On a recent winter night, your bazaar correspondent found himself sitting in a crowded hall awaiting Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief, Ben E. Smith, to give an address to a small group of entrepreneurs. Skewing perhaps deliberately as young as their audience, the general tenor seemed to be the anticipation of an Oz-like pulling-back of the grand curtain for some deeper reveal into the cultural web-behemoth that Buzzfeed has become in the last few years. Your correspondent, envisioning himself as the Toto of this scenario (i.e., actual curtain-puller) vacillated between a decision to do the funniest action he could, on repeat, in an attempt to feign a gif-like resemblance, or ask the final question at the podium in the form of a Top Ten Recap of Ben’s best quotes of the night—with kittens—really, I had brought them just in case!
Either way though, there was a revolt afoot, and you could hear it through the variety of chatter and banter in the audience, all to some degree with a want, it seemed, to look down on the website for their ubiquitous low-brow lists, gifs, jokes and –yes, kittens. Simultaneously, there was an unspoken awareness that in the age of new media, there was something to be learned—even emulated—from it. So, with the anticipatory sting of Schadenfreude, and the frenzied energy of an elevator pitch (Hire me! Hire me!), the naysayers and the yeah!-sayers, intermingled to the point of anonymity.
Unfortunately for those hoping to have their bloodlust satisfied, Ben turned out to be likable, affable even and nice to boot, plus his parents were there too so I guess we had to be on our best behavior. A clever rouse you say? Perhaps! With a mostly convivial spirit though, there seemed little to do but delve into the ins and outs of their business. But alas, not, apparently before a detractor or two got a couple of questions in of the trolling variety. However, to his credit, Smith’s responses, either earnestly optimistic or perhaps more just reflecting the practiced messaging of a seasoned politician, stayed on point, agreed to disagree and deftly moved on. Apparently Ben’s days spent on the political beat at Politico have served him well.
Since joining the company in January 2012, Smith has built a newsroom of over 150 reporters and editors, led expansion of over 20 content verticals (think basically different departments divided by type of media or area of focus) and built teams across the world. Under his leadership, BuzzFeed’s coverage has grown to include politics, business, investigative reporting, long form journalism and entertainment. They now have offices in France, Spain, Great Britain, Brazil, and—as of the day of this recent event—Australia as well.
As for Buzzfeed itself, the site numbers are staggering: currently they garner 130 million unique monthly visitors, with a key demographic aimed at 18-34-year-olds. A deeper analysis of the numbers though shows the true spark from wherein all that fire comes: three quarters of all of the traffic that comes to their site, is coming via shares from people like you or I, most often on Twitter and Facebook. Given the previous mention of statistics that means they are getting 97.5 million shares per month, and only 32.5 million organic hits to the site. While that last number would certainly be amazing for almost any website out there, it only goes to show the proof behind the answer that Smith offers for the company’s success. He says essentially that there is nothing particularly special about what they do, no algorithm for success that they have, when it comes to creating content. They simply create content that they feel people will be proud to share. To this point he adds, “you may go check out a story at the Daily Mail, but you won’t necessarily share it.” The place, however, where they do put more effort than your average other company likely, is that once they see something is gaining traction, they do what they can to make sure it continues to do so.
Smith thinks their key to success is that they look obsessively at data. “Why was one thing shared, and why was another thing not?” These are the analytics that drive them. Whatever algorithms or tricks they have, though, are based about promotion of something that already starts to get legs, as opposed to having that dictate what they actually create to begin with. By keeping these concerns separate, they feel it allows the content to stay true to the value of creating what they think you will want to share—kittens and all!