BuzzFeed.com makes me want to gouge my eyes out—this despite the fact that as a 24-year-old college student, I’m squarely in their demographic. The dumbed-down comments section consists solely of pop culture buzzwords like “LOL,” “Winning,” and “Hot,” which read like a mom trying to be cool, a deranged cokehead, and Paris Hilton, in that order. BuzzFeed’s user-experience is frustrating, as clicking through the articles reveals that BuzzFeed is a glorified title-generator. The unwitting sap (me) who clicks on the title feels like a chump when the title is better than the article it promised. I’ll admit I hold a grudge against their parent company, Huffington Post, whose business model consists of copy-and-pasting from other news sites and refusing to pay bloggers. BuzzFeed works off the same model, a surprisingly uncommon model on the Internet. Even YouTube pays its high-traffic posters, doling out paychecks of as little as 40 cents if the video hits the thousand-view number requirement. Those paychecks won’t make the poster rich, but it’s an acknowledgement of value for something that brings revenue to the site. But the real scam, I maintain, is buried in the content. BuzzFeed sums up my beef with them best with their own job posting:
Creative Client Manager at BuzzFeed in New York, NY
Your job will be to work with leading brands to identify ways in which their current campaigns and branded content can be crafted into viral campaigns. You’ll be a modern day, internet version of Don Draper.
Don Draper is a master of expunging the cold exchange of product for cash from the buyer’s consciousness and masterfully replacing that reality with a fantasy where entertainment, happiness and decadence collide. Madison Avenue in the 60’s ignored the dubious ethical underpinnings associated with subtle manipulation of the human psyche, and somewhere along the way we forgot that advertising used to consist of clunky appeals to sentimentality. Maybe BuzzFeed’s job post refers to Draper’s form-fitting tailored pinstripe suits, but I suspect they expect to harness his manipulative genius. In a press release, BuzzFeed announced that “advertorial” will drive their revenue in the future. Advertorial, they explain, registers with viewers in a unique way—unlike a banner ad, advertorial is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the site’s content. It works like this: the product, let’s say Target, for example, creates a video advertisement they hope will go viral. BuzzFeed generates a catchy, viral title to the video and artificially pushes it up the ranks on its page. The reader trusts the brand image more when the ads are delivered as part of the content. Consumers have long suspected (okay, known) that advertisers think they’re stupid and easily manipulated, but advertorial stings afresh.
The real problem, in my view, is what BuzzFeed pretends to be, in light of what it actually is. On Buzzfeed’s “About Us” page, the site claims to be “a new kind of media company for the social world. Our technology powers the viral distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment. Our site is a rapidly growing hub for viral media that reaches over 13 million monthly unique visitors and our viral media network reaches an additional 200M.” It’s actually something quite different, as a comparison may reveal. Take a women’s magazine, Lucky, which has pages and pages of ads, sometimes as many pages of ads as it does content. But the content is a shopping guide, so it is, in effect, more advertising, advertising consumers accept because Lucky stakes their reputation on the products it backs and the editor’s taste. It’s why banner ads don’t work. The site visitor knows that the advertiser has nothing to do with the site the user is currently browsing, so the user is able to consciously separate the two. What is BuzzFeed staking? It’s very hard to tell, and the site isn’t forthcoming about it. Anyone is allowed to share on the site, thus at least some of the content is user-generated, rewarded by frequent user “badges,” and those posts are pushed to the top based on “likeability” calculations. The rest of the content supposedly isn’t handpicked, but fed to the site through algorithmic calculations. The “About Us” page doesn’t seem to tell the whole tale, as the BuzzFeed roster of editors is bursting with talent on a site that claims no responsibility for its content. While BuzzFeed’s mission statement remains unclear, evidence points to the conclusion that BuzzFeed hopes to be a “one-stop shop” for its users. BuzzFeed is pushing for weightier news content, so that the advertorial isn’t just hanging out with the likes of Bieber, and it’s getting there through the back door.
Ethical implications aside, BuzzFeed is slipshod with its content. What most would relegate to a tweet, BuzzFeed’s content creators (quickly) cobble together a blog post. Upon clicking, the user can expect one or two-lines worth of dry news copy (a ringer throwback to the old New York Times’ “objective” reporting). The content is not particularly good or original so much as it takes a scattershot approach. Topical posts (two hits for Obamacare) live next to classic, recycled viral video and picture material. One post had the title “The White House Fully Embraces ‘ObamaCare’” followed by a copy-and-pasted e-mail from David Axelrod, communications director for Obama’s re-election campaign, and a quip about how Obama is taking “ObamaCare” back like the gays took “gay” back. The content—to use that word liberally—was a word-for-word copy of a mailing blast sent to everyone on Obama’s campaign mailing list (made up of a massive list of donors and supporters). There was absolutely no commentary at all. BuzzFeed only allows readers to comment in the form of oblique buzzwords like “OMG,” “LOL,” and “FAIL.” What do those words mean out of context? “OMG,” the President has lost his mind? “OMG,” that’s such a great idea? “OMG,” I had a lot of coffee this morning? Had I not received Axelrod’s e-mail that morning, I would have had no idea where the information came from, whether it was credible or not, or even where to start looking for that information.
Whatever BuzzFeed’s editorial weaknesses, they more than make up for in advertising and user-garnering panache and other news sites have a lot to learn from them. Advertising revenue pays writer’s salaries (I would find it easier to swallow if BuzzFeed were, in fact, paying writers), and the way to achieve that goal might only be through ruthless branding tactics, seamlessly interwoven throughout the “news.” Just like in movies, readers will have to stumble across a “random” Tide plug while reading a news story about the homeless problem that needs to be “cleaned up.” We’ll have to raise our eyebrows and go, “ah, that’s just product placement.” As consumers get savvier to their tricks, marketers will study the human psyche and pull at ever-deeper layers of subconscious puppet strings. Sometimes they’ll slip up and we’ll get a good laugh, like when Target accidentally (and accurately) informed a father that his daughter was pregnant by flooding the family mailbox with diaper coupons.
Gratifyingly, achieving advertorial success is no easy task. Advertorial is the holy grail of social media campaigns. TheAwl.com reports that, “Jack Shepherd, the man largely responsible for the cat content [on BuzzFeed], told [the Awl] that cats generates 3.5 times more viral traffic (shared via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) than the average BuzzFeed post. And they generate a whopping 14 times as many “reactions” (likes/dislikes).” BuzzFeed’s Nike advertorial, on the other hand, “15 Best Running Songs,” has garnered a paltry 187 reactions.
I hope news sources like The Atlantic, Slate, and The Daily Beast, among others, evolve before copy-and-paste aggregate sites like BuzzFeed swallow them whole in their insatiable appetite for content. Time will tell if BuzzFeed can exist without Old School media or if advertorial remains the unattainable holy grail. Either way, someone should tell BuzzFeed’s head honchos that Don Draper is probably already employed on Wall Street.
Take a women’s magazine, Nassau Weekly, which has pages and pages of Robin Glover, sometimes as many pages of Robin Glover as it does content.