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?

This is winning?

Earlier this year, in a leaked 97-page document entitled New York Times Innovation Report, one of the world’s most prestigious content publishers took a dispassionate look at its business and found it lacking.

“The New York Times is winning at journalism,” the report begins. It then quickly moves on to explain how, despite this achievement, the newspaper is rapidly losing ground to The Huffington Post, and — more surprisingly — BuzzFeed.

Among the many stats the report focuses on, none tells the story of the world’s changing media consumption habits quite as starkly as NYT’s home page visitors, which shrank by 50 percent between 2011 and 2013. The decline coincidentally began the same year Peretti became BuzzFeed’s fulltime CEO.

You can have the best content in the world and it isn’t worth a damn if people aren’t seeing it.

The report’s grim conclusion: You can have the best content in the world and it isn’t worth a damn if people aren’t seeing it because you’re failing to engage your audience where they spend most of their time (social media) or on the device they spend the most time (smartphones and tablets).

Time and time again, BuzzFeed is positioned as an industry disruptor that must be taken seriously, cat videos, listicles, and quizzes notwithstanding.

The New York Times Innovation Report takes a nuanced look at all of the factors that threaten its newsroom, and many of the opportunities available to redress the shortcomings. It never suggests that the NYT remake itself in BuzzFeed’s image.

Yet that is precisely what some publications — facing the same frightening drop in key audience metrics — are starting to do.

Desperate times

Hugely popular Canadian portal site Sympatico.ca, which had in excess of 1 million unique monthly visitors in 2011, was shut down and relaunched as a lifestyle site called TheLoop.ca, mostly due to the belief that portals are a dying breed.

Parent company Bell Media preserved the existing Sympatico.ca editorial team, added some new contributors, and TheLoop.ca began life in late 2012 as an awkward fusion of the old portal and its new, lifestyle-focused mission. It also adopted a strategy of creating an audience for a small batch of “personality-driven” videos that featured minor Canadian celebrities. The result has been a slow and steady loss of traffic, which, according to Alexa, has dropped TheLoop.ca from its position in the top 10,000-15,000 of global sites to the top 40,000-60,000 in the period between December 2013 and September 2014.

Buzzfeed-graph-2Source: Alexa

From launch until mid-2014, TheLoop.ca’s homepage blended current affairs headlines such as “Test could spot Alzheimer’s sooner,” and “Vatican denies Pope allegations,” with straightforward pop-culture headlines such as “Kris Jenner to get a talk show,” “Peek inside Taylor Swift’s $18M mansion,” and “Superheroes pay surprise visit to children’s hospital.”

It was the kind of material that had worked during the company’s portal days and the expectation was that it would continue to do so. Clearly that has not been the case.

“It’s no longer about gaming robots, it’s about engaging users.”

So, in June 2014, TheLoop.ca launched a site-wide redesign intended to reinvigorate its flagging audience numbers. (Disclosure: The author, Simon Cohen, is a former employee of TheLoop.ca.)

The new design uses big, bold images, carefully crafted headlines, and a conscious avoidance of any stories that fall outside of its main categories of entertainment, life, style and health.

According to Beth Maher, Managing Editor at TheLoop.ca, “the redesign was a strategic move based on what was happening in the industry and based on consumer behavior – how they were discovering and consuming content.”

Now, headlines have a conspicuously BuzzFeed-like ring to them and it’s by design. Maher provided several examples of how TheLoop.ca has adjusted its approach to marketing its content:

OLD: 10 brand-name treats you can make at home
“NEW”: We found out how to make Reese’s peanut butter cups

OLD: Friends surprise woman diagnosed with cancer
“NEW”: You won’t believe what these women did when their friend got cancer

OLD: See inside Sarah Jessica Parker’s NYC home
“NEW”: SJP let Vogue inside her house and it was just like you dreamed it would be

Other “NEW” examples include: “Yes, you can make this necklace, and yes, it will look this fabulous,” “10 super important things we just learned about dinosaurs,” and “Father takes daughter on her first date and it’s painfully adorable.”

