Can you mix hookers with highbrow? 5 questions for BuzzFeed in 2013

Viral media site BuzzFeed emerged as a serious news force in 2012 while also churning out content about cats and call girls. This formula defies convention but the site’s success means others may soon be imitating BuzzFeed’s unorthodox editorial strategy.

To get a sense of BuzzFeed’s unique approach to news, take a look at some of the the stories it selected as “most successful” for 2012. They include a Wall Street hooker’s wish she could tell clients they were “bad in bed” but also serious business and political features — and, of course, mega-viral listicles like “21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity” and “50 people you wish you knew in real life.”

In the coming year, BuzzFeed is poised to shape the rest of the media industry even as it tries to keep up its own momentum. Here are five things to watch for:

Is the mix of highbrow and tabloid sleaze here to stay?

BuzzFeed made its name with fluffy fare designed to be shared by what founder Jonah Peretti calls the “bored at work crowd.” More recently, the site has sought to climb the quality ladder by hiring respected journalists and producing New Yorker-style articles. This raises the question of whether two very different forms of content quality can co-exist under the same title.

In the traditional media world, highbrow and lowbrow fare live in very different silos. The New York Times(s nyt), for instance, doesn’t publish sensational headlines or sacharine cat spreads. Meanwhile, the tabloid press doesn’t bother much with long political profiles or ponderous articles about art galleries.

BuzzFeed, however, has chosen to straddle both worlds. Other media outlets may be tempted to follow in the hopes of obtaining a mass audience and serious intellectual influence. It’s too soon, though, to know if traditional divisions between highbrow and tabloid news are largely a function of the print age — or if they are instead tied to fundamental principles of trust, authority and branding.

Will BuzzFeed acquire a political identity?

When its content was based on cats, it was easy for BuzzFeed to hide any political leanings. That will be harder as the site reports more about Congress and the economy. The coming year will determine if BuzzFeed stays non-partisan or if it will take on liberal leanings like the New York Times or the Huffington Post(s aol), where Peretti was a founder.

While a middle-of-the-road approach may seem safe, other outlets like Daily Kos and Michelle Malkin show that partisanship is popular. It’s also worth noting that BuzzFeed’s mastery of emotive images and viral distribution means it could put a powerful thumb on the scale for controversial issues. Image the treatment BuzzFeed could give topics like immigration (“10 Mexicans who are a lot like you”), gun control (“4 ways a Bushmaster kills kids faster”) or the economy (“5 home remedies you can use after baby boomers drain Medicare”).

Will all those pageviews turn into money?

BuzzFeed, like the U.K.’s Daily Mail, has galloped up the reader ranks with the help of sophisticated analytics tools. In September, BuzzFeed had doubled its traffic from a year ago with 11.5 million unique visitors according to comScore numbers cited in a BusinessInsider account.

The rapid growth will help BuzzFeed stay ahead of a choppy ad market for non-specialty news sites but, in the long run, the site’s success depends on its vaunted native ad strategy. This year, BuzzFeed will be the leading test case for whether native advertising is in fact the future business model for journalism or if, as detractors say, it’s just another buzzword.

What about the mobile morass?

Like every other publisher, BuzzFeed will soon face a situation where half its traffic comes by way of a mobile device where, for most, advertising revenue is still a pittance. The mobile migration will put BuzzFeed’s native advertising strategy even further to the test.

Will a BuzzFeed competitor emerge this year?

As BuzzFeed gains influence, others may be tempted to copy its approach by employing the same package of viral content and analytics. Low barriers to entry mean that we could see the emergence of BuzzFeed clones by the end of the year — either new sites that target BuzzFeed’s verticals or old meda brands that reboot their existing offerings on a BuzzFeed model.

(Image by TijanaM via Shutterstock)