BuzzFeed’s Luke Lewis: our news coverage subsidises the cute cats

BuzzFeed's GIF Feed

This is the second part of our interview with the editor of BuzzFeed UK, Luke Lewis. In our last interview with Luke, he talked about content and social media strategy, and this time we asked him about BuzzFeed’s funding models, and its plans for the future.

BuzzFeed's GIF FeedYou’ve briefly mentioned the funding model. Could you explain a bit more about how it works?

“We don’t run any display advertising – the only advertising we do is sponsored posts. So the sponsored posts look, in terms of the feel and the structure, very similar to editorial posts. They’re often in a list, they’re very image-heavy and they’re quite applicable and fun, hopefully, in the same way the editorial posts are. But it’s very clear which is which. There’s never any confusion.

“If you look on the homepage, a commercial post will have a different colour background, and it has the name of the brand very clearly, very prominently labelled. So there’s quite a clear divide between editorial and commercial. That’s what we sell.

“Also, the other way we make money is by selling pre-roll advertising on YouTube videos – that’s increasingly a big part of what we do. And there are big one-off things like, for example, Google Plus did a partnership with us, where we built ‘GIF Feed’ which was like BuzzFeed with nothing but GIFs, so it was like a wall of GIFs. So that wasn’t a sponsored post, it was more like a partnership. ‘Sponsored content’, I suppose.”

How have people responded to the advertising – has that taken off?

“Yeah, some of those have been really popular. In the US, they did a couple of really ambitious things. There was a nostalgia machine where you could go to the homepage of BuzzFeed and you could set the timer to the 1970s, and everything you saw on the page would be nostalgic content related to the 1970s. There’s been a few big one-off things like that that have been great, because they’re advertising but they’re also content that users really love as well.”

Do you think that’s the model that BuzzFeed is sort of emulating – that of softer content funding the more serious stuff – do you think that that’s the future?

“It’s true in a sense but in another sense it’s kind of the other way round. You could have a site that aspires to have fun, humorous content with loads of cute animals, and you could get a hundred million users that way. But if there’s nothing BUT that stuff, advertisers wouldn’t really be interested. There’s plenty of sites on the web that have tens of millions of users and don’t really make that much money because advertisers don’t want to be in that environment.

“So it’s only by having more serious content on BuzzFeed that we attract advertisers. So in that sense, it’s like the news coverage subsidises the cute cats. We couldn’t do one without the other.”

Luke Lewis, Editor of BuzzFeed UKI heard there’s an interesting story about how you joined BuzzFeed – you applied for a US position with an explanation of what a UK BuzzFeed would look like. Is that true?

“Yeah. I approached them – I’m not saying that they hadn’t considered launching in the UK… I think I just saved them a job. I pitched it to them and said if you were going to launch in the UK a) it’d be good and people would love it, and b) I could do that for you. So, I think it just meant that they didn’t have to bother seeking out any candidates, and I guess they thought I was alright.”

Surely some of the content crosses over – things about US actors, for example, would still be known over here… So why is it necessary to have a different team?

“Well you have to create articles that are specific to the reader. There is a lot of stuff that BuzzFeed does that is universal – famously, the cute animal stuff. That’s great because anyone around the world can get a kick out of that. But other things, especially when it comes to humour, can be quite country-specific, and you need to get the tone right.

“It’s no secret that British people tend to be a bit more cynical than Americans, so for that reason, self-deprecating humour is key to what we do, but probably not such a big deal in the US. Nostalgia is really big in the US, but it doesn’t work quite so well here, we’ve found. I’d say that a good deal of BuzzFeed’s content does translate well from the US to the UK, but not all of it. So you do need a team here that’s steeped in Britishness and can speak with a distinct British voice.”

Are there any others aside from UK and US offices?

“They’ve just opened up an office in Sydney and there’s three of them there. We publish in Portuguese for the Brazilian market, and we also publish in French, but there are no offices in those places…yet. So that’s possibly the next stage; I don’t really know yet.

“But thinking internationally is pretty key to BuzzFeed’s strategy in 2014. It’s definitely about seeing how many users we can get all around the world.”

Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed UK's Political EditorThe US BuzzFeed team have started doing more investigative stuff and serious stories – is that the kind of thing that your team will start doing?

“Quite possibly. We’re interested to see how it goes. We’ve just moved into that world – we hired a breaking news reporter and a political editor and a media editor and we are starting to make that sort of shift towards more serious coverage. Really, we’ll just see how it goes.

“In the US they did that and it works phenomenally well, so they’ve kind of built it up. And now they’re at this point where they’ve hired this guy, Mark Schoofs, who is a Pulitzer Prize Winner, so that’s really exciting. But I wouldn’t want to get ahead of ourselves; we’ll see how it goes.”

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