Why Buzzfeed is worth $850m

Recently, I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in a discussion about the future. It’s always fun to speculate what the world might look like in 15 years.

The session was led by accountancy firm Grant Thornton and, thanks to a robust research process, injected futurology with a degree of academic rigour. Sensibly, GT passed up the chance to make concrete predictions for 2028 – predictions usually come back to haunt those dumb enough to make them. What GT did instead was develop four possible scenarios for how the future might look.

There is little new in such planning. Energy giant Shell was a pioneer of the technique, officially adopting it in 1972 and immediately benefiting when, the company claims, its work meant it was ‘mentally prepared’ for the oil shock the following year.

But how predictable is the future for business? If it’s as easy as drawing up possible outcomes and making sure your strategy fits most of them, why do so many large businesses collapse? I was minded of this when reading the recent news that Buzzfeed has secured financing from venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz worth $50m. That amount places a $850m tag on Buzzfeed’s head.

The very nature of ‘disruptive innovation’ means that the firms surviving for long periods end up in a different market to one they started in. It’s unlikely, for example, the founder of the small London antique shop that eventually turned into Shell, predicted it might develop quite that way. Nokia has transformed itself from Finnish paper mills to global mobile phone domination to being a part of Microsoft. Wipro has gone from being a rural vegetable oil business to an Indian IT giant

And Buzzfeed? Well that’s gone from a social media, entertainment business to apparently being an $850m business that is defining the future of news. This idea of unexpected transformation is always on the minds of those at the top of media businesses. GT didn’t consider the question of what the media might look like in 15 years’ time. But it is fair to assume it will be driven by similar technological, social and political pressures as the other elements of society and will have to change to fit in with how the world looks in 2028.

Now and then

Of course, there is always a tendency in these discussions to focus on what’s new and different. This is because the idea that the future might be essentially the same as now but in a different hat doesn’t excite anyone. It’s worth considering, however, that for all the technological innovations of the last 100 years, today’s cars wouldn’t be completely alien to Henry Ford. Predictions of driverless hoverboards haven’t (yet) come to much. In the same way, it’s possible to see people’s need for news and information as a constant.

But who, 15 years ago, would have predicted that a web-based ‘social news and entertainment site’, such as Buzzfeed, most famous for its list-based articles such as ‘The 21 Absolute Worst Things About Dogs’ or ‘The 32 Funniest People You’ve Never Heard Of’, would be worth more than the New York Times? So, is Buzzfeed news? It calls itself such and intertwined with ‘native advertising’ and entertaining lists, before the OMG or Fail sections, are some serious news stories and features.

World issues are covered. Is it trivialising the news, as some more ‘serious’ outlets suggest? Yes, but only for those who want to keep things light and who enjoy that mix of content (which, by the way, is lots of people). It’s not surprising that to moneymen the likes of Buzzfeed, able not just to cash-in on new digital habits but to shape them to suit its strengths (remember ‘social news and entertainment’) should be so highly valued.

Here’s how BuzzFeed currently describes itself:

BuzzFeed is the social news and entertainment company. BuzzFeed is redefining online advertising with its social, content-driven publishing technology. BuzzFeed provides the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web to its global audience of more than 150M.

In the football transfer window, with a market that values single players at £60m or £80m, everything else is relative. The same goes for digital investment. Amazon has just splashed a reported $970m for gaming platform Twitch, and video-messaging service Snapchat (yet to work out how to make any money) is valued at an eye-watering $10bn.

It may be uncomfortable for existing news outlets, but in the current market Buzzfeed is worth that $850m. It is making money and making news. And as more media outlets start to ape its content mix, content-marketing strategies will have to adjust accordingly. That’s not a firm prediction, rather a piece of potential future scenario planning. But it might be worth getting that ‘corporate listicle’ ready, just in case.

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