"Don't let anybody ever talk to you about global advertising," says Greg Coleman, BuzzFeed's president and the person responsible for its advertising business. "Because it's there, but it's very limited." Global advertising, for a media brand, is a tough nut to crack: It requires massive global reach and the ability to attract the limited number of brands that want to advertise their wares all across the world. BuzzFeed is attempting to defy the odds by becoming a global cross-platform advertising powerhouse—and Coleman certainly has the background to pull it off.
When he ran global sales at Yahoo in the early 2000s, revenue grew from $600 million per year to $6 billion per year. He then moved to The Huffington Post and scaled that operation in preparation for its sale to AOL. As part of my reporting for this month's cover feature on BuzzFeed, Coleman and CEO Jonah Peretti revealed the strategy behind the company's global expansion—which is already proceeding at a rapid clip.
It starts with building a social audience in each new market. Editions in France, Australia, India, Germany, Mexico, and most recently Japan all started off by producing articles for the Buzz channel, which chronicles Internet and cultural trends. Buzz publishes the most share-worthy material, which drives social media growth for those new editions. And all that social data means BuzzFeed's existing data infrastructure—services like Pound that track the way stories spread from one social network to another—can be plugged in and put right to work, helping both the local edition and BuzzFeed sites all around the world make smart decisions about which stories will be popular.
"If something is blowing up in the United Kingdom, flags go off all over the world," says Coleman. "We're trying to say, 'What's going on, and how do we get involved with that? How does this global share and learning work?'"
Peretti tells me about a meme that started on a broken door at a university in Germany. "There was a sign that said, 'The technician's been informed—The techniker has been informed,'" says Peretti. But a few days later the door was still busted, so the students started posting versions of the sign all over campus. "A little kid in a tuxedo pointing to the ground like, 'Bring me the techniker, alive!'" he says. "Soon, there's dozens of these things everywhere."
BuzzFeed's Berlin staff published a story, in German, showing all the funniest techniker signs—and it got a million views. Because the editorial staffs around the world have access to the data, a BuzzFeed staffer in the London bureau saw the techniker post going viral in Germany and adapted it into English. That post got another million views from the U.K. and U.S.
"Five years ago, that probably would've been something on a blog or online media just in Germany," says Peretti. "Today, it's something that is a global story that crosses boundaries, has a massive reach, and this funny thing that happens in this one place results in lots of people seeing it."
Sometimes, however, the success of these stories gets lost in translation. Take the Nutella brownie recipe published on the Brazilian edition of BuzzFeed, which launched with three staff in early 2014 and by the end of the year was attracting around 7 million unique visitors to the site per month. At the time, they were still learning which classic BuzzFeed editorial tropes work for the Brazilian audience—and which ones don't. They picked up the three-ingredient brownie recipe, which was so successful in the United States that it has been translated into five different languages and been viewed 75 million times. But that recipe bombed in Brazil. Why? Nutella is very expensive there.
"A lot of the commenters were complaining, 'This recipe is only for rich people,'" says Peretti. Learning from local readers' feedback is key to creating more relevant content in the future. And on the business side, installing local sales teams who understand the local market, is crucial. Today, the Brazilian BuzzFeed has grown to an editorial staff of ten people, along with four people working on the business side.
Avoiding cultural snafus isn't the only reason why, like its approach to different social networks, BuzzFeed aims to organically create content specifically for each global market, rather than simply translating an article from one language to another. "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. "It's about understanding what people see in their Internet culture in their countries. Bringing it to the global BuzzFeed audience as a whole."
And sometimes there's no translation necessary at all, thanks to our increasingly visual global culture. Peretti calls it "post-literate media". "Angry Birds, Candy Crush, the Minions, Transformers—where the dialogue is less important than the special effects," says Peretti. "Or a Nicki Minaj video. There's things that you don't really need language to appreciate."
As the audience in each market grows to scale, says Coleman, "we start having critical mass where we can sell pan-European deals." Coleman knows how valuable those ads are: when he was at Yahoo, as much as 40% of the company's European ad revenue was from pan-European deals, he says.
If its projected growth in international markets continues as planned, BuzzFeed will become one of a handful of media companies with the ability to effectively distribute a worldwide advertising campaign on behalf of a brand. It has massive reach, lots of content that works both locally and globally, and its media platforms—its websites, its videos, it social media presence—are spreading across the globe. It has a strong, hip identity and attracts the coveted millennial audience. It has the technology in place to study its users' behavior across the Internet and use that information to target them—and create more popular editorial and advertorial content for itself and its partners.
"Where this is all headed on the business side is global and cross-platform advertising," says Peretti. "That means brands who work with us, they're getting branded video, they're getting lists, quizzes, they're getting things on BuzzFeed's site, they're getting distribution off BuzzFeed's site. That model will be the same in the U.K. as it is in the U.S. The advantage the international offices have is we've already built the tech and, in the case of the U.K., we already create lots of content in English that can be consumed by a U.K. audience, so the cost structure of those businesses could be even superior to the U.S."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.