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Thinking about the Future of BuzzFeed

Written by on August 14, 2014

The world of fast-paced viral-content sites is a weird one, and a recent interview with the CEO of BuzzFeed illustrates that all too well. When he was asked about the future of video, he said this:

Having video content that is 20 minutes long in your Facebook News Feed that people are sharing and watching on their phones doesn't seem that far-fetched. But that's like three to six months in the future. We don't have to know how it's all going to be worked out in the future, we just have to have a team that continually learns, and have a method for trying, creating, and learning from that, and getting data and feedback.

They don't need to know what the trends are for three months into the future? Really? And their plans for the future is to experiment over that short a time to see if it works?

There is no question that BuzzFeed creates a lot of activity, and also that their exploratory nature gives them an edge compared to traditional media companies who can spend years just planning how to update their CMS systems. But hearing about these viral sites talk about the future is like watching chipmunks on coffee.

It's the same when BuzzFeed's founding editor was asked what she described as good content:

I almost always divide good content into humor, empathy, and service. If something doesn't make me laugh or make me say "yes, thank you, this is so me" or give me some kind of helpful, useful information, I'm just like "NEXT.

In other words, she has no idea. She is just buzzing and, as part of that, sometimes she comes across something that is interesting and that's then the 'strategy' for the next five minutes.

The problem here is that they have no purpose. They are just exploiting the latest gimmick. And while that creates a lot of traffic, especially for a site the size of BuzzFeed, it also makes them incredibly vulnerable because they are always aiming for the lowest hanging fruits.

Five minutes after people have seen something on their sites, they have moved on and completely forgotten about it. They never build up any real momentum. They are entirely depending on constantly gaining new traffic.

BuzzFeed, with its 550 employees, has the size to do this. When you have that many people being high on coffee, something is bound to happen. But it just feels so pointless.

Sites like BuzzFeed doesn't represent the future trends at all. Take their latest strategy which is to make 20min videos. Is this a new trend and a new thing?

No. Just look at what has happened over at YouTube for the past five years. Look at some of the most popular channels. Many of them create longer forms of content within a specific area of focus.

This is not a new trend. At this point it is not even a trend anymore. But BuzzFeed has, apparently just realized it. And, unlike the YouTube channels who have built up their popularity by focusing on something specific, BuzzFeed's strategy is just to mass produce as much as they can for the sake of this latest gimmick.

Over the last two years, BuzzFeed has produced 1900 videos totaling 1.7b views by a team of 100 people. That's not a focus. That's just being way too high on caffeine.

Compare this to people like Marques Brownlee. He is one guy, focusing on producing some of the best tech insights. He has 1.5 million subscribers who remember everything he does, and each video reaches 500,000-1,000,000 views. Essentially, he is outperforming BuzzFeed in terms of effect.

But more to the point. Marques is building up a long term business, while BuzzFeed has to constantly move on to something else.

We also see this in terms of BuzzFeed's scope. Just this week, they announced that they had hired former MSNBC reporter Adam Serwer as their new national editor. What is a national editor you ask? Well, it's kind of vague:

Serwer will lead a small desk of "people whose beats kind of fall outside of the other things we have," BuzzFeed Deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton said in a phone call. Serwer's mandate is to do "stories that matter to our country.

He'll kick off his job working with Katie J.M. Baker and Jessica Testa, covering sexual assaults on campuses. Serwer's beats will expand to include social justice, climate change and criminal justice will be a part of it, too.

Climate change and sexual assault on campuses? Okay... In other words, whatever news gimmick that people may be talking about at the moment.

And this is really my point about all these viral sites. BuzzFeed is one of the better viral sites and one I think has the best chance of staying around for a long time (as opposed to sites like Upworthy and ViralNova which probably won't exist five years from now). But BuzzFeed has little to do with the future of media.

These viral sites exist in a kind of a bubble outside the rest of the media industry. They make a lot of noise and they get a lot of attention, but only in the form of being 'the latest gimmick' or the latest talking points.

A trend and a gimmick are two very different things. There is very little we can learn from these viral sites, because everything they do has such a short lifespan.

As a media analyst, I look at these things by asking if what they do has a future.

For instance, on sites like Upworthy, we see the massive amount of traffic they could get by exploiting headlines like "...and you won't believe what happened next!"

But those kind of headlines has no future. In fact, they started pissing people off almost from day one. So this is a 'gimmick' that you can use for a while until people have had enough of it, and then you have to do something else.

As such, it was never a trend, and it was never part of the future of media. There is very little you can learn from it, other than that exploiting the latest gimmick will give you a short-term burst of activity... but that is hardly a new concept.

So, I look at all these gimmicks and place them into their own little bubble. They are interesting to watch, but they rarely impact any of the larger long term trends.

Another reason why I do this is because I don't want to end up in the same kind of situation that we see with so many media companies.

These media companies look at BuzzFeed and other viral sites, they see all the traffic and activity, and based on that they make some rather weird conclusions.

For years, media companies have pointed to sites like BuzzFeed as proof that people are shallow and only want snacks. As a result of that several newspapers have created snack-like sites like the Independent's i100.

