BuzzFeed is enjoying a media honeymoon. More established outlets are publishing gushing pieces about the success of the site along with newer counterparts like Upworthy, without the normal scrutiny applied to potential threats to their business models.
Let me save you the time by pointing out what the national media will soon wake up to. There are two reasons why the hype around BuzzFeed is excessive: its content model is too easily replicable, which means it could easily be knocked off its perch, and secondly it is soon likely to run into problems making money.
There are, of course, some good reasons for the initial excitement around BuzzFeed. By the end of 2013 it announced that 130m unique people had hit its website in December alone. That was up from 85m in September and 93m in October 2013. As its founder Jonah Peretti put it to Wired UK, “we have served more web pages so far in 2013 than we did in the entire previous five-year history of the company.”
So far so good. But let’s go through the reasons why viral content is the next bubble.
Firstly, it is remarkably easy to replicate BuzzFeed’s content model. A company can hire people to measure how and why some content goes viral, but the truth is they’re just doing that for the PR and to scare off potential competitors.
The undeniable fact is that, despite a margin of unpredictablity, viral content is as formulaic as political news stories. I know this because I’ve run several stories myself that I knew would go viral. Spotting this potential is key: until recently Gawker employed a blogger whose entire job was to find and post viral content.
Not all stories take off, of course, but those that do are based on a fairly understandable and replicable formula. Once you embrace these techniques, the hits will follow.
In fact, BuzzFeed is already facing competition from websites like Viral Nova, Upworthy, Business Insider, Distractify and others, all of whom are running this same formula repeatedly. The only reason BuzzFeed doesn’t face more competition from newspaper websites – which have the resources to compete – is because most newspapers are too sniffy about it (Mail Online aside, though some broadsheets are belatedly trying).
The second key problem with the BuzzFeed hype is its revenue model. The company makes money by putting together content for advertisers that it hopes will go viral. It doesn’t do traditional banner advertising.
But this isn’t as successful as everyone thinks. In fact, BuzzFeed has an entire team dedicated to buying ads to get users to see those sponsored posts. Even Wired UK fleetingly mentions this in an otherwise uncritical cover story: “The company boosts such traffic by buying ads elsewhere to promote sponsor stories.”
Furthermore, traffic from viral content fluctuates wildly by its very nature. The demographic of those readers is unpredictable and hard to measure effectively. Unless BuzzFeed becomes a stable website that people visit regularly, it isn’t always clear who is reading the website.
Advertisers hate websites that don’t really know their (fleeting and constantly changing) demographic and have unpredictable swings in readers. Plus a lot of BuzzFeed content is aimed at and shared by teenagers, who aren’t necessarily the people advertisers are looking for.
This explains why BuzzFeed is now aggressively employing more serious journalists to produce more serious content. It needs an aura of respectability, it needs a more stable and loyal readership, and it needs a more mature audience. Until then, it remains in a bubble.