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Why BuzzFeed Is Following Its Audience Into The Stream

CEO Jonah Peretti says his company is attracting a billion video views per month. How? By going where the eyeballs are.

Why BuzzFeed Is Following Its Audience Into The Stream
[Photo: Flickr user tkkate]

BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti is just as obsessed with network effects now as he was back in 2001, when his email exchange with Nike became one of the earliest examples of “viral” media. At the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Peretti offered a peek at the network insights that have fueled BuzzFeed‘s success–particularly with video, which grew from 60 million monthly video views in 2013 to over a billion per month as of this week.

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The presentation, which Peretti has been sharing within his company for several months, upends some of the underlying models upon which many web publishers base their business–and offers compelling evidence that growing revenue by trying to attract clicks from social media to your own website is becoming increasingly futile.

Content produced by BuzzFeed, for example, attracts 18 billion impressions per month in aggregate across Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. But that translates into only 420 million clicks back to the website. While few publishers enjoy this kind of scale, the drop-off between impressions and clicks is a well-known problem.

Most web publishers attempt to bridge this gap by pushing more links out into the social stream in an attempt to get people back on their website, where users can be shown ads of various types and sizes. “That is an experience that feels a bit outdated,” Peretti said.

“What if you said, ‘I’m going to take the content on the site and push some of that content out onto the stream?'” Because BuzzFeed long ago decided not to use traditional display advertising on its site, the company is in a somewhat unique position to chase its audience across the web. “We never focused on clicks and page views,” he said.

Peretti has even gone so far as to create a team within the company called BFF that is devoted to pushing original, platform-specific content out into the streams owned by other companies like Facebook and Twitter, and there is no expectation of drawing those eyeballs back to the BuzzFeed website. Peretti said that this strategy is a huge part of why BuzzFeed‘s video views have grown so quickly–because viewers don’t have to leave their favorite platforms to watch “Weird Things All Couples Fight About” or “6 Fruits You’re Eating Wrong“.

Even so, BuzzFeed had to rethink its own internal publishing structure in order to take advantage of this shift. The company moved from its vertically integrated publishing system to what Peretti called a network integration. BuzzFeed creates content in multiple formats and distributes it widely on other platforms. In return, the company gets back valuable data from social networks–and uses that data to make its content, including the content it produces for advertisers, even more effective.

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One example of how this model works can be seen in the video they recently made with President Obama, in which he performs a series of on-camera gags. Despite the seeming complexity of the production, the parts featuring the president were shot in just nine minutes.

The video team was able to produce the video so quickly because they had already learned from making earlier videos what gags would work best for different audiences and formats, Peretti said. With just a few takes, they created many different pieces of content out of that video, including animated GIFs.

He also said that many companies have come to BuzzFeed and asked why it doesn’t opt to create a traditional TV show or even launch a cable network. “We have resisted those kinds of opportunities because you get money back but you don’t get much data,” he said.

Clearly, the strategy is working. While other digitally minded media outlets are collapsing, Buzzfeed is thriving, generating at least $100 million in revenue in 2014.

About the author

I'm the executive editor of Fast Company and Co.Design.

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