How Buzzfeed Has Mastered the Art of Spreading Ideas

Co-written with Morgan Liu on November 16, 2015

It’s midnight and my assignment is due in a few hours but I can’t help opening the “Tasty” video on my Facebook timeline that my friend just shared. I mean, a 45 second video is nothing and I deserve a break. Except 30 minutes later, I’m on the same page, I’m telling all of my friends to watch “How to Make Maple Bacon Sweet Potato Soup”, and I’m not ashamed.

Here’s the recap: Jonah Peretti sends a request to NikeiD for a shoe with “sweatshop” printed on the side, hinting at the company’s infamous poor labour practices. To no one’s surprise, Nike refuses, resulting in a back-and-forth email exchange. This exchange is forwarded to twelve of Peretti’s friends, who then forward it to their own networks, and their networks forward it to theirs, and so on. It went viral.

Peretti goes on to replicate this indefatigable exchange, resulting in the creation of BuzzFeed, well-known for its articles, videos, and gifs that people share around the world. But listicles, quizzes, news, and videos? They’re nothing we haven’t seen before, yet Buzzfeed has redefined the digital space with its content-driven publishing site, connecting with millennials on an entirely different level; a hurdle that even the best companies still struggle to jump through.

But what is Buzzfeed doing that nobody else is?

We love talking about ourselves and telling others about our experiences. It creates connections and says something about us. In this day and age, content is customized in terms of each social network’s nature as opposed to its respective target demographic. Facebook, for example, contains consumers’ real networks: people they see regularly, went to high school with, played soccer with, etc.

BuzzFeed publishes 373 articles every single day. The sheer quantity that BuzzFeed publishes every single day on the largest spectrum of topics ranging from conflicts overseas to “Things Only Former Emo Kids Will Understand”, raising the point that quality needs to be coupled with quantity in this day and age. With the sheer quantity BuzzFeed publishes each day, everyone connects to at least one. Through Buzzfeed, you’re not sharing things that only a few people can connect with, you’re sharing content that everyone can relate to, like the hottest Hotline Bling Vines or cute baby animals; things that my little brother would take the time to watch and my old math teacher would chuckle at.

The unique aspect of this content lies in the power that it holds; it evokes social emotions which translates directly to shared content. Someone out there is having a rough day and is reading “13 Steps to Get You Through a Rough Day” because someone else knows they’re having a bad day and sent it to them or because it popped up on their timeline. This connection initiates the trial stage, which transforms rather quickly to adoption. When you can connect to “13 Steps to Get You Through a Rough Day”, you want more and BuzzFeed is right there to satisfy that need with 372 more new articles to browse, or satisfying the inner narcissist by offering hundreds of quizzes that answer what you really want to know about yourself, like “Which Disney Character Are You?”

BuzzFeed has been able to capitalize on a simple but underlying human truth: people love to share. Humans have a fundamental need to experience a “shared reality” with others, a phenomenon in which personal experiences and perceptions are affected by whether or not they can be shared socially. We want other people to hear our ideas and we want them to react, which is why we share.

With this seemingly never-ending success and no defined demographic, the company only faces incredible opportunities. The incredible mass of millennials it attracts is its starting point. Keep in mind, Peretti isn’t one of us. He’s 40 years old and there are many people his age that are just as interested in the site as we are. As self-centred as we are, the world doesn’t stop at us, millennials.

Buzzfeed has mastered the elusive marketing craft: word-of-mouth. It can purposely control its own word-of-mouth and creates a unique, one-of-a-kind consumer experience in the process.

“I’ve spent over a decade thinking about how ideas spread” – Jonah Peretti, Founder of Buzzfeed

The concept of sharing is at the core of Peretti’s being. He has taken this philosophy and built an empire around it, ingraining it within BuzzFeed and everything the company embodies.

In retrospect, the social media landscape has completely changed and BuzzFeed knows it. Social referral traffic from sites such as Facebook and Twitter are five times the site’s search traffic (i.e. AdWords) and for that exact reason, every single BuzzFeed post is designed for sharing. It’s easily accessible online or via mobile, and most importantly, it’s simple. Buzzfeed is at the forefront of this new social era because it understands the market they’re playing in and they know they’re going to win.

To put it bluntly, in 2014, companies spent:

  • 45.1% of their digital ad budget on search
  • 13.6% of their digital ad budget was committed to social

When 31.24% of traffic to sites were through social referral – an increase of 8.53% in the previous year.

Evidently, there are clear trends of growth but lagging calibrations in budgets. Companies that want to compete in this new landscape must adjust to reach every single person that is meant to be targeted.

Using a fundamental human truth, Buzzfeed has been able to understand how ideas spread and harnessed this power. People are sharing content from Buzzfeed over any other site, news or not, and it’s because they relate on an emotional level.  Buzzfeed has become the norm and this says a lot about the future of marketing. Instead of talking at the world, companies know that successful marketing involves trying to make the world talk, creating conversations at every consumer touch point. Only Buzzfeed has been able to successfully garner user-generated content to connect all of the niche markets that exist today, but the possibilities it has now opened are endless.




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