Specific Content drives success for BuzzFeed: Measuring Social Media effectiveness

m234ali    November 9, 2015


Organization Name: BuzzFeed

Industry: Internet Media

Web References: 52 Things you Should know about BuzzFeed, Does BuzzFeed know the Secret?, How BuzzFeed discovered the Secret to Success in Social Media

Make your content specific. That’s what we’ve learned from BuzzFeed, the extremely successful social news and entertainment internet media company founded by Jonah Peretti, the famous MIT graduate student who challenged Nike on it’s labor practises (he ordered a pair of customizable sneakers with “sweatshop” written on them — which you can imagine, didn’t go down exactly as planned with the multi-million dollar sneaker manufacturer).  In the realm of leveraging social media networks for marketing of products, brands and people, the content specific ethos means the manufacture of content that is “share desirable”– it’s honing in on what people want to read, think about and ultimately, share, thus creating a system that replicates itself and actually gets the message across.  How BuzzFeed measures and manages their effectiveness is the most interesting part.

Thinking about using social media effectively, we can see that BuzzFeed begins with some simple set of questions about their published content that resembles traditional marketing:

  1. “Does it spread internationally?”
  2. “Does it work across multiple platforms?”
  3. “Does it help people improve their actual lives?”
  4. “Does it actually change government institutions?”
  5. “Does it help make the world more open and media more diverse?”
  6. “Does it help people connect with each other?”

It may dawn on you just how simple these questions are, but in fact they are the key to BuzzFeed’s considerable success in determining the catchiest topics turned articles around the globe.  They also hammer in on social media’s realest action: invoking emotion. Take for example the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. BuzzFeed realized that there was an uptake in reading material of things that were ‘comforting’–and they responded by creating a listicle called “26 Moments that Restored Our Faith In Humanity This Year” that grew organically and reached millions of users.  So how does BuzzFeed measure just what is going to go viral?


The “Share” icon.

What BuzzFeed does expertly different is use data-science to judge past stories and potential ideas to figure out which future stories might spread.  The design team keeps iterating the user interface through A/B testing and analytics. As of right now, BuzzFeed boasts a “viral lift” of three — meaning three times as many people come to stories via social media.  And it’s their focus on using data to inform their content that Buzzfeed has found that the single key metric important to the network of profileration is the Share.   Prioritizing a single key metric allows them to do two powerful things: 1) drill down deep into what a share means, beyond just share count and 2) it gives them a frame of reference as to where they belong in the social sphere.  BuzzFeed was able to do this because of both their devotion to data and statistics, and their love for it.

How BuzzFeed Thinks About Data Science

And everyone who works at BuzzFeed actually finds stats and data fun.

In September 2014, BuzzFeed had ten data scientists as part of their tech group, which further comprised of over engineers, product owners and designers. As the data accumulates and continues to aggregate in BuzzFeed’s web, so has the team expanded: the need to respond sharply to nearly 2 billion views of text to video content created by BuzzFeed, alongside and in addition to hundreds of millions of data points from third party sources means a constant modelling and remodelling of analysis, data collection and insights throughout the company.

Buzzfeed’s analytics process illustrates that real actionable insights are more than just a result of impressions (view count), likes, or even the total number of shares, but rather a measure of how greatly content is resonating amongst followers and this is where the Share option comes into play.  While calculating the basic number of shares that occur is quite common and very easy, BuzzFeed hones in on how many conversations are circulating because of that content.  Social marketers, or companies that want to increasingly engage in social web-based marketing, would do well to  understand why certain posts are specifically successful at driving, for example, product sales while others are successful at pushing store location searches. Then, when creating a campaign designed to drive ecommerce product sales, they’ll know to share more content like the first post.  Or when creating a campaign designed to drive people to brick and mortar locations, they’ll know to share more content that can mimic the second post.


The above chart demonstrates that for BuzzFeed, social media has surpassed the traditional search functions as the top driver of referral traffic to content on the web.

According to BuzzFeed, the sharing button on Whatsapp generates more traffic referrals than Twitter — which means it’s a huge resource to learn about sharing from it’s users and their behavior. The sharing function is BuzzFeed’s non-traditional approach to content distribution and relies almost exclusively on people sharing items.  Their focus is on topics that are interesting, fun, yet have credibility; they appeal to the educated minds yet are narcisst in nature.  When something is posted on BuzzFeed (they went from posting 4 times daily to 400 posts!) the data scientists, taking their cue from studying viruses in biology, figure out how quickly something is working well and promote that peice of information on other social channels or move it to the front page.  What BuzzFeed has learnt studying the people that share their items, is that people will share the content that helps them promote their own identity “even if that content is in the form of a native advertisement for a brand”.

Digging deeper into how BuzzFeed determines, in real time, what content is popular and shared the most, BuzzFeed uses a formula called ViralRank that charts the “Viral Mutiplier Effect”, and content is then optimized and promoted.  In it’s early days, BuzzFeed used pixels to determine which articles did the best; now, their own technology and content management system does the job for them.

Lessons Learned
1) BuzzFeed shows that the most social audiences are the “Bored at Work” ones that need something fascinating and uplifting to bring spice in their lives.  Focus on content that can mean something to each individual person, and why they would want to share it — BuzzFeed, as this article shows, hones in on using this as a driving point for their most successful stories: the ones that consumers want to distribute amongst their networks as a reflection of their own personalities.  Content needs to be interesting and specific!

2) The content that you want to spread has to lead off of the correct platform– Facebook has been the most successful starting point for BuzzFeed because it hosts their ideal consumer: the Bored at Work, going back to Lesson #1.  Assess the social networks you want to incorporate before just simply using them.

3) Use content that drives emotion – emotional triggers are the most important.  People want to share things, as already mentioned, that reflect their personalities; usually this is content that they can directly relate to.  This occurs because of past experiences, because of personal connections (ie. home countries, favourite things, places, food) but things that elicit the highest degree of emotion — fear, tears, immense joy — these are the ones that are going to grab someone elses attention.

4) In analyzing your data, remember to KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.


Submitted By: Moneeza Ali, University of Waterloo

To contact the author of this entry please email at: m234ali@uwaterloo.ca

If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Programme Director, Social Media for Business Performance.