BuzzFeed’s Strategy to Conquer Video

Social hurdles

These days, all Web publishers want to be social publishers. And nearly all Web publishers want more video since consumers (and advertisers) increasingly crave it. But can the social publishing model of zippy headlines and shareable listicles perfected by BuzzFeed be translated to video?

Of course, videos do go viral (see Style, Gangnam). But unlike a list of images and text, video doesn’t let users consume the content at their own pace.

That presents a challenge when it comes to social distribution, according to Paul Greenberg, the recently departed CEO of CollegeHumor. “You have to press play and spend three minutes watching it,” he said. “It’s got to be really compelling and really has to come from a trusted source. Whether that’s a social network or a friend, the bar is a little bit higher.”

Ze Frank, who’s heading BuzzFeed’s video team, echoed that point. “If you have 20 or 30 things in a list, it’s very easy to skip over the things that aren’t relevant to you,” he said. Video, however, has to be great right from the start, he added.

That’s why many publishers are keeping their clips short, BuzzFeed included. Frank is focusing on videos in the range of 45 seconds to 2:45. “That length of time is probably optimal for sharing, for getting [a] big network effect,” said Frank, an early leader in Web video. “You can construct a viewing experience where you can be fairly guaranteed that people will be there at the end and provide them with the tools to share at that point.” BuzzFeed already generates 50 million views a month, half of which are mobile. And since September when Frank came on board, viewers have streamed 800 years of BuzzFeed video, according to the company.

To continue that momentum BuzzFeed is playing with different formats, including quizzes, mock academic studies and, of course, lists. For that content to be shared, the videos need to exist on a platform that is naturally social, Frank said, which explains why BuzzFeed’s videos are hosted on YouTube (where it has a million subscribers), not an internal player. “If you have videos that can’t be shared … you’re basically chopping your legs off right there,” he said.

To Sarah Baehr, svp, digital director at Carat, YouTube is an obvious home for the site’s videos. “Why wouldn’t you use YouTube? It’s ubiquitous,” she said. “It makes sense from a pure distribution perspective.”

To lure viewers, BuzzFeed’s videos are given the sort of catchy titles the site is known for, like “8 Supposed Facts That Just Ain’t True” and “The Time You Have (In JellyBeans).”

The hope is that video helps BuzzFeed broaden its audience; in fact, the company views it as a completely distinct offering from its hard news and lighter content, according to president Jon Steinberg. “We want to create a range of media products people can choose from,” he said.

Bernard Gershon, a digital media veteran, said that lists are a natural for video, as the form has endured in the media world way before BuzzFeed. “Moses had the 10 Commandments. He didn’t have, ‘Here’s a bunch of rules,’” he said.