“Shareability,” Maher points out, “has surpassed search as the primary means of content discovery. It’s no longer about gaming robots, it’s about engaging users.”

That’s the biggest lesson from BuzzFeed’s success. We are rapidly entering a post-SEO era where people, through the act of sharing, are becoming the key factor in which articles get seen — not how well optimized an article is for an algorithm.

But does this new focus on shareability work? Maher thinks it does. “Our referral traffic has grown by 40 percent,” she says. “That’s thanks mostly to Facebook growth. Mobile unique visitors are up by 200 percent.”

Welcome to the attention arms race

TheLoop.ca is far from the only publication taking its cues from BuzzFeed. For some, it’s simply a matter of survival.

Mike Ferreira, editor-in-chief for AnimeHerald.com, a small blog dedicated to covering the Anime scene, says that pressure for attention is the driving force behind changes he has had to make: “Anybody that says that sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy haven’t been an influence is either lying to himself, or doing something incredibly wrong. These parties have greatly influenced how we write headlines and copy, simply due to the virtue of needing to be noticed.”

“Our quality suffers a little now, but our ‘share’ has increased.”

Germar Derron, founder and editor of pop-culture blog LookToTheCookie.org believes that the double-threat of BuzzFeed and Gawker means sites like his have no choice but to take a me-too approach: “We’ve made changes influenced by those publications and will continue to. It’s quite problematic because we’re so small, but to grow we almost have to follow their lead,” he says. More worrisome is the impact this is having on his content. “We had to buy into the numbers’ game – more writers, doing more content, equals more hits and a larger and more diverse audience,” Derron explains. “Initially I wanted high quality and less content. Our quality suffers a little now, but our ‘share’ has increased.”

Derron fully understands the risks of drafting so close behind BuzzFeed and is taking pains to increase the shareability of his content without irritating readers noting that sometimes “I also feel like – ‘click-bait’ and I don’t want to be that site.”

Ferreira feels a similar pressure. “Over the years, the landscape’s gotten increasingly crowded, and headlines that grab a reader’s attention have come to be as valuable as water in the Sahara for many of us,” he laments.

The trouble is, despite the misgivings that reputable sites have over BuzzFeedifying their content, the technique – even without the help of the deep-data analytics component – has proven itself a reliable means of improving performance.

Vipul Mistry, biz-dev lead at Intermarkets, Inc., says that two of the sites his company manages, ThePoliticalInsider.com and HeadlinePolitics.com were built on the BuzzFeed model specifically so they could reap the rewards of social sharing. Mistry claims it’s been a winning tactic so far, which has “grown ThePoliticalInsider.com from practically nothing to over 15M page views in a matter of months.”

Quantcast doesn’t share Mistry’s tally of 15M, but one look at the site’s growth chart and you know he’s clearly onto something:

Quantcast SimilarWeb.com confirms Mistry’s claim that his site’s focus on shareability should get the credit for its massive growth:

similarweb

Next page: The future is looking loud

The future is looking loud

Since late 2011, BuzzFeed has been making efforts to expand its content repertoire to include investigative journalism, adding an editor-in-chief recruited from Politico, an initiative to fund this new content stream and soon it will have a mobile app dedicated to just “news.”

To some, this is seen as an indicator that BuzzFeed is following the typical disruptor model: A new entrant to a field starts by occupying a low-quality point on the product spectrum, only to gradually increase the quality of its product to the point where it can displace the big incumbents, doing so by taking advantage of a new medium or technology. Toyota, CNN, and Amazon all rose to dominance this way.

But not everyone is convinced that this model will play out in the incredibly fickle world of online content. Writing in The Conversation, Sunny Hundai says, “[BuzzFeed’s] content model is too easily replicable, which means it could easily be knocked off its perch, and secondly it is soon likely to run into problems making money.”

