10 Lessons from Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed has turned the media industry upside down, making social media work and pioneering native advertising to turn a profit.

This small company has achieved a great deal in the few years of its existence, and it’s no wonder advertisers and media owners are looking to see what exactly makes Buzzfeed so successful. It also has lessons for content marketers.

You probably know Buzzfeed from its famous listicles and cat pictures, but it offers an increasing quantity of hard news. It also makes money, a novelty in the age of digital news.

Buzzfeed is also conscious of its editorial, and went on a deletion rampage, getting rid of  around 4,000 posts, in a spring cleaning exercise in early 2014, removing posts that were presumably too old or irrelevant to be useful.

Buzzfeed also has its detractors. Just this week French venture capitalist Frédéric Filloux wrote an excoriating letter to Andreessen Horowitz founder Ben Horowitz for investing in Buzzfeed, a company he claims, “Sucks. It is built on meanest of readers’ instincts.”

Whatever Filloux thinks, Buzzfeed is certainly forcing brands and advertisers to re-appraise their approach, and it’s working. Here are 10 things that Buzzfeed does well.

Each could be a lesson in itself. Buzzfeed has much to teach us, but Buzzfeed’s longevity is its willingness to adapt and change. It’s current model has inspired many imitators, and this could damage the way it does business in the future, but for now at least, it’s worth learning from the master.

  1. Social. Buzzfeed understands social and is the most successful brand to use earned media (social) to drive owned media (its own website), and make money in the process. Part of the way it has achieved this is in cutting-edge data analysis, using data to inform editorial choices.
  2. Content only. Buzzfeed does not allow display advertising, its vice-president of agency strategy Jonathan Perelman said, “You’re more likely to summit Mount Everest than click on a banner ad.” So, all of its advertising revenue comes from native advertising content in one form or another, whether video, lists, games or other content.
  3. ROI. While Buzzfeed does not earn more for the number of shares a post earns, or from content creation, but only from media and traffic, although branded content is actively promoted. But it does measure, making the performance of content easy to track, something brands and clients are very keen on.
  4. Content is king. UK Buzzfeed editor Luke Lewis said paid content clicks were below that of creative or news content, but only by a small margin. Buzzfeed content is in ‘story units’ that look just like the rest of the content, and have ten times the click-through rates of traditional display ads, according to Buzzfeed’s ad blurb.
  5. Track record. Founder Jonah Peretti learned about making social work through his involvement with the Huffington Post, which he created with Arianna Huffington in 2005, leaving when it was sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Building a dedicated editorial team is common to both projects.
  6. Viable business. Industry speculators think Buzzfeed has a lot of potential. Venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $50 million into Buzzfeed earlier this year, valuing the company at around $850 million. To give some perspective, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos paid a little more than a quarter of that, $250 million, for the Washington Post in 2013.
  7. Listicles. Some would say Buzzfeed has perfected the listicle, or list-article (this is another example). This is Buzzfeed’s most divisive output, and prompted satirical site The Onion to produce a story claiming a writer had plagiarised the ludicrous-sounding  “10 Llamas who wish they were models” listicle. Buzzfeed responded by producing exactly that listicle.
  8. Quality content. Buzzfeed does ‘proper’ news, its first exclusive was breaking John McCain’s nomination of Mitt Romney as Republican candidate for the US presidential election in 2012. More recently, they poached The Guardian’s former Moscow bureau chief Miriam Elder and have produced highly regarded work from Ukraine.
  9. Looking ahead. While Buzzfeed shuns banner ads, it has appointed an expert in programmatic advertising, Greg Coleman as its president, probably looking at ways to introduce mobile and video ads to Buzzfeed. He acknowledges that native ads will be recognised as a fad and binned only, “if engagement goes down.”
  10. Sharing secrets. Buzzfeed has launched the Buzzfeed University to teach brands how to produce content. This is to help Buzzfeed manage more branded content, as they charge for media, not creation.

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