But if that was true, why did BuzzFeed start to hire long-form editors back in 2012, launch BuzzRead a long-form content sites in 2013, and this week launched a new movie studio for long-form video? And if people only wanted snacks, why are most listicles on BuzzFeed 20-30 items long? Why is BuzzFeed hiring traditional journalists to produce more serious and in-depth content?

Isn't it kind of amusing that traditional media companies are looking at BuzzFeed for snacks, while BuzzFeed is increasingly looking at at pretty much everything.

This is the key to understanding BuzzFeed's plan. They have no specific focus. They are trying to cover as much of everything from as many angles as possible, using the latest gimmicks. In short, they are acting in the traditional Silicon Valley way. To trade of focus for massive scale.

In fact, this seems to be the motivation behind why Andreessen Horowitz's decided to invest $50 million into BuzzFeed:

We invest in Silicon Valley style companies. So we invest in the kind of companies that Silicon Valley seems uniquely good at producing at scale, you know, large numbers over time.

And we see this more clearly in BuzzFeed's latest press release about their future expansion plans. It's 100% about scale.

  • BuzzFeed's editorial team will grow and become BuzzFeed News and 'Buzz and Life' to expand its offerings across the board. Everything from breaking news, a foreign desk, to 'life', DIY, food and style... not to mention 'web culture' (read: memes).
  • BuzzFeed's video division will expand and become BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and will, in addition to its existing short form, focus on all moving images from a GIF to feature film and everything in between.
  • BuzzFeed distributed, a team of twenty staffers will make original content solely for platforms like Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and messaging apps.
  • BuzzFeed Creative, will create a streamlined process across video and publishing for brands.
  • BuzzFeed will launch a new distributed division to create content off BuzzFeed to scale BuzzFeed's deep understanding of the social web.
  • BuzzFeed International will continue its rapid growth and expand to India, Germany, Mexico and Japan this year.

To which they say:

  • The investment from Andreessen Horowitz will allow us to double down on our company's mission by creating a new organization and expand rapidly in all areas

And their future vision is equally only about scale:

The future of content companies is crystal clear: mobile, video, social and tech. Expanding BuzzFeed's business across each of these areas is the key to the future. With distribution fully built out, content is the future and this expansion will allow us to create more and more content across the social web.

In other words, everything. Well, except for print... but just wait they will probably try that too.

So, from a trend perspective. BuzzFeed isn't really the era of new media or any of the new media trends. BuzzFeed is trying to be exactly the same as what every traditional newspaper was focusing on for the past 100 years... to be the 'supermarket of news'.

And as I wrote about in "What if Quality Journalism Isn't?", that strategy isn't exactly what the future is about.

BuzzFeed does have three things going for them.

  1. They are digital natives. Meaning that unlike the New York Times who have to write 'innovation reports' to see beyond their own noses, BuzzFeed doesn't have any of that baggage of the past to carry around.
  2. They are global by default, allowing them to approach scale in a way that traditional publishers can't.
  3. They are much more focused on fun and entertainment than news. The difference between visiting the New York Times and BuzzFeed is striking. Almost every story on NYT's front page is about something sad. While sad stories are only about 20% of BuzzFeed's front page. This alone makes for a big difference in terms of traffic, sharing and engagement.

But BuzzFeed is almost as traditional as the traditional media companies, and, as such, they will also soon face exactly the same challenges.

What keeps them going is this combination of scale and gimmicks. As Felix Salmon recently wrote:

The right comparison for BuzzFeed is probably not newspapers, or even other websites like Business Insider; rather, it's advertising agencies, or companies like Vice, which make their money mostly by creating, rather than simply running, web-based advertising campaigns.

And in this sense, BuzzFeed, despite all its amazing traffic and focus on scale, is actually moving away from the future trends of media, not towards them.

Just like traditional newspapers, BuzzFeed will soon be challenged on advertising, because their lack of focus causes the ads (in this case sponsored content) to be less targeted and relevant. Exactly the same problem that we today see with traditional newspapers.

It makes some sense for a company like Samsung to post a sponsored article on BuzzFeed if it is known to be a place where people just have fun. But now that BuzzFeed is moving into hard news with death and misery, they are suddenly less appealing. Of course, BuzzFeed hopes to squash that problem with massive scale, but that is also exactly what every traditional newspaper has tried to do for the past 10 years.

And because of their randomness, they will have an almost impossible task converting their readers into more than just social shares. Again, exactly the same problem traditional media is facing with its (lack of) a younger audience.

From a trend perspective. BuzzFeed doesn't look that hot. It looks huge and massive... but not hot.

If you solely compare BuzzFeed to traditional newspapers, BuzzFeed has a lot of things going for them. As a place to get a random package of news, BuzzFeed looks to come out as the winner, especially if they start to get really serious about 'hard news' reporting. Why go to your local newspaper when the same stories have already been shared via BuzzFeed.

But if you compare it to the real future of media, BuzzFeed isn't really a part of it at all, just like traditional newspapers aren't really a part of it either.

BuzzFeed is like Walmart. They have a good basis for a bit of everything, and in terms of scale they can be quite big. And they even get a ton of sharing (unlike supermarkets in general) because they are digital natives focusing on the latest gimmick.

But they don't really represent anything. They are not really part of the future, nor are they really part of the past. They are just there. They exist in this bubble outside other things.

BuzzFeed may be the future of 'random content at scale', but they are not the future of media.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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