On a freezing Monday afternoon in central London, the brains behind Buzzfeed are discussing the delicate science of making cute lists of animal pictures go viral. “Cats do better than dogs,” says Ben Smith, the site’s 37-year-old editor-in-chief. “Although last month goats won, because of the Screaming Goats meme.”
“We had a big dog post recently, though,” counters the site’s founder, Jonah Peretti. “‘33 Dogs That Cannot Even Handle It Right Now.‘ Did you see that one? I was like ‘Wow, they really cannot handle it!’ They’re all freaking out, like…” Peretti pulls his best impression of an outraged Chihuahua, and collapses into a fit of giggles.
There’s no wonder Peretti is laughing right now. By mastering the art of viral stories, internet memes and its own unmistakable brand of “listicles”, Buzzfeed has become one of the hottest media companies on the planet. Founded in 2006 by Peretti – a former co-founder of the Huffington Post – the site has built a monthly audience of over 40 million readers, with the help of viral click-bait stories like “32 Pictures You Need To See Before You Die“, “40 Things That Will Make You Feel Old” and “115 Adorable Pictures Of Animal Yawns“.
Then, in 2012, Buzzfeed did something unexpected: it started to get serious. It launched a political section and hired Smith, a respected reporter from Politico, as editor-in chief. He was soon joined by Michael Hastings, an influential correspondent forRolling Stone, and further high-profile poaches from New York, the LA Times, Gizmodo and Bon Appetit. Political scoops about the American election soon started to appear on the site among the pop-culture content. The site also forged a partnership with the New York Times (it was the Times‘ idea). Funded by investors and “Sponsored Posts” from the likes of Nike and Toyota, Buzzfeed is booming. At the time of writing, the site is reportedly worth £132m.
Last week, Buzzfeed launched in the UK. A British version of the site had been in Peretti’s plans for some time. “We were thinking about the next natural place to expand to,” he explains, sat in a glass-walled meeting room overlooking the roof deck of White Bear Yard in Clerkenwell, where Buzzfeed’s UK HQ is based. Wearing a sweater and jeans, the 39-year-old cuts a rather different figure to Smith, who is dressed in a smart navy suit and brogues and rarely stops checking his emails, even when speaking. “We already have two million readers [a month] here – the second biggest location other than North America – and that was without paying any attention to the UK” says Peretti. “We thought, if we had somebody who really got British culture, and really got what we do,” agrees Smith. “We had been starting to talk about it, when Luke came to us.”
Luke is Luke Lewis, a former editor of NME.com, who approached Buzzfeed in late 2012 with an idea. The site’s New York office was looking for a night editor, but instead of applying, Lewis sent a mocked up version of what a UK version of the Buzzfeed homepage might look like, complete with theoretical headlines based on British culture. “I applied for the job and told them I was a massive fan. I just said, “Oh by the way, if you’re ever thinking of launching the UK, this is how it could look.'”
A few months later, Buzzfeed UK was born. Although the homepage is the same mix of clickable lists, celebrity GIFs and irreverent pop-culture, the British site is a quite different operation to its American brother. Rather than the slick, branded New York office, the UK office is four people hunched over Macbook Airs in the corner of a spacious office hub shared tech startups and a clothing company. The aim is to emulate the early viral success of Buzzfeed. “To build a voice and sense of humour, to build a brand that people are really connected with,” says Peretti. “Then we can add in the more serious content as we go.”
So, vistors to the site will now see British-oriented stories like “43 Things British People Know To Be True” and “21 Simple Ways To Swear Like Malcolm Tucker” have started to appear alongside the usual mix of adorable mammals and trending topics. “The story about George Osborne joining twitter went properly viral,” says Lewis. “It was all coming from Facebook [currently the story has over 5,000 shares and 18,000 likes]. That was quite a bit of a confidence boost, because it made us think there’s an audience here, and it’s not just for the cat stuff. There is an audience for the politics as well if you do it in the right way.”
For now, British Buzzfeed won’t have a political reporter or long-form of the American site; that will continue to be produced stateside. It’s partly a case of budget, partly down to a different media landscape. “Political coverage here is so different,” says Smith. “The central players are print; when the government wants to break something, the do it on Sunday morning in the Telegraph. The online news space is different.”
It’s a conspicuously low-key approach, particularly when compared to the high-stakes British launches of other American web brands like Peretti’s former employer, the Huffington Post. “There’s four of us… so the idea that we’re going after the Daily Mail is crazy,” says Lewis. Not that it isn’t on their radar. “We are competing for people’s time with certain [websites]. You can see when you go around every office in the UK, people are eating their lunch and reading Mail Online. We want people to be reading Buzzfeed in their lunch hour as well.”
The most successful Buzzfeed stories can get as many readers as traditional print publications boast in an entire year. At the time of writing, one post, “The 45 Most Powerful Images Of 2011” has been viewed over 12 million times. “I think that one actually caused Facebook to dial back their sharing algorithm, because they saw how crazy that thing was spreading everywhere,” says Peretti, grinning.
So, what’s the trick to getting a story to go viral? “The best Buzzfeed posts are not just funny, they also have this emotional component,” says Lewis. “It’s not just light-hearted – Buzzfeed makes you feel better about the world.”
“Part of the reason that it isn’t a science is that the things that go biggest are the ones that feel really new,” says Smith. “If you take something that went really big and try and copy it, people are going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that already.’ That being said, they are keen to repeat the success of previous posts. Buzzfeed’s proprietary content management system has traffic statistic built in, so reporters can follow how the site’s content is performing. “You get alerts as to how your post is doing, where the traffic has come from,” says Lewis. “The whole thing is geared up for you to know how well stories are doing. And the data informs what you write; ‘This thing did well, let’s do more of that.'” Hence more stories about cats than dogs.
