BuzzFeed’s ’Joy and Truth’ philosophy sets pizza and kitten virality as unlikely bedfellows to hard-hitting news. But in furloughing staff, it'll be getting less 'Truth' from the UK and Australia. Can the BuzzFeed philosophy hold true in the face of these difficulties?
In May, BuzzFeed was among the global news organisations furloughing staff (68). At BuzzFeed News in the UK and Australia, full news teams were furloughed (10 and four staff respectively). And while the VC-funded organisation had cut around 200 staff in 2019, the dozens in 2020 and the shuttering of respected newsrooms perhaps caused an even bigger outcry.
Reflecting on these last few months, James Lamon, head of content for Europe, says: “We haven’t been immune to the impacts of coronavirus. And so we had to make some hard decisions. It was really hard to say goodbye to those staffers because of all the amazing work they’ve done over the years. They’ve done so much to build our brand.”
BuzzFeed was founded in 2006, and as long as people have been reading content on the web it has been there trying to turn a profit. In 2018, it saw large losses in the UK. Later in 20018 and into 2019, it shut bureaus in France and Spain. Meanwhile, its German business is currently up for sale. Despite the difficulties, BuzzFeed globally claimed a slim profit in the second half of 2019. Pre-Covid-19, it was also forecasting a long-awaited profit in 2020.
Despite its huge scale and huge brand recognition, BuzzFeed has had its troubles. There remains, however, faith in its business model. Lamon says: “The path forward for us is actually somewhat unchanged. We’ve lost pieces of the machine, but the machine will continue to run as it was.”
He is on the hunt for that killer digital content strategy that still involves the creation of popular viral content and top journalism. The increasingly depressing nature of news means that the ’Truth’ may need to be balanced out by some ’Joy’ after all. The tone chasm may be broadening, and that might not be a bad thing for BuzzFeed.
Founder Jonah Peretti, who is not taking a salary at the moment, has noted that its news wing was the last unprofitable wing of BuzzFeed. Before the pandemic downturn, this was supplemented by branded videos and sales of its Tasty kitchenware. BuzzFeed is not alone in struggling to monetise news. Sure, marketers have just started placing ads on coronavirus stories (i.e. most stories), due to brand safety concerns implementing an industry-wide freeze.
At BuzzFeed, there remains a "large news staff... to hit big in the US”, with its investigations team, led by returning editor in chief Mark Schoofs, who departed in 2018, having seen no cuts.
“We will never just be pizza and kittens,” says Lamon. ”We need to temper that with something that’s hard-hitting, something with teeth. Our investigations team has always been responsible for amazing scoops and that's not going to change.
“It’s fair to say that some of our content is fun, but BuzzFeed can still get serious.”
Not all hard-hitting content needs to be news.
Lamon is talking to The Drum following protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and BuzzFeed has moved with speed to publish pieces about how to support black businesses, has shared books by black authors and has explored the Black Lives Matter experience.
It may have fewer reporters, but it believes it can get closer to these cultural moments than anyone.
Scrappy and quick-moving
Lamon also believes “scrappy, quick-moving” BuzzFeed is still “well-positioned for that future of digital future”. Since 2003 it has been positioning for this future, like carat gold on a stick - just out of reach. But perhaps getting closer.
Expect less region-specific news, but BuzzFeed still produces UK content, he says. The UK YouTube channel just breaching 100,000 followers in just a year.
Like many titles, BuzzFeed has hit record audiences during this pandemic. The fluff, the stuff and the hard-hitting news are all up. A lot has been learned these last few months.
An upbeat Lamon talks passionately about the agility of the company, offering a few examples. The first is the relaunch of #What2Watch, a TV review show on Twitter that was literally pitched in a DM. Samsung sponsored that first season. this time Scott Bryan and Dionne Grant hosted a three-episode run with Tesco from home. Instead of the fully-staffed studio it once leveraged, green screens put them in the virtual studio. Despite the obvious limitations, so far season two has been outperforming season one
Lamon questions the importance of the studio. “This is not a worse show by any means. We lost some things we thought we needed, but then got to actually focus more on the stuff that mattered. Some of these things were really hangovers from the TV era.“
Working with brands
The BuzzFeed content machine, built upon native advertising, now looks equally to affiliate marketing and branded content videos. In the pandemic, BuzzFeed’s stripped back a lot of the client formalities. Tasty, the food vertical and foundation for the wider business model, still cranks out branded content.
At-home kitchen shoots have stood in and “the quality is indistinguishable,” says Lamon. Client conversations are faster and less wasteful too.
“Client approvals are coming in over WhatsApp, which makes us wonder why we were ever wasting a client’s full day before. They would sit in the green room, drinking coffee, chatting, when they could have probably been spending their time on something else.”
Early in lockdown, another client wasn’t keen on hearing excuses about production difficulties and instead received Tasty’s first-ever animated video, which performed on par with pre-established formats.
And finally, another sign of enthusiasm is the huge surge in online retail. BuzzFeed and its verticals have enjoyed a flood of traffic through its affiliate links to Amazon (although Amazon reduced its rates for a time). The product round-ups are driving “record revenues“ claims Lamon.
With the pandemic and global movements putting multinational corporations on uneven footing, data like BuzzFeed’s could help them make decisions. “We’re well-positioned because of the two-way connection we have with our audience – we really understand them and they understand us. We don’t just reach our audience, we represent them through our content.” It aims to tap its partners into these trends, whether that's getting the right branded content, or even producing bespoke products for that audience.
Lamon is enthused by the creative innovation he’s seen these last few months, and the fact that clients are funding it is a bonus. Those brands that are opening their minds to new ways of working could help BuzzFeed develop new ways of talking to audiences, and find the best model for the future, he claims. “What we’re seeing now prefigures the world we’re all going to be living in in 10 years anyway.”
Lamon concludes: “We’re beginning to see a lot of exciting movement in the industry – movement towards streaming, towards gaming, towards more interactive forms of video. And we’re experimenting in all of these waters ourselves.“
BuzzFeed’s love for digital innovation will likely see more high risks, but hopefully, it will see high reward soon too – lest there be more cuts.