Jon Steinberg, president of BuzzFeed, pitches fast and hard. The first time I met him, post-midnight at BuzzFeed’s party on Le Rooftop, overlooking the Mediterranean, I felt the need to get him a drink. The idea that one could relax in Cannes, that the wee hours were a time for friendly chatter, or that pitches, if they must be pitched, are best served with a little butter—none of this seemed to have occurred to him. “Are you going to write something about this?” he asked. “I mean, are you going to mention it?” And then, almost immediately, “You know, you and Jonah” [Peretti, co-founder of BuzzFeed] “should get together and talk.”
I suggested I call them tomorrow to see about a time.
“Hey, why don’t we just do it now? How about 3:45 tomorrow, right here?”
Peretti, now in his late 30s, is a minor hero in New York City media for bearing the “co-founder of Huffington Post” badge and for having been a first mover in the creation of “viral” content. At lunch the following day, Steinberg tried to convince me that Peretti coined the word. Peretti emitted a signature high-pitch, closed-teeth laugh: “I didn’t coin the word ‘viral,’” he said. “I mean, I was doing things that people called ‘viral’ very early on.” (In 2006, The New York Times said he was a “viral marketing hot dog.”)
In terms of personality, Peretti is the giddily nervous marijuana to Steinberg’s anxious cocaine. “He’s more aggressive and works faster, I’m a little more contemplative and work a little slower,” Peretti told me after Steinberg left the table. “He’s more gregarious, I’m a little bit less social.” This was certainly true the night before. On Le Rooftop, after a rather bleak comedy routine with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Susie Essman—a terribly grating take on the Borscht Belt brought to sully the Riviera (she had to yell at all the people ignoring her)—Peretti was all calm and relaxation. He had even decided to go through the week of networking without a cell phone. For the formal, recorded lunch at the Carlton, however, he walked the Steinberg line and pitched equally hard.
The problem was that there wasn’t anything to pitch. BuzzFeed is a website that “tracks the Web’s obsessions in real time” by allowing users to share their feelings on user-, editor-, and brand-generated content—it has been that since Peretti started it two years ago as a side project while at Huffington Post. The 53 minutes that surround that description are, like the visit to Cannes, an aggressive appeal to advertisers from two people who don’t seem totally confident in the competitive advantage of their product. Thirteen brands are listed among BuzzFeed’s “past campaigns”—JetBlue, Coca-Cola, Samsung—many of which posted content once and then never again. (In an email response to this post, Steinberg wrote, "We have 13 case studies on the site, but we've done 60+ campaigns, had many repeat buys, and done millions of dollars in revenue this year.")
“There is a persistent theme today about ads being content, and branded content being indistinguishable from the organic content,” Steinberg said. “And we’re actually really doing that. I mean, all the ads on BuzzFeed run in the stream . . . we only take advertising that really is genuine content. So, I think we’re seeing a lot of people here that want to get to where we’re already at because when we started a year ago, a lot of the brands didn’t have content. Now they’ve all sort of come around to it. So I feel like we’re sort of ahead of the game. And it's nice to hear, especially from the big holding companies, that this is what they want to push heavily into in the next year.”
The kernel one can extract from that while drowning in the repetition of “content” is that being early to the game doesn’t necessarily put you ahead of it. BuzzFeed could do well, or not. At the moment, it gets roughly 50 million-60 million monthly pageviews, according to Quantcast, and Peretti said they want to expand to 50 staffers this year. But as Steinberg noted, “content” is a persistent theme today. Whether it was first or not, there’s no longer a clear explanation of BuzzFeed’s current advantage to advertisers. So I asked.
Peretti: “Part of the advantage of being ahead of the market is that we were building technology that whole time. So, we have real stats that let us see how for every single piece of content that we post on BuzzFeed—whether it's our own content or an advertiser’s content—we have a dashboard that shows all the stats for that individual piece of content, and then we can roll that up into all the stats for an entire campaign, or for all of BuzzFeed, or for a publisher. And the real-time stats show us where the content is spreading, where it's sharing, how it's getting distributed. In addition to that, we have a full-time, applied mathematician who is doing regression models on why content spreads and how it spreads. So he’s looking at all the different factors that are predictive of something getting shared and spreading, and pretty early on we can make that judgment call that this has the potential to take off, and when we see that we can promote it more. So that combined with our sort of background making viral things, and all the early stuff that I used to work on—we really have an artistic or creative sense of what stuff will work. And we have all this technology and infrastructure that helps identify and optimize all this stuff that we’re posting."
While Steinberg talked, Peretti ate; while Peretti talked, Steinberg ate or looked at his phone. They had another appointment at 5 p.m. with Jonah Goodhart, co-founder and co-CEO of Moat, an advertising search engine, which Steinberg dutifully left for before Peretti had finished his salad.
I asked Peretti what Steinberg did before coming to BuzzFeed. “He was at Google. And he worked at Majestic, which is a startup company in finance, and worked on Wall Street a little bit.”
“At Google he worked on small business partnerships. He worked in research on Wall Street—they would sell research to traders. And he’s been tremendous for us . . . He’s sort of taken us from being an R&D lab to being a real business.”
I got the impression that Peretti was starting to become human again. He cracked a joke. He talked about the time he took Arianna Huffington to lunch. He told a story about Steinberg trying to buy ice cream in Cannes with a 100-franc note. We ended the meal, and he went in to meet the others.
That night, I ran into them again at one of the many loud, nightly parties that stretch the length of the beach. At last, Steinberg seemed relaxed—he offered a sort of good-to-see-you smile that seemed to portend a conversation, rather than a pitch.
Then he introduced me to one of his friends: “You guys should talk.”