Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Buzzfeed got before anyone else: Decentralized Media

I’ve been back from SXSW 2015 for about 48 hours and am only now starting to catch up on life, work, laundry, and blogging, in that order. In the interest of keeping readers of the Demassed blog well-filled with only the most up to date information, I thought I would tap out a relatively quick ‘best of the fest’ type of post, highlighting a few nuggets I gleaned in Austin last week. So today it's Part 1, and it's on Buzzfeed and how the company associated with circulating content with a high degree of contagiousness has in fact figured out the magic of decentralized media.

So what is decentralized media? A reasonable question, and one given consideration at a presentation at SXSW 2015 by Summer Burton, whose title is Editorial Director, Buzzfeed Distributed. In this role Summer creates digital content for Buzzfeed and distributes it on social platforms that are more up & coming than they are established, so things like six second looping videos for Vine, photo streams for Instagram, and blog feeds for Tumblr.

And what is centralized media then? Well, centralized media was pretty much the only kind of media most of us had prior to the Internet. Mass media ruled the roost, and while there were publications and underground media, they were very restricted by the high costs of creating content and the bottlenecks of physical distribution and geographical limitations in a world where broadcast signals and publications were not global by default, as they now are. 

Digital media has made the cost of creating and publishing content easier, and over time, cheaper than ever. Social networks brought the cost of distributing this content online to almost nil. And into this arena came Buzzfeed. The company was born in 2006, around the same time as YouTube and Twitter (more or less) and that’s probably not a coincidence, because built into the philosophy and culture of Buzzfeed is media as spreadable. In the words of media theorist Henry Jenkins “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead”. Buzzfeed turned this credo into a business model, building a media company that sought not to drive traffic to its own, and owned properties, but to take its content to where people were congregating online. Places like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and assorted photo and video sharing networks. All in all Buzzfeed gets over 18 billion impressions per month, making it one of the most popular brands on the web. But here’s the rub (does anyone still say that?): of the 18 billion+ impressions made by Buzzfeed content just 200 million are on the Buzzfeed website. In other words, 90%+ of Buzzfeed’s traffic happens in non-Buzzfeed-branded places..

In an earlier era not only would this not have been a business model, it would have been considered ludicrous. Why would a company intentionally send traffic to someone else’s sites and/or platforms?

Summer Burton of Buzzfeed led us through some of the logic of Buzzfeed’s business at SXSW and explained it this way:

Buzzfeed is a way to surface what’s cool on the web 

In the early days of the Internet it used to look like lists and links

Then it was all “you’ll never believe….”.

And how does it look now? Now it looks like a picture of a baby weasel riding a woodpecker, showing up in a million different places.

"This is why we’re not about driving traffic to our website. Not since we noticed that our videos were huge on Facebook and YouTube", said Burton. True that. In fact, somewhere around 5%, possibly less, of Buzzfeed's video views happen on Buzzfeed's website. Burton continued: "We’re at 1 billion video views monthly, now that we’ve stopped thinking about websites and started thinking about distributed media. We even asked ourselves “what if Buzzfeed existed and didn’t have a website?”

"We give people a lot of room to try a lot of different things, using Tumblr, Vine, Instagram, Pinterest etc. Our secret is a culture of experimentation and giving people freedom more than it is just the data.

We want our content to be where people are

"We want content that taps into personal relationships. Like this one. And Ze Frank, Head of Buzzfeed video says the network around the video is more important than the video itself. This one was shared over a million times. If people say "that's me" the comments then we know we're on to something."

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