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How BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti Is Building A 100-Year Media Company

Once the "bored at work" network, BuzzFeed is now a globally distributed digital media powerhouse read by 79 million people every month.

BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen, Motion Pictures president Ze Frank, and CEO Jonah Peretti keep BuzzFeed weird—and powerful—by never getting too comfortable.

[Photos: Eric Ogden; Set design: Eric Hollis; Grooming: Keiko Hamaguchi at Art Department]

Ask BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti about his influences, and his answer sounds like, well, a BuzzFeed post—one titled "The Three Historical References That Explain BuzzFeed Will Make You Say WTF." Peretti first points to a company that started more than 100 years ago, Paramount Pictures, which owned a film production studio, its own cast of talent, and its own distribution channel in the form of theaters. "That allowed them to adapt and change as the market changed," says Peretti.

Peretti’s second fascination is with CNN—how founder Ted Turner ran a 24-hour news operation at a fraction of the cost of what the networks spent, due in part to prescient use of satellite and cable technology.

And then there’s Jay Z. In the early 1990s, Peretti, who grew up in Oakland, California, attended public school where, he says, "The only music was black music." The lyrics were full of boasts—selling more albums, earning more money, amassing more bling. Later in life when Peretti, now 42, made friends with people who loved indie rock bands, he noticed "this weird thing where it’s like, the band that they love, they go to all their shows, but as soon as they have a record deal, ‘I don’t like them anymore.’ " There was a similar attitude among bloggers, he says, who had a "deeply tortured relationship with popularity. The mainstream media is somehow evil, bad, or selling out." Peretti didn’t share this angst. "With BuzzFeed, I always felt like, let’s have as big an impact as we can. Let’s grow this into something giant."

Or, as Hova himself once rapped, "I’m so far ahead of my time, I’m bout to start another life / Look behind you, I’m bout to pass you twice." BuzzFeed has built its success, like Paramount a century ago, by owning all the elements of a modern media business: a global news team, its own video pro­duction studio, a sophisticated data operation, and an in-house creative ad agency. Just as Ted Turner embraced cable before cable was cool, Peretti has pushed BuzzFeed to tailor its content to each emerging social channel, from Snapchat to Pinterest. And BuzzFeed is expanding globally, from the U.K. to Brazil, India to Mexico, Germany to Australia.

What color is this face?: "With BuzzFeed, I always felt like, let’s have as big an impact as we can. Let’s grow this into something giant," says CEO Jonah Peretti.

Much of this transformation has taken place within the past two years. The "bored-at-work network," as Peretti himself once called it, was merely a single U.S. website. In late 2014, he foresaw that people wouldn’t want to leave their social apps, so Peretti drastically shifted his company’s strategy: Instead of trying to lure eyeballs to its own website, the way most publishers do, BuzzFeed would publish original text, images, and video directly to where its audience already spent its time, some 30 different global platforms, from Facebook to the Russian social networks VK and Telegram. Rather than write one definitive article and publish it on every platform (the de facto standard in the media business), BuzzFeed would tailor content specifically for the network and audience where it’s being viewed.

How’d that turn out? Across all the platforms where it now publishes content, the company generates 5 billion monthly viewshalf from video, a business that effectively did not exist two years ago. Traffic to the website has remained steady—80 million people in the U.S. every month, putting it ahead of The New York Times—even though as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.

This move also creates new revenue opportunities as services like Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat seek to prove they can funnel money to partners who publish directly to their platforms. In the fourth quarter of 2014, "15% of our revenue was derived from video," says BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman. "Fourth quarter of [2015], 35% of our total revenue is video." The privately held BuzzFeed does not detail its financials, but leaked documents last summer revealed that the company was growing at about 200% annually, on pace to generate $100 million in 2014, and was the rarest of things for an Internet startup: profitable.

BuzzFeed has become the envy of the media world for its seemingly magical ability to engineer stories and ads that are shared widely—whether it’s a dress that looks to be either white and gold or blue and black, an investigation into taxpayer-funded "ghost schools" in Afghanistan, or an older cat imparting wisdom to a kitten on behalf of Purina. Rivals in the insular media world carp that BuzzFeed is gaming Facebook’s algorithm, or buying ads to pump up its content, and both are unsustainable; viral smashes like the dress are mere luck; even traditional brands such as The Washington Post can beat BuzzFeed with their own traffic-oriented gambits.

What’s lost here is a true understanding of what Peretti, one of the world’s most astute observers of Internet behavior, has built. The company’s success is rooted in a dynamic, learning-driven culture; BuzzFeed is a continuous feedback loop where all of its articles and videos are the input for its sophisticated data operation, which then informs how BuzzFeed creates and distributes the advertising it produces. In a diagram showing how the system works, Peretti synthesized it down to "data, learning, dollars."

Everyone who’s ever shared a BuzzFeed post on Facebook thinks they understand the company. But to truly get it, one has to consider all of BuzzFeed, as I did during a months-long exploration of its video, data, editorial, and advertising operations. "If we actually learn what works on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook," Peretti says, "and we actually learn what works in Brazil and the U.K., and we can figure out a way of sharing that knowledge, we should have a better understanding of how to make great content that people love." Peretti likens BuzzFeed’s secret to a fleet of self-driving cars: Each car learns from every other autonomous vehicle on the road, so eventually they’re all thousands of times smarter.

The other secret to BuzzFeed’s success is a culture that embraces constant change yet remains devoted to data-driven metrics. That’s a tricky combination, but essential for any company hoping to thrive in today’s tumultuous business climate.


"I love Hollywood. I love movies. I grew up on them. I love television shows," says Ze Frank, the head of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. "The way that stuff is made, however, doesn’t work necessarily in this environment."

Ironically, Frank, whose team publishes about 65 original videos every week—for YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, as well as for brands—is saying this from inside a 52,000-square-foot production studio on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles. There’s a soundstage, a test kitchen, a prop room as large as a vintage store, two bungalows with rooms that serve as reusable indoor sets, and a clear view of the Hollywood sign from the roof. In short, the new digs have everything one would expect in a traditional movie studio.

But Frank, a performer whose rubber-faced, staccato monologues on The Show back in 2006 created the aesthetic for the first wave of YouTube stars, runs a decidedly non-Hollywood shop. There’s a refreshing lack of pretension, in part because he’s avoided the hyperspecialized model used in traditional video production where a writer might never see a gaffer or even understand what that person does. (It’s the chief electrician on set, in case you’re wondering.) Everyone at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is "multihyphenated," says Ella Mielniczenko, 25, a writer-producer-performer for the series You Do You, an all-female scripted comedy that you could binge-watch along with Girls. "I can write better because I understand how I’m going to execute it and make it," she tells me. "I can direct better because I know what it’s like to be in front of the camera."

Frank’s multihyphenates are organized into teams—often color-coded—of no more than seven people, each devoted to a type of video, such as those that promote racial equality ("If Latinos Said the Stuff White People Say") and "franchise" formats such as Reaction videos ("Celebs Watch Animal Births") and Moments ("Awkward Moments You Know Too Well"). To ensure that no one gets complacent, the entire staff is reorganized into different teams every three months. Frank believes that this keeps the creative process from becoming calcified and helps producers unlearn habits. "There’s this highly articulated way of making video that started 100 years ago," says Frank, who has overseen the making of more than 7,000 videos in the three years since Peretti got him to join BuzzFeed by acquiring his startup. "The modern opportunity necessarily means that you have to question almost every one of those decisions. Things like, ‘Should we be talking about story as the prime vehicle for video versus a moment or a character?’ "

Mielniczenko’s series epitomizes BuzzFeed’s updated approach. You Do You focuses on the interplay among the main characters, Ashly, Ella, Quinta, and Sara, as they explore particular moments in their lives. The narrative arc that’s woven through the episodes—going to a friend’s wedding together—is secondary at best. Last fall, BuzzFeed decided to bundle the 12 episodes of You Do You for $2.99 on iTunes, the first time it sold its content directly to the public. The series hit No. 1 on the Top TV Seasons chart the week after its release, beating The Walking Dead and Fargo.

BuzzFeed’s video plans also include a partnership with Comcast’s NBCUniversal (which invested $200 million last summer) around the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. While NBC works on its traditional (and arguably calcified) "up close and personal" TV segments on prospective American Olympians, BuzzFeed was invited to film its own interviews. They asked the athletes goofy questions, such as, "Have you ever seen a live turkey?"—and then unleashed a turkey on set to capture athletes’ reactions. The result is "a video that they think is going to go mega-vi," says NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. That’s shorthand for "mega-viral," by the way—and no, Burke had never heard the term before either.


If BuzzFeed Motion Pictures feels chaotic—as if there’s a live turkey on set every day—it’s because that’s exactly what Peretti wants. "If everyone is in some highly structured organization, it’s hard for anyone to be creative," he says. "It’s hard for people to make new things without autonomy and freedom."

Peretti’s management philosophy stems from his early career as a teacher—and, he contends, from watching his younger sister Chelsea bloom into a top stand-up comedian. "The best teachers don’t just say, ‘I have a good way of communicating or connecting with the students.’ They also change what they’re communicating. They think of a new curriculum that they know the student will be excited about." As for his sister, who is now a regular on the Fox series Brooklyn Nine-Nine and of whom he’s clearly very proud: "What I learned from Chelsea and watching the way comics work is that they would tell a joke, and then the joke doesn’t quite connect, so they try and tell the joke a different way."

To thrive at BuzzFeed means learning to roll with it. "BuzzFeed is this insane morphing rocket ship," Emily Fleischaker, a creative director overseeing one of the company’s most popular properties, Food, tells me during a trip to her lower Manhattan test kitchen, which was previously located inside her apartment. "Every three months you have to be ready for someone to come in and be like, ‘You’re going to report to this person now, and your desk isn’t where it used to be.’ "

"And we’re moving houses tomorrow," chuckles Peggy Wang, the editorial director of the Lifestyle group, who was also a student of Peretti’s in the 1990s. (BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters moved five blocks south in early 2016.)

"And you have to be like," Fleischaker chimes in, snapping her fingers, " ‘All right, let’s do this!’ "

Adaptability is a particularly useful trait in the digital media world right now. (Peretti himself relocated to L.A. in January, ostensibly because his wife prefers the West Coast, though he acknowledged in a staff email announcing the move, "BuzzFeed’s second-largest and fastest-growing team is based in L.A.") As he points out, the medium is still in its infancy: In the decade since BuzzFeed was founded, our computer usage has migrated from desktop to mobile; we’ve shifted from browsing the web to using apps; and still images are being usurped by live video streams that include chat. Peretti’s ability to frame the tech shifts that are upending content creation and consumption is why venture capitalists love him. "When he [Peretti] hangs out with us, he speaks tech natively and media with an accent," says Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz, who led a $50 million investment in BuzzFeed in 2014.

BuzzFeed is Peretti’s vision, shaped by his restless curiosity. In high school, he saved his money from doing yard work to buy a Macintosh computer. He discovered the Netscape browser as a sophomore in college, and upon graduation from the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed at a tech startup but decided that a $24,000-per-year job teaching computers at a private school in New Orleans was more interesting. He landed at the MIT Media Lab, where his thesis was a software authoring tool for the classroom. Cofounding The Huffington Post in 2005 was Peretti’s introduction to startups and business, but a year later, he wanted to go off and experiment again. HuffPo’s investors gave him a little seed capital because "they wanted me to be able to keep doing Huffington Post," he says. "It was like, ‘Oh, Jonah’s doing his little R&D lab.’ " He stayed on until 2011, when AOL acquired HuffPo for $315 million. Only then did BuzzFeed become Peretti’s sole focus.

Although BuzzFeed currently employs approximately 1,200 people and is valued at $1.5 billion, Peretti still largely thinks of it as his teaching workshop. Now, as the company is reaching a size where it has to act like a real business, Peretti is finding ways to harness the chaos, just enough, to cross-pollinate ideas across departments. "A lot of what we are working on organizationally is, How do we create structures where there’s lots of local autonomy plus some global coordination?"


It’s a crisp fall afternoon in October and Matt Stopera, a 28-year-old BuzzFeed senior editor, is discussing hoverboards—"a good, funny recent example of something where we were a little too soon," he tells me. "A couple of weeks ago, we did a post on people failing. They’re falling." When I tell Stopera that I saw the piece everywhere on Twitter, he’s dismissive. "In our Twitter world," meaning media and tech professionals, "everyone was talking about it, but in the real world, people aren’t really talking about it."

Stopera, an Internet savant so steeped in pop culture that he appeared on an episode of MTV’s Fanography as a teenager for his "psychotic" love of Britney Spears, is explaining how he and his 500-plus peers in the editorial department define success. They rely on an internal proprietary metric, known as "viral lift," that quantifies how much and how quickly a piece of content is shared. "If something has a 1.5 viral lift and 100,000 views and above, that was worth doing," he tells me. "It’s a failure if you have 400,000 views and a 1.1 or 1.2 lift. That’s a flop."

Most publishers would perceive the post with 400,000 views to be the success, but at BuzzFeed sharing is paramount. As Stopera explains, "It wasn’t shared. It was all seed. The fun in the game is getting people to share something. I click on shit all the time. ‘Oh, let’s look at what this person posted on Instagram,’ and you saw their butt cheek. It’s like, click, but I’m not going to share it."

"I take no responsibility for what these insane reporters cover," says Dao Nguyen, the data maven whom Peretti named publisher in October 2014. (Editor-in-chief Ben Smith manages the journalists.) She is, however, entrusted with figuring out how articles and videos travel across all the platforms where BuzzFeed plays. "Traditionally, publishing meant owning a printing press and dealing with delivery trucks and newsstands," says Nguyen, 42, who in fourth grade was caught debugging software code instead of doing class work (her punishment was to program a state capitals quiz for the entire class). "With digital media, getting your content to the public is all about your technical platform and your distribution plans on social networks."

As Peretti explains, "What is the competitive advantage that you can gain as a publisher today? You’re not going to inherit one or get one given to you by a spectrum grant," he says, referring to the historical benefits of a family-run newspaper or a radio station. "Having technology, data science, and being able to know how to manage, optimize, and coordinate your publishing is the thing that gives you a competitive advantage."

To illustrate how BuzzFeed is analyzing social sharing and how that will influence the company, Nguyen takes me to meet Andrew and Adam Kelleher, the ginger-haired twins who lead the Pound project. Andrew, the engineer, and Adam, the data scientist, explain that Pound is a way for BuzzFeed to understand how people share content across different social networks. Let’s say I find an interesting article on Twitter and then copy the link and post it to Facebook, where one of my friends reshares it to his network, and then one of those people puts it back on Twitter. Pound connects the dots to show how I’m connected to that friend-of-a-friend who put it back on Twitter, even when that social chain—the "propagation graph"—is several links deep and includes multiple platforms. "Facebook only sees how content flows within its own network," says Adam. "It doesn’t see how it is connected with other ones."

This is a unique data set, and the Kellehers, whose parents put colored dots on their eyeglasses to tell them apart as kids, have come up with nine different metrics to quantify it all, including the "propagation rate between nodes." That one’s particularly valuable because it measures the amount of time it takes for a piece of content to be shared between two people, and if that happens at an increasing rate, it’s a good sign that something is going to go mega-vi.

"If you think of the course of human history," Adam adds, "we’ve seen continually increasing propagation rates within pairs as we’ve improved our telecom infrastructure." From telegraph to telephone to email to instant messaging, information has moved faster and in larger quantities, spurring economic and social changes in the process.

Collecting massive amounts of data over time has allowed BuzzFeed to learn, among other things, that while ideas get an early start on Twitter, they go wide and become popular on Facebook (which is what Stopera understood about hoverboards). The team is even beginning to grasp how an idea spreads if it’s seeded among certain types of people on a specific social network. "We can make predictions about how a particular piece of content should spread through this network based on where it begins," says Duncan J. Watts, a sociologist with Microsoft Research and early BuzzFeed adviser who helped devise Pound. That’s why you might see an article titled "Guys Confess Secret Reasons Why They Cry" on a page devoted to stories about cats.


Pound’s insights help BuzzFeed gain a deeper understanding of its audience. But Pound is just one piece of an even more audacious data initiative called Hive that promises to make its editorial content more shareable than ever.

No one—not Peretti, Nguyen, or anyone else—actually has an exact idea how many pieces of content BuzzFeed creates or where it all gets published. Today, internal teams monitor their output using Google Spreadsheets and Slack—a hack that fails to match BuzzFeed’s increasingly complicated distribution system.

One goal of Hive is to track every editorial idea, even ones that aren’t published, across all of BuzzFeed’s many platforms. A seven-step web recipe for slow-cooker chicken becomes a 46-second Facebook video, and then a 15-second Instagram clip with the instructions written as a comment, and finally a Pinterest post with two images and a link back to the Facebook video. And if it’s going on Snapchat, it needs to be shot in portrait mode as well. It’s all the exact same recipe, but "we put it on Facebook, and we put it on YouTube, and we put it on AOL and Yahoo," says Hive lead Jane Kelly, "and all of a sudden it’s 15 different MP4 files." Soon, every piece of content produced will be uploaded into a central database and assigned a unique ID.

