One Secret to BuzzFeed's Viral Success: Buying Ads

There is no question that BuzzFeed and its founder Jonah Peretti are good at marketing. Pondering the future of making money selling ads, New York magazine asks this week: "Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?" The answer, as Andrew Rice explains, is yes. But, then, so do you.

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There is no question that BuzzFeed and its founder Jonah Peretti are good at marketing. Pondering the future of making money selling ads, New York magazine asks this week: "Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?" The answer, as Andrew Rice writes, is yes. But, then, so do you.

BuzzFeed's value proposition as a media organization is this: We know how to make things go viral, and we can help you, estimable brand manager, make your content go viral, too. As Rice explains, "Instead of selling ads against [what it publishes], BuzzFeed treats the traffic as its own advertisement: a demonstration of what the company could do for any brand willing to pay to place its own articles on the site."

Rice then articulates how the process works. A company like Virgin Mobile knocks on the door and pays about $100,000 for about a month of jointly-produced posts with BuzzFeed's viral wizards. Rice sat in on the meeting with the Virgin Mobile and BuzzFeed teams plotting their campaign:

The upcoming week’s paid-for posts included a gag involving unclaimed domain names (“,” “bieberin”); another about “bros getting friendzoned on Facebook”; a list of pictures of “people that just got screwed by life”; and a G-rated post with a headline that played on the word porn. Rosenthal and Faris particularly liked the last one, which was modeled on the previous week’s big hit: a collection of images written on dusty surfaces, headlined “15 of the Dirtiest Pictures on the Internet.” It already had 97,000 views.

But that may be skipping ahead. Rice repeatedly refers to the algorithm at play in BuzzFeed's calculus of how it can make things go viral. It's not the ideas behind those posts (people seem to click on links they think will show them naked people), but a simple formula that Peretti has devised:

R = βz

R apparently refers to how much traffic the post does, z to the number of people that see the post, and β to how likely it is to spread. Or, to simplify: a post will go viral depending on how many places it is linked and how likely it is to go viral. Which: sure. Most people creating content for the web realize that a post that's more viral and is shown to more people will spread further.

What's interesting, though, is that, while the β part of that formula appears to be mostly subjective, the z part isn't. BuzzFeed spends a lot of time and energy figuring out how to promote its posts, including buying ads on Facebook. Again, from Rice:

In BuzzFeed’s weekly list of top posters, Virgin Mobile consistently outperforms many editorial staffers. But that’s not an entirely fair comparison, because BuzzFeed pays to place sponsored posts in Facebook’s news feed and on other social-networking sites. (For a company that boasts a formula, this might seem a pretty brazen cheat, but that’s viral marketing in the real world.)

You can see BuzzFeed's top users list in real-time, tracking the which authors, on both its editorial and advertising staffs, that got the most traffic over the past week. Looking at the data as it appeared this morning, you can see that z factor at play.

The majority of the top 200 users are members of BuzzFeed's large staff. Others are regular BuzzFeed community of users, all of whom can make post stories to the site themselves. The final group is those businesses that work with the advertising teams; it's not clear if any of these aren't partnering with BuzzFeed to do so.

Most of the traffic — 88 percent of it over the last week — comes from staff posts.

What's interesting, though is that 59 users — regular BuzzFeed users — pulled in 4.2 million page views over the last week while 36 businesses did 2.8 million. Here's what that looks like as a raw number — and as a ratio of pageviews to users.

Businesses see about 8,000 more views than the average user. This could very well be a function of taking one data point, one week of the year. Or it could be a function of advertisers getting a little more z investment than regular people: when BuzzFeed needs more z it buys more ads on Facebook.

Last night, at about the same time that New York's BuzzFeed article came out, The New York Times published a similar story looking at the trend of promoted content across the industry. It's a much less interesting story, with a key bit of subtext: most media companies offer similar sponsored content deals (including our parent company, Atlantic Media). Minus the arithmetic magic, the BuzzFeed strategy appears to largely be fairly commonplace marketing tactics.

There are two things that set BuzzFeed apart, it seems, based on Rice's article. The first is what Rice calls its "upbeat, even childlike content" — which often correlates to an advertiser-friendly demographic. Peretti and editor-in-chief Ben Smith (as we've noted before) defend the artistry of that simple proposition.

“It’s not enough to get someone’s time with a bunch of cats,” [former ad exec] Gerry Graf says. “It’s not enough to entertain somebody, if you’re actually trying to do marketing.”

Peretti usually presents a cheerful exterior, but that kind of talk inflames his ego. “Could you make a list of cute animals that gets 5 million views?” he snapped when I mentioned Graf’s comment that night at the bar. “It’s actually really hard.”

Which is the second thing that sets BuzzFeed apart — the belief that it has the secret formula for getting posts to explode across the web. That it knows the secret behind the β. This is an integral part of its sales pitch, and it's one that requires buy-in across the organization. A now-famous staff memo that Peretti leaked last year presented the advertising team as on par with the rest of the site's staff in importance. A key job qualification for new hires is "no haters." It's why reports like ours last month noting plagiarism in one of its most popular posts is at odds with the way the company wants to be perceived.

It is not an exaggeration to say that β-ism has religious overtones. Rice relays the story of a talk Peretti gave at South by Southwest this year.

“One of the things I realized is that quality is not all that matters,” Peretti said. “Case in point: Which is higher quality, Judaism or Mormonism?”

He flashed a slide that juxtaposed a pair of white-shirted missionaries with a pair of Hasidim. Peretti, who is half-Jewish, performs this bit frequently; it never fails to make audiences uncomfortable. After asking for shows of hands, he nailed the punch line, projecting a chart showing the growth of both religions. “When you look at the performance metrics, there was one Mormon for every ten Jews in 1950, and now there are more Mormons in the world than there are Jews,” Peretti said. “Mormons know that it’s not enough to practice your religion; you also have to spread your religion.”

One must have faith. For BuzzFeed to convince corporations that they have the secret to broad online appeal, the company can't abide by infidels.

Incidentally, here's how Virgin Mobile's campaign did:

Yes, the hits can add up: Virgin Mobile’s posts received around 1.1 million views for the last week in March. Other campaigns running on the site during that period, however, showed smaller results: Geico, 140,000 views; GE, 65,000 views; Pepsi Next, 44,000 views. These numbers don’t quite match the hype around native advertising, which might be why ad agencies sound much less enthusiastic about the medium’s transformative potential than publishers do.

As of this morning, that weekly number (for mostly old posts) was at about 275,000. It may be time for more z.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.