Tag Archives: jonah peretti

How BuzzFeed is ensuring it’s not too dependent on Facebook

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti

If there was ever an appropriate time to use the word “frenemy,” it would be while describing the relationship between Facebook and content publishers. Those publishers have watched over the past two years as their Facebook traffic has steadily increased, and, while that traffic has been certainly welcome, it has also induced a significant level of paranoia and worry that one day it will go away. I’ve written before about how this paranoia has led to social media managers obsessively hitting refresh on their Facebook analytics, searching for any sign that their content has been degraded in the newsfeed.

In an essay for Medium, New York Times associate director of audience development Matt Yurow explains how this dependency on Facebook is creating a similar environment to what the music industry faced in the early aughts when it succumbed to Steve Jobs’s siren call and made its music available on the iTunes store. With the popularity of the iPod and later the iPhone, Apple then had a vice-like grip on the industry, which defanged the music labels and further contributed to their decline. According to Yurow, Facebook is gaining a similar type of leverage over content publishers (I’ve made a similar analogy, except instead of iTunes I compared it to Amazon’s relationship to book publishers):

Facebook has been pushing media companies to natively upload their videos to the platform, rather than posting links to YouTube or a first party player.

According to a 2013 study by social analytics firm Socialbakers, videos uploaded directly to Facebook reached a wider audience than links embedding a YouTube player.

Would Facebook throttle back the reach of links to other media sites in favor of content hosted on its own servers? It’s not incomprehensible.

The trend Yurow’s noting is what publishers have referred to as “digital sharecropping,” a neologism that describes how people will place their entire digital presence on a platform they don’t own or control rather than investing more in their own website. Just as with agricultural sharecropping, the digital sharecropper is at the mercy of those who own the land the sharecropper is cultivating, And as Facebook becomes the dominant source for traffic to publishers, it increasingly gains leverage over them, especially as its newsfeed algorithm, one that’s opaque to outside observers, controls what content users see while logged in.

But while some publishers, like Dose.com and Viral Nova, have staked nearly their entire futures on the assumption that the Facebook traffic hose will keep flowing, one publication has been busy inoculating itself against a Facebook backlash: BuzzFeed.

Now, your first response to this might be: “Hasn’t BuzzFeed seen tremendous success on Facebook?” Well, yes. It’s consistently among the top five sites that are shared on the platform. But it hasn’t responded to this traffic tsunami by merely attempting to extend its Facebook reach even further; rather, it has aimed to diversify its traffic sources, distributing its eggs among several baskets, and has even begun to build its own platforms on which it hopes its users will reside.

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Case in point: Pinterest. While most non-lifestyle news companies have only dabbled with Pinterest, BuzzFeed made a very large bet on the platform, and it’s now its second-largest social referrer. “It also has a much longer lifecycle than other social networks, often driving traffic to posts months after publication,” said Dao Nguyen, VP of growth and data at BuzzFeed. “In fact, more than half of BuzzFeed’s traffic from Pinterest goes to posts published more than 2 months ago.” The site saw this success not from simply cross-posting its content to Pinterest, but by developing posts specifically tailored for the network and sharing any insights gleaned from the experiments to the larger BuzzFeed team.

BuzzFeed has also invested heavily in email marketing, an old-school medium that’s seen a revival of late due to its much higher engagement rate compared to other social platforms. It currently offers 15 newsletter options, and it saw 700 percent more email traffic in 2014 compared to the year prior.

And with the launch and expansion of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, it’s developed a massive following on YouTube, with over 10 million subscribers across its four channels. In 2014, BuzzFeed video received 4.5 billion views, with most of those views on YouTube.

But perhaps nothing will protect BuzzFeed more from platform dependency than its efforts to build its own off-site platform. The company has been aggressively hiring new staff to create and maintain its own mobile app, and unlike other news outlet forays into mobile apps, this one will serve as more than a copy-and-paste repository for its website content. According to an interview with Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial lead for the app, it will curate non-BuzzFeed content, in essence trying to compete with news aggregation apps like Flipboard, Smart News, and, yes, Facebook.

Sure, the app hasn’t launched yet and may end up being a complete dud, but no one can accuse BuzzFeed of sitting by and allowing Facebook to increase its grip on the site’s audience. In fact, if Facebook were to disappear tomorrow, then BuzzFeed would still have a significant following from which to propagate its content. If Facebook is a siren luring sailors with her song, then BuzzFeed is Odysseus, binding itself to the ship’s mast so as to resist the siren’s deadly call.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via CEO World

How Medium is using the mullet strategy to attract new users

mullet

I don’t think I invented the phrase — I likely read it somewhere and then absorbed it through osmosis — but for several years now I’ve been referring to something called the “mullet strategy” when trying to explain how some platforms and social networks have attempted to attract new users. A Google search reveals that Jonah Peretti, a founder of both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, used the neologism as early as 2007. As described by Grant McCracken in 2008, with the mullet strategy, “the front page of the website is ‘kept sharp’ by professional editors while the back of the site is given over to the unedited, unsubstantiated ‘venting’ of unpaid visitors.” Or, put another way: “Business in the front. Party in the back.”

