Photo: Image courtesy of Buzzfeed
After raising a $15.5 million Series C round and hiring Politico’s Ben Smith to lead a new push into original content, BuzzFeed’s been getting some serious, well, buzz.We spoke with Jonah Peretti, a former co-founder of the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed’s founder, about what BuzzFeed’s going to do with all that money, how they’ll expand next and what happens when a reader responds to racism with an LOL.
BI: I think the first question, when you raise a round like this, is the common-sense one: where’s the money going?
JP: We think there’s a really big opportunity to be a definitive social publishing site, that there’s this explosion of Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon and Reddit that the industry hasn’t quite yet digested. What that means is we have a good shot at trying to build a giant business that is focused on the social distribution of content. The reason that we raised such a big round was to be aggressive and go after that opportunity.
We need to invest in editorial and technology simultaneously. It’s important to give the reporters we’re hiring the best tools in the business for both creating and publishing content and for distributing their content. Social media allows a site that has a small number of reporters to reach a very large audience, and part of that is having good technology that allows you to do that. That includes ease of publishing, a diversity of formats and having real time stats that let our authors see how their content is circulating around the social web.
BI: What are some of the special concerns that go into making content for the social web, particularly something like Reddit that much of the current media doesn’t seem to quite understand?
JP: What I really love about the social web is that, unlike with Google and search engines, you aren’t optimising your content for an algorithm or a machine. The problem with SEO is that you’re not trying to delight people, you’re trying to get your content through a gatekeeper, that gatekeeper being the Google algorithm. You’re not making the best content for humans, you’re making the best content for a robot.
The key to social is looking at every piece of content and thinking, “Would a human want to share this?” It doesn’t become this weird second-order thing where you’re trying to game a system; you’re trying to make things that elicit human emotion and inform people and inspire people. That’s what media creators should be doing.
BI: Does that strategy mean that there’s less concern about expanding into a new vertical that’s tailored to a specific type of audience?
JP: We’ve thought about our site less in terms of the traditional verticals and more about how people react to content. You might react because something’s funny, you might react because it’s cute, because it’s shocking. Now we’re adding the informational layer of different sections on top of it. Our audience tends to be very web-savvy generalists in their 20s and 30s, and they come to BuzzFeed looking for something to react to.
BI: The site does a pretty good job of carving out a space for its content and articles within the viral apparatus, but when you scroll down to the bottom of a politics article you still see those viral webspeak labels: OMG, LOL, WTF, etc. Does that concern you alongside articles about, say, Ron Paul’s racist newsletters, where people can respond to that with LOL?
JP: I think some of it will become more clear when we have more sections besides just politics. But we live in a world now where people want to react to content and some people will think that’s funny and click the LOL button. Usually, though, we find that our community reacts appropriately: if something’s funny they’ll act accordingly, and if something’s serious they’ll act accordingly. The whole range of human emotion can live on the site.
BI: How do you go about deciding where to push Buzzfeed as you prioritise original content? And will you be hiring reporters around a central figure in each subject, like Ben Smith for politics, or will it be more clustered?
JP: We hired Ben to be editor-in-chief, so he’ll be building the other sections as well. We’re discussing it internally. We don’t have anything to announce yet, but we want to do several new content sections throughout the year.
It is very important for us that our hires to deeply understand the social web. People are already getting their news on Twitter and on Facebook, and there’s a new breed of reporters who understand how people are getting their news today. That doesn’t mean they have to be 25 years old — they could be a great reporter who’s learning social media and learning how the social web works. Or it could be someone who’s young but might still have to learn some of the traditional values of reporting.
BI: Clearly, you have a lot of the same DNA as the Huffington Post, which had similar origins as a buzzy aggregator before expanding into original content. And at the top — you, executive chairman Ken Lerer, advisor Greg Coleman — there’s plenty of shared talent between BuzzFeed and HuffPo. How do you keep from being HuffPo 2.0?
JP: I love Huff Post, and we’re very different than Huff Post. We’re building a pure social site where our focus is entirely on making things that people want to share with other people on social media sites. It’s sort of a different time than when we started Huffington Post, and we’re really focused on social as the new starting point for a site.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
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