26 May 2014
Like it or Not, Buzzfeed is the Future of Media
Published 26 May 2014
Last night, BuzzFeed announced $50m in new venture capital financing from Andreessen Horowitz. At Partnered, we watch the transformations in media and online advertising extremely closely, and our belief is that this financing and BuzzFeed's continued growth and success are representative of a new playing field for the media, in which BuzzFeed will emerge as perhaps the first seminal property.
1. Attention First
It appeared for some time that the challenges to traditional publications were a problem of business model. People were less willing to pay for print content that was, inevitably, behind its online equivalent, and on the internet, people didn't want to pay for content. The scale, then, required to make digital advertising work as a business model meant massive contractions in editorial staffs and a general crisis in publishing everywhere.
Increasingly, it appears that the real crisis is that of audience attention, and the problems of business model are simply offshoots. In a world where more content is created every day than any one could possibly consume, publications have to find a way to grab and keep audience attention.
BuzzFeed puts that all important priority first, experimenting constantly with the subject matter and formats that will grab a general consumer audience. While the content that has resulted - listicles and more recently quizzes - is often maligned, its success in audience capture is undeniable, with BuzzFeed reporting more than 150 million unique visitors per month.
2. Secretly Smart
If BuzzFeed is perfectly comfortable using viral content to grab eyeballs, it is simultaneously not willing to be solely a provider of junk food content for the internet sweet tooth.
For the past couple years, BuzzFeed has been experimenting with how to deliver news using some of the format innovations that have kept audience attention for its less serious content, the result of which is, most recently a new standalone app just for news.
What's more, BuzzFeed has been increasingly promoting long form content - pieces that range in the thousands of words and which are, undeniably, good. (See for example, "Why Brazil Is Winning The Internet"). Well reported, smartly thought out, and better than most of the writing that appears in serious publications.
The top banner of BuzzFeed's homepage this morning is "Chaos In Baghdad" - a look at the story of what's happening in Iraq with ISIS - a story being wildly underreported by others - paired with "18 Signs You Grew Up In A Beach Town" - a piece sponsored by Pepsi.
The bargain then is building a base off the fun, lighthearted, irreverent in order to syphon some of that audience to important content that they might otherwise never see.
3. Building A Brand, Not A Website
While 150 million visitors is a phenomenal number, BuzzFeed's play ultimately isn't just to build the best destination website; it's to build a media empire that can live everywhere and nowhere.
Evidence for this abounds. BuzzFeed's has a complete video section onsite, keeping attention on their property. Yet at the same time, the company maintains a set of different YouTube channels, organized by different types of content. On mobile the situation is similar, as witnessed by the breakoff of the news content and the emergence of an app constellation.
With this new venture capital round, there is even more to suggest that BuzzFeed believes that what matters is building brand around types and quality of content, not just driving traffic homeward. To that end, part of the new cash infusion is going to a 20 person team whose entire purpose is to create BuzzFeed content for other networks like Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine.
4. Blurring Business & Editorial
Much controversially, BuzzFeed is driven by a native advertising model where its creative team works with brands and with editorial staff to produce content in the standard format that would appear on the site or in video, but which is financed by a brand. While other publications like the New York Times have a strict church-and-state divide between who creates branded content versus who creates editorial content, for BuzzFeed the line is much blurrier. The company's ability to use it's top editorial staff in conjunction with branded content production is certainly working, financially, as a blog post from A16Z partner and new BuzzFeed board member Chris Dixon suggests the company will do three-digit hundreds of millions in revenue this year.
Where this strategy might get even more controversial is if and as BuzzFeed becomes more respected as a source of heavy, long-form news. Will this blurriness become a liability instead of an asset? Only time will tell, but in every way, BuzzFeed's wrestling with this issue will be a major point of observation for the entire industry.
5. Planning For Obsolescence
The only thing that's sure in today's world is that nothing is permanent. Indeed, the rate of change in technology driven businesses seems likely to increase. There are indications that BuzzFeed embraces this reality, and with the new financing will set up a new set of structures including technology labs and a startup incubator to try to stay ahead of changing trends and opportunities.
Like it or love it, BuzzFeed has built a behemoth; a next generation media company with massive ambition and the talent to match. There is reason to be interested and optimistic, even for those who treasure serious, in depth content. In fact, it could be that BuzzFeed is an indication of how to make that sort of content work inside the wildly new economics of brand advertising and audience attention in the digital age.