BuzzFeed. Business and operational models aligned to bring you content you’re not looking for (…but you’ll share it with your friends!).

BuzzFeed is a web-based media provider that covers a range of topics including politics, entertainment, sports, and “20 Reasons Bacon is Awesome.”1 Originally known for memes, lists, and funny photos that some call clickbait and “mostly nonsense”2, BF now also provides higher-quality, long-form material. Content is both internally curated and externally sourced, with the primary goal that it be shareable and ultimately viral. BuzzFeed’s business and operating models are effectively aligned to accomplish this.

Business Model: Come for pictures of cute animals, stay for the article on civil rights, check out this disguised advertisement, NOW SHARE THIS WITH ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS

BuzzFeed’s business model revolves around creating content that will be virally shared. More often than other media sources, customers come to BF’s website as a result of a friend sharing a link. “Facebook is a more powerful traffic driver than direct visits…social accounts for “well over 50%” of BuzzFeed’s total visitors.”3 Users more often go to BuzzFeed’s website when friends ask them to, not when BuzzFeed asks them to. Other media sources depend more heavily on individuals typing in their specific web address or searching for a specific topic.

The concept of viral sharing extends to BF’s advertising strategy, as ads do not take the form of banners, but look like BF curated content (called “native advertising”)4. This distinction is important, as the native advertisements are more shareable, thus increasing their viral potential. From an advertiser’s perspective, a potential customer will be more influenced by content-embedded ad shared by several friends than by a banner on top of a web page.

The picture below shows BuzzFeed’s homepage. The top article, titled “This Guy Recovered Like A Goddamned Champ After His Pants Fell Down In Front Of Croatia’s President” is shareable and brings in traffic. Other serious articles cover GITMO and the recent California shooting. And as identified by yellow “Promoted By” tags, advertisements take a form similar to other content.

BF Pic

Operating Model: Generate viral content, make it viral-er, promote what is viral-est

BuzzFeed utilizes both human capital and technology to create content.

BF employs 200 editors, tasked with creating and sourcing content. Editors are free to draw information from any source. BuzzFeed cultivates creativity by not micro-managing its editors. “There are no lengthy editorial meetings where themes are defined or topics assigned. BuzzFeed taps into the personality and creativity of their editors and lets them find their particular voice.”5,6

Content sourcing has been assisted by technology. BuzzFeed has used technology and an algorithm that monitors the sharing of content from other sources (including Time, Aol News, TMZ, Life, etc.). A story’s traffic generated from sharing platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) has been used to determine if it is going viral. If the story met certain criteria, it would be posted to BF’s site.7

After content is created, BuzzFeed leverages technology to determine what headline will work best. The company’s “publishing back-end also allows editors to do their own A/B testing, running various headlines against each other among random readers before making their final pick on the right headline.”6 Editors can experiment on a number of users to determine what headline will generate the most buzz.

BuzzFeed ultimately publishes 700-900 articles per day. After an article is published, the company uses analytics to evaluate its early performance. Based on its initial traction, BF then accelerates or pays less attention to the content’s promotion – focusing on content with more viral potential.6,5

Alignment: Business and operating models align to bring you what you weren’t looking for

Through operational features like promotion of creativity among editors, technology-driven identification of viral content, and analytics to pick the best headlines and accelerate promotion, BuzzFeed’s operating model supports its business model. These features are helping the company develop expertise, gather data, and hone analytics/technology with respect to generating and disseminating viral content.

BuzzFeed’s business model leverages this expertise in generating traffic for its own content and the content of advertisers. If a story is viral, readers will share it with more than one acquaintance8, pulling exponential readers to BuzzFeed’s website. This is especially meaningful for advertisers, whose marketing materials can potentially be distributed to customers by their own family, friends, and colleagues.

This alignment gives BuzzFeed the potential to become a preeminent media source. BuzzFeed has a head start on leveraging the internet to publish and share content (and advertisements) by understanding why and how a story goes viral. Only time will tell if the company can sustainably produce shareable media and successfully transition to generating more important content.


