CEO Peretti Discusses Social Advertising And Virality As Buzzfeed Continues To Grow

BuzzFeedJonah Peretti is CEO of Buzzfeed, a social content sharing site.

He recently spoke to AdExchanger about his company and the way the viral nature of the Web continues to enhance content and advertising opportunities.

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AdExchanger: In your own personal, day‑to‑day interaction with the social web, what social tools are useful to you?

JP: I don’t think I’m the typical consumer. I tend to get obsessed with a service and spend a lot of time figuring out how it works. In particular, I’m interested in the diffusion of information, how ideas spread and why some things get passed along and others don’t. Often with a new social service, I spend a lot of time doing experiments with it, seeing how it works and pushing the limits of what it can do. I did that for maybe six months on Twitter. Now I’m maybe a more typical Twitter user in that I use it to discover information and to send updates to friends and colleagues.

But for a period, I was doing things on Twitter like creating choose-your-own-adventure stories and experimenting with what types of tweets would inspire people to retweet – almost treating the platform as an opportunity to do controlled experiments in social interaction.

Buzzfeed made an announcement recently about working with Facebook and getting more integrated in that environment. Can you talk a bit about what you’re playing with there?

The way I think about all these social platforms is that I never get that excited about the specifics of any social platform. I think it’s a good strategy as well – to abstract one level up and start thinking about what it is that makes people want to share something. How does information spread through networks? Where are there opportunities for things that are socially meaningful to people? Then, one level down, you have all the infrastructure, products and services that allow those kinds of ideas to be implemented in the real world. Concepts like Six Degrees of Separation, Small World and the serious work that’s been done in diffusion applies to a lot of different social systems and services.

Facebook is the biggest of several services that are tied into these deeper structures and the way humans interact with each other. With the recent initiative we did with Facebook, the Facebook Timeline only goes back to when Facebook existed, but what we found on Buzzfeed is that there are lots of things that happened in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s – it depends on how old you are – that were formative when you were in high school or when you were in college that you have a deep emotional connection to. Nothing compares to the music you listened to when you were 13 years old, in terms of the emotional connection you have to it and the memories it brings back.

We have had a history of posting what you could call “nostalgia‑drenched” content. Often, they are image lists that bring back these memories. Facebook Timeline seemed like it was a natural fit in that it was a way for people to show their life through time. I was at F8 (Facebook’s developers conference) when they were announcing Timeline, and I immediately thought of these posts about Pop Rocks, Boyz II Men, etc. – the earliest computers you used, and some of the things that people love to share on Facebook and talk about with their friends. We started to talk to them and said, “Hey, can we have a path that lets people fill in their timeline in the ’80s and ’90s earlier?” They said, “Well, we think it’s technically possible, although that wasn’t what our original intent was.”

Then we started working on it. I talked with Mark Zuckerberg, Sam Rushing and with other folks at Facebook about this idea. Everyone seemed to like it and we ended up building it. It’s an editorial product that plugs into Facebook’s Timeline because it’s key for us to make great posts with content that people want to share to their early years of their timeline.

That seems like an interesting idea in terms of using history to potentially incite viral-ity, if you will. Do those histories make things more viral?

We don’t know yet whether these posts are going to be viral. We do think people love the idea that it is tied to people’s identity, and that timeline says a lot about people’s identities. Even it if doesn’t result in posts that are hugely viral, if a bunch of our readers are able to put things that they feel emotionally connected to into their timeline, that’s worth it to us.

Do you see BuzzFeed as a competitor to major media organizations down the road? It seems like you’re starting to position it that way. You’re talking about breaking news and things like that.

It’s clear that user‑generated content is not enough to deliver on the promise of content on the web for consumers. You need professionals, people calling up sources and digging up information. And you need people who are pros, who have the expertise to make amazing and original content. So we’re in that business. We’re not Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter or one of these services that doesn’t have that, and gets all their content from users. But by the same token, making original content and reporting without understanding how content spreads through word of mouth and social channels is going to become increasingly difficult from a business perspective.

You really need to understand this major shift that’s happening towards social distribution if you want to succeed as a publisher. And so we see that there’s a big opening to get ahead and lead the parade – be very focused on being a big social publisher that has an amazing team of web savvy, socially savvy editorial people, journalists and reporters. We’re focusing more on breaking news and scoops because that lends itself to the social web. Google actually rewards aggregation a lot, like if you are quick, fast and can pull together all the information on whatever topic people are searching for, Google tends to reward that. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, reward scoops and new information. So if you have something that no one else has, you’ll be the one with the story that gets tweeted and re-tweeted.

That’s actually good for the future of reporting and the future of news. In a world where more traffic is coming from social services, it will favor real reporting and people digging for new information and original content that’s worth sharing. And so it feels like this awesome opportunity where you don’t have to – there are no tricks to it. You just break news, get good stories, have a great collection of images, content and things that resonate with people emotionally. And if you make things that people think are worth sharing, your site will grow. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been growing so much and so quickly.

Looking at audience buying from a BuzzFeed perspective, it’s hard to know ahead of time who the audience is – or will be. Therefore, the audience buying and monetization opportunities appear to be different. Thoughts?

Social advertising is just being invented. People are figuring out what it means. But one of the interesting aspects of social distribution is that content spreads through people sharing it with their friends, which means that controlling the target is more difficult because if everyone starts sharing your branded content, you don’t control who they share it to. They do. But, the flip side of that is that you end up getting this kind of social targeting that’s more meaningful. We did a study with GE that showed a dramatic increase in brand-lift when someone received branded content from a friend through sharing compared to when they just got an impression target at them.

So what you see is that with a social ad campaign, content becomes the new currency. People sharing content become the new targeting. And people will often share with the person who should receive it. So, if you make content that appeals to your core demographic, your content will spread to that core demographic just by the nature of the fact that people will share it with them. So you get the targeting, but then you get the targeting happening through a share where there’s an implied endorsement from friends, from someone who knows the person, from a prominent Twitter account or from their friend on Facebook which shares it. This makes it more meaningful, and it has a bigger impact or effect on them because it comes with an implied endorsement. Also, it comes from a trusted source.

So what you’re seeing is – instead of saying, “I want to target this giant group of people that have XYZ characteristics,” you’re putting interesting, engaging content that should appeal to those types of people. You’re paying to put that content in front of super‑sharers and people who are really active on social media, then those people are the distribution mechanism that gives you the most valuable things, which is the word of mouth distribution. So there’s this potential to do word-of-mouth marketing on an Internet scale that is powered by the social web and that makes advertising engaging and interesting, because if it’s not, people won’t share it. So it puts this much higher bar on brands to create stuff that people will want to share. It feels like a positive shift for the industry. It’ll be good for consumers and it’ll be good for advertisers.

By John Ebbert

Follow Jonah Peretti (@peretti), BuzzFeed (@buzzfeed) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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