Smith is also keen to point out the distinction between the difference between a traffic driving story and one that you’ll want to be pass on to others. “Jonah talks about it a lot, but people only share things that they are proud of,” explains Smith. Peretti agrees. “People will Google and click a story about nude Scarlett Johansson pictures leaking, but they won’t post to Facebook. With social content, it isn’t just about sharing something which contains interesting information – this is about telling the world who I am.”
Ideas for Buzzfeed posts can come from a variety of sources. “You scour the web for the best photos that you can find,” says Lewis. “Like the London Underground one, we got loads of those from books, funnily enough. Ijust have a load of books about London history.”
Undoubtedly one source that provides significant inspiration, however, is the social networking site Reddit. Last summer, Buzzfeed came under heavy criticism in the American media for allegedly lifting entire posts from the social network, from pictures to the accompanying captions. “Somebody rightly pointed out that we had forgotten to note that part of a list post was inspired by a Reddit thread. They were right, and we added that very quickly,” says Smith. “I meanwhile was sending nasty emails to the editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, who had failed to credit [Buzzfeed reporter] Rosie Gray’s scoop on the Malaysian government funding American columnists. This is something that is always happening in journalism; editors grumbling that people aren’t getting credit. It’s just good form, and we try to credit people.”
“Here’s the way we approach it,” says Peretti. “We spend seven figures a year on image licensing. We license from AP, Reuters, Getty, paparazzi agencies… we license everything we possibly can. When we can find a creator and license it, we do. It can be a thorny issue… but I think a lot of it is: are you doing things in the spirit of the internet?” Lewis agrees. “Reddit is an astonishing community and I love it, but it’s not like it’s a team of journalists creating those images that we are stealing. It’s like finding something on Twitter, it’s not like stealing from theGuardian. It’s just a resource you go to. But you should always be transparent about where you get something from.”
Though the site’s crediting has undoubtedly improved, it’s still not enough for some critics. Links to original sources are given in tiny, greyed-out text beneath each picture, most often in the form of just the original site’s name, rather than a full URL or headline. The result can occasionally be deceiving; the underground story Lewis mentioned on Buzzfeed UK, “22 Signs That Your Train Station Is Mocking You“, includes a mix of unintentionally funny real signs mixed in with parodies placed by visual artists. But the Buzzfeed piece doesn’t distinguish between the two; in the world of humorous lists, context apparently seems secondary to the pursuit of Facebook Shares.
Indeed, in the UK at least the pursuit of Facebook Shares is taking precedence over making money: for the moment, Buzzfeed UK doesn’t even have an advertising team. “You need to have something good before you start trying to make money off of it,” Peretti says. “In the UK we are starting with this, and if it works well, we will probably follow pretty quickly with someone who works with brands here.”
In America, the site generates revenue not through standard web fodder like banner ads, but through “sponsored posts”, created by an in-house creative team that works with brands. “In the past, advertising has been about adjacency – “Let’s put an ad next to something that people really want, and people see the ad because we’re using the good content as bait,'” says Peretti.” But people are starting to ignore them and that has caused this advertising that will swoop in front or crazy things that disrupt you as a reader. Instead we’re saying that on the web, every piece of content has to live or die on its own merits, including branded content. So why not for the Toyota Prius do ‘The 20 Coolest Hybrid Animals; – and make it something people will want to look at and want to share, and teach these brands to speak the language of the web?”
It’s an unusual strategy, but one that is apparently working; according to Bloomberg Businessweek, a sponsored post on Buzzfeed can bring in up to $100,000 a pop. “We don’t run any banner ads and we were profitable last month,” says Peretti. In a month when the Daily Telegraph and the Sun have both announced online paywalls, Peretti’s approach feels like a serious jolt to the system.
Fleet Street hacks might turn their noses up at the thought of “serious journalism” mixing with shots of Taylor Swift and bleating goats, but Peretti isn’t fazed. “People always want me to say we do the cute animals and the branded content as necessary evils to support the glorious work of the journalist. That’s not how we see the world,” he says. “There’s no cynicism to this,” agrees Smith.
“What was interesting when I was over there in New York was their really is no sense of hierarchy,” says Lewis. “The people who write the long form stuff are not seen as superior to the people who do the traffic-driving articles about dogs. It’s all on a level, and it’s all given sort of equal respect.”
“If you had any idea how much work at times goes into those lists,” he laughs.” I’ve written 3,000 word magazine cover features, and the post ‘43 Things British People Know To Be True‘ took a lot longer. It’s just a different set of journalistic skills.”
Later that evening, the staff descend on a dimly-lit bar downstairs at Hawksmoor in Shoreditch. Much of the American team has come over to celebrate the launch over lobster rolls and strong cocktails. There is indeed remarkably little hierarchy; Peretti and Smith rub shoulders with new hires, who whisper reverentially when they spot the site’s Animals Editor, Jack Sheperd, who staffers refer to as the Beast Master (“Undoubtedly the best at what he does in America and possibly the world,” says Smith). Reporters from the Guardian, Telegraph and Spectator mingle. Jokes about cat pictures and listicles fly but there’s a tangible sense that this is the new media landscape, like it or not.
“When you think about it, there are hundreds of journalists competing for political scoops, maybe thousands. But there are millions of people online putting up cute pictures of cats. It’s a much more competitive space,” says Smith, half smiling, half serious. “Besides, you go try to make a list of cat pictures go viral. It’s no joke.”
Originally published on gq.co.uk