Media Moves

Coverage: The buzz about BuzzFeed

August 13, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

BuzzFeed has long been a media darling with its easily digestible and clever lists covering the news and entertainment. With the announcement it is receiving a venture capital investment of $50 million, which values the company at $850 million, more than the Washington Post.

Writing for The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller had a follow-up story about why BuzzFeed is shifting its strategy:

While many people now find their news on Facebook, it’s easy to forget that very recently they found it on Google, and will surely find it somewhere else in the not-too-distant future. The danger for media companies, then, is to focus too much on how stories are delivered and too little on what the stories say.

BuzzFeed has been clear about its strategy: Publish items that people want to share on social media. It called Facebook the “new ‘front page’ for the Internet.” The strategy appears to be working. BuzzFeed’s new $50 million investment values the online media company at $850 million — one year after Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million.

Yet just a few years ago, readers were finding their news on search engines, and Google was said to be the new front page. That trend also spawned companies, like Demand Media and Huffington Post, which publish articles based on popular searches.

Here are data from a slice of the Internet — the 350,000 websites in the Shareaholic network, which gets 400 million unique visitors a month — that illustrate the shift. Last summer, 40 percent of traffic came from search engines and 14 percent came from social networks. This summer, about 29 percent of traffic comes from each.

As consumers shift to finding information via their social networks – meaning they’re not as active in seeking it for themselves – traditional media companies need to figure out how to take advantage of the changes.

Elena Cresci had a photo-filled list of reasons for BuzzFeed’s success for The Guardian that made several good points (I deleted the pictures):

A whopping 75% of BuzzFeed’s traffic comes from social media.

7. So they know exactly how to target social networks

How do you get Twitter to pay attention to you? You write about Twitter, of course. “The 29 stages of a Twitterstorm” is a classic example.

8. … especially Pinterest

As far as social traffic is concerned, Facebook is where it’s at. But BuzzFeed’s second biggest source of social traffic comes from Pinterest, a social network linked more with life and style content rather than news.

9. They’re pretty good at video too

BuzzFeedVideo has more than 2m subscribers on YouTube.

Not too bad. Bloomberg’s Caitlin McCabe reported the company is backed by a lot of big names in media and plans on aggressive expansion:

Andreessen Horowitz joins BuzzFeed investors Hearst Corp., SoftBank Corp. and New Enterprise Associates in wagering that the site can rank among the titans of media. BuzzFeed uses technology to help come up with ideas for articles that will attract readers, and it has connected with advertisers because it creates sponsored stories for their brands — promoting Pepsi, for example, with animated images about staying cool in the summer.

“There’s a lot of potential for BuzzFeed, and it’s well positioned to move into a lot of key areas,” said Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of BIA Kelsey, a media research company based in Chantilly, Virginia. “They’ve put a lot of their money into figuring out which stories are being read. I can understand why you would want to invest in BuzzFeed.”

BuzzFeed said yesterday that the funding will let the company expand to Mumbai, Mexico City, Berlin and Tokyo and convert its video division into BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which will focus on everything from animated online images to feature-length films.

The Economist wrote on its blog that while the company is doing well now, it could be positioning itself to be sold to another media company:

Mr Peretti plans to create even more buzz. His firm has been hiring more journalists, including a Pulitzer-prize winner to head its “investigative” unit, and is focusing on breaking more news. He points out that legacy media firms see content creation in such a traditional way that they cannot break from the past: CBS could have invented the first 24-hour cable news channel, for example, but did not think to do it on a shoestring budget and to program so many hours of news content, he says.

BuzzFeed’s own shoestring budget is rapidly looking less lean. BuzzFeed is hiring journalists around the world to beef up its coverage, and will open outposts in India, Germany, Mexico and Japan this year. It is expanding its video unit and renaming it “BuzzFeed Motion Pictures”. It does seem a bit odd that a firm that has attracted so much reader attention and venture capital by doing things so differently is now deciding to use the money to look more like a big, legacy media organisation. These have bureaus all around the world and studios in Hollywood that have churned out “motion pictures” for decades.

Mr Peretti does not see the tension. “What you see in the history of media is that companies start out doing small, lower cost ways of content and then move up the chain,” he says. He points out that Time magazine originally started out aggregating news from newspapers before it started creating its own content. He is planning a similar metamorphosis for BuzzFeed: from producing “listicles” to listing on the stockmarket, perhaps. Or perhaps BuzzFeed will be bought by a big media company, like Ms Huffington’s firm was. “Which Media Company Are You?” is a quiz that has not appeared on BuzzFeed’s website, but is presumably a frequent topic of discussion among its executives.

It’s a great point. And given the media’s recent attempts to consolidate, it’s likely a good strategy. But will a company like CBS still over quizzes about which state you should live in or what Ninja Turtle you’re most like? BuzzFeed might be better evolving on its own than partnering with an older media company.

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