What the mainstream media could learn from BuzzFeed

If anyone inside most traditional media companies thinks about BuzzFeed at all, they probably see it as the site that posts “viral” photo galleries of kittens and other web ephemera — or possibly as the site that hired reporter Ben Smith away from Politico to head up its more serious side. But while it may have gone unnoticed by most, the BuzzFeed network has grown into a significant digital-media entity, and Smith’s hiring is just the latest example of the site’s broadening ambitions. Is there anything that mainstream media companies can learn from what it has done, apart from the fact that web users like pictures of cats? As it turns out, an internal memo to staff from co-founder Jonah Peretti has more than a few worthwhile lessons.
The memo, which Hunch founder and venture investor Chris Dixon (who is one of BuzzFeed’s financial backers) posted to his blog, contains some interesting data about how much BuzzFeed has grown in just a few short years: according to Peretti — who also played a key role in the creation of another digital-media success story, The Huffington Post (s aol) — BuzzFeed passed the 30 million unique visitor mark last month, and he predicted that revenue for 2012 would be more than triple what the company brought in last year. In just the past year alone, BuzzFeed’s staff has multiplied from just 26 to 117. While the network might be a minor player compared to entities like the New York Times, those are still some fairly big numbers.
Peretti’s memo also contains the usual bromides and pep-talk statements that CEOs often include in such staff letters, about how BuzzFeed couldn’t succeed without a great team (which even Peretti admits “sounds a bit cliche and sappy”), but there are a few points that are worth highlighting — in part because they run contrary to the popular perception of the company. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes than just some scraping of 4chan or Reddit groups, something BuzzFeed has gotten some criticism for recently. Here are a few important points I think Peretti is making:

Digital media is a marathon, not a sprint

The BuzzFeed founder says that part of the company’s success is “long-term focus,” which is probably not something many observers would accuse the network of having. From the outside, it looks like all BuzzFeed cares about is getting more hits and clicks for its viral photos or videos (something even fellow digital-media maven Nick Denton of Gawker has criticized it for). But Peretti clearly has a much broader vision than just that. As he puts it:

We could juice our traffic and revenue by dropping everything and focusing entirely on the short term. And that is what companies do when they are trying to flip for a fast payday. But when you are building something enduring, you have to care as much about next year as you do about next week.

A lot of media companies, both mainstream and otherwise, seem to be looking for whatever quick fix they can come up with to boost their pageviews or web traffic so that they can drive revenues from online advertising — but this kind of strategy inevitably suffers if it isn’t well thought out. It may look like BuzzFeed is just throwing together whatever will get clicks, but Peretti sees what the company is doing as part of a long-term plan to create a truly web-native media enterprise.

Social is more than just a buzzword

In one section of the letter, Peretti talks about the principle of “respecting the reader,” which for BuzzFeed means not using pageview-pumping tactics like slideshows, and not cluttering up pages with SEO-friendly keywords or using headlines that misrepresent what is actually in the post. But what he’s really saying is that BuzzFeed isn’t just socially oriented because it makes for good traffic and that helps sell advertising (although that’s obviously the business model) — the site is social in the sense that everything it does is aimed at sharing information readers will enjoy, in a way they will enjoy it. It sounds simple, but many media outlets don’t see it that way — they see the content on their pages as something they have to produce in a specific way because that’s the way they have always done it, or because their editors find it valuable, not because readers have shown any interest in it. BuzzFeed’s success comes from seeing what readers are already interested in and then filtering and packaging it in as easy a format as possible for sharing. That works for political stories the same way it does for cat pictures. As Peretti puts it:

We focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers.

The same rules should apply to all content

One of the most interesting aspects of BuzzFeed’s business is that all of the social elements that the company focuses on for the posts it publishes also apply to its advertising. The network has no traditional banner ads or other formats as most media outlets do — its advertising looks and behaves exactly the same way as its other content, an approach that Twitter and Facebook are also taking with their advertising models. And Peretti makes a point in his letter of saying that the various pieces of BuzzFeed are seen as just different elements of one machine with a single purpose: getting people to share content.

People don’t do good work when they feel like losers and are second class citizens within their own company. Fortunately we have avoided that problem. We love the silly, we love the substantive, and we love making advertising that is actually compelling.

Whether BuzzFeed can follow through on its ambition of building a great digital-media entity — like a Conde Nast or Hearst, as Peretti describes it in his letter — is still an open question. Will users be as comfortable with the marriage of cute cat pictures and in-depth political reporting as Peretti is? One could argue that newspapers carry a similar blend of the ephemeral and the serious, but then they aren’t really doing all that well. And social advertising is a similarly risky bet, as even Twitter and Facebook would likely admit.
If nothing else, however, BuzzFeed makes for a fascinating case study in hyper-social media, something that other media companies large and small should be watching carefully.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin