As publishers, editors and writers, we need to look at how the changing face of publishing will affect us, and more importantly, how we can use the ever-growing digital platforms to our advantage. Recently it has been hard to avoid popular aggregation websites such as; Upworthy, Distractify and Buzzfeed, bombarding us with sharable content on social media. But that’s not all they’re worth, at a second glance we can find growing businesses revolutionising traditional subscription based news and paving the way for exciting new jobs in publishing.
There are many ways that digital publishing has recently changed and Buzzfeed is an example of a relatively young company with the capabilities of a first-rate tech start-up, and the sensibilities of media industry veterans. Buzzfeed have created their own CMS (content managing system) to improve the speed of publishing listicle content and formats. They are using data science and customer analytics to predict trends in order to create popular content. They are cleverly using brand publishing and content marketing to generate revenue from their entertainment journalism, in order to fund the editorial news sector of their business. This balance of ‘significant and silly’ is how Buzzfeed is keeping afloat in a changing ecosystem.
I believe one of the main reasons Buzzfeed is doing so well is their use of Facebook, so to understand and compare Buzzfeed’s pro’s and con’s or if you’d prefer, ‘Wins and Fails’ I sent out a survey and analyzed the results from 71 Facebook and Buzzfeed users.
Using Facebook to its advantage
By posting on Facebook, Buzzfeed is essentially ‘taking the mountain to Muhammad’. Rather than trying to draw readers to its site, they are actively pursuing them where they know their readers are waiting. Generation Y is no longer pursuing news and entertainment, but using social media to source it and news feeds to filter it. They’re lazy, and Buzzfeed knows it and exploits it. My survey results say 62% of users initially discovered Buzzfeed through Facebook and a further 17% would not visit or seek out the site, if content was not readily available on their news feed.
Facebook is after all, a social network, and users love to like and share with their friends. People enjoy sharing Buzzfeed’s quizzes, listicles and news via Facebook, with 24% saying they are exposed to content they’re interested in as it has been posted by friends with similar interests.
Buzzfeed’s simple, direct and catchy headlines often keep readers interested once on their site, with almost 50% of people reading between 2 and 4 articles per visit. Now according to Facebook’s new algorithm, which prioritizes sites that keep readers away from Facebook for the longest periods of time, (assuming they have found something of interest and value) Buzzfeed is ranked as newsworthy, and thus appears on our news feeds more often than other click-bait sites. Facebook also prioritizes posts based on how often they are ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ (also assuming that in doing so, users found something of value to them) and Buzzfeed is definitely achieving this.
Buzzfeed is known for it’s listicles; information that could have been presented in a traditional essay article format, but for clarity and digestibility, is laid out in a numerical list, often featuring more image content than written word. This format is not only popular because it reassures readers they are not there to give page clicks, but the scrolling is also much easier to handle on a mobile device, which 42% of users who participated in my survey said was the device they most commonly used when accessing Buzzfeed. Global Web Index have even more substantiating figures based on their December profile of Buzzfeed visitors:
Spoon-feeding with slang
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention
Buzzfeed knows it’s audience has an ever shortening attention span due to the amount of available content competing to be seen. As American economist Herbert A. Simon wrote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. They also know users want to know enough about an article, to make an informed decision as to whether to bother reading it or not. That’s why Buzzfeed’s use of popular text speak as subject banners e.g. LOL, OMG, WTF, is the perfect way to let readers know exactly what they’re in for when they click on a tag. In addition, Buzzfeed’s use of images, video and memes may be viewed by some as lazy journalism, but it is perfect for people who want to be entertained: 34% of people said they see Buzzfeed as a fun way to spend time, equivalent to reading a book or doing a Sudoku puzzle.
Data, Data, Data
Buzzfeed has been called by some a ‘tech company’ and not without reason. At Buzzfeed, their technicians and data analysts are 1:2 editorial staff. Buzzfeed doesn’t want to just keep up with trends, but set them. They analyze historical data to work out what will be the next big thing, then once articles have been posted online, they quickly analyze how users are responding and gauge what will work best on their homepage, and what they should promote on Twitter and Facebook.
Buzzfeed is making a lasting impression
We do in fact have very robust internship and fellowship programs that have produced many of our current full-time staff
All of the recent investments into Buzzfeed and it’s growing popularity have been noticed by readers. 34% said they would take a job with Buzzfeed, over established media houses Conde Nast, Bauer Media and Future Publishing due to its continuous expansion and abundance of available jobs, internships and graduate schemes. Joel Greengrass, Head of Humanities at Buzzfeed confirms that their “robust internship and fellowship programs have produced many of their current full-time team members”. At least 14% of people regarded working at Buzzfeed as the same as working for Google or Pixar.
We cover news too!
Buzzfeed is desperately trying to get credibility and respect for its news sector, name dropping respectable journalists they have recently enlisted (such as Ben Smith, writer for Politico) as if that’s going to convince anyone. Jonah Peretti emphasizes how important their breaking news stories are in his staff letters, only to pathetically defend Buzzfeed’s true reputation in the comments feed below. The truth is, from those who took part in my survey, only 19% of people went to Buzzfeed for breaking news and a total of 35% for news in general, but of that only 1.4% takes the news sector seriously and 5% view Buzzfeed as equivalent to a student newspaper. The majority of Buzzfeed’s readers go elsewhere for their current affairs hit it seems, with 29% choosing BBC News and 19% choosing The Guardian.
Buzzfeed is like Marmite
The media either loves it or hates it, but for readers it’s not that finite. Even people who regularly visit Buzzfeed admit they think of the site as trashy, and a time-waster. In fact 22.5% of people would refuse a job at Buzzfeed because of it’s reputation as click-bait and would be worried that working for Buzzfeed would look bad to future employers, affecting their professional reputation and integrity. Another 21% said they would prefer to work for a print-based company because they felt it was more credible.
Can Buzzfeed survive without Facebook?
Probably not. Their business model is entirely based on the exploitation of the social media site. In fact, based on my survey data, Buzzfeed would lose nearly 50% of their traffic if their content was not posted on Facebook news feeds. 44.7% said they would not actively engage with Buzzfeed by going straight to their website, they only visit the site through links to specific articles.
Buzzfeed has no longevity
Although Buzzfeed has been around for about 8 years, it is only in the last few that it has become so popular. Yet already people are starting to get tired of the endless, invasive headlines saturating their news feeds. Memes and lists are likely to be a fad, and when the craze is over what will be left of Buzzfeed? Already 62% of people predict they will ‘grow out’ of Buzzfeed.
Buzzfeed’s main obstacle is it’s reputation, and as long as it puts entertainment before serious newsworthy content, then it will always suffer from a lack of credibility. However, as long as it continues to prioritize data analysis to predict trends, it should be able to adapt to any changes in fashion or readers use of social media.
If Buzzfeed continues to generate revenue through branded publishing, it will keep making money and investors will keep investing. More investment will further the expansion of the company globally, providing even more jobs and eventually we might see Buzzfeed regarded as a serious threat to traditional print based media houses, based on it’s popularity. Many people will continue to use Buzzfeed as just a way to procrastinate and that’s fine, but Buzzfeed has proved thus far it is not just a waste of time.