“People are on social media, so do it on social media” – Buzzfeed’s Tom Phillips on #GE2015 at News Impact Summit London

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Last week I was at the News Impact Summit London, and the first panel session was about coverage of the recent UK General Election, a subject rather dear to my heart.

It featured Miranda Green, Buzzfeed’s Tom Phillips, ITV’s Jason Mills and the BBC’s Steve Herrmann. Here are my notes about what Tom Phillips had to say – with the full disclosure that we used to be colleagues at UsVsTh3m before he joined Buzzfeed.

“#GE2015 was both very weird and very boring” – Tom Phillips

Tom’s session started with a compliment from moderator Charlie Beckett, who said that for the last couple of years whenever he has mentioned Buzzfeed, senior intelligent people at other news orgs have tended to roll their eyes about it being lists of cat gifs and he would have to explain “No, it does serious stuff too.”

Beckett felt the site’s performance during the election campaign – not least getting an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister – meant he wouldn’t have to do that any more.

Tom Phillips said that he felt the election campaign this time was oddly both “very weird” and “very boring”. “Boring”, he said “in the sense that the polls didn’t move for six months, and then they turned out to be wrong anyway.”

And there hadn’t been any of those key breakthrough moments.

With the exception of Ukip, he said, there was strong message discipline from a shadowy cabal of campaign managers, and it all seemed to be more about making sure that your vote turned out than about converting others to your point of view.

That made journalism hard – especially the fact-check type pieces that usually do well. “How do you fact-check”, Tom asked, “that key component of the Tory campaign: ‘The Scottish Nationalists will be bad’.”

But if the politics was boring, than the baffling stuff that happened around the edges played right into Buzzfeed territory.

And it was baffling.

Tom himself had written a post sending up all the things likely to happen during a General Election campaign, but, as he said, anything you’ve written as a joke paled into comparison besides what Ukip candidates actually did. Who, for example, would have predicted that a candidate would have to resign for saying that he’d happily shoot his opponent right between the eyes? Or that someone would suggest that President Obama should be kidnapped?

The big moments, in Tom’s opinion were when there was a tie-up of broadcast media and social – around the TV debates and the results night itself.

Tom had a crucial message – something that Buzzfeed often get so right and that so many other outlets often get so wrong: “People are on social, so do it on social. Don’t wait until you’ve got the article and a URL. Use social as social. Be first to the joke.”

So many traditional media businesses are wedded to metrics around page-views and unique users that they are fighting a battle against entities like Buzzfeed with one hand tied behind their back. Even Buzzfeed’s exclusive interview with David Cameron was streamed on Facebook rather than trying to drag people back to the parent site.

“The direction of travel for us is much more about being distributed”, Phillips explained, and said that “the election really told us that this was the right route to go down.”

A question from the audience tried to pin Tom down to what “performing well” meant for Buzzfeed. He was absolutely not forthcoming with any figures, but said that “We don’t look at traffic, we look at the ratio of sharing. You can always get people to click on stuff, but if they share it at the end then you know you’ve done your job.”

A profile of Esther McVey of Sajid David isn’t going to do anywhere near as much traffic as politicians photoshopped as Game Of Thrones characters, but what you want, he said, was for people to choose your profile of Esther or Sajid. Buzzfeed try to get “pieces to reach the maximum audience for that piece” which isn’t the same as trying to get everything to go super-viral.

He said that the British public had been much more receptive to political humour during the campaign trail. There’s a high barrier to sharing political content, partly due to the tribalism of supporters. For a piece to go super-viral you’d need it to be shareable by supporters of all the major political parties and the politically disengaged. That’s a tall ask for a piece of content.

Read all of my posts about the News Impact Summit:
We were all chasing this phantom story” – Miranda Green on #GE2015
We put a lot of effort into designing for mobile” – the BBC’s Steve Herrmann on #GE2015
We saw growth with Facebook video” – ITV’s Jason Mills on #GE2015
People are on social media, so do it on social media” – Buzzfeed’s Tom Phillips on #GE2015