Agenda-setting and amusing: Why Buzzfeed is a real innovator

Charlie Beckett
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TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 - Day 1
Jonah Peretti has founded a modern media marvel (Source: Getty)

I don't even have to tell people anymore that Buzzfeed are no longer just about kittens.

This is a company that has recently hired some of the brightest and best journalist talent in the UK, including hard-nosed investigative reporters, clever data visualisers and hot political correspondents.

Buzzfeed in the UK is built on the hugely successful American model. You know the formula? Listicles, lots of photos, witty captions and bright, conversational writing. Most of the content is lifestyle and celebrity but it's always done with a freshness and enthusiasm that makes a lot of mainstream media look very tired and predictable.

That's an innovative style and format. But there's also a lot of very good, serious work, too. Look at their outstanding revelations about Kids Company. It was the result of long-term digging and after they broke the story they kept going until every angle was covered. They are now agenda-setting as well as amusing.

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But it is the business model that is perhaps most innovative. They do not do paywalls or subscriptions. Unlike most online media they do not rely on advertising. Digital advertising is proving very hard to make pay. People hate banner adverts or pop-ups and Adblocker is increasingly hiding them anyway.

Instead of seeking huge traffic through ‘clickbait’ like the Mail Online, they are selling the fact that people pay attention to their brand. Buzzfeed makes its money through sponsored content or ‘native advertising’. Brands pay to have their name or logo put discretely alongside interesting articles.

This can raise ethical problems if it’s not done clearly or if there is a conflict of interest between the journalism and the company involved. It would not be good, for example, to have an article on air pollution sponsored by Volkswagen. But generally, Buzzfeed have avoided that because they know that trust is vital for them, their readers and the companies involved.

There is a bigger question about whether there is enough revenue to be had from this delicate relationship to justify the vast amounts of venture capital flooding into the Buzzfeed operation. Will they be able to turn a healthy profit for the long-term or will the competition from mainstream media and other digital start-ups take too much of the commercial cake?

I think they will succeed. Firstly, they were the first into this space and their brand has now become synonymous with this kind of multi-format, accessible content.

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Secondly, they have invested heavily in analysing the data they get from their readers to make sure that every article is cleverly promoted on the right social media platform. They have honed their design and writing to extract maximum engagement through experimentation, assessment and adjustment. Relentlessly.

Most of all they produce a range of very good material. Yes some of it is trite, silly and superficial. But be honest, we all want a bit of that in our media lives don’t we? Alongside that they are also doing some very sensible, intelligent and easy-to-understand reporting on all the big issues, from the refugee crisis to the EU referendum debate.

Buzzfeed has hired journalists from some of Britain’s finest newsrooms as well as recruiting original talent from the world of charities, music or politics. What they all tell me is that they have never worked in such a creative place. That, in the end, is the real innovation.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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