“That work is for prestige, not for BuzzFeed’s real business.”

Hundai points to several competitors that have emerged in recent months to start taking a bite out of BuzzFeed’s pie: “BuzzFeed is already facing competition from websites like Viral Nova, Upworthy, Business Insider, Distractify and others, all of whom are running this same formula repeatedly.”

Last month, the Israeli startup PlayBuzz demonstrated how easy it is to beat BuzzFeed at a category it once dominated: Online quizzes. In September, the company had the second highest number of shares on Facebook, just behind the Huffington Post, Forbes recently reported. BuzzFeed fell into third position — behind by over a million shares.

So what chances do more serious journalism and news reporting have? BuzzFeed may be dabbling in it, but ValleyWag’s Nitasha Tiku suspects that this move toward higher-end content is nothing more than window dressing. “This upmarket strategy towards ‘high-quality content’ is disingenuous,” she notes, “not because BuzzFeed isn’t investing in high-caliber reporters producing some fantastic work, but because that work is for prestige, not for BuzzFeed’s real business.”

Of course, ValleyWag happens to be owned by Gawker, one of BuzzFeed’s most aggressive competitors — the “snark” to BuzzFeed’s “smarm.” But if her insight is on the mark, it’s not a good sign for any content publisher that wants to stay out of the click-bait race. “High-quality stories about the chaos in Iraq,” Tiku laments, “are just not attention-grabbers.”

Light at the end of the social-network tunnel?

It would be oh-so-nice to think that people will wean themselves off this diet of junk-food content, but judging from the numbers, that’s just not going to happen.

We’re going to need help. What we need is an intervention — someone to inoculate us against the BuzzFeed virus. Given that Facebook is the most effective vector that viral sites use, a change in the way Facebook presents content could have a powerful effect.

Indeed, late last year, the social network made a change to the way content is surfaced on users’ news feeds. Designed to promote “high quality” content over “meme photos,” the new algorithm had an immediate and profound effect on several of BuzzFeed’s competitors. Upworthy, ViralNova, Elite Daily and Distractify each saw their traffic decline immediately following the change.

BuzzfeedAbove: Upworthy’s traffic before and after Facebook’s news feed code change (Quantcast)

BuzzFeed itself, however, has proven itself immune. Some speculate that BuzzFeed’s business model of buying ads on Facebook has given it special standing (something that BuzzFeed denies).

BuzzfeedAbove: BuzzFeed’s traffic for the same period (Quantcast)

BuzzFeed’s senior management declined to respond to this article, choosing instead to cite this internal email written by editor in chief Ben Smith to his staff. In it, he alludes to the Facebook algorithm change and exhorts his teammates to stay focused on “what people want to share,” and implies that those who don’t are merely trying to “trick an algorithm.”

In other words, Smith thinks that BuzzFeed survived the change because it meets Facebook’s standards for high-quality content.

Upworthy offered us a different take on Facebook’s attempt to let user behavior dictate what is and isn’t high quality.

Ben Smith
Ben Smith, Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed

“We’re actually happy to defer to Facebook’s definition of click-bait here. They recently defined it in a blog post as content that people land on but don’t engage with — i.e., the content isn’t substantive enough to hold their attention. By this definition, Upworthy is the exact opposite of click-bait,” Upworthy staff told us via email.

Is it click-bait? You decide. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder – or in this case, sharer.

If Facebook’s code change proves anything, it’s that they are the reigning king-makers of content. That fact casts a long shadow over the entire content industry, particularly the traditional players in the news category.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Greg Marra, Facebook’s News Feed engineer, said that he does “not think too much about his impact on journalism.”

That’s a troubling position from someone who freely acknowledges that Facebook’s news feed is “a personalized newspaper,” that helps you “find the things that you care about.”

Maybe it’s time we all started to care a lot more.

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