Q&A: BuzzFeed’s CEO Says It Would Be ‘Much Bigger’ If ComScore Tracked Its Mobile Stats

Jonah Peretti on video, branded content and TV deals

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Ten years ago, BuzzFeed pioneered viral news and branded content with popular listicles and quizzes. Now, it's going all-in on video, using social apps like Facebook and Snapchat as prime real estate for its content.

Adweek talked to BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti about the move from text to video, how the company measures its social footprint and the massive success of food brand Tasty, which reaches 500 million people a month and generated 1.8 billion views in September, per video company Tubular Labs.

Adweek: When did you realize that BuzzFeed needed to go into video?

Jonah Peretti: I don't know that I realized it until kind of late. We made the decision to buy Ze Frank's company almost four years ago, and he established BuzzFeed video.

I remember telling Ze when he first joined, 'BuzzFeed is really a website, and we weren't doing any video at the time, so I don't know how much I'll see you on the West Coast.'

He's such a great entrepreneur and was able to build something really huge that's now about half of our revenue. I ended up moving out to L.A. partly because our video business got big and partly because my wife couldn't take the [New York] winters.

I would say I was a little skeptical, and my main skepticism was that I didn't see people consuming lots of video on mobile. It felt like people didn't have headphones, it loads slowly, it didn't seem like it was the natural thing for mobile—and I was really wrong about that.

We saw it first with our YouTube growth, and about half of that was mobile, and then the majority of Tasty being mobile and this explosion of audio-optional video that lives within the news feed.

In the last two years, I really became a full believer in what video was going to be able to do for BuzzFeed. Fortunately Ze saw that earlier than me.

In September, BuzzFeed had 72.8 million unique visitors, down from 83.4 million in March, according to comScore. Where is that traffic being taken from?

If you look at 18- to 34-year-olds, which is the real core audience, we're reaching more of them than really any publisher, and we're reaching something like half of them in the United States. One reason that we haven't grown as quickly is that we've really reached most of the core audience that we're focused on.

And then the other piece is that we have taken this distributed approach. Tasty by itself reaches more people than BuzzFeed's website does every month. The reason it's able to do that is partly because it reaches an even broader demographic.

If comScore could fully measure our distributed content, we would be much, much bigger. We've already really reached this massive audience of 18- to 34-year-olds where we're bigger than CNN, The New York Times or The Washington Post in that demographic. We've achieved the scale and now a lot of the focus is on deepening our connections with the audience.

So, what's missing from your measurement is being able to plug into the platforms themselves?

Yeah. I would say the majority of our content views now are mobile video, and comScore doesn't measure any of it.

When you dig in and look at the demographics of [our comScore numbers], it's pretty impressive that it's just measuring our website. We've become a business that is much more than just a website. 

BuzzFeed was one of the first publishers to embrace branded content. How sustainable is that going to be as BuzzFeed's main form of revenue going forward?

Branded content is very powerful with a distributed model because it can live on lots of different platforms, and it can provide a lot of value for brands.

So I think branded content or whatever you want to call it is pretty essential for mobile and social advertising. If you're a big brand, you're going to want to find ways to make entertaining, engaging advertising that fits naturally on all the different platforms that matter.

It might be a little different on Snapchat. It might be a short vertical video between content on the Discover Channel. On YouTube, it might be preroll or a full branded video. It varies by platform, but I think the power of making branded content is that it's custom. It's a little more work to make, but you get value from that because it fits in.

To do that, we have to learn a lot from our audience. We collect a lot of data; we have that process of testing, learning and experimenting. That should allow us to be the best at making news content, entertainment content and advertising content.

Tasty is a bit unique in its structure because producers work more closely with the advertising team than other departments. Is that something you could see applying to other BuzzFeed departments?

I think that for BuzzFeed News it makes sense to have a separation between the business team and the editorial team just because if a reporter is covering a product or a company, they don't want to have knowledge or work directly with someone who's on the business side taking advertisements or doing branded campaigns with that client. Just like any traditional news organization, that separation is pretty important.

When it comes to entertainment and lifestyle content, I think that it's possible to have more collaborations if things are properly disclosed and everyone knows, for example, there is a product placement. If it's organic [or] in some cases even adds to the content there's not the same kind of conflict that you have with news.

In August, BuzzFeed divided BuzzFeed News from BuzzFeed Entertainment Group. What does that mean from a video perspective?

The main reason we did that is so news can go after the mission of being the leading news organization for a new generation of news consumers. And entertainment can go after being a leading entertainment company on digital platforms. To do that, they need to be fairly self-sufficient.

If news wants to do something with video, they should have their own video team so they can do video news. If there's entertainment on BuzzFeed's site in the form of lists or quizzes, they should be colleagues with the people who are making entertainment video.

Before there was no video resources on BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News didn't have any video, it didn't have a video team so they would have to go and ask the video people, 'Hey, can you give me some resources to do video news?' And the video people are more into entertainment because that was most of what they were doing.  So, it's just got everyone aligned with news and entertainment.

Do you still think of BuzzFeed as a lab for news and content like it was 10 years ago?

We still have the DNA of a lab where we're doing a lot of experimentation and a lot of testing of new ideas.

Tasty is a year old, so that kind of grew out of that lab-type experiment. We were trying food hacks and little food videos shot with iPhones that then became something big and a real brand and a real business. I hope and think we're going to have more things like that where we experiment and crack new things.

The difference is that we also have some more developed businesses that have a real brand and a real responsibility, and so we need to have the lab but also have real businesses too and have them work together.

NBCUniversal recently reportedly doubled its investment in BuzzFeed from $200 million to $400 million. How do you think about BuzzFeed playing with things like linear media and traditional TV?

My general view of it is that the place where we have real expertise and a real unique approach is digital. We really thrive when we can connect with the audience if we can all learn from their behavior and we can make better things for them based on that interaction and that back and forth. You don't really get that in traditional television or film.

What are BuzzFeed's challenges in going from digital to traditional? What do the traditional companies get that you emulate and want to learn more about?

The biggest thing is that they built huge companies over many decades.

I feel like we're learning to be big and they're learning to be more digital. So I think in the long run the digital advantages are really huge, but it's going to take us another 10 to 20 years to really build the kind of business we want to create for the long term.

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.