Hive will enable BuzzFeed engineers to create many other useful tools, including being able to track how well something like that slow-cooker recipe performs as it migrates from Twitter to Facebook to Snapchat. What’s more, it knows how each piece of content is related—whether it was about the same topic or featured a particular actor—and how well it connected with an audience. If a writer is going to do a post about pizza, Peretti says, "you should see all the things that the audiences have loved about pizza, you should see what people have done before," he explains, "then build on top of that."

Take, for example, the series about short-girl problems: It began with an article on the website that attracted more than 8 million views, titled "30 Awkward Moments Every Short Girl Understands"; it then became a scripted YouTube video ("10 Problems Only Short Girls Understand"); and ultimately it inspired a cartoon titled Trans Girl Problems that appeared on Facebook. Hive will speed the editorial evolution of popular ideas like this one.

From a technical perspective, Hive is both simple—maybe five tables in a relational database—and absurdly abstract. One diagram Kelly shows me has a pipe labeled pixie dust as well as an animated Super Mario jumping up and down on part of it.

"We think of it as like a Voltron," says Nguyen, referencing the schlocky 1980s cartoon starring a super robot. Each platform is a smaller robot, and the combined learning about what works across all of them make BuzzFeed "like an even more powerful robot that no one can defeat."

Voltron, er, Hive will be increasingly important as BuzzFeed expands globally, to identify what works across borders. Like its approach to different social networks, BuzzFeed aims to create something organic in each global market rather than simply translating an article into another language. "We don’t want to be seen as an American company that’s going into these local markets spreading the gospel of American pop Internet culture," says Qichen Zhang, an international product lead. Better that BuzzFeed find content in far-flung locales that appeals to everyone across the globe. Peretti, channeling Marshall McLuhan, believes BuzzFeed will succeed globally because of the rise of postliterate media. "Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Minions, Transformers," he rattles off. "Anywhere the dialogue is less important than the special effects. Or a Nicki Minaj video. There are things that you don’t really need language to appreciate."

The platonic ideal can be seen in one of BuzzFeed’s biggest 2015 hits, sparked when Stopera noticed that his iPhoto feed started including pictures of a man in China standing next to an orange tree. He figured out that the photos were coming from his old iPhone, which he had lost in a bar a year earlier, so he wrote a story about it. A few hours after it was published, the story was translated into Chinese and posted to Weibo, a Twitter-like service in China which at the time had 198 million monthly active users. Stopera soon became that network’s most popular trending topic. Weibo users tracked down the guy in the photo with the orange tree, Li Hongjun, and brokered an introduction to Stopera, who bought a plane ticket to China and, a few weeks later, landed in the Meizhou prefecture where he was met at the airport by a mob of reporters. Stopera and Brother Orange, as he’s now known, traveled around the country for eight days, met by ever-larger crowds and showered with gifts. They held press conferences, planted an orange tree, took a mud bath together, posed for photos with babies, and rode around in a car with their faces painted on its side. At one point, Stopera inadvertently endorsed a few liquor products. The BuzzFeed post on Weibo about their first meeting racked up 70 million views, and the duo appeared together on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. The tale of the lost-iPhone-turned-heartwarming-bromance is soon to become a feature-length documentary, produced by BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.


Amid the tumult of BuzzFeed’s editorial and data operations, it can be easy to forget that the company makes money by achieving viral lift for advertisers. BuzzFeed houses a branded studio that produces lists, quizzes, and (increasingly) customized video for clients such as HBO, Taco Bell, and Ford; copywriters have access to the same data insights as everyone else at the company. BuzzFeed places native ads—which are designed to look like the content where they appear—not only on its own site but everywhere it distributes its editorial. What’s more, many brands value BuzzFeed’s social wizardry so much that they hire the company simply to distribute their traditional ads to a targeted audience, primarily on Facebook. (This helps explain why BuzzFeed appears to spend so much money there.)

The business model is inspired in part by Google, which "built a search engine where you put in a keyword and you get relevant results, and you also get relevant sponsor results," Peretti explains. "It’s the same engine that’s powering recommendations to queries. When they get better at doing that core thing for consumers, they also make more money."

