Unless you're one of those people who's still not on Facebook, you've probably seen BuzzFeed's quizzes pop into your newsfeed.
We've named BuzzFeed as a Most Innovative Company for the way they understand the way we share. As CEO Jonah Peretti has said before, if a piece of content gets going on social networks, it has a chance at getting 34 times the traffic than if it's just on the homepage.
The most successful quizzes, then, are the things we can't help but share:Which Decade Do You Actually Belong In? and What Kind of Dog Are You? have each pushed past the 8 million pageview mark; What Career Should You Actually Have? has crested 13 million. What City Should You Actually Live In? has earned 20 millions clicks; Which State Do You Actually Belong In has nearly 40 million total views. But while the just-published essays doing psychoanalysis on the quizzes might make you think that they just started, they've been around for a long time—and their growth is a case study in clickable perseverance.
By a long time we mean 2008. The early quizzes look retro in comparison to the eye-fetching sweetness of the traffic-monster quizzes we know today; rather than a grid of hilarious possible answers, users get a bubble to click on.
"What happens with these products internally, they live and die by the excitement of our editorial staff," says chief technology officer Mark Wilkie.
When the quizzes first launched, Wilkie recalls, the interface wasn't so great—you had to build this whole logic of the quiz and that took tons of time and effort. And since the editorial staff was left unstoked by the prospect of quizzes, they languished.
To cure that, Wilkie's team cleaned up the interface of the editorial-side content management system, making it more intuitive on the editorial side. Then, crucially, they started rolling out "one-shot quizzes"—the kind where you give one answer and get a result.
That narrowed the scope of the problem, Wilkie says; instead of having to deal with 10 questions with five answers each, they just had one to deal with. This allowed the dev team to focus on user experience—for all their various users. As Wilkie explains:
We did enough iteration on it and got enough feedback from the editors and from users and the product people put enough focus on it that it hit that critical mass and all of a sudden it just exploded. This is why I'm a technology person not a product person—if it was up to me, I would have dropped it because we put a lot of energy into it and it didn't seem to get the traction we would want. To (CEO) Jonah (Peretti)'s credit, he was tenacious about quizzes. And we just kept tweaking it, it would languish for a while, and we'd keep tweaking it—and eventually it got to the point where quizzes just exploded."
This, Wilkie says, is the way content types grow at a place like Buzzfeed. The mission of the company is to make content that people love enough to share, but that shareablity won't have a chance to occur if the backend system isn't easy for editors to use. But once the technology is frictionless enough, then the editorial staff can get their hands on the new content type, start to understand how traffic works, and figure out what will make people engage with it.
"A lot of it is this marriage of technology and product and user experience," he says. "Like how do we build great quiz technology that allows the editors to seamlessly create quizzes. A part of it is always like, what's the barrier of entry for our editors? How hard is it do? How seamless is it? How clunky is it?"
That seems to be the lesson of viral content: if you declunk it, the readers will come.