BuzzFeed bets its future on being the home of ‘adulting’ advice

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

A depressing 74% of people aged 18-24 are so unsure of their competence in basic skills, such as bleeding radiators or reigniting a pilot light, that they would like classes in “adulting”.

Even more surprising, in research conducted by BuzzFeed and Publicis, is the finding that 59% of those over 35 feel a similar need to partake in an “Adulting 101” classes.

Traditional life patterns are being eroded.

For many in Generation X – aged between 39 and 53 – their plans for children were interrupted by the financial crash of 2008 and they are coming much later to parenthood.

For many in Generation Y – the ‘millennials’, aged 24-38 – high property prices have deprived them of home ownership, while the digital media revolution has created an information disconnect between them and the baby boomer parents who might have coached them on grown-up living.

Which explains the new hunger for online guidance in “adult” skills, from buying a home to managing finances and caring for a pet.

For media organisations, this represents a huge opportunity.

Trust is the vital (and increasingly rare) currency that content companies need to build audience loyalty. If a news brand can play the role of life coach, its wider reputation as an information source will be greatly underpinned.

BuzzFeed, in particular, is betting heavily on becoming the lead authority on 'adulting'.

The rise of 'adulting' advice

Edwin Wong, BuzzFeed’s vice president of research and insights, became convinced of the audience interest in the subject after seeing remarkable traction for a series of editorial pieces published in 2016 with headlines such as “You Can Only Be An Adult If You Pass This Quiz” and “21 Ways to Adult Better This Month”. The articles asked mundane questions about fuse boxes and savings accounts and suggested buying everyday items such as coat racks and sink plungers.

Wong began exploring Google Trends and found that between 2012 and 2016 there had been “this huge surge” around the search term ‘adulting’.

He commissioned research on the subject with 4,000 consumers in the US, UK, Australia and Brazil. Among the UK respondents (aged 18-45), 69% agreed with the rather sorrowful statement “Technically I’m an adult but I don’t feel like one.” Most (53%) said they had learned the majority of their life skills “online”, while two out of four admitted that they “feel incompetent” when it comes to basic tasks like cooking and managing their finances.

Taken as a whole, Wong believes the findings reflect profound shifts in societal behaviour, such that marketers need to completely rethink the demographic metrics they currently use to target audiences.

What has surprised him most in researching these areas is that the need for adulting advice goes far beyond the millennial generation who, according to conventional wisdom, are entering the age category where they need skills in grown-up responsibilities.

“As we started to unpack this subject matter we realised that this linear nature of adulthood – the way we marketers think about connecting with consumers – is actually all wrong,” he says. “It’s not linear at all, the concept of adulthood is quite messy. So we want to really flip the concept of life stage marketing on its head and start a new conversation.”

Marketers can no longer think of the typical “new parent” as “Jane”, a 25 to 34-year-old from the suburbs when the target might equally be “Charles”, a 40-something gay man from the city with a newly adopted child, he notes. “The whole concept of what a new parent looks like is changing before our eyes.”

The economic downturn played a significant part in the upheaval, he says. “Because of the 2008 recession…when [couples] were supposed to be having kids in our 20s we decided not to because we couldn’t afford it. So we are seeing a whole group of new parents who are 40-plus and having their first child, or deciding not to have kids at all.”

BuzzFeed was founded 12 years ago as a digital pure play by Jonah Peretti (its chief executive) and John Johnson. It has been characterised as catering mainly for a millennial audience and was famed in its early days for quirky pet videos before expanding ambitiously into serious journalism and longer-form video entertainment.

The organisation has recently begun a one-hour morning news show on Twitter called “AM to DM”. It has moved into documentary making and has a weekly interview show on Facebook Watch.

News, politics and investigations are part of a huge network of vertical channels that ranges from shopping to weddings.

If it can earn greater trust through practical advice to users, that might grow the reach of its journalism.

BuzzFeed, like its readers, is growing up

BuzzFeed’s desire to own the territory of adulting could be seen as a sign that it is growing up. Unlike Vice, which determinedly holds on to its status as a youth-brand nearly 25 years after it began, BuzzFeed seems to be accepting its multi-generational appeal.

Its food channel Tasty, one of the biggest content brands on Facebook, also embraces the life skills content strategy, deploying BuzzFeed’s digital native tone of voice to simplify kitchen techniques, such as making a perfect hard-boiled egg. BuzzFeed’s new travel platform, Bring Me, also gives practical advice – such as international dining etiquette – to its audience of tourists who already know all about hotels and destinations from the likes of Airbnb and Trip Advisor.

While it might be growing up, most of BuzzFeed’s audience is still young and it sees commercial advantage in being able to offer brands the chance to engage – through programmatic and native campaigns – with users at a moment when they are just entering the market for goods and services as ‘adults’.

In the UK this has translated into three new native advertising campaigns designed to give practical advice through native content. One, for Halifax, sets out the lexicon of “house-buying terms” for would-be first-time homeowners. Another, for Dremel, instructs millennials on how to keep bathrooms spotless by contrasting the methods of an obsessive “clean freak” with a less conscientious “power cleaner” who only takes action when his mother comes to visit.

Wong says the most successful campaigns combine strong resonance, good practical advice and humour. “What has worked for us is the notion of empathy and the second most important thing is utility.”

BuzzFeed’s tone in such content is a long way from the snarky voice of early 21st century youth sites. “Our value proposition has always been making content that makes people say ‘That is so me’,” Wong argues. “It allows us to have this connection with the consumer that makes them think ‘I could look for BuzzFeed to teach me a thing or two when it comes to me buying a home’, or ‘BuzzFeeddoesn’t make me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s going to ride next to me’.”

The added value of this type of practical use content is that it enjoys longer relevance than most news-related articles, which generally have a limited shelf-life. If the message is successful in conveying fundamental advice, then a brand has the opportunity to achieve “a lifetime of loyalty”, Wong says.

The BuzzFeed/Publicis work on adulting showed that 70% of Generation Z consumers (those aged 23 and under) have little faith in their parents’ ability to give them advice for the future. They will look online instead. Among consumers generally, 82% told the study that they enjoyed using the internet to learn new skills.

The modern consumer has become accustomed to seeking help for practical problems by asking questions of Google, or by watching ‘How to?’ videos on the search engine’s sister site YouTube.

But Google needn’t be the only oracle. Media brands can create engaging life skills content in their editorial voice and earn gratitude from users at the same time.

Wong believes that advertisers need to understand that they need to “move from just selling” and start “helping consumers self-actualise” and become more fulfilled. “We found in our research that when you are delivering value and knowledge [consumers] reward you by liking your brand more and considering it for purchase more.”

Read more here from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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