The approach was used early on with both Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. In the case of Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, the site’s founder, employed professional bloggers to write for the front page of the liberal, grassroots blog, and then anyone who commented on their blog posts had to sign up for an account that also gave them their own blogging platform. Their published blog posts, however, were not automatically promoted on the front page; they were relegated to a subdomain, with their headlines highlighted on a small sidebar on the Daily Kos front page. Whenever a user-generated blog post was particularly well written, however, one of the paid front-page bloggers could pluck it from the ether and promote it on the main blog. This strategy worked so well because it attracted readers with the professional-grade material and then converted them into more engaged users who gladly generated content for Daily Kos for absolutely no pay. Occasionally, when one of these unpaid users consistently produced professional-quality content, Moulitsas would hire him or her to write for the front page.

Huffington Post employed a slightly more selective approach. Though it used thousands of unpaid bloggers, you couldn’t publish to HuffPo unless you happened to know someone who worked there. This way, getting your own HuffPo byline felt like you were being invited into some exclusive club, making it easier to overlook the fact that you were creating content without pay. Arianna Huffington famously would hand out accounts to people she met on her speaking tours. This higher bar of selectivity ensured a better batting average when it came to the quality of content.

The mullet strategy has continued to be adopted and improved upon over the last several years. One of its most interesting iterations was rolled out at Forbes, where chief product officer Lewis DVorkin has recruited over a thousand writers, some salaried staffers, others paid based on traffic generated, and the rest completely unpaid. The strategy paid off, reviving Forbes from a state in which it was barely able to make rent to a profitable entity.

The beauty of the mullet strategy is that it effectively tackles the user acquisition problem. Every new platform that relies on user generated content depends on influential users who make the platform indispensable, thereby attracting larger numbers of users to try it out.  But it’s a Catch 22; the platform needs the influencers to make it indispensable, but these users won’t become addicted unless it’s already indispensable. Facebook solved this problem by attracting early adopters from prestigious schools, so that by the time it trickled down to other universities the social network was already populated by their contacts. Twitter similarly had an early adopter advantage, having attracted influential tech enthusiasts very early on. But not every new platform can reach this critical mass, so that’s where the mullet strategy comes in: you’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.

Medium has employed what is, in my mind, the most scalable mullet strategy yet. All the other examples I listed, while brilliantly executed, were confined in scope. Daily Kos, while allowing anyone to sign up, only really appeals to those interested in politics, and of those, only people who consider themselves liberal. Forbes and Huffington Post, with their more selective approach, can only manage so many bloggers before quality control becomes impossible. And let’s face it: none of these outlets are technology companies, and so their users aren’t creating content on their platforms because their content management systems are amazing.

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Medium, on the other hand, is a technology company, and it has built a gorgeous, easy-to-use CMS. It also isn’t limited by subject matter. It is therefore just as scalable as any other social network, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn. And it’s solved its user acquisition problem in two brilliant ways.

The first is that it allows you to sign up for Medium using your Twitter account, so that from the very moment your account is live you’re already following people you’re interested in and you also have followers of your own (these are drawn from your twitter followers who have also signed up for the platform). You’re not landing in a ghost town and scrambling to find people to follow.

The second is that very early on Medium hired editors from glossy magazines that specialize in premium, longform content, and gave them substantial editorial budgets to begin recruiting freelance writers. Suddenly, people were landing on Medium before they even knew what it was and before it was even open to new users. This of course attracted the curiosity of journalists, who began penning articles trying to suss out whether Medium was a magazine or a platform. Eventually, our curiosity would get the better of us and we’d set up an account and try it out. Medium has essentially solved the “cool kid” and social graph factors at the same time — first direct users to the site with high quality content, and once they’re there, encourage them to sign up. And then once they have an account, there’s all their friends and followers waiting to consume their content.

It’s a strategy that all future platform creators should pay attention to. In a world where every day a new mobile app or social network promises to crowdsource the solution to some life problem, there are only so many influencers with so much time to invest in a new tool. So when you receive your millions of dollars in investment from venture capitalists, set aside some of that money to pay your early adopters. Because without them, you’re just a night club with no line out the door, in which case you might as well send your DJ home early.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

BuzzFeed is the least dependent news site on pageviews, yet one of the most highly trafficked

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.

Why is BuzzFeed still taking on more investment?

In any article about BuzzFeed taking on more investment, there invariably comes a time when some spokesman for the company, usually founder Jonah Peretti, issues the caveat that despite taking on said investment, they really are profitable. With yesterday’s announcement that the company just took on $50 million in new investment at a valuation of $850 million, that task was assigned to venture capitalist Chris Dixon, who just joined BuzzFeed’s board:

According to Mr. Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz, BuzzFeed is expected to generate revenue in the triple-digit millions of dollars by the end of 2014.

This always begs the question: If the site is so profitable, why bother raising more money — and giving away more equity — at all? Well, in addition to some vague allusions to a new startup incubator (where BuzzFeed can start making its own acquisitions) within the company, we have this:

BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which is led by Ze Frank, a web video pioneer, aims to produce new videos — from six-second clips made for social media to more traditional 22-minute shows — at a rapid-fire pace. Initially, his team will focus on independent distribution, hosting video content on BuzzFeed.com, YouTube or other digital platforms. But BuzzFeed Motion Pictures could also look to produce feature-length films or shows, working in conjunction with traditional Hollywood studios.

It’s well known that high quality video production is expensive, and if they’re looking to produce television or film quality content, then we’re talking about spending several million dollars per project. This seems like a clear sign that web video is continuing to mature to a point where it can legitimately compete with network and studio content.