By Liz Shannon Miller
It’s easy to write off BuzzFeed as a repository of lists and animated GIFs. But to do so is to underestimate one of new media’s most innovative brands — one that’s unafraid to experiment with all types of content. And the work it’s doing in the realm of video, as overseen by GM of video and VP of agency strategy Jonathan Perelman and EVP of video Ze Frank, is particularly intriguing.
For Perelman and Frank, the secret sauce of BuzzFeed’s video strategy comes down to how it spreads online. “The first thing to note is that we’re very early on in understanding this stuff — the consumption of media that is created for individual consumption,” says Frank, via a phone interview. “It requires a pretty sophisticated view of how media spreads, and that’s only come online in the last 10 years or so.”
“It really is about first and foremost creating great content, but we care about the shareability of creative content. We do all of our videos around why people share,” adds Perelman.
Frank breaks down the reasons why someone would share a piece of content into three areas:
1. Identity: People will share a video that, in Frank’s words, “captures their identity better than they can themselves, or captures what they think of someone else’s identity.”
As an example, Perelman points to BuzzFeed’s “Why It’s Hard Out There for a Lefty” — as a leftie himself, he immediately engaged with the video. “You can do things that are far more niche than television used to be able to do. It’s more about hitting a category of people who will connect with a piece of content,” he says.
2. An emotional gift: Content that people share because “this will make you feel better.” Frank says they see a lot of that type of sharing around finals time, and it’s a category that covers comedy content.
3. Informational: A video that offers up facts, whether or not the original sharer knew them beforehand. “It’s usually for the consumptive good,” Frank says. “The information isn’t the focus of it — it’s more about the informationality.” Or, to put it another way — people share something informational to show that they know about it.
To hit at least one of these targets, according to Frank, the BuzzFeed team works off about 30 general formats. “We’re looking at pretty niche aspects of what it’s like to be a human,” Frank says. “It’s a really fun exercise for producers, for them to look at their own identities to find what’s under-served about themselves and make content about it.”
BuzzFeed currently puts out 25 to 27 videos a week across its many YouTube channels, though Perelman doesn’t see much distinction between where a video is originally posted. “It’s less about the channel that it resides on and more about the shareability of it,” he says. “That’s what we’re looking for — that video that spreads across the web and gets people talking.”
“Thinking about the usage context of content helps it spread better,” Frank adds. “You get at that in a truthful and honest way, where people can recognize themselves in it, and then you apply that kind of thinking to different platforms. The context of YouTube is different from Facebook or Twitter.”
And for Frank, there’s no distinction between branded or unbranded content. “It’s basically the same thing, but with some extra complexity thrown in. The core of how we think about that is the same,” he says. “The goal of branded content is to raise the expectations of what consumers have for content that comes from brands.”
Perelman has been at BuzzFeed since 2012, but only recently took on the general manager role. “I worked across all agencies and a lot of different brands and creative partnerships, so it made sense logically,” he says. “It helps to understand their point of view and where they’re coming from.”
“[Branded content] adds another level of consideration — the content on the editorial side is unconstrained, but these pieces are constrained,” Frank says. However, branded content does have its advantages: “A lot of times you’re dealing with bigger potential budgets and have a little more time.”
One extremely successful branded campaign BuzzFeed created was for Tidy Cat litter — a whimsical look at a cat’s life, from a cat’s point of view.
“A big part of Tidy Cat was really thinking about things from [a cat owner’s] perspective,” Frank says. “There’s an alignment there because cat ownership is a type of identity.”
Rick Spiekermann, director of content, community and partnerships for Nestle Purina, describes the experience of working with BuzzFeed as “collaborative.”
“Our approach is to treat BuzzFeed like any strategic communication partner,” he wrote via email. “Not only has BuzzFeed delivered winning content, they have taught us how to develop competencies necessary for social success beyond their platform. The Nestle Purina content team regularly meets with the BuzzFeed team for knowledge and inspiration.”
The BuzzFeed video team now numbers over 55 people, with Frank putting an emphasis on finding “soup-to-nuts people — people who could do everything” as opposed to staffers who might only fill one or two roles.
And Frank is very actively engaged with the creation of branded content. “It’s particularly interesting to me because it’s an opportunity to change the perception of the brand and marketing world. We have to be thinking about new opportunities and new ways we can extend this into new genres and new content genres,” he says.
When asked what direction he saw BuzzFeed moving in the future, Frank wasn’t sure. “We’re going to keep on pushing this approach of iteration and experimentation, and then use data to get our producers better at what they do,” he says.
“The environment that our producers come into is a giant adult play-space.”