What makes something go viral? It's a common question these days. And in the quest for answers, brands would be remiss to neglect an entity like BuzzFeed, a platform described as a new kind of media company for the social world.
Jon Steinberg, BuzzFeed's president, notes that visitors to BuzzFeed simultaneously engage with an endless mashup of high- and low-brow content, from news to wacky animal photo montages. All categories of content are welcome, Steinberg says, so long as they meet BuzzFeed's simple threshold -- is it shareable?
According to Steinberg, brands that work with BuzzFeed need to consider three things when figuring out how to create content worth sharing.
- Does the content have a voice or point of view?
- Is it a content gift?
- What does the content do for the brand?
While the last question might seem obvious to anyone who works in advertising, the first two questions are a big part of what makes BuzzFeed such a unique play for marketers. Brands can't buy banners ads, although they can purchase placement for their post in a given vertical. But there's a catch -- the content has to be good. If it is good, people will share it. If it's a dud, BuzzFeed has an algorithm in place to swap it out for something better.
With nearly 27 million unique visitors a month (according to Google Analytics in April), BuzzFeed is clearly a careful steward of its content ecosystem. It also tends to be way ahead of the viral curve. As any BuzzFeed user can tell you, what you see on BuzzFeed today will likely be on Facebook tomorrow. Naturally, that's a huge draw for brands looking to make a social media splash. But engaging with social media takes more than just showing up. So to help marketers reimagine themselves as social publishers, we're showcasing five brands that have figured out how to buzz on BuzzFeed.
If there was a badge for BuzzFeed All-Star, Virgin Mobile would certainly be in the running. Like all brands on BuzzFeed, Virgin Mobile uses a light touch. The brand's channel hub uses a custom skin and links to Virgin Mobile's Facebook and Twitter accounts. But the content doesn't have that advertorial stink.
When Virgin Group head honcho Sir Richard Branson had his face cast in a ice cube, the brand's BuzzFeed team used the news as a starting point for a silly list -- "12 Business Tycoons We Would Like To Suck On." The list, which is about as self-referential as Virgin Mobile's content gets on BuzzFeed, begins with Branson but quickly transitions to business personalities who aren't associated with the brand. However, the inclusions of Pete Cashmore (Mashable) and Sharen Jester Turney (Victoria's Secret) isn't accidental. All of the business icons on the list share a thematic connection to Virgin Mobile's fun, young, and sexy brand insofar as they are fun, young, and sexy.
But for the most part, while the content from Virgin Mobile has a thematic connection to the brand, it could certainly be in the running for an article on just about any of the web's most popular lifestyle sites. One of Virgin Mobile's best lists is "11 Things No One Wants To See You Instagram." It's content that is simultaneously hip and irreverent. And the setup doesn't even mention the brand:
"After the announcement of Instagram for Android phones, we thought a helpful reminder was needed to keep your friends, well, friends."
That's it. Short, simple, and not a trace of branded messaging.
It's definitely a soft sell from a branding perspective. But it is effective. Click here to see Virgin Mobile's BuzzFeed dashboard to get an idea of just how viral this kind of content can be.
While creating content comes naturally to brands that are intrinsically fun or entertaining, the truth is that any brand with a strong sense of its own values is capable of making content worth sharing. Building off of the tagline "What works," GE partnered with Good/Corps to create content that "shifts America's focus from what isn't working to what is."
In an elegant, thought-provoking photo essay, GE put a spotlight on the "10 Reasons Why New York City Works." The list includes things like the Subway, the water, the taxicabs, and even the coffee. But while GE surely plays a role in -- forgive me -- bringing some of these good things to life, the list doesn't mention GE at all. Instead, the connection is left for the reader to make. In other words, it's a pure content play. But for those users paying extra close attention, there is one small call to action in the setup of the article.
"New York City! The greatest city in the world, they say. But has anyone really figured out why? There are many moving parts that keep NYC at the top, and we have a good idea of what makes New York City work. What do you think works? Head over to Celebrate What Works and you could win $500."
"The Pitch" (AMC)
If you're the sort of person who would watch a YouTube video of one of Coke's most iconic television ads, then you're probably the sort of person who would click on -- and possibly share -- a list of "The 15 Most Memorable Ad Jingles Of All-Time." But that BuzzFeed list, which includes jingles from Mentos, 7-Up, and Big Red, isn't the work of an established brand. In fact, it is content from a brand most of the readers probably didn't know about when they opened the list because the brand was AMC's newest show, "The Pitch."
