Oh, BuzzFeed, you keep us awake during the wee hours of the morning with your quippy quizzes about which TV characters we are; you distract us from work with your amusing, often questionable videos; you brighten our days with your nostalgic listicles about our favorite foods.
And amongst all that pop culture clutter, BuzzFeed still manages to publish newsworthy articles about current events. It seems BuzzFeed has become one of the biggest trends on the internet. But, you can’t pigeonhole the phenomena that is BuzzFeed. It's more than that. So what is BuzzFeed's secret to content marketing success?
How Did BuzzFeed Get Started?
It started, as most things of this nature do, on a wing and a dare. In 2001, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti (who helped start The Huffington Post), was an MIT graduate student who got distracted by the wonders of the Internet while writing his doctoral thesis. He didn’t know it then, but a pair of customized Nike sneakers would change the course of his life and work. Launched in 2006, BuzzFeed has become a leader in social storytelling.
What Makes BuzzFeed So Successful?
Sure, today BuzzFeed resembles the virtual closet of a content hoarder; offering users everything from journalistic news to top 40 lists, to memes and endless pictures of kittens. But make no mistake, there is a definite method to this madness. Consider what started it all: a pair of iconic sneakers seen round the world.
At 27, Peretti was already a puckish master of procrastination. Case in point, when Nike allowed customers to design their own sneakers through the company website, he chose to emblazon them with a single word: Sweatshop. This was three years before the launch of Facebook or social media tools of any kind, so a “viral chain letter” in the form of a humorous email exchange between Peretti and a Nike customer service rep spread like wildfire across the Internet.
Within six weeks, Peretti found himself on the Today Show debating labor practices. Once bitten by the viral bug, he resolved to do it again, egged on, of course by a dare from his friend, and fellow student, Cameron Marlow. The duo wanted to unlock the secret behind the white whale of advertising: word-of-mouth marketing – a $500 billion industry people could only hope to tap into by divine, miraculous accident.
Peretti’s goal: to tap into that market through deliberate fabrication of viral-worthy content. After all, how hard could it be, right?
Why Does BuzzFeed’s Content Strategy Work?
At BuzzFeed, editorial content and business can mix. Peretti would spend the next several years tinkering in his self-built “shop of horrors” creating an assembly line of hundreds of posts per day to see what resonated with users and made people click.
His all-or-nothing stratagem, initially met with trepidation by traditional advertisers, has become the new and accepted way to do native advertising business.
Somewhere in that heretical intersection where others fear to tread – between business and pleasure –Peretti found the secret to addictively shareable content. This quickly became not only an asset of immense value to advertisers (to the tune of a $46 million in capital gain), but a model to emulate.
Currently, prestigious publications like the Washington Post are implementing a content strategy similar to BuzzFeed’s. As more revenue streams dry up, we can expect to see traditional media continue to be disrupted and challenged by a new and lucrative advertising construction, where the virtual life of content is nominal and always abuzz on social media.
It took Peretti a decade to figure out how to manufacture virality. He did it by throwing out the old principle that advertising is a “necessary evil.” Instead, he countered, with a question, does it matter if content is produced by a journalist or a brand? The answer is no. What matters is that the content produces traction and spreads.
Adopting this new way of thinking about advertising isn't only BuzzFeed’s secret to success, it’s the secret to successful content in general. We have to step out of old archetypes and into new media formats if we ever expect to benefit from them.
Better to risk collapsing under the weight of contradictions, than to go quietly and justifiably unnoticed toward extinction, right? If anything, Peretti’s example has taught us that.
Now, back to that super important, thought-provoking listicle about 77 ways to eat potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.
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