Sometimes, it can be hard to be the dance kid who was raised by hippie, immigrant parents in Connecticut. No one out there, it seems, understands you. Except Buzzfeed, which is finding it exceptionally easy to feed your soul right now — and bait traffic forever — with hyper-specific remnants of your past. Nostalgic dance/hippie/immigrant/Connecticut kids, for example, have viewed picture-filled BuzzFeed reminiscences about some aspect of that life over 3 million times. It's a new wrinkle on the somewhat archaic idea of the Internet's long tail: social sharing can cause that tail to break out in hives.
BuzzFeed has an entire section of its site — a "vertical," in the parlance — that is predicated on nostalgia. Called "Rewind," it tends to focus squarely on a particular common denominator: 20-something pop culture enthusiasts. But of late the site has focused on — to the point of repeating over and over again — a new type of feature, which we'll call "Signs You" posts. These are posts that basically offer a list of several dozen things about which people from fairly specific circumstances will be nostalgic, titled something like "32 Signs You Grew Up in Ealing." That's a real post, by the way. "Ealing" is an area in West London.
We did a quick search and found 37 others. There are "Signs You" posts like the Ealing one, based on location (Signs You: Grew Up in Brooklyn, Grew Up In South Florida, Are from North Carolina, Definitely An Aussie, Grew Up In A Small Town). There are ones based on ethnic heritage (Signs You: Were Raised By A Jewish Mother, Raised By Persian Parents In America, Raised By Asian Immigrant Parents). There are college ones (Signs You: Sang A Cappella In College, Went To A Mid-Major College, Went to a Black College, Are a Florida State Seminole, Were A College Radio DJ). There are all sorts of other random ones, too (Signs You: Are a Natural Redhead, Grew Up In A Geek Household, Are a Teacher). Of the 38 posts, 16 have page views listed. The total page views for those 16 posts tops 11.8 million.
This is clearly a deliberate editorial strategy. While BuzzFeed has a community of contributors, only eight of the 38 came from that group. Two came from sponsors. The other 28 — comprising most of those getting a lot of traffic — are from staff or fellows of the company itself.
It's a smart strategy, too. In 2004, Wired's Chris Anderson wrote a seminal piece called "The Long Tail." In it, he posited that the Internet allowed retailers to make an enormous amount of money by selling very small numbers of thousands of not-very-popular items — in some cases, more than by selling a lot of a few popular items. (The idea is best represented in this graph.) Anderson wrote:
What's really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.
The same idea applies to online media. Increasingly, visitors to websites are coming in the "side door," meaning that they don't first visit the site's homepage and then make their way to an article. How'd you get to this post, for example? It's far more likely that you did so directly — an emailed link or through social media — than that you came via our homepage. According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, more than half of BuzzFeed's traffic last August came through social media or search. Some of the posts people see when they get to the site are the newest, best-performing ones. But a lot of people are also going to a lot of older posts, too, fleshing out that long tail. The more evergreen the post — meaning the less tied to things in the news or in the moment — the better for re-enjoyment, just as classic novels and old hit songs will always continue to sell.
What "Signs You" posts end up doing — intentionally or not — is combine the long tail with social. There aren't a lot of people who grew up Seventh-Day Adventist, but there are a lot. How the web facilitates aggregation of niche interests has long been a selling point — but websites don't need to create places for those communities anymore. Facebook and other social networks have already done that for them. Get one Adventist to see and enjoy the trip down memory lane, and he'll share it.
The math becomes: The more "Signs You" posts BuzzFeed does, the more niches it hits. The more niches it hits, the more the people in those niches share the posts on Facebook. The more those people share the posts, the more traffic it gets. Repeat month over month as desired. And for posts that don't take long to make. Grab 27 photos (the average in the 38 we looked at), add captions, publish it on the site. Yes, a lot of it is schlocky and dumb, but it gives good beta.
If you enjoyed this post, please stick around for my next one: 44 Signs You Grew Up on the East Side of Rochester in the Early 1980s. It may not get a lot of traffic today, but over the next few years, I bet it really starts to add up.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.