leave comments, producing an engaging online conversation. He didn’t wait for change, he forced it. That mindset has transferred nicely into his role at BuzzFeed, as the publisher has leaned into change and created an almost entirely new way of executing content.
Through its insights, BuzzFeed has tapped into many cultural trends and connected with users on a deep level. “We think of media as something people use to help them in their lives,” Peretti noted at the recent HubSpot Inbound conference.
Though most of their catchiest pieces seemingly are intended only to entertain, BuzzFeed makes an effort to understand their audience, and anticipate what they might be looking for so they can change and adapt accordingly. After the horrible tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, BuzzFeed noticed an uptick in content that was deemed to be comforting. People in disbelief of the horror they were seeing everyday where looking for something positive in the world. Editors responded by creating a listicle called, “26 Moments That Restored Our Faith in Humanity This Year,” dedicated specifically to those users. Pretty remarkable, isn’t it?
When thinking about change, Peretti observes that the power comes from considering many trends and creating for the convergence of them. “We see lots of trends merge together. Video, mobile usage, and social media have converged and we are at the center of that behavior.”
BuzzFeed has also expanded to extend the new way of content creation into other areas with BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, BuzzFeed News and BuzzFeed International. While the interests of the organization have become differentiated, they all still filter through the same criteria. According to Peretti, they ask six distinct questions of their content:
- “Does it spread internationally?”
- “Does it work across multiple platforms?”
- “Does it help people improve their actual lives?”
- “Does it actually change government institutions?”
- “Does it help make the world more open and media more diverse?”
- “Does it help people connect with each other?”
These may seem somewhat grandiose, but some BuzzFeed projects have achieved each of these goals. Here are some great examples of micro-change they’ve initiated:
BuzzFeed published an article called “29 Things Everyone with Nipples Should Know.” This article resulted in a user email with the subject, “BuzzFeed Saved Me!” As it turns out, a woman read the article and noticed something wrong with her own breast, so she got it checked out and discovered stage 1 breast cancer that was treatable because it was found so early.
Recently, when Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, BuzzFeed uncovered a Russian soldier’s Instagram account that was posting with a geo-tag from inside Ukraine. The soldier was driving a tank around and posting “selfies” to the Internet. Pretty stupid soldier, pretty smart use of technology by BuzzFeed.
As Peretti notes, “In traditional media, organizations need to make things that will appeal to 80 percent of the population. In social media, it is quite the opposite. The more specific our content is, the more useful it is to that audience.”
Brands producing content and forcing a one-to-many approach are failing to recognize this key insight. By focusing on creating emotional connections with consumers, brands can realize the success that BuzzFeed has had in mobilizing audiences.