Last week we visited BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters.We stole a few moments to trade quips with editor-in-chief Ben Smith, the former political journalist the site hired a year ago, about how he keeps BuzzFeed’s viral vision alive while turning the cat-covered blog into a credible news organisation.
Since Smith joined in December 2011, BuzzFeed has grown to more than 30 million monthly unique visitors.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A with Smith:
What lured you to BuzzFeed from Politico?
You could just feel Twitter sucking the life out of the blog conversations. Twitter was very effectively centralizing conversations. Blogs sort of became a repository for stuff that was being shared on Twitter.
So when Jonah first approached me with this idea of basing a news organisation in the social Web, it took me a minute to figure out what the heck he was talking about.
Where do your writers find story ideas? Tumblr? Reddit?
I think a lot of us are on Twitter. The writers spend a lot of time in their Tumblr dashboards. I love Reddit.
People in different verticals are doing different things. For reporters, I don’t really want them getting inspiration from the Internet. I want them finding new things that are not on the Internet and putting them online, because that’s what does better.
Is your mission to steer BuzzFeed away from cute, fluffy animals and make it more of a news site?
No. I love cute fluffy animals.
I think most people care about what’s going on in the world … but they also love animals. I don’t really see that as inherently contradictory.
Do people actually care about what’s going on in the world? Or do they just pretend to and really love fluffy animals?
One of our hottest posts right now is the 45 Most Powerful Images of 2012. It is serious photojournalism. That’s basically newswire stuff.
But it’s safe to say visuals are driving the majority of BuzzFeed’s traffic.
No. Traffic comes from such different places for such different reasons. A three-sentence political scoop can drive links from all over.
BuzzFeed is adamant about not producing slideshows, but it loves lists. What’s up with that?
Yes, we hate slideshows.
The only reason to do a slideshow is to maximise pageviews for advertisers. Readers do not like slideshows. So if you want a good experience for your readers, you should put the images on a single page they can read.
Well, that depends how photo-heavy an article is, no? If it’s a long, text-heavy post, a slideshow can help break up the story into a series of organised thoughts.
I guess that’s right. If you want people to not look at the images, or if images aren’t the most important part of the article, slideshows are great.
How do you suck someone in from the social Web?
Their friends share [a link] with them.
But on Twitter, it’s not really about friends.
No, but those are people you’ve chosen to follow [and therefore trust].
But you still can’t pull someone in without a good headline.
Well, it had better be a good tweet. Obviously headlines should be engaging.
Google remains the prime spot for [things like] porn and diet-pill content. But as people move away from search for almost everything else to social, it’s very important that when you say, “Here’s a thing,” it delivers on that promise. Otherwise people aren’t going to share it. You can’t trick people into sharing things the way you can easily trick people into clicking on a headline.
Sharing is about evoking an emotion in someone, right? Which emotion is the most powerful sharing tool of all? Fear? humour? Nostalgia?
It’s different on different platforms. Facebook is very visceral. Inspiring stuff does very well, like moving images of various kinds. humour is something people like to share.
Twitter is very intellectual. It’s totally different.
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