Buzzfeed: The art and science of social video

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Yesterday I ventured into Google’s London office to hear a number of talks about online video and its increasing importance as a digital marketing tool (while stuffing my face with sushi).

One of the talks was from Digby Lewis, Buzzfeed’s director of brand strategy for Europe, in which he discussed ‘the art and science of social video’, i.e. what influences the publisher’s video content strategy and the reasons for its success.

He also showed us the first Gif of the day, which went down a storm with us because we happen to be massive fans of those at Econsultancy.

Buzzfeed doesn’t serve display ads

This is hugely important, and it’s one of the things that enables Buzzfeed to stand apart as a genuinely modern publisher. It is also a wise move given the recent surge in ad blocking.

Because it doesn’t serve ads on its site, Buzzfeed doesn’t need to drive people to a specific location. Instead, it can simply go where the audience is.

“Most publishers drive people to a .com because they serve ads,” Lewis says. “We don’t serve ads, so we can show content where we think people will be spending their time.”

According to Lewis, Buzzfeed’s business is now split roughly evenly between Facebook and YouTube, along with smaller audiences on platforms such as Snapchat.

It is this flexibility that has prompted Buzzfeed to experiment with so many different content formats since its relatively recent inception in 2006, and one of the results of that has been its video arm, Buzzfeed Motion Pictures.

Talent, process, distribution

Lewis talked about three elements that make up the Buzzfeed video strategy: talent, process and distribution.

Talking about talent, he says, “People have greater media literacy now and they’re often coming in with full video production capability, their own following, knowledge of how to manage a community.

So we provide the environment for those guys to make as much stuff as they can and they empower the whole system.

Lewis also discussed the way the media landscape has changed and how this has affected the way videos are produced.

“The process for creating video has completely changed,” he said. “It’s far less industrialised.

If you think back to the old media world, people might have had one specific job. But these new producers aren’t interested in only having one job because they can come in and do the whole thing end to end.

As for distribution, Lewis says it’s all about creating formats that will grow in popularity over time, and this comes down to rigorous testing.

“By testing lots of different things we can see what works on which platforms,” he says. “Then we measure everything and all that data drives the ongoing process. Everything we do is informed by what has gone before.

“At the heart of it Buzzfeed is a tech company that just happens to produce content.”

The three pillars of shareable content

One of the key themes Lewis highlighted was the difference between consumable vs. shareable content, the former being what you would associated with traditional publishing and the latter being what brands like Buzzfeed are focused on today.

According to Lewis, Buzzfeed does not measure the success of its content based on how many views it receives, but rather on how many times it is shared.

“There is a fundamental difference between creating content you want people to consume and the new world, which is creating content people use to communicate with each other.”

It is this latter idea, that people actually talk to each other through content rather than simply consuming it for their own pleasure, that has enabled Buzzfeed to have such unprecedented success over the last few years.

The three pillars of shareable content, according to Buzzfeed, are:

  • Identity.
  • Emotional gifting.
  • Social information.

Identity refers to content that expresses something about a person. Lewis referred to a Buzzfeed video about left-handers and how 50 people sent it to a girl in the office when they found out she was left-handed.

But identity-driven content also provides a way for people to express something about themselves, which is why you get so many annoying people on Facebook saying things like, ‘This is SO me.’ But let’s not digress.

Emotional gifting is all about making people feel something through content. The Buzzfeed video about things all couples fight about is a great example.

People in that situation can connect with it and laugh, and they’ll share the clip with their significant others.

Then there’s social information. This is content that might support a view someone already has, or perhaps sharing it makes them look good.

Conclusion: appeal to the individual, not the crowd

The important thing to note in all of this, however, is that the way to successfully appeal to people through content has fundamentally changed in the digital age.

“If you’re trying to get people to watch a TV program it has to appeal to the mass market,” Lewis argues.

“But with digital, the more you can connect with an individual the more likely they are to engage with and share that content.”

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