How BuzzFeed infected the Internet with a killer virus

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You’ve been infected. Just now. This morning, I bet.

You’ve already been exposed to 17 amazing things that you will love, a quiz to find out which of your favorite TV characters you most closely resemble, and the one shocking thing you didn’t know about a very famous celebrity. A Facebook friend or someone you follow on Twitter probably infected you, and you’ll probably spread it to the next person the same way.

While the tantalizing headlines that made BuzzFeed the most-visited site on the Web have become a well-documented formula for viral success, what you probably don’t realize is that the formula itself is also a virus. And it’s infecting other news outlets.

The formula itself is also a virus. And it’s infecting other news outlets.

As recently as July 2013, ComScore identified only five BuzzFeed competitors, which reached 53 percent of the total U.S. Internet audience, or 120 million unique visitors. By September 2014 — a mere 14 months later — BuzzFeed’s competition had doubled to 10 publications. The category now reaches 76 percent of the total U.S. Internet audience, or 172.5 million unique visitors.

As BuzzFeed and its like-minded competitors rapidly increase their reach and performance, traditional sources of quality content are losing ground.

The New York Times, Yahoo, MSN, CBS Interactive, Hearst Corp. and Ziff-Davis have all seen their reach and traffic decline over the same period. Some by as much as 23 percent, according to ComScore. And the virus is mutating their DNA to survive.

The attention economy

Each of us has a finite amount of attention to give. Yet the amount of content vying for our attention continues to grow. American economist Herbert A. Simon labeled the tension between these two factors the attention economy. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” Herbert wrote. He may not have realized how appropriate his choice of label was when he coined it in 1972 – decades before the advent of the Web.

Herbert A. Simon
Herbert A. Simon

The sharp reality is, almost all of the content you consume is being monetized by someone. Even this article you’re reading right now.

When revenue is attached to content, especially when that revenue is advertising-driven, our attention is literally worth gold. Every mouse-click, every tap and every swipe – the very essence of our online attention — plays a small but important role in the financial health of countless organizations. The stakes are enormous. And, as Om Malik observed, BuzzFeed “is not a content company – it’s an attention company.”

Tools of the trade

Attracting and keeping audiences is a pursuit that goes back to the time of the first printing press, and perhaps beyond. The mechanics of how it’s done, on the other hand, are constantly changing.

Since the advent of online content, three distinct ways to garner eyeballs for content have emerged. You can be the big kid on the block that everyone knows, like Yahoo!, MSN, or AOL. You can be a respected authority on a subject and build a thriving community, like Deadspin or Forbes. Or, you can create a database of knowledge that has been heavily optimized for search to appear at the top of Google whenever someone asks a question, like eHow, Wikipedia, or Quora.

None of these mechanics are mutually exclusive. Most portals (those that have managed to survive) attempt to claim authority through sections or channels, while subject authority sites often make extensive use of SEO (Forbes is superb at this).

These techniques captured our attention to online content successfully up until about eight years ago. Then something changed.

This isn’t the stuff you’re searching for

Facebook. Today it’s a juggernaut of unparalleled size and breadth. But back in 2004, it was barely on anyone’s radar who wasn’t enrolled at a U.S. college. The words “social media” weren’t being uttered by anyone outside of places like MIT’s MediaLab. If you liked and shared anything online, it was probably via email or an IM service like AOL IM or Yahoo! Messenger.

Then, around 2007, Facebook began to explode.

Buzzfeed graph Source: Wikipedia

Between 2007 and 2008, Facebook’s growth doubled. But in 2009, it more than tripled, beginning an acceleration curve that has only just begun to show signs of leveling off.

At the start of this chapter, Jonah Peretti, a founding member of The Huffington Post, was busy with a side-project he called BuzzFeed Labs, designed to experiment with the ways in which web content “goes viral.” He had already cracked the code on search engine optimization, the science that led to HuffPo’s 3 million+ unique visitors a month in 2008.

Peretti had observed that Facebook’s rising relevance was having a profound impact on how people shared content, and he wanted to develop a scientific, data-driven approach to developing new, virally optimized content. The goal was to create content that people wanted to share with each other, making social networking the primary driver of traffic, not search.

The so-called experiment went largely unnoticed for several years until Peretti left Huffington Post in 2011 to make BuzzFeed his fulltime focus.

“As the world has realigned from being about portals and then search and now social, how do you build a media company for a social world?” Peretti told the New York Times shortly after making his move.

The experiment proved a monster. Today, BuzzFeed attracts between 150 and 175 million unique visitors a month, according to Quantcast, with 75 percent of that traffic being referred by social sharing means including Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, email and other outlets. That outranks Huffington Post’s ComScore numbers, which hit a record high of 100 million uniques in August of this year.

Next page: This is winning?

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