Now operating in seven markets with a further two on the horizon, BuzzFeed is, along with similar new media ventures like Vice and the Huffington Post – sites that are kin rather than competition, according to VP international Scott Lamb – securing its place in the global online content market. But while the service has become a household name, it is still figuring out what a future media company really looks like.
BuzzFeed boasts 175 million global unique users, 17 million of which come from the UK. In August it expanded its global offering from markets in the US, UK, Brazil, France, Australia and Spain with a launch in India, and two weeks ago it stretched further again in Germany. Mexico City and Tokyo are next on the list, a list that Lamb admits isn’t “totally scientific”, but the flexible attitude towards expansion matches BuzzFeed’s general strategy of having a pretty good idea of the plan but being able to adapt it as necessary next to rapid technological change around the world.
“I think we as a company have shifted from the mindset of just being a new upstart in the game to thinking about how we can build a large, sustainable media brand, a global media company that’s going to be around in years to come, for a long time,” he says.
“Looking historically at how different forms of media have grown and evolved, I do think we’re still at the early part of this new type of media company that’s based online; it’s a new model of content advertising versus legacy media that was built on industrial era technology, and I think we’re still very early in this massive shift that even at BuzzFeed it’s not that we have a great understanding of the future, we’re just writing this change in a fairly agile and responsive way, and our entire business has been built on that.”
Vice CEO Shane Smith recently namechecked BuzzFeed as one of those new media companies, alongside Vice, that are presenting an unprecedented challenge to traditional media, and Lamb agrees.
“When we look at competition, people often want to put us in opposition to things like Vice or the Huffington Post or Vox, but in reality I think we really feel much more kinship with them.”
Like Vice, investment is on BuzzFeed’s side at the minute. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz recently injected £50m into the company, a sum which BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman said would enable the site to make technology acquisitions and put it in good stead for securing a more stable financial future.
BuzzFeed took the media landscape by surprise with its massive rise, and although dismissed by bigger media players as a novelty idea, Lamb says it is now serious about moving into quality news content, and argues it’s much easier for his firm to make the shift into those more traditional areas than it is for the established media brands to try their hands at lists and shareable content.
“We recently reshuffled the editorial team into three distinct divisions: there’s BuzzFeed news, BuzzFeed life, and BuzzFeed buzz, which covers the lists and quizzes and a lot of what people initially recognise BuzzFeed for,” he says.
“We’re going to be developing all three of those arms in equal measure. Increased international coverage will be part of that, the investigative team has been growing very rapidly at BuzzFeed and it takes a long time for investigative work to come out but we’re starting to publish some pieces from that team. We’ve definitely over the last two years invested a lot in that part of the business.
“The challenge is on the perception side, but it’s easier for a publication like ours to go from being known mostly for lists and quizzes and move into the realm of doing good, serious news than it would be for the New York Times to start doing lists and quizzes, that would be a more difficult shift for them as a brand. But we’re investing really heavily, it’s a big part of what we want BuzzFeed to continue to be.”
However, BuzzFeed’s editorial teams will have a lot of convincing to do. A recent study from the Pew Research Centre placed BuzzFeed at the bottom of a list of most trusted news sources in the US, although a small victory from the ranking may be that BuzzFeed at least had a place on the chart up against outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, CBS News and the Guardian. An episode of plagiarism earlier this year in which BuzzFeed’s viral politics editor was sacked did nothing to help the cause.
“In terms of public perception we realise it’s going to take some time,” Lamb says. “People know BuzzFeed for one thing and we’re now offering something else, but it’s just a matter of time.”
Commercially, BuzzFeed has been the native advertising pioneer and all advertising revenue comes from content advertising, it uses no display. Moving forward with the global roll-out, Lamb admits that in some markets native is still in early stages – Japan in particular does not have a big branded content market yet – but says BuzzFeed faced the same challenges when it launched in the US, a market that has now completely opened up to native advertising.
“There’s a real spectrum of what people are used to,” Lamb explains. “In the US people here are now used to native advertising, it’s an established part of the marketplace. When BuzzFeed started doing advertising that wasn’t the case. Really, the product that we had was novel and we were entering the marketplace as the only one doing this kind of content advertising.
“We’re very familiar with the process of educating the marketplace at having to slowly grow really from nothing. It’s not intimidating to think that in Japan this is a very new idea. Certainly brands are aware of it even if they haven’t done it themselves, because they’re seeing it happen here in the US and in other markets.
“We know it’s going to take time for the idea to catch on, but my bet is that it will. In any place where social media is a rich part of the media landscape there’s going to be a role for social advertising. Japan is probably one of the places where the idea is the newest and the furthest away from being a big part of that market, and in Germany as well it’s only just starting and the marketplace is really coming to terms with that change.
“We’re OK with that. We’re in this for the long term.”
Having established its native offering, branded video content is the next big commercial space for BuzzFeed, and the company has created a unit specifically for the space under what Lamb says is far higher demand from brands than expected.
However, unlike Vice, which recently announced its launch into the mainstream TV market with its first network, Lamb says BuzzFeed is more clearly focused on developing its business model as a solely online offering and there are no current plans to move into any more traditional channels.
“I don’t see it happening – although never say never,” he says.