Jonah Peretti on Social: ‘Maximize Learning, Not Traffic’

Jonah Peretti shared BuzzFeed's approach to social sharing at Social Media Week NYC.

Social Media Week in NYC kicked off officially yesterday, as attendees braved the flurries (we’re used to it by now!) to head to the Highline Stages. Delivering yesterday’s keynote was Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed, who talked to Social Media Week CEO Toby Daniels. (Check out Mediabistro’s latest interview with Daniels in So What Do You Do?) Peretti had some insights for people who are looking to crack the viral code, BuzzFeed style. One important takeaway? “You can over-optimize [for social],” said Peretti. “When you reach people who don’t want to see the content… it can have a negative effect.”

Social media marketers often focus on vanity metrics like the number of likes or retweets. But we already know that just because people are retweeting your content doesn’t mean they’re reading it. “Ideally it’s not [about] reaching so many people, it’s [about] reaching the right people,” said Peretti. If the content is about pop culture, more shares is a good thing. But the goal of niche content is not to reach as many people as possible. “If you’re a political reporter and you’re focused on getting scoops, you can’t really optimize getting a scoop. There are certain people who want to know that Rand Paul plagiarized some speeches… It’s not a matter of ‘how do you tweet it,'” he explained.

Peretti also addressed the issue of being reliant on a social platform like Facebook for traffic. Back in December, a host of viral publishers saw large declines in traffic due to some changes in the social network’s algorithm. “I think that Facebook is a company that has a very long-term focus, and they’re a company that wants to make a great experience for users,” said Peretti. While he thinks that this long-term focus makes BuzzFeed aligned with Facebook, “to me the big thing [is] not optimizing for Facebook, but optimizing for people.”

Much of BuzzFeed’s content also gets significant traffic from ‘dark social‘ – email, messaging apps, etc. “We tend to see on posts that get a lot of referrals from Facebook and Twitter, we tend to see a lot of [dark sharing] as well,” said Peretti.

He also touched on the importance of data. While the team initially thought that video and serious, longform content would not do well on mobile, the data proved them wrong: “People are often watching videos or reading longform pieces on their mobile devices.” However, he cautioned against an overreliance on data. For Peretti, the best way to make decisions in a company is “having smart, creative humans driving decisions and having them being informed by the data.”

The speakers wrapped on SMW’s theme, “the future of now.” “People are definitely feeling as though they are losing a little bit of control… As a result people are more anxious,” said Daniels about our always-on, always-connected lifestyle.

“I tend to be an optimist. I think when you see negative aspects of technology, often you see an antibody,” said Peretti. “People root for the underdog and are more prosocial [on the Internet]… I’m pretty excited about the trend towards social and mobile in the tech world.”

image courtesy of @JesseEchev