Why BuzzFeed Is Hosting Real-Life Events to Promote Its Digital Shows

Chasing the $72B spent on ad-supported TV

Worth It's Steven Lim, Andrew Ilnyckyj and Adam Bianchi at the Season 3 premiere party. Getty Images for BuzzFeed
Headshot of Sami Main

BuzzFeed’s food series Worth It recently launched its third season, which “airs” on YouTube, but for the first time, the show had a premiere party comparable to those that prestige television networks throw. This also kicked off a three-week event across the country where 150 restaurants featured on Worth It, or that want to be featured, used billboards, influencers and other marketing techniques to draw crowds.

For fans of another series primarily on YouTube, Unsolved, BuzzFeed is debuting an interactive haunted “house” in mid-October in the West Village; the interactive, multi-room activation will tie themes from new Unsolved episodes into real-life experiences designed through the lens of social media.

Why is BuzzFeed, which exists entirely online, executing more IRL marketing?

“This represents a natural progression for us, to eventually recreate the experience fans know from online into real life,” explained Laura Henderson, svp of marketing for BuzzFeed. “We’re treating the businesses we’ve built like brands.”

By treating these shows like individual brands, BuzzFeed hopes advertisers will as well.

At the core of the entire company is the notion of ideation. BuzzFeed is constantly looking at data in order to inform future content creation decisions. To generate new ideas, the publisher analyzes view counts, location, audience data and how viewers interact and engage with content (likes, comments, shares) to judge how they feel about it.

"BuzzFeed is like a Bible to them."
Teresa Larsen, owner of Blinkies Donuts on millennials' relationship to BuzzFeed

“Parents have told us watching Worth It is something they get to do with their kids,” said Henderson. “Pilgrimages to these restaurants have been happening already, so we listened to all of that feedback to create a bigger experience for them.”

She compared Worth It to a modern day Zagat guide for the millennial generation.

During an episode of Worth It, the hosts taste three individual dishes, each at a different price point and at different restaurants, to decide which dish was the most “worth it” for the price.  For Season 3, the show traveled to other countries, expanding Worth It’s global reach to match its global audience.

Hosting the show on YouTube, and not any food-centric TV networks, allows BuzzFeed to connect with more fans because it’s readily available to everyone, even those who don’t have a cable subscription.

“You can stream Worth It anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, without waiting for your DVR to catch up,” said Teresa Larsen, owner of a donut shop featured on Worth It. “Lots of young faces came out after we were featured in their video. BuzzFeed is like a Bible to them.”

As BuzzFeed built up a massive online audience for the shows, Henderson decided now was the time to bring the brands to life.

“For advertisers, it’s exciting for them to associate with brands in a meaningful way,” she said, “and can work with us in the future in a more 360-degree way than we’ve offered in the past.”

Taking this show to this form of marketing is in no way “traditional,” said Henderson, in the sense of the limited or restrictive history of the term.

“We listen and expand constantly, so we don’t have to be as precious as traditional marketers,” she said. “We stay fluid and flexible which leaves us more open to new opportunities.”

BuzzFeed Motion Pictures’ head of development Matthew Henick leads his teams to create and conceptualize ideas both for internal and external production.

A post shared by Steven Lim (@stevenkwlim) on

Without having to be entirely dependent on social platforms and their algorithms, Henick’s team creates content for massive scale.

“We’ve figured out the ideal content for each platform which allows for that scale,” said Henick. “Our collection of Facebook pages or YouTube accounts gives us so much information about what content people are consuming, so we can create content that will populate these platforms.”

For Henick, he’s aware that viewers don’t just watch video on one specific device anymore. But he’s also aware that brands are feeling left out of the Netflix-Amazon-HBO equation.

“We’re chasing the part of the $72 billion spent on ad-supported television that hasn’t made its way to the internet yet,” he said.

Henick’s team uses data, and their own forward-thinking creativity, to come up with new series they hope will be hits. They find a core audience, while ensuring the content is shareable, and find ways to take cues from traditional media without outright copying it.

“Marketing is value-signaling across the board,” he said. “If you take out a billboard, that’s an expense that indicates this is something that demands your attention. It signifies both an emotional and monetary investment, which we hope advertisers will also make with us.”

As BuzzFeed sees platforms like Facebook and YouTube finally start to appreciate long-form content, they’re able to produce the internet’s version of traditional media: episodic content plus real world experiences for people to take part in. And now that Nielsen and other data measurement tools are starting to compare digital views alongside linear views, BuzzFeed can “start talking to partners in stories that they understand.”

@samimain sami.main@adweek.com Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.