Published in Jul-Aug 2016
MAMUN M. ADIL: How did BuzzFeed begin?
SIMON CRERAR: Jonah H. Peretti, who had co-founded the Huffington Post, established BuzzFeed in 2006. At the time, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Vine or Snapchat, the stuff people now use to share content. BuzzFeed began as an experimental lab with six people. The objectives were to understand why and how people would want to share stuff between themselves, track the kind of content they would share and create content accordingly. Since then, we have turned into a more ‘proper’ company, thanks to external investment and today we employ more than 1,300 people and we have branches in several countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the UK – and some of these countries have local language editions.
MMA: The perception among many people is that BuzzFeed’s content is rather fluffy, yet BuzzFeed also produces ‘serious’ content. Do you think this perception is changing?
SC: I think the perception that we are a ‘cat-video company’ is quite a good thing to have, because we are up against hundred-year-old media companies and we are perceived as ‘those scrappy internet guys’. However, as we become bigger, we want to change this perception. We want people to think, “Yeah, they make me laugh but wow, have you seen this amazing piece of reporting they did?” This is the kind of journey we are on.
MMA: How has BuzzFeed’s content changed?
SC: A lot of our content was celebrity and animal based, which is still the case to some extent; for example, our animal based content is just about 10% of what we do.
MMA: When did this change come about?
SC: In 2011, we hired Ben Smith, who was a political journalist for Politico in Washington, DC, to set up the BuzzFeed news team. We now have nearly 200 news reporters and editors, while the remaining 150 cover buzz and lifestyle. Our video team is quite new, and they primarily focus on entertainment. We continue to have people doing light, fluffy and amazing stuff about celebrities, but we also have reporters in Los Angeles who do really rigorous deep dives into aspects of celebrity culture in terms of the Hollywood system, the representation of women in Hollywood, or people of colour. We do really serious reporting now, so we are very multifaceted.
“We want people to think ‘Yeah, they make me laugh but wow, have you seen this amazing piece of reporting they did?’ This is the kind of journey we are on”
MMA: Who is BuzzFeed’s overall audience today?
SC: We are perceived as a publisher that is primarily focused on the Millennials – and although this is our core audience, ever since we invested in a news team our audience includes people in their thirties and forties. We also attract teenagers, since we are very focused on platforms such as Vine, Instagram and Snapchat. In Australia, more than 65% of our audience are women.
MMA: Why is that?
SC: Because our editorial proposition is perhaps offering something that is not catered to by mass media; we are very focused on content that appeals to women – both lifestyle based content as well about relationships, identity and empowerment. We cater to all shapes, sizes, colours, ethnicities and sexualities; we believe in diversity and there is no niche we don’t cover.
MMA: What is BuzzFeed’s revenue model?
SC: We don’t carry banner advertising or advertising on the side; native content [branded partner content] is our only source of revenue. We build on our understanding of the kind of content people like to share and use this to tell brand stories. For our clients, we usually do campaigns that include three or five posts, lists or quizzes. It is subtle; it doesn’t say, “Hey, buy this product,” but instead we tell a story. This is called branded partner content and it is labelled clearly and the by-line is usually the company’s name. When people share such content it is good for the brand because people are naturally sharing it on their social feed and distributing it.
MMA: Which brands has BuzzFeed partnered with?
SC: We have worked with brands such as iTunes, McDonald’s, Qantas, Samsung, Telstra and Vodafone. We did a big campaign for McDonald’s; they wanted to advertise a range of toppings for their McFlurries and we did a series of lists without mentioning McDonald’s. The idea was to put across the ethos as to why they were embarking on the campaign, and people shared it because they liked the content. Another one was for Spotify, where we created playlists that people could share; it was an engaging piece of content, without being obvious. We also do branded videos, and most of our partner content is publicised on up to 10 different platforms including Scrambler, Snapchat, Twitter and Vine. We provide brands with a great opportunity to tell a story on multiple platforms; I think we uniquely have the ability to do this because we are on all these platforms.
MMA: Will BuzzFeed be coming to Pakistan soon?
SC: We have a Dubai based Pakistani writer who writes for BuzzFeed India; she does a lot of content about being Pakistani, so we would love to come to Pakistan – we are just not at that stage yet.
Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN.