Is Buzzfeed going to be your mum’s favourite new website?

“Anyone who thinks that this isn’t a terrific time to be in digital content is dead wrong.” – Ken Lerer, Buzzfeed chairman.

U ok hun?

This was Ken’s interesting response to reports that Buzzfeed had missed its 2015 revenue target by 32 per cent, and has subsequently slashed its internal revenue projections for the next year in half – figures that sent shockwaves through the content marketing community.

While Buzzfeed disputed the figures reported, it refused to share its own projections, with Lerer merely telling the Financial Times: “We are very pleased with where BuzzFeed is today and where it will be tomorrow. We are very comfortable with where the digital content world is going and think we are well-positioned.”

Why do we care?

While not everyone might love the clickbait-y, vacuous content that Buzzfeed is famed for – you can only describe T-Swift as “flawless” a finite number of times before it becomes dull, for example – the social news and entertainment website has long been worshipped as a mainstay of the industry.

Buzzfeed had – and still has – a massive fanbase, attracting 181 million global unique visitors in the past month alone. But for content marketers, the fascination lies in Buzzfeed’s ability to engage users with the sponsored content it produces for its myriad of partners. Keeping an audience engaged while also promoting a brand is the absolute holy grail for digital marketers, who are hyper-aware that content that is too commercially-driven will turn a visitor off before you can say “but exactly how many sales leads has this content generated?”

And yet Buzzfeed seemed to have it nailed with its irreverent listicles that were – however tenuously – linked to its sponsors.

If Buzzfeed – a company that in recent times has laid down the digital marketing law – is struggling to monetise its offerings, what does that mean for the content industry as a whole?

Is the millennial digital media bubble about to burst?

So, is this it? Is the digital media bubble about to be popped by an apocalyptic pin made up of content-weary millennials sick of being marketed at? Are thousands of hipster ‘creative gurus’ going to have to seek other jobs, scrimp and save for their artisanal moustache wax and stick their high-end espresso makers on eBay? Will their ironic thrift store t-shirts no longer be ironic?

Frankly, no. Because Ken Lerer is right: content is bigger than ever, it’s just constantly changing, as it always has been.

“There’s nothing cratering in the industry. It’s better than ever,” he said. “It’s just different. And if you want to succeed, you have to open your eyes and realise how it’s different, and take advantage of it.”

Things on the internet get old really fast

In my opinion, this is basically the #1 rule of the internet. Since the dawn of the world wide web, how many trends have taken over the world before dying a dramatic death? No-one cares whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold any more, ain’t nobody got time for ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’, and Bad Luck Brian made $20,000 on advertising deals before the attention of the internet moved elsewhere. These days he works in his family’s construction business. ‘Nuff said.

And it’s not just memes: it’s entire platforms. While Facebook clearly isn’t dead, it definitely isn’t hip any more, and – I theorise – being fuelled only by over-50s and the need to have an account to sign up for basically anything else on the web. I mean, it used to be cool until your mum and gran joined up and started telling you off for swearing on your statuses in the comments, in front of all your friends and colleagues. Remember when Vine was touted as being the next major thing and spawned a number of its own viral stars? Yeah, RIP Vine. And poor old Myspace – huge in the scene kid days when my screen name was xXxteenagedirtbagxXx – is barely worth a mention any more.

Odds are these days you post on Instagram more, or Snapchat, or some other platform that I’m neither young nor cool enough to know about. But how long before these apps lose their sheen and we cruelly trade them in for a younger, hotter model.

We consume new content, share it before any of our friends and followers, and then, once it’s become mainstream, we discard. We know the news hours, and sometimes days, before one word of the story is printed on paper. To have value – aka friends and followers – online, we MUST be ahead of the curve. Once all your friends know about an internet trend, it’s on the way out. When your mum brings it up over a Sunday roast, it is officially dead. And when advertisers get their hands on it, you’re puzzled as to why you ever thought it was cool or innovative in the first place.

So, what has Buzzfeed been doing wrong?

In the past year, Buzzfeed has undergone a seismic shift. While its homepage has been ticking over with the same old content, the company has focussed on video, and creating and optimising content for other platforms, largely social. Will this long-term strategy work? I have no idea, tbh – but ultimately, Buzzfeed knows that the worst thing you can do in the digital marketing universe is stand still, and while its strategy may be risky, it’s better than doing more of the same.

What’s more, while digital natives might roll their eyes at the mindless churn of Kardashian-based listicles and Harry Potter quizzes that litter its homepage, if you look hard enough, the site also contains some fantastic journalism and high-quality longform content, but due – perhaps – to the short attention span of the Facebook generation, it’s the more bitesize content that ranks highly on the homepage.

When the site first gained popularity, it was different to pretty much everything else on the web: it was fresh, innovative and heavily millennial. Articles along the lines of “Which Beyonce is your spirit animal?” and “21 pictures that you’ll only understand if you grew up in the north”, which would now invoke some serious eye-rolls, were novel and highly shareable.

But where once it created trends, now it appears to use its homepage as a place to flog them to death, instead of promoting the other, higher-quality sorts of content it is producing. Going to Buzzfeed.com now is pretty much the same experience as if you’d typed in that URL a year ago. Its recent trends include “30 pictures that will make you say that is me as a [girlfriend/pet-owner/Brit/human]”, as well as ironic “10 reasons never to visit [Cornwall/Birmingham/The Lake District]”. Clearly these articles must be working in some way, but the format seems tired and uninspiring.

So while it has been making plenty of changes, it’s possible that Buzzfeed has underestimated the importance of topic ideation that offers the readers something new. Optimising for different platforms is always good, but if the content that is intended to be shared there is lacklustre, it’ll only go so far. There’s only so long you can look at pictures of cats or fancy cakes before seeking out something with a bit more depth.

Lead, never follow

Once ideas are picked up by brands, they’re no longer cool. Whenever a mildly funny event, trend or meme happens, brands on Twitter queue up to put their own spin on it in the hope of some cheap and easy PR, and few manage to do so effectively. Such efforts often end up looking weak and try-hard – a massive downer for fickle digital natives.

So, how, as content marketers, can we actually promote brands without completely turning off an audience?

A great content marketer is one who comes up with a truly innovative and novel idea, different to anything else online, and successfully executes the campaign and learns from it, before doing something completely different the next time. Moz founder Rand Fishkin’s 10X content theory sets out a useful set of criteria that truly innovative and effective content must adhere to.

Brands need to be the driving force behind innovative and exciting campaigns that get people talking. Actually originating the next big, genuinely exciting, thing in content rather than just meekly following the pack scores brands serious brownie points, changing how their audience views them for the better.

And then, once people have inevitably stopped talking about that campaign, they need to come up with their next brilliant idea, completely different to the last. One that makes people laugh or tugs on their heartstrings, and that will promote their audience’s own personal brand should they share it. Successful content marketing is difficult, but once a business gets it right, the rewards are invaluable, from significantly upping brand awareness and giving your company a personality that the public like and want to engage with, to generating more sales leads. And after all, that really is the bottom line.

Now, new, next

Coca-cola, an established marketing machine, famously works on a 70-20-10 concept, or “now, new, next”.

Around 70 per cent of their marketing investment goes to already-established and proven marketing programmes, or the “now”. Another 20 per cent is ploughed into “new” ideas: emerging trends that are starting to gain momentum. The final ten per cent is injected straight into innovative “next” ideas, that are completely untested.

Buzzfeed is still reliant on the same “now” that it’s been doing for the past two years. If it doesn’t find its “new” or “next” soon, by this time next year you can bet it’ll be your mum’s favourite website.

 

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