BuzzFeed, Flipboard, and WaPo Labs Discuss Social Content: What’s Working and What’s Not

By Devon Glenn 

NEW YORK – At the NYU Media Talk on June 13, social media experts from BuzzFeed, Flipboard, and the Washington Post’s WaPo Labs joined David Carr of the New York Times to talk about what’s working – and what’s not working – in the business of curating social content.

Photo Credit: ©NYU Photo Bureau/ Debra Rothenberg

Panelists included (right to left) Flipboard’s Editorial Director Josh Quittner, WaPoLabs Chief Strategist and Editor-at-Large Rob Malda, and BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith. The talk was hosted by the NYU-SCPS Center for Publishing, which gathered members of the graduating class of 2012 and alumni to hear firsthand the state of the field they were about to enter.

What’s Working

1. Discovery through Social Networks

The panelists agreed that social media has dramatically altered the landscape of content discovery in the last couple of years. In 2010, Google was still the number one referrer of traffic at BuzzFeed, said Smith, but by 2011, it was Facebook. “People’s front pages ore not the front page of your publication,” he said, “but the front page of the social Web.”

Added Carr, “I never see my children consuming information, yet they seem to know a lot.”

Each social network has its own merits. “Twitter is great for traditional beat reporting,” said Smith. “Facebook favors content with a real emotional core…like cat pictures.”

2. Discovery through Apps

“I think it’s so quaint you guys are talking about where your traffic comes from,” Quittner interjected. At Flipboard, “people are starting in apps,” he said. “They’re not starting in websites.”

3. Stories that People Can Feel Good About Sharing

As for why people share some stories with their friends and not others, people favor the stories that give them a positive image — a sort of “intellectual jewelry,” said Carr.

Added Quittner, “Facebook and Twitter are about me; email is about you.”

As for search, Smith said “it’s great if you’re looking for porn, for diet pills…” And for “general information,” he conceded when the other panelists chimed in, but “[porn and diet pills] are the two main categories.”

4. Numbered Lists and Animals

No one knows why they work so well, or why certain numbers are more appealing than others, but stories with odd-numbered headlines like “31 animals who have disappointed us” are right up there with good, long-form writing in terms of sharability, said Smith.

5. Reddit

“Reddit guards its community and prevents publishers from gaming it,” said Smith, “unlike Digg, which became a bunch of boring links to news articles.” The link-sharing site is especially effective during the “Ask Me Anything” interviews between public figures and their fans.

What’s Not Working

1. Slideshows

“Slideshows are terrible,” said Smith. “Nobody likes them.” The slideshows serve only to deliver ads between slides that no one has the patience to click through.

When Quittner thinks of great ads, he remembers the magazine ads from Wired in the mid-nineties: “The ads proved I wasn’t reading science fiction,” he said. “There was something real there.”

2. Display Ads

“Internet advertising really feels like laziest version of advertising,” said Malda. “There’s only so much money to make a clever ad.”

In the future, the panelists hoped that advertisers would work with the content rather rather than distracting the readers with irrelevant messages and jarring images. Said Smith, “it’s nice for journalists to not have teeth whitening next to a story.”

But it seems like people have learned to tune out the banner ads, anyway.

2. Facebook Likes

Carr questioned whether Facebook likes would lose their meaning over time, as did the meaning of the word “friend.”

A like is sort of a “yes vote,” said Smith, but it works better for some content than others, most often a political story with a clear moral. President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, for example, elicited a lot of likes on BuzzFeed. Why some stories are liked, but not shared, and vice versa, he said, is a “mystery to everyone.”

UPDATE: Two quotations incorrectly attributed to Josh Quittner have been updated. “It’s great if you’re looking for porn, for diet pills…,” as well as “slideshows are terrible,” were the words of Ben Smith.

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