Selling ads at BuzzFeed falls primarily to Greg Coleman, a former HuffPo colleague of Peretti’s who joined as president in the summer of 2014, and CMO Frank Cooper, who came over from Pepsi­Co a year later. Their task is to make BuzzFeed a core part of marketers’ advertising budget, despite its unorthodox approach. "I can’t do, ‘Oh, look at my cool BuzzFeed way,’ " Coleman says. "I have to hold BuzzFeed to the same standards in terms of efficacy, research, and proof points, use down-and-dirty syndicated research, things that they know."

"Brands have to figure out how not just to be sponsors, they need to become creators," says CMO Frank Cooper. "That’s what we’re trying to teach them."

The custom ads that Coleman’s team are selling are still considered out there by many marketers. Coleman recounts one brand exec audibly gasping when shown a two-minute comic vignette that didn’t feel like a TV spot. The video in question, though, has become BuzzFeed’s advertising calling card: The "Dear Kitten" campaign for Purina’s Friskies brand cat food, where a feline elder statesman (which happens to be voiced by Ze Frank) schools a kitty in the ways of the world—"I remember when I could fit in a shoe. There’s nothing like it, being engulfed by 360 degrees of foot smell. [Sniff] Enjoy it while you can." Hilarious, cuddly, and including an obvious pitch for cat food, the original spot has been watched almost 25 million times on YouTube alone, and nine subsequent videos have racked up another 40 million YouTube views. ("Dear Kitten" has been so successful that many clients expect a monster hit just like it. Coleman says he’s had to guide brands to understand just what BuzzFeed can and cannot do for them: "We never go to a credit-card company and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to sell a billion credit cards.’ ")

As Cooper points out, it’s not just the tone of the content that BuzzFeed is challenging, but also the way ad programs are developed. Rather than contract with a client to produce a set number of videos and hope they hit the mark—which is how traditional ad agencies work with clients—BuzzFeed wants to sell companies on the idea of rapidly iterating through a series of videos around a key message in an attempt to find the best fit for a particular platform. It’s not all that different from how BuzzFeed editors cycle through posts on a topic like hoverboards until they hit the zeitgeist. There were four other Purina videos that hardly anyone saw before "Dear Kitten."

"It sounds like a revolution," says Cooper, 51. "Large corporations don’t like revolutions. They like predictability. They like incremental growth." Still, BuzzFeed’s way is catching on. In August, BuzzFeed and GroupM, a division of WPP, one of the world’s largest advertising conglomerates, struck a yearlong, multimillion-dollar deal to create and distribute content together, following this model. "Their ability to conceive, create, test, define, and then either abandon or rinse and repeat is phenomenal," says Rob Norman, GroupM’s chief digital officer. The alliance has already led to video production for 13 different clients, including Nike, Target, and Unilever, with another 45 in the pipeline. "We’re spending more money with them than either of us expected," Norman says.


Pound and Hive, chaos and comedy, serendipity and quantified metrics: These are the tools of BuzzFeed’s newfangled global media enterprise. "There’s an opportunity for a modern media company to be more engaged with the audience than ever before," Peretti says, "and have a more intimate connection in people’s lives, to respond and be reactive to the things that matter to people."

In late November, he invites me to sit in on a guest lecture at an NYU Stern School of Business class on digital media innovation. In front of a packed auditorium of aspiring MBAs, Peretti, clad casually in his favorite gray hoodie, poses a series of questions about how BuzzFeed measures the impact of its work. Does the asset work across platforms? Does it click internationally? Does it help people connect with one another? Does it improve their lives? Does it inform the public and change institutions? Does it make the world more open and diverse?

BuzzFeed has answered them all, whether it’s an article titled "29 Things Everyone With Nipples Should Know" that led one reader to visit the doctor and discover she had stage 1 breast cancer or the weekly podcast Another Round, which recently featured Hillary Clinton as a guest. The cohosts, Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, asked: Did the mass incarceration policies passed during her husband’s administration "really fuck [things] up for black people" in the United States? The answer didn’t go mega-vi, but never has Clinton seemed more human.

Peretti is commanding and charming as he leads these 400 students through BuzzFeed 201. He’s a damn good teacher. "The intellectual challenge of trying to understand why ideas spread, how they spread, human psychology, those kinds of things," Peretti says, "is infinitely rich. I don’t feel like you ever figure that out." The more BuzzFeed remains focused on understanding people, the better a business it’ll be.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that BuzzFeed's valuation was $1.2 billion, it is currently valued at $1.5 billion.

Read more about our Most Innovative Companies of 2016

A version of this article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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