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What is Buzzfeed, really?

Defining a phenomenon that resists classification

It seems that critique deriding BuzzFeed as little more than cat pics and clickbait have given way to an acceptance of the company as a major force in media. However, Buzzfeed’s unique model of content creation and distribution makes it difficult to categorize.

Operating outside the traditional bounds of an owned and earned property, we might ask: what is BuzzFeed? A network? A style? Something else entirely?

Distribution

Let’s start with the easiest distinction: ownership. Traditional media companies own their primary distribution channel. Whether we’re talking about broadcast television, print journalism, or a website like the New York Times, the center point for this model is a property upon which the audience can be measured and monetized, typically through advertising. Traditional media companies rely very little on channels outside their destination websites for traffic. At the extreme end of this spectrum, you’ll find sites with paywalls, like the Wall Street Journal.

At the other end of the spectrum are sites like NowThisNews, whose content is entirely distributed. Their website has no content and simply announces: “HOMEPAGE. EVEN THE WORD SOUNDS OLD. TODAY THE NEWS LIVES WHERE YOU LIVE.” This raises a question: how can a site that doesn’t own its distribution monetize that audience?

BuzzFeed’s solution to that problem is to forego the display advertising model of owned and earned properties. They are similar to NowThis in that 95% of their content engagement happens on platforms they do not own, mainly social channels. What makes this model possible is that they monetize their network by creating engaging content on behalf of clients (sponsored content) rather than appending ad units to their websites. This allows them to monetize reach far beyond the bounds of their website. Without the need to focus on bringing traffic back, they are free to make content that feels more natural and attuned to the specific network.

Content

While almost every major publication relies on social media to some extent for traffic, Buzzfeed is different in one significant way: while most traditional publications use these networks as a way to drive traffic back to their websites, BuzzFeed creates network-specific content to be consumed within the contexts of those platforms.

Buzzfeed describes itself as “a global, cross-platform, tech-driven network generating FIVE BILLION monthly content views from our site, multiple BuzzFeed apps, and over 30 other platforms.” Buzzfeed commits fully to meeting users where they are, and it produces content specifically for a media world that is shifting away from websites.

BuzzFeed: “Today we are a global, cross-platform, tech-driven network generating FIVE BILLION monthly content views from our site, multiple BuzzFeed apps, and over 30 other platforms including Facebook video, YouTube, and Snapchat.”

BuzzFeed is more than just a website, but it also goes beyond a collection of social media accounts with shared branding. While the easily recognizable BuzzFeed logo is prominently displayed across all these channels, the cohesiveness of the content can be attributed to more than branding. As FastCompany points out “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.” This cycle of learning allows the organization as a whole to learn what content works for their specific audience and refine their editorial style to reflect past successes. The result is a distinct Buzzfeed personality that pervades all of their content, regardless of outlet, despite the network-specific packaging the content to perform well in many places.

Audience

Buzzfeed’s massive audience defines the company as much as its varied distribution channels do. That fact is not lost on investors. BuzzFeed has raised hundreds of millions of dollars because it gathers a large audience, then acts to engage them in a coordinated way across so many channels.

At SXSW 2016 in March, CMO Frank Cooper (pictured above) announced Swarm, which “allows advertisers to run campaigns simultaneously across all of his company’s Web and mobile properties and six of its social platforms: Snapchat Discover, Vine, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.” This new product demonstrates why BuzzFeed works outside of a traditional owned and earned property. It is able to parlay the value of a coordinated, cross-channel media push into enormous measurable value for their clients, without relying on plastering tired banner ads across the homepage.

Technology

Tying all of these aspects together is the technology side of BuzzFeed. Measuring performance and reporting across 30+ disparate platforms is no small feat, and the “in” networks are constantly in flux. In any given year, new networks emerge while others fall out of favor, and within each one the current styles of popular content shift at a rapid pace. BuzzFeed has done a remarkable job of quickly adopting new platforms, gathering available data across all of these sources, and most importantly creating a feedback loop that informs the creation and distribution of future content. This nimble approach of nimbly using data and tech defines BuzzFeed as much as the content and distribution channels themselves.

Conclusion

So, considering all that what is BuzzFeed? Here are four main key components:

  1. Cross-Channel Distribution Infrastructure
  2. Cohesive Content Style & Branding
  3. Large & Engaged Audience
  4. Nimble Tech Able to Operate in Rapidly Shifting Media Landscape

In a single sentence, BuzzFeed is a cohesive content creation and curation machine, paired with a tech stack capable of delivering content to a fragmented and evolving media landscape.

Put more simply, BuzzFeed is the first winning example of what a successful media company looks like in life after websites.

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