[2] Me, every time I shared an article with friends (when I should have been working)








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Student comments on BuzzFeed is Effective AND THE REASONS WHY WILL SHOCK YOU

  1. Awesome! I especially love your second source 🙂 I had no idea about the A/B testing or using analytics to shift promotion focus. I can see how these support BuzzFeed’s business strategy of making content go viral. I think your point on allowing employees to be creative and not having a standard editorial meeting is important as BuzzFeed is known for being quirky, hilarious, and like your best friend wrote it – and I don’t know if this would be the case if BuzzFeed has a different, more stringent internal culture.

  2. Great post, Mark. BuzzFeed is interesting — such an enigma and some might say a giant metaphor for our current digital age where all traditional signifiers of quality/genre are meaningless (e.g. Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift). Did you know that Jonah Peretti was essentially a Marxist media critic in a past life:

    Anyways, what I think will be super interesting about Buzzfeed is how it plays with platforms such as Facebook, particularly as they move to become one-stop content shops (Facebook Instant Articles that don’t even link to publisher sites). Check out this article/writer if you have the chance:

  3. Thanks for the clickbait Mark…you got me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I am honestly surprised to hear that BuzzFeed does ‘serious’ articles. It seems so out of line with value I associate with BuzzFeed – a quick laugh or a cute picture to distract me for a couple minutes. It also feels somewhat out of line with their operating model since I think to do the serious correctly you might need a unified voice and multiple contributors to make a meaningful article, but I guess their aggregation of content from other sites helps here. The A/B testing on headlines is also fascinating.

    I do wonder how sustainable their advantage is and whether they can ever be more than just ‘clickbait’ for users to read one article. It sounds like they leverage technology in an interesting, but maybe not extremely complicated or proprietary way. The operating and business models clearly support being ‘clickbait’ on a user’s landing/main pages (like FaceBook) but don’t drive prolonged interactions. Maybe that’s not important though!

  4. The Most Thoughtful Comment That Can Only Be Seen by Geniuses

  5. Great post (and arguably the best header I’ve seen). The fusion of media and technology has created a space for really innovative companies to touch millions of people in a non-capital intensive way (factories to print newspapers, delivery, etc.), so it’s cool to see Buzzfeed’s focus on human capital. Do other online generators of content have the same focus on human capital and number of employees (as a % of produced content) as Buzzfeed? Their human capital intensive business likely speaks to the incredible amount of capital they’ve raised as simply an an online media platform. It’s also interesting that it will likely be valued as a media technology company (even though it started as a Silicon Valley, off-the-cuff, “nonsense” articles). While I think the recent investment from NBCUniversal is huge for the company (both from a growth and brand legitimacy perspective), I worry a bit about scalability, given how the creative, start-up type culture and low level of bureaucracy is critical to the quality of writers and ultimate articles published. The question of scalability makes me a little skeptical of the company’s current valuation.

    I’d be curious to hear if Johnah Peretti initially intended for Buzzfeed to pivot from memes to serious content, and how (if at all) the operating model has shifted with the shifted focus of the business model. If it wasn’t his initial intention, I wonder if the desire to attract more advertiser content encouraged the pivot.

  6. Love the post Mark. I am a huge fan of Buzzfeed’s model given how they manage to acquire repeat users inspite of not having a strong enough call to action. As a reader, I will go to the CNN website to keep myself updated with current events. There is no specific reason for me to browse Buzzfeed and this makes repeat user visits very difficult to achieve in the conventional manner. What is great about Buzzfeed is that users share the content to bring in more users. I used to wonder if this were a fad and expected it to be another trend that would die down. However, Buzzfeed has managed to have sustainable traffic by adopting a great content strategy. I am not too sure about their revenue model though – as a reader, I don’t like to realize after having read an article that it was an advertisement in disguise. It creates a negative sentiment. Do you think it is a sustainable revenue model for them to pursue?

  7. Great post, Mark. I think Buzzfeed has done a phenomenal job in leveraging the viral model of content sharing, and I’ve certainly fallen victim to my share of clickbait. What I didn’t realize, though, was that Buzzfeed even dabbled in more serious, longform content – and this seems to be the case for quite a few commenters here. This makes me wonder whether Buzzfeed will ever be able to be viewed as a legitimate source of reputable news and information. The image of Buzzfeed in my mind is a more frivolous, “fluff” site – something that might be hard to reconcile with the notion of a serious media site. I’ll be interested to see if Buzzfeed sticks around and manages to play that dual role in the future.

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