There is a certain level of irony that BuzzFeed doesn’t sell advertising based on CPM (basically, a cost per thousand impressions/pageviews), yet in terms of pageviews there are likely few news sites that can rival it. As Felix Salmon notes, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti chose to eschew the typical pageview whoring you see on sites like Business Insider (slideshows, misleading headlines) in favor of improving the user experience:
That’s partly because, its massive traffic numbers notwithstanding, BuzzFeed is not actually in the traffic business, and describing it as a “web traffic sensation” rather misses the whole point of the company. While a company like Business Insider makes money by selling inventory to advertisers, BuzzFeed doesn’t: you won’t see any ads on a BuzzFeed story page. If you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a Business Insider story, at least the company has sold your visit to a client. But if you feel a little bit disappointed after clicking through to a BuzzFeed story, BuzzFeed gets no benefit at all. The people at BuzzFeed want their stories and quizzes and videos to ideally reach everybody who will love them — and no one else.
Felix Salmon, the financial columnist who quit Reuters to work at the television channel Fushion, took to Medium to explain his move and how he wants to diversify the channel’s revenue streams so it’s not beholden to diminishing CPM advertising:
So here’s the idea: let’s say we can serve up high-quality Fusion-branded content to a new generation of digital natives, and that they love that content. If and when that happens, it’s going to be a lot easier for the cable companies to persuade that audience to pay for cable TV if their cable lineup also includes Fusion. The content won’t be the same, of course — but the brand will be. And the cable companies are going to want the Fusion brand on their lineup because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to seem relevant to anybody under the age of 32. The result: Fusion has negotiating leverage with the cable channels, and becomes very valuable.
Here’s where things start getting really cool. What this means is that it doesn’t matter where people consume our digital content: it only mattersthat they consume it. So while everybody else fights with each other to get millions of unique visitors to their websites, we will be happy to go reach the audience wherever they are. Of course, we will have an excellent website of our own — the amazing Hong Qu is hard at work building it as we speak. But in no way will we feel constrained by that website. If our audience is on Instagram, we’ll make 15-second videos for them on Instagram. If they’re on Upworthy or BuzzFeed or Vox or even Snapchat, we’ll try to find a way to reach them there, too. It’s what I call promiscuous media: put everything where it works best.
At the moment, Facebook assumes that people click on exactly the material that they want to click on, and that if it serves up a lot of clickbaity curiosity-gap headlines, then it’s giving its users what they want. Whereas in reality, those headlines are annoying. Curiosity-gap headlines are a bit like German sentences: you don’t know what they mean until you get to the end, which means that the only way to find out what your friend is saying is to click on the headline and serve up another pageview to Upworthy. (Or ViralNova, or Distractify, or whomever.) It’s basically a way of hacking real-world friendships for profit, and there’s no way Facebook is going to allow it to continue indefinitely.
All of which is to say that the massive advantage which Upworthy has … is certain to go away. It’s a temporary phenomenon, a function of the fact that Upworthy is better than anybody else at turbocharging virality by using artificially-optimized curiosity-gap headlines as a way of sending a (false) message to Facebook that those headlines are the stories its users really want to read. Upworthy’s formula will work until it doesn’t.