Biz Features

Why You Should Be More Like BuzzFeed

by . August 20th, 2014

What you could learn from what critics say is the worst thing to hit social media. Ever.

In Anchorman 2, the critically panned sequel to the 2004 classic, Ron Burgundy and the gang create major network news history by switching formats from the traditional “nothing but news” style to an exaggerated parody of the 70’s-80’s action news format – featuring nothing but bite-sized portions of insubstantial yet interesting fluff. This results in their massive success and every news room in the country copying their format.

 

In other words, they invented the BuzzFeed formula.

In the short time they’ve been around, BuzzFeed and similar sites like Upworthy have become associated borderline unethical use of click-baiting, using deceptive, emotionally manipulative, easily digestible headlines, and creating shoddy, often-plagiarized, insubstantial content – that people actually share.

Let’s forget about whether or not BuzzFeed is actually bad thing and focus on that last bit. People actually share their content. Around 75% of BuzzFeed’s referral traffic is from social media.

Since advertisements and clicks are the very things that ensure content sites generate revenue and many writers get eat three square meals a day, it’s no surprise Buzzfeed’s clickbait formula has been copied the way it has.

cat pic
Is it fair to bash Buzzfeed? The incentive to create sensational(ized), easily-digestible content is old hat. Cat memes were even a thing in Victorian Britain. The only thing different is the sheer scale of the internet and speed with social networks spread content.

Add an atmosphere where total readership and revenue are given more importance than actual value provided to readers, and we’ve created what many perceive to be a crisis in the quality of discourse.

Even respected publications have gone a bit too far, in their attempts to get more visitors. Take this notorious tweet from CNN early this year:

 


While it didn’t take down the tweet, CNN’s head of Social News Samantha Barry has since clarified their position in an interview with Digiday:

Digiday: So news organizations are trying to increase their traffic from social media. But people who come through social are typically not very engaged. Is there an ideal level for CNN?

SB: I don’t know if there’s an ideal level. But I can guarantee it will be growing and growing. But there’s a danger with some of these organizations of clickbaiting and creating content that you know will go socially viral. That’s not what CNN’s about. It’s about taking the content and adapting it in the right way for social media.

 

The quality of resources for entrepreneurs and start-up creators has likewise been criticized for the same reasons. Business Insider, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Inc. have come under criticism for watering down content in an effort to get more clicks.

And why wouldn’t they? Recent reports place BuzzFeed’s total estimated value at $850 million. That’s around three times the total estimated value of The Washington Post. It’s a few million above The New York Times’ estimated $846.534 million (2013) valuation.

Of course, market valuation doesn’t really say much. Few would argue that BuzzFeed is more credible than The Washington Post or The New York Times. But from a purely business standpoint, they’re just killing it. Buzzfeed just broke $200 million in January 2013, and they’re expected to reach a billion before this year ends.

Why we tried the BuzzFeed way

dealwithit
We freely admit YouTheEntrepreneur has taken some cues from all of the media outlets mentioned. We’re laughably tiny and underequipped compared to any of them. We are literally two people, plus a couple of other folks who sometimes help us with analytics, coding, and that sort of stuff, plus selected contributions from authors we feel actually have something useful to say.

Of course, it hurts when you see plenty of vapid, totally unoriginal articles shared, liked, tweeted, and upvoted to infinity, especially when you know that you or your colleagues worked hard and did their best to bring something that is actually both original and useful into the public sphere.

Content creators are all in the business of creating value for our readers. This holds true whatever our medium. Whether we write investigative journalism pieces or hash out manuals for nose-hair trimmers, there has to be a reason for whatever piece we write. There are few valid reasons for investing time in writing anything that no human being could ever be expected to read or appreciate.

fish hook
A lot of the time, click-bait is exactly what you need to make the effort worthwhile.

Is it the worst thing to pair emotionally manipulative, easily digestible headlines with original, well-researched, easy-to-read yet informative content?

Is it such a bad thing to deceive readers into discovering something you know they’d like?

Is the “BuzzFeed formula” really all that bad if it helps “legitimate” content get the exposure you feel it deserves?

If a tree falls in the forest, does it really make a sound?

There’re no easy answers, as it all depends what things you value most.

Do you want to give people what they need? Or what they want?

