On the face of it, BuzzFeed and Vice are two companies with a lot in common. Both get young internet users, both get mobile and social, both rely on the advertising industry, both produce entertainment, and both produce journalism.
It’s almost too easy to find examples of articles comparing the two – Google “BuzzFeed and Vice” to get started and you can pretty much take your pick. The often-mistaken-but-never-in-doubt Michael Wolff is one of the worst offenders, and even TheMediaBriefing team falls into the trap occasionally.
But any comparison between the two is much more complex than many commentators seem prepared to admit.
Here – in a format we like to call “a number of connected items written consecutively one below the other that is definitely not a listicle” – are five ways in which BuzzFeed and Vice differ:
1. They operate different business models
Sure, both BuzzFeed and Vice are dependent on the ad industry, but that doesn’t mean their business models are the same.
BuzzFeed runs no banner ads at all. Instead, the type of native ads BuzzFeed specialises in are each individually crafted to fit with and support the goals of the advertiser by teams separate from those that produce the rest of BuzzFeed’s content.
These ads rarely take the form of blatant promotion of a product itself (unlike most traditional advertising), but there’s almost always a direct link between what’s being created and what it’s promoting, such as a supermarket paying for a post about food, an Australian beer paying for a post promoting Australia, or a TV channel paying for a post about one of its shows.
This is down to BuzzFeed’s social sharing DNA. The advertiser’s message can’t merely be associated with the piece of content, it needs to be embedded, because that post is designed to circulate across social media on its own. There’s little opportunity to develop an association between content and brand based on anything else.
Vice, in comparison:
1. Runs banner and video pre-roll ads and has an ad network to support them
2. Offers long-term sponsorship of channels or series that provide the content creators a lot more leeway to pick their topics
A common fallacy in coverage of the two companies is to equate Vice’s sponsored deals with the BuzzFeed take on native ads, yet the two approaches are very, very different.
The Creators Project is a good example of this. The channel focuses on the intersection between art and technology, and has been sponsored by Intel in a partnership that has run for four years. The Creators Project YouTube channel has 482,980 subscribers (BuzzFeed’s main YouTube channel has 309,759 by comparison).
Yes, Vice’s sponsored channels such as The Creator’s Project are arguably a form of native advertising – attaching branding to other content. But the longevity of the deals changes the dynamic, allowing those working on the branded channels more room to cover a broad sweep of their area, while keeping a sponsor such as Intel happy that people will associate their brand with interesting developments related to their line of business.
Vice’s is a much more old-school approach (as are the banner and pre-roll ads it uses) than BuzzFeed’s socially inspired strategy.
2. They produce very different journalism
Many media commentators continue to doubt BuzzFeed’s committment to high-quality reporting. “BuzzFeed only produces listicles and cat gifs” is both a tired attack and an ad hominem one, and should be put to bed by now.
But BuzzFeed is still primarily focused on casual entertainment, tailored to appeal to either the broadest possible audience, or very clearly defined sub groups such as “girls who grew up in the 90s“.
The majority of what Vice produces is also entertainment, of course, but it’s got a very different flavour. You might call it counter-culture, you might call it edgy (some might also call it hipster), but it is continuously trying to define itself as different to the mainstream.
It also, especially since the launch of Vice News, puts a lot more resource into covering what most would recognise as global news stories (War in Sudan and Iraq, unrest in Venezuela). That will have a lot to do with Vice’s greater use of freelancers who are easier to pick and choose for very different stories, and perhaps the reportedly low rates it pays the rest of its staff.
Vice most closely resembles a video news operation, increasingly focussed on serious global issues stories. BuzzFeed is building its news and video capabilities, but it’s still largely driven by entertainment and evergreen content. What you get from the two is very different.
3. They have different relationships with social media
Facebook is a big, big referrer of traffic to both publishers, but BuzzFeed is much more dependent on Zuckerberg’s blue ship than Vice, for how both its editorial and its advertising content spreads around the web. It is also very focused on how it performs on other social platforms, such as Pinterest.
That’s enabled BuzzFeed to grow a massive audience at scale, but also leaves it vulnerable to any decision by Facebook or other networks to tweak how they decide what their audiences see. This has already happened to Upworthy – once tipped to be the next big online media thing – and could easily happen to BuzzFeed.
Vice has made the most of social networks too (what digital publisher worth its salt hasn’t…), but its video content in particular has meant a greater emhpasis on YouTube, where if you subscribe to a channel you get much more prominent and forceful notifications. Almost five million people currently subscribe to Vice’s core YouTube channel, more than the number of people who “like” the BuzzFeed Facebook page and follow its Twitter account combined.
Of course, BuzzFeed’s skill is in getting real people to share content from personal accounts, and it’s fair to say they understand how that process works emotionally better than anyone else. But it also means they are slightly less in control of their own distribution channels.
There’s also another difference between the two when it comes to social media. BuzzFeed is increasingly producing a lot more original content, but it is still also still very dependent on sites like Reddit for source material.
BuzzFeed’s reliance on social media for both content and distribution isn’t necessarily a weakness, and it reflects the fact BuzzFeed is much more embedded in internet culture – something that is evident in the memes, GIFs, etc that feature so heavily in its content.
Vice is much more like a traditional media company in what it covers, if not the way it covers them, and tries to tell stories that are generally outside of internet culture, or don’t use internet culture to explain an issue.
4. Their valuations are very different
Both companies have received investments on a similar scale in the recent past. BuzzFeed got another $50 million last week from Andreessen Horowitz and Vice got $70 million from 21st Century Fox. However, the value placed on each company in those rounds of funding differs a lot.
BuzzFeed’s recent cash raise gives it a simple valuation of $850 million, although as Felix Salmon points out, “There’s no particular reason to believe that Andreessen Horowitz has bought itself simple common stock”.
The same goes for Vice, which could be worth $1.4 billion if rumours are to be believed, but equally could be worth a lot more, or a lot less, depending on the type of stock being talked about and how both companies are valued. It’s not as simple as “X times revenue”.
According to those figures Vice is worth maybe double what BuzzFeed is, but the source of funding is if anything more interesting. Andreessen Horowitz is a tech VC fund famed for taking punts on tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, AirBnB and Groupon.
As well as 21st Century Fox, Vice has previously taken a chunk of money from WPP, the world’s largest ad group.
BuzzFeed is appealing to tech, but Vice is appealing to old media.
5. They’re different ages
BuzzFeed was founded eight years ago, Vice was founded 20 years ago.
Vice still has a revenue generating print business and a deal with HBO to run a show on its subscription cable TV channel. BuzzFeed is (at least for now) resolutely on the internet only.
That’s not to say Vice is really an old media company dressed up as new. The bulk of its business and focus is undeniably online now. But that history has shaped the kind of company it has become.
Not all youth is the same
The tendency to treat BuzzFeed and Vice as two sides of the same coin stems from the fact they reach bits of the audience others can’t – that practically mythical “youth market”. It’s led to an assumption there is one (new, exciting, unpredictable and inscrutable) kind of media business for the post-internet generation and another set of (familiar, troubled, boring) media businesses for the rest.
But that’s silly. The established media models based in print, TV and radio – as staid as many currently seem – evolved over a long time with a lot of different companies trying many different things.
The same is inevitably going to be true of these young busineses that are appealing to audiences with very different habits and very different interests.
We need to stop looking at them as representative of one new phenomenon and see them for what they are: two very different responses to a sea change in the way people consume media.