As recently as the 1990s it would’ve been difficult to imagine a catalogue of oddly numbered lists turning into one of new media’s biggest success stories. But now, as we find ourselves neck deep in the zeros and ones of the digital age, the question ‘Have you seen that BuzzFeed list on …?’ has become a phrase as familiar—and commonly used—as ‘Google it’ or ‘there’s an app for that’.
Andy Wiedlin, BuzzFeed’s chief revenue officer, is someone who has first-hand experience of BuzzFeed’s journey from being a quirky idea to a pop culture phenomenon.
“I started almost three and a half years ago when BuzzFeed was a very small start-up,” he says. “I was employee number 38 and now I think we’re almost up to 700 employees, we’ve expanded internationally, we’re reaching 175 million unique visitors a month, and it’s been really fun; It’s been a real success.”
Through this virality, BuzzFeed has by proxy, at least, already had a presence across Australia and New Zealand. And the seemingly insatiable willingness of the denizens of the Antipodes to click on and share lists eventually encouraged the company to expand into the region.
It was thus that at the beginning of the year that Jonah Peretti’s list-making juggernaut set up shop in Australia, with the establishment of a Sydney office and the appointment of a slim editorial team of six.
“Basically, we’re a US-based website and we create content for milennials, 18- to 34-year-olds primarily, and global youth culture spreads,” says Wiedlin. “So, we saw we were getting a lot of traffic from Australia and New Zealand, and we said, ‘Hey, we should have an editorial operation down there; instead of just writing about global youth culture, we should do things specifically about Australia, ANZAC and the region’.”
BuzzFeed’s editorial team in Australia is led by Simon Crerar, a newsman with a grunty journalistic background, which includes stints at The Cairns Post, The Times in the UK and the Sydney Morning Herald.
And while his experience might seem incongruent with an editorial role at BuzzFeed, the organisation also places emphasis on telling news stories in a way that resonates with the millennial audience.
As pointed out in a recent StopPress feature on Vice Media and in the parody video posted below, the perception of new media companies like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post (co-founded by Peretti) often seems to be that they're full of inane lists, cat pictures and other clickbait.
But The Huffington Post has won a Pulitzer Prize and BuzzFeed has hired staff with Pulitzers on their mantelpiece, so there is also plenty of 'proper' reporting going on too, and, in a way, the fluff is helping fund it.
“From the business side, we always lead with editorial, because we want enough page views and visitors,” says Wiedlin.
For this reason, BuzzFeed has started its Australian venture by driving regional traffic through the local content produced by its editorial team.
Wiedlin says that the team does not have a commercial hub established in Australia at this stage, but he expects it to be up within “the next month or so”.
Despite not having a commercial hub, Wiedlin says that BuzzFeed has already started to work with several Australian brands.
“We make sporadic business trips down there and we meet with a variety of clients and agencies, and we’ve run 25 programmes to date in Australia,” he says.
As evidenced in the work the company has done for Mortein, Visa, Optus, Westpac and Kit Kat, BuzzFeed seems intent on maintaining its native advertising approach on this side of the world as well—and this is something that Wiedlin takes very seriously.
“I’ve been in digital media for 15 years, and I sold a lot of banners, I’ve worked at Yahoo and a variety of other sites,” he says. “And the thing that has always bugged me is that the internet is awesome, but internet advertising isn’t. And so, I think the interesting thing about BuzzFeed and Jonah [Peretti’s] vision is that internet advertising should act more like the internet. Wouldn’t it be cool, if instead of interrupting people, advertisers created interesting content that was on-brand, consumer-friendly, engaging and shareable?”
And while many media owners still see a space for banner ads alongside native advertising, Wiedlin points out that this isn’t the case for BuzzFeed.
“We don’t run any banners on our site. We never have. Instead we work with fewer brands to understand what their brand message is, what themes make sense for the brands, and then we have a dedicated creative team that makes lists, quizzes and videos, and we promote them on our site.”
At this stage, BuzzFeed has not run any native advertising projects with Kiwi brands, but Wiedlin foresees this changing in the near future.
“I think once we get a commercial hub in Sydney, it’s just a short hop over,” he says. “We have not reached out to any of the major players there, but once we have someone in Sydney, I would love to.”
He says that the likelihood of this happening does however depend on whether there is a demand for both BuzzFeed’s content and advertising solutions in New Zealand.
“It is all based on whether the New Zealand audience likes us; and on whether brands want to engage people, do native advertising, and create content. But if there’s a demand, then we’d definitely love to work with New Zealand brands.”
Since its inception, BuzzFeed has been referred to as a start-up, but the company’s expansion into new regions suggests that this definition isn’t as applicable any longer. But, despite its growth, the company recently raised $50 million in its fourth round of fund-raising (this amount was bigger than the previous three rounds combined).
“Frankly, we didn’t need the funding,” says Wiedlin. “The site is profitable, revenues are up, we’re growing really quickly, but Andreessen Horowitz is such a premier firm [in Silicon Valley] and they offer so many services in terms of making introductions, getting access to technology and offering strategic counselling.”
He adds: “We don’t feel it’s the right time to go IPO at this stage for BuzzFeed, and Andreessen Horowitz offered us investment, which will allow us to make strategic acquisitions and really grow for the long term.”
And while BuzzFeed will undoubtedly always be criticised for producing silly lists, this content happens to be appealing to the millennial masses, and their willingness to click and share doesn’t show any hint of abating in the near future.