Cats, politics, $46 million in funding and a UK launch: It’s time to start taking Buzzfeed seriously

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Ben Smith, BuzzFeed, CNN International, Dell Magazines, Jonah Peretti, Luke Lewis, Mail Online, MTV, Patrick Smith, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, United States of America, BBC, Broadcast, Digital Media, Newspapers

As a reader of this site, it’s unlikely you’re a regular reader of Buzzfeed.com.

But if you care about the evolution of online media in a real-time, socially-connected world without the barriers, cultures and restraints of printed media… you should be.

The news and entertainment site – variously called a “social” or “viral” news startup – on Thursday closed a series D funding round worth $19.3 million (£11.9 million), led by VC firm NEA, with previous investors including Hearst and Softbank also taking part.

That takes the funding total so far to about $46 million, making it one of the hottest editorially-driven businesses around and a rare online content business that has managed to build real scale. It has 170 staff in several locations and 40 million unique monthly users and is now looking for international expansion.

Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg tells the FT the Buzzfeed London office will launch this year. "London is the natural next expansion," he says.

Luke Lewis, editor of NME.com, who has brought in some very effective innovations at that site (see examples here), said last year he had been hired to join Buzzfeed. There are currently 70 reporters and editors working under editor-in-chief Ben Smith.


Of course, Buzzfeed isn’t to everyone’s taste. The site’s innovative blend of politics, technology news, cute animals, internet memes and sponsored content is about as far removed from the traditional, sombre tone of US journalism as it gets. Sample stories from this week include: “30 ways to organise your workspace”; “Sean Penn Debuts ‘Muscular Jesus; Look’”; “23 horrifying foods from the dollar store” as well as “The Democrats’ coming civil war”.

The site was founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti (also co-founder of Huffington Post). When AOL bought Huffington Post for £315 million in 2011, that site had just 25 monthly unique users.

So what's the big deal? As I wrote back in 2011 that Mail Online was a digital innovator (it’s audience and revenue growth has accelerated since then as it reaches profitability), Buzzfeed is similarly a savvy, intelligent online native publisher that should be taken seriously. Here’s why:

1. Buzzfeed understands its audience

The US election was naturally a busy time for Buzzfeed and it contributed low-brow and high-brow articles to the debate. But perhaps more interesting was the Unpolitic Me feature, which allowed readers to turn off politics coverage altogether. A small move but one that shows an analytical grasp of audience behaviour: if you’d just like to look at pictures of animals, you can do that.

Its mix of stories might seem weird, but its editors are monitoring in real time what is popular and what's not, instead of relying on the traditional editor's "hunch" on what people might want to read.

2. It knows when and where people read

An oft-heard criticism of Buzzfeed is that’s just for the “bored at work” crowd – as if it caters for 40 million disinterested office drones, passively clicking on pictures of seals waving at donkeys.

But the phenomenon of people reading and sharing online articles during the day is a serious and over-looked publishing trend, of which Buzzfeed is well aware. As Peretti put it in a slidedeck from 2010, “the Bored at Work Network (BWN) is bigger than the BBC, CNN or any traditional media network.”

3. It knows you can’t make something 'go viral'

Occasionally I get press releases from companies who claim they “make viral videos”, regardless of how absurd that phrase is. As Peretti puts it, “most things are not viral… you will never know in advance which ideas will work… you can drastically increase your chances of success if you try lots of things and bring the best forward.”

Hence the diverse and totally unpredictable range of stories on the desktop or mobile front page.

4. It’s totally up front about its advertorial programme

This is the key bit of the puzzle and something so many online content businesses miss: the revenue model. Buzzfeed offers sponsored posts to the likes of Coca-Cola, Dell, MTV and others, which weave the brands’ messages into the kind of posts that would be published anyway - albeit clearly labelled. 

For brands who want exposure and some viral power behind their marketing campaigns, it’s a good sell. And it gets past the insurmountable problem of banner blindness in the process

Want some advice on how to make stuff go viral? Here are those slides are from Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti in 2010

Jonah Peretti Viral Meetup Talk

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