Can BuzzFeed really become a 'preeminent' media company?

BuzzFeed’s growth, and its latest round of funding, have quite rightly been taken very seriously by the media industry.

It’s the standout example of a digital-first publishing company growing globally and making money when so much of the publishing sector has struggled to profit from changes to digital publishing. It’s also one of the very few publishers to truly use social sharing as a way to build audience traffic.

It’s not a traditional news organisation in any way, even though it clearly deals in newsworthy content. But it has an uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist for millennials. For all these reasons the media industry takes BuzzFeed very seriously, hoping to find elements of their publishing and commercial model they can use to act ‘digital-first’ – and ultimately to build profitable digital business models. Seeing how often BuzzFeed was referenced in the now infamous leaked New York Times digital business review makes it clear how traditional publishers are watching BuzzFeed to find magic ingredients they can use.

I don’t think UK brands have been fixated in the same way. They’re definitely interested in BuzzFeed, and are experimenting more with its native, content-driven ad model; we’re starting to see a more diverse set of brands run campaigns (everyone from Natwest to Netflix). Having an ad model driven entirely on promoted articles is a double-edged sword in advertising terms. Whilst BuzzFeed clearly has the editorial talent to create content for brands that is entertaining and shareable, key brand messages can be a bit recessive and it’s really best suited for brand-building activities.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of the funding deal is BuzzFeed’s plan to build a bolstered creative production unit, especially in video. Its video work for Purina in the US clearly shows how it can make really shareable media for brands, and I expect it will find many more brands who want to appeal to millennials asking them to work together to make good video and editorial content. In many ways it'll be up against publishers and creative agencies as it further builds its footprint in the advertising community.

For all this, it still has some way to go before it is truly a preeminent media company – as it claims it will be – in the UK. It's not yet a top 10, or even 20, digital destination for 15-34s. The entry point for many readers is still through stories discovered in Facebook news feeds, and this is a potential vulnerability. Facebook could decide to demote it in Edgerank (just look at what happened to Zynga) and it would seriously impact its traffic. It need to get its readers in the habit of coming directly to BuzzFeed as a digital destination in its own right.

I wouldn’t bet it against it, though. It has shown how in tune it is with younger audiences, and if it builds itself into a top 10 publisher for this audience, it will also be taken very seriously by the brand and agency community.

Mark Holden is head of futures at Arena

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