The difference between what one wants and one needs is that you don’t necessarily know it when you find something you need. A “need” will help you survive, or grow better is some way. Something you need can fall way out of your specific interests, which makes it a much harder sell.

Something that you want is anything out of the scope of what you need. This of course, is a far easier sell.

Does this mean we should only read things we need? No, that’s patently ridiculous. We’re only human, and life is something we should enjoy.

Most publications and blogs – including YouTheEntrepreneur – have mostly attempted a compromise at giving both. As a practical matter, nearly all published media attempts this compromise.

To give a few imperfect examples, sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker are generally regarded as sites that mostly give people what they “want”, and sites like Arts and Letters Daily can be regarded as sites that only give what the editors feel people need. We leave it to you to conclude why you’ve never even heard of Arts and Letters Daily before.

How we applied part of the formula

Part of our vision is to give entrepreneurs access to information that could actually make a positive impact on their lives. This can be a small problem, as we’re still a relatively small blog – the most number of visits we got on any month was around 60,000.

In order to give more people the things they need we’ve chosen to have more things they want.  The hope is to get the word out that we actually exist, while still delivering on our promise to deliver something truly valuable.

Things we’ve tried/are trying related to click-baiting

  • Developing an overall content strategy that attempts to attract new readers with easier-to-understand pieces in both short and long-form.
  • An editorial process that tries to make content easier to understand, yet more informative.
  • A modified version of the “Upworthy Title Generator” that uses the 20-sided die you play Dungeons and Dragons with.
  • Creating content that would better appeal to our buddies at YouTheDesigner, and creating a cross-promotions strategy for the same.
  • Spending more time on titles, meta descriptions, and social media forewords.
  • Developing our social media pages, particularly Facebook, Twitter, and G+.
  • tiny bit of social media automation.

Strategies where we consciously avoid being like BuzzFeed

  • A pathological aversion to trendy buzzwords that don’t really serve any useful purpose.
  • More original images and infographics.
  • A total site redesign based on our UX findings. It was supposed to happen several months ago. Can’t really get into why it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s coming, and it will be awesome.
  • Asking ourselves: “Will this piece be useful to anyone a year from now?“. If we don’t think it will be, chances are we’d rather not post it.
  • Reaching out to potential interviewees with actual stories to tell. This has mostly been a bust, but we’re trying! Feel free to drop us a line.
  • Adding clarifications, criticism, or analysis on shared content that many other blogs would leave as is.
  • Selecting only useful contributions from guest authors. You won’t believe how many we reject.

 

Are all of these strategies working out? Probably not in the way we hope. Time will tell. But even BuzzFeed is gradually making moves away from the very strategy that’s brought them both success and derision.

Even BuzzFeed is moving on

While it’s not exactly there yet, BuzzFeed has been hard at work attempting to rehabilitate its image. In 2012, Ben Smith, formerly with Politico was hired as BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief in what was seen as serious foray into serious investigative journalism.

Last October, BuzzFeed made waves by hiring Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer Prize winner who previously worked for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative service. Last April, they hired yet another Pulitzer winner, Chris Hamby, previously with The Center for Public Integrity, another nonprofit investigative group. All-in-all, BuzzFeed has hired between 130 and 200 journalists from all over the world.

Even as everyone has tried to copy at least some part of its formula, BuzzFeed itself seems to be attempting to change how we perceive its content. As with any huge cultural shift, there’s bound to be some backlash.

Clickhole
The recent introduction of the social media click-bait parody site Clickhole by the The Onion might very well show that clickbaiting has already jumped the shark. Sites that offer longer, more insightful articles such as Medium.com and Quora have gained significant popularity in the wake of the clickbaiting backlash.

Even Reddit’s revised its front page so that subreddits (user-moderated forums within Reddit dedicated to specific interests) that were commonly seen as having qualitative issues were no longer readily seen by first time visitors.

As markets and cultures evolve, so must the way we present and distribute our content. But when the presentation and distribution take precedence over actual quality, you can bet your audience will wise up sooner or later.

 

Image sources: Hook – Public domain; Wet Hot American Summer Gif – Eureka Pictures, North Coast Group; Anchorman 2 – Paramount Pictures, Apatow Productions, Gary Sanchez Productions via YouTube

 

What do you feel about clickbaiting? Comment below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.

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