BuzzFeed, purveyor of all things shareable, has released a new app and it is as simplistic and entertainment-driven as “Which Teletubby Are You?”—a real quiz you can take right now on the site. Straightforwardly titled “Cute or Not,” the brightly colored app is best described as Tinder for pets. Users swipe right (for “Cute”) or left (for “Not Cute”), earning badges along the way and uploading pictures of their own pets. And at this juncture, that’s about all the app does.
“We wanted to keep the interaction pretty light,” says Chris Johanesen, BuzzFeed’s vice president of product and an eight-year veteran of the media company. “It was this idea running in the back of our head—especially in the last year or two as apps are more and more important—that this would make just a really fun, amazing app.”
Born from an eponymous feature on the main site, Cute or Not is BuzzFeed’s second app in its nearly 10-year history and the beginning of what, according to Johaneson, will be a “year of apps” for the viral content creator.
“What makes this experiment exciting is that most of our experiments are about creating pieces of shareable media,” says Johanesen. “Whereas apps really are going to be about word-of-mouth and the people who get excited, download it, and evangelize it. So, the dynamics are definitely a little different than what we’re used to. But this definitely won’t be the last app.”
BuzzFeed is far from the first media company to experiment with mobile apps. (Shameless plug: Fast Company launched our first mobile app this week). In fact, apps are becoming a necessary part of engaging with users and, importantly, they offer media companies a chance to work outside dominant platforms like Facebook. Media companies are increasingly wary of being at the mercy of Facebook’s ever-changing news feed algorithm, which can drive millions of readers to a site one month and effectively silence it the next.
Last year, the late media columnist David Carr expounded on the uneven relationship between the social media giant and publishers, saying “The social network now has over 1.3 billion users — a fifth of the planet’s population and has become a force in publishing because of its News Feed, which has been increasingly fine-tuned to feature high-quality content. The company has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers…when it comes to sheer tonnage of eyeballs, nothing rivals Facebook.”
Rather than continue to rely on the decidedly unreliable revenue from website banner ads, many publishers, including BuzzFeed, are taking an experimental approach. Online news site Slate recently launched a podcasting platform, Panoply, and publishing giant Condé Nast is betting on 23 Stories, a cooly received native advertising venture in which, controversially, editorial staff members contribute to paid content.
For BuzzFeed, which receives 75% of its traffic through social media sites, Cute or Not is an app that will no doubt appeal to the hard-to-pin-down 18-34 age group that makes up 50% of the site’s visitors, half of whom access BuzzFeed primarily through mobile. If the company can engage those users on its own terms, through the power of mobile, there’s no doubt advertisers, already eager to work with BuzzFeed, will latch on.