The three lists AMC used to promote its new reality show about working in advertising blur the line between content and marketing. Take "The Absolute Best/Worst Foreign Ads Ever," for example. That list is, in a sense, ad criticism. Fundamentally, "The Pitch" is ad criticism as well, but filtered through the familiar format of a competition reality show. Of course, the comments from users are also content that is very much on brand as well. So from television show to BuzzFeed content to comments, there is a media ecosystem without the traditional lines of demarcation. Or, put simply, this type of content allows the brand to start a conversation about a topic that is the perfect context for its new show.
There's no perfect number for a list. This article, for instance, has five items. And I could probably bore you to death about why the 5-10 range is a sweet spot for iMedia. But on BuzzFeed, there's a lot more latitude with numbers. Some lists stretch toward absurdity, while others fall back on old standbys like 10. Then there's Geico. A lot of the content on the insurance company's channel takes the form of a list. But some of the best stuff checks in at 20 or 21.
So what gives? Well, lists that clock in with about 20 items might very well be a sweet spot for Geico (each brand is going to be different). But if you look at the longer lists like "20 Animals That Do Not Approve" and "The 21 Most Disgusted Celebrity GIFs," you see two things happening.
First, a list smaller than 10 for those two topics may have come off as flippant or sloppy. Geico's brand is known for its humorous, sometimes sarcastic, voice. But no brand wants to be known for phoning it in. So one of the things that makes this style of content work for Geico is that the number is just big enough to feel authoritative. It may not be the definitive list, but clearly some thought and work went into it.
Second, the lists aren't too long. Could Geico have gotten away with 25? Sure. 30? Probably. 50? Well, at that point, the brand would probably be pushing it. There's no hard line, but at a certain point, a long list just starts to feel greedy. After all, the list itself is a content gift. It's easy-to-eat, fun-to-consume content. But if the brand goes overboard, it runs the risk of becoming a time-hog.
These long(ish) Geico lists feel just right because you can consume them relatively quickly, and arguably, you're happier when you're done than when you began. And because Geico didn't overstay its welcome, the super-relevant commercial at the end doesn't feel like an ad; it's just the final part of a great list.
One of the exciting things about brands becoming publishers is that marketers can engage on a wider range of fronts. A TV spot or a banner ad is pretty limited, so you stick to core values and a single message. Producing your own content allows you a lot more latitude without a huge increase in price.
On BuzzFeed, Toyota Prius has managed to spread its wings and take risks. The brand knows that if the content doesn't work, it just won't be shared. The result is a Toyota channel where the silly works side-by-side with content that is genuinely informative.
Take "The Best And Worst US Cities For Commuting," for example. That list, or at least the headline, is something you could easily see in Yahoo's auto channel. In fact, I think I see a list or slideshow like that every month. It's pretty straightforward content -- although to Toyota's credit, the information is presented in an engaging and incredibly digestible infographic format.
But while Toyota uses BuzzFeed to play along in an established content genre, it also has the opportunity to engage with material that's a little more zany and a little less on the nose. Take, for example, "The 20 Worst Urban Parking Jobs." The list is related to cars, of course, but it's really about people being ridiculous. And content like that gives Toyota the opportunity to own a small piece of a larger ongoing conversation that has come to define internet culture.
What's great about this diversity of content, from Toyota's perspective, is that it gives the brand a real opportunity to reach a broad audience with super-targeted messages. The person who clicks on a list about commuting in U.S. cities might not be the same person who is interested in silly pictures of awful parking jobs. But as a publisher, Toyota has the ability to speak directly to both audiences without an intermediary.
The path to shareable content
Sharing doesn't necessarily have the same meaning at BuzzFeed that it does elsewhere. For one thing, BuzzFeed president Steinberg insists the company really doesn't believe in the power influencers.
"It's really about getting a lot of small groups to share a little," he says.
But there's no secret sauce to encourage sharing. In part, understanding social is still very much a work in progress. And even brands that really know their stuff are still going to fail most of the time, Steinberg says.
"Ultimately, the more content a brand creates or curates, the better their chances of achieving earned media," Steinberg says. "And while a lot of what we do is still campaign-based, there's certainly an advantage for brands that are able to make an ongoing, always-on connection.
"Ads don't work for us," Steinberg adds. "Brands need to share content that people would want to engage with. And from a site-wide perspective, we're very focused on making sure that only quality content rises to the surface. Otherwise, we'd end up poisoning the well."
Notably, one phrase that hasn't come up in this article is branded content. While branded content certainly has its place in today's marketing, the five brands mentioned in this article are creating or curating content -- just content. Hopefully, it's good content. But it hardly seems accidental that these fives brands struck a chord on BuzzFeed by forgoing the usual ad-heavy marketing speak. Instead, they envisioned themselves as publishers, emphasized quality, and put themselves out there. The result was content that got the attention of users, who in turn spent a little quality time with the brand.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
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