“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis at Hacks/Hackers London

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At last month’s Hacks/Hackers London meet-up, ex-NME digital guy Luke Lewis talked about the launch of the UK edition of Buzzfeed. As a site being variously touted as the future of journalism and symptomatic of the very death of journalism, it made for an interesting talk.

Luke started by saying that he didn’t necessarily think a UK launch was as disruptive as everybody was making out. “We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch,” he said, nor are they telling people how to do things. They’ve aimed to be “a media company for the social age”, with the simple mission of creating content that people want to share.

Luke analysed what was typical of a “super-viral” Buzzfeed UK post, using 19 things Northerners miss when they move to London as the example. At the time of the talk it had half a million views, and 47k worth of Facebook ‘Likes’. He said it typified what performs well, something that is funny and light-hearted, but at the heart of it was a nostalgic family component which becomes a powerful trigger for sharing it.

Luke explained a little about how they value sharing metrics. There is a “viral badge” you get when a piece is successful, that every writer wants to see on their articles. They don’t care about “seed views” — the number of views a piece might get via the Buzzfeed UK homepage. They care about “social views”, the currency that continues to pay off once something has long disappeared from the Buzzfeed front. I couldn’t help but compare that to the attitude within most traditional news organisations, where getting a piece promoted on the homepage is treated as the be-all and end-all success metric. And if the Guardian’s Facebook app taught me anything, it was that great pieces of content could do much better virally on social networks than news organisations take time to make happen. Buzzfeed build social into their business by having tools that alert people to things that are breaking on the web, and through their network of partner sites they can understand what is popular elsewhere. Luke said there was nothing revolutionary about their platform, but it was easy and kind of fun to use.

I do think that some of Buzzfeed’s content can unexpectedly throw people into the public eye though. “11 engagement photos that will make you happy you’re single” has had 5 million views, and “42 people you won’t believe actually exist” is very funny, but is it fair on the people in the pictures? Laura Oliver always talks about news organisations having a duty of care to the people whose social media behaviour they suddenly highlight, and I wondered how those couples and people would feel if links to that piece suddenly started creeping into their Facebook feed as their friends shared it?

Luke mentioned that during the Boston Marathon bombings breaking news situation, traffic to Buzzfeed in the States sky-rocketed. “We’ve got quite good at doing breaking news”, Luke Lewis said. Jeff Jarvis doesn’t agree. During the manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers, he tweeted a link to a Buzzfeed story and said scornfully that the only thing they had added is animated gifs. Actually, I thought they’d produced the most succinct timeline of events, punctuated with tiny, easy to load, cross-platform video clips. I think if people can’t see that as “news”, then it is their mental model that is broken, not Buzzfeed’s story-telling model. I’m sure radio people disdained about the very first TV bulletins in much the same way — “It’s exactly the same news, but with moving pictures of a man telling the news. What have they added?”

Luke said that a lot of traditional news people simply don’t understand the idea of having a constant mix of the very, very silly with the very, very serious. There is no “politics desk” who are higher in the hierarchy than the “cat gifs” desk — it is all Buzzfeed. He talked a little bit about their advertising model, saying that it is not an annoying model in the way that banners, or pop-ups or pre-roll ads are. It is simply content that strives to be good enough to be shared as much as the pure editorial.

To be honest, I’m rather surprised at the defensive tone that Buzzfeed have had to take with their advertising model — they aren’t a print based business with hundreds of years of doing things a particular way, so provided what they are doing doesn’t breach advertising regulations, and users don’t hate it, I don’t see a problem. Luke argued that the Facebook and Google model of worshipping the volume of inventory available and then trying to use algorithms to conquer that risked turning advertising into a commodity — Buzzfeed is in the business of selling something entirely different to that.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not sure I’d care for a car review site exclusively sponsored by BMW, but if my cat gifs come from the marketing largesse of Samsung or Coca-Cola, I really don’t care, and I don’t think anybody on the planet does apart from some hoity-toity journalists fretting over church/state divisions.

Luke said a lot of people assume that the Buzzfeed editorial team are forced to make the “native” advertising content, but he says whilst they may be involved in brain-storming and creating some of the ideas, making ads doesn’t take a chunk of their time. This isn’t dissimilar to the way that sometimes works at the Guardian, for example, where designers like myself or people from the technical team would be involved in marketing pitches or marketing brainstorm sessions for commercial parts of the Guardian.

Buzzfeed have 50 million unique users worldwide (less than Mail Online and the Guardian, I noted) and Luke said in the first month of operating in the UK they were expecting to hit 4m unique users — a 10% uplift in British usage on the month before. Luke said he thought that it was clear that the media was in a period of change, and that Buzzfeed was aiming to be “somewhere you go to find things to share and to be entertained.”

Whenever I see talks like this, by purely digital editorial companies, I can’t but note how unencumbered they are by legacy. It must be very refreshing to be able to put a stake in the ground and say “this is what we do, no more, no less” without the weight of the past bearing down upon you.

You might also like these posts about talks at Hacks/Hackers London…

“Anyone referring to journalism as ‘a product’ should be shot” – Quartz’s Leo Mirani & Jason Karaian
“Do Assad’s men wear trainers?” – the BBC’s Trushar Barot on social media verification
“Telling the story of Firestorm” – The Guardian’s Jon Henley & Robin Beitra
“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis
“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh
“Journalists want convenience, not security” – Daniel Cuthbert