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Anyway, I've been curious to know what they put in the water over there that they're doing so well, so I stopped in at a Social Week Chicago talk given Monday by the website's chief revenue officer, Andy Wiedlin, about how Buzzfeed tries to connect its advertisers with its audience. The site has a pretty plausible theory on the mechanics of article sharing on the Web, which every Internet user can probably learn from.
Back in the day, you'd get your news from your AOL or Yahoo! page as you logged into e-mail. Later it'd be from news sites' home pages (nytimes.com, chicagotribune.com). Now, Buzzfeed thinks, people get most of their news from their social media streams, like what a friend puts up on Facebook, and that creates a new opportunity. "Nobody puts 'Basset hounds running' on a Yahoo! page," Wiedlin said. "No one searches it. But everyone clicks when they see it."
Not terribly hard to figure out when your first serendipitously weird article goes viral, but here's where Buzzfeed has the jump on everyone: they figured out that the stuff people post on their social streams serve to make them look clever, caring, or cool. It's not a simple, altruistic recommendation; sharing means impressing your friends with your taste. Buzzfeed caters to a set of different tastes, whether that's cat videos or babies doing funny things or Mitt Romney et al or the most annoying spouses omg you guys. Any post that "goes social"—it's not "viral" anymore, I noticed—has a good amount of what Buzzfeed calls "emotional quotient," or EQ. It's better to have a good EQ online than a good IQ, because appealing to an emotion gets people to click "like" or "tweet," so other people think they're funny or caring or smart. Then you let the page views roll in, without having to do much more work.
[Disclosure: I applied and interviewed for a job at Buzzfeed a while back. I didn't get it.]
What should you take away from that? Wiedlin's point was mainly that if used right, social media can act as excellent word-of-mouth advertising for companies who do something out of the ordinary. You know those "LOL" and "WTF" buttons you can click on at the end of a post? Those aren't just for fun—Buzzfeed actually lets companies sponsor those streams. If my lightbulb company wants to be associated with Eureka-type articles, it can sponsor "OMG" content. This month on Buzzfeed has been nostalgia-themed, for which it launched a cloying new vertical called Rewind and developed a time machine for its homepage that converts all the content you see there to period-appropriate pieces from the 90s, 80s, 70s, etc. The time machine is sponsored by GE because apparently this type of advertising gets clicked on about 2 percent of views, according to Wiedlin, while banner ads have a 0.001 percent chance of getting clicked. GE's sponsorship also increases the positive responses people have to the company on social media, he said. Rather than cluttering up its users' experience on Buzzfeed, its head honchos are working with advertisers to get real, emotional responses to sponsored content. It's a win-win for any website.
But we casual Internet users could also be thinking a lot harder about how we share stuff, especially if our streams have to make us look cool. No more posts just informing everyone what you're doing, OK? That's weird. Or do it, I guess, but know that you'll face the consequences (i.e. my disdain). And writers? It's painful to admit, but there's a good chance your article will do a lot better online with a funny, provocative, or salacious headline. Don't worry, Buzzfeed has tips on how to do that.
And you know what, let's go back to that suicide, which happened after I wrote this post but before it went live. Fox News was broadcasting an Arizona car chase that looked like it was about over: the fugitive was on foot and looking desperate. Then he pulled out a gun and Fox didn't cut away fast enough, despite showing the tape on a five-second delay.
The first two reactions I saw in my Twitter feed were from Buzzfeed writers and all three of the first reactions were very "Buzzfeed":
Luckily there weren't any LOLs, but I'm sure that button was what people were thinking of when Buzzfeed posted the video, as if the site was offering this tragic and taboo moment up for the same kind of treatment. (Sure enough the Buzzfeed story was split between OMG and Fail, with two likes and ten dislikes, an hour after it was posted.) Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa and others found the post distasteful, probably for the same reason that Fox, by its own admission, shouldn't have shown the live shot.
Why is @buzzfeed sharing a suicide video? C'mon guys.
— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) September 28, 2012
In fact, YouTube took the video down, citing its policy of blocking graphic shock videos, but Buzzfeed found replacements. And that makes sense to others, like Slate tech reporter Farhad Manjoo, who feel that this is a legitimate news story that others are censoring over a sketchy claim to morality:
I'm with @buzzfeed. People are talking about a thing on Twitter. Posting stuff people are talking about is what BF does. This is their job
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) September 28, 2012
For all its talk about aggregating "the web's most sharable content," as Wiedlin put it, there's always going to be very popular stories that no one will ever share, like this kind of "mayhem porn". Buzzfeed reported on the suicide because it feels compelled to cover everything of note that happens online—"it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization," a spokesperson told Politico—and that makes it clear that that the site isn't simply interested in what people are happy sharing. There's a little something darker and perhaps more rigidly moral going on at the Cats and Corgis Emporium. It raises a couple of questions: Will hard, more gruesome news ever do well on the "social Web"? And what are those cool kids on your Facebook or Twitter feed really into?