BuzzFeed has become a shining example of how to make shareable content. They've built a huge audience on it, and they've also built an innovative advertising business on it. So, for anyone hoping social is going to drive growth in readers or revenue, paying attention to how they create shareable articles and ads is a must.
Luckily, BuzzFeed's editorial director Jack Shepherd shared a few of the company's tips at the Journalism news:rewired conference today.
1. Everybody likes lists
First off is the principle that lists don’t mess with the audience’s expectations. Someone clicking on the article already knows what to expect, and in the age of information-overload and the chaos of the internet, bringing a little order and organisation to a user’s life is a welcome reprieve – especially when its format represents a natural way for how our brains organise information.
As this article from The New Yorker puts it: “Together, these create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualisation, categorisation, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption – a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”
2. Appeal to emotion
Shepherd referenced four categories that posts can fall into that make audiences want to share content with others:
BuzzFeed journalists do a “gut check” on content they’ve created. If they create something that is viscerally engaging that they have some kind of emotional reaction to, it’s a good sign other people will too.
A good example of this from one of BuzzFeed’s native ads is Spotify’s post “20 Things That Affirm Led Zeppelin Is The Greatest Band To Ever Exist” which when we last checked had been shared on Facebook over 8,600 times, and had received over 50,000 total Facebook interactions including likes and comments.
3. Extend content with community
Working out how to get meaningful interactions from your community is often a struggle for many media companies, and there’s no quick fix. Every online community is different, and the “hive mind” (or sometimes “mob mentality”) of your audience is often out of your control (look at comments below Telegraph blogs, for example).
Shepherd pointed to BuzzFeed’s reluctance to ask boring questions, such as “What do you think?”, which more often than not elicit boring responses.
Contrast this to BuzzFeed’s executive vice president of video, Ze Frank, who created the “Young Me/Now Me” photo contest around 2006/7 challenging his audience to submit modern reconstructions of photos from their past, and you see huge differences in willingness from audiences to interact with your brand.
4. Controversy works
“Trolling can be pretty viral if you get it right,” says Shepherd, who pointed to website Bonsai Kitten as an example – an early internet hoax featuring kittens being permanently forced into jars.
Bonsai Kitten falls perfectly into BuzzFeed’s “Gets it/Likes it quadrant” – everyone who saw it can be categorised into one of four categories (apologies for the picture quality):
Each one of those categories represents an opportunity to share content, whether it’s to show off that you got the joke, or to try and raise awareness of the plight of the kittens if you didn’t recognise it as a spoof.
5. Pair the right story with the right format
“The difference between telling a story people want to share and telling a story people want to hear, is usually a case of format,” says Shepherd.
As an example he pointed to BuzzFeed’s recent splurge of quizzes – content that falls very much into the sharing category because of what the answer says about readers on an individual level. Shepherd says BuzzFeed’s “The Most Liveable Cities of 2013” post is on course for 20 million uniques and looks as if it will soon be the second most popular post on BuzzFeed of all time (the first is another quiz – “What State Should You Live In?” – which has so far attracted around 40-50 million uniques).
“The quiz format makes the story all about the reader,” says Shepherd, but importantly he distinguishes between different formats depending on the content of a post: “I don’t mean we should all be trying to make quizzes. Sometimes the right format for an article is a 10,000 word piece.”
“It’s a total myth that people don’t read serious or long content on the internet. That hasn’t remotely been our experience so far.”
And Shepherd also says a lot of BuzzFeed’s wordier posts are being read on mobile: “The iPhone is not just a delivery method for Flappy Bird, but a natural home for serious and longform content.”
Leading the charge
BuzzFeed are the internet experts at following their own rules, and use many more tips and tricks along the way to ensure their content reaches as many people as possible, but increasingly other news organisations are following suit and working out how they can change the way they produce content to make it socially shareable.
The number of legacy media companies producing lists, quizzes and cat posts is slowly increasing, but with the hangover costs of print and the lack of a profitable presence online, is it merely enough to follow in BuzzFeed's footsteps?