Five ways BuzzFeed makes content people want to share


The keynote address of the 11th news:rewired conference, held today in London, was given by Jack Shepherd, editorial director of BuzzFeed, who shared his findings on how news outlets can make their content shareable, even in the often noisy arena of social media.

Shepherd started by talking through some of BuzzFeed’s general traffic figures:

  • 130m+ unique users monthly
  • 75% traffic from social
  • 50% is viewed mobile
  • 60% of audience is aged 18-34
  • Over 400 employees

To explain the impressive social figures, Shepherd outlined five key lessons BuzzFeed has learned with regards to making content that people want to share:

1. Everyone likes lists

The internet is chaotic and frightening and there’s something satisfying about having something in order.

The key to the list model is its simplicity. Lists are easy to scan, a natural way to process information and, importantly, everyone knows what to expect.

Shepherd was keen to point out that lists can be more than just an arbitrary bunch of images (like 109 Cats in Sweaters, for example), but “a dynamic way to tell a story”.

He added:

A list format is just the scaffolding. What you choose to build with that is the hard part.

As an example, Shepherd pointed out the success of a piece on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Seven facts – expanded in numerous footnotes – on how to tell if a statement has meaning or is simply nonsense.

To date, the piece has been viewed by 150,000 unique users.

2. Appeal to emotion

Shepherd cited an article in the New York Times which stated the stories people email to each other can fit into four categories: Awe-inspiring, emotional, positive, and surprising.

The point being, he added, is that “emotional engagement is a powerful tool”.

One of BuzzFeed’s successes is in creating content that generates “a visceral response”.

BuzzFeed editors are told to do a “gut -check” on their pieces before publishing. If it doesn’t generate an emotional response for them, the chances are it won’t for the reader.

This content can range from a cute cat picture to an emotional real-life story.

3. Extend content with community

Shepherd notes that there is no easy trick to involving communities because each is different.

However, he said, one key discovery has been this:

Don’t ask for opinion, but try to generate a meaningful conversation.

He cited the successes of the Young Me/Now Me project, which became a viral phenomenon.

The concept is simple. Contributors use an old photograph a their source material, then they recreate it.

The audience laughed, cooed, and “aww”ed, effectively as he showed the examples, demonstrating the appeal of emotional engagement with a community.

4. Controversy works

According to Shepherd, the way a controversial post generates a viral presence is by getting “a good distribution of ‘Gets it/likes it/doesn’t get it/doesn’t like it’ readers”.

If you have a piece of content that hits all four quadrants, you have “a viral hit”, he said:

Each of these four camps provides an opportunity to share

For example, he showed off the huge internet response to Bonsai Kitten.

No matter what the audience thought, it was something they wanted to talk about online.

5. Pair the right story with the right format

One of the most important things BuzzFeed has learned is that “what people want to read and share is a matter of format”.

BuzzFeed has experimented with articles, lists, videos, and has recently (“after years of work”) shown the success of the online quiz.

The “What city should you live in?” piece is now the second most popular post ever, garnering around 20m visits.

The key to it is about creating results that say something about the reader, be it funny or meaningful.

But BuzzFeed has also worked hard to promote serious “long-form” journalism too.

He added:

It’s a total myth that nobody wants to read serious, difficult, or long-form content

Shepherd gave the example of the 10,000 word essay entitled ‘60 words and a war without end‘ and ‘Why I bought a house in Detroit for $500‘.

Each of these created an emotional response with the reader and was a success because they were “the right story paired with the right format”.

Shepherd said that the overall message behind each format had to be that the content was “something worth sharing”.

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