Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb on the art of social publishing, plans for Asia, and why cute animals deserve respect

Scott LambScott Lamb is the international VP of six year-old social news and entertainment website Buzzfeed.

Lamb gave a presentation at the Festival of Media Asia last week, then talked to Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks about his plans for Asia, being taken seriously as a news source and why animals are not silly.

In his presentation, Lamb talked about the art and science of social publishing, and what it means for brands.

There is no way of knowing what sort of content will go viral, he said. “You just have to do lots of experiments, and measure how it’s being read by looking at its social ranking. For any content, you have to think about how likely a person is to share it.”

Mobile is increasingly the medium of choice for sharing BuzzFeed content. “If your content doesn’t work on a mobile device, you’re losing half your audience,” he said; 50 per cent of BuzzFeed’s traffic comes through mobile devices. “And you need to hope that your readers will also be your publishers.”

BuzzFeed cute animalsThough BuzzFeed now wants to be known for serious journalism, the site grew its reputation off the back of quirky cat-related stories. “Cute animals deserve respect,” Lamb said. “Animals are not silly at all. They are one of the primary ways we to relate to each other, and they’re a great way to communicate with one another. If you’re having a rough day, a story about animals is more nuanced and too important to be dismissed as cat list.”

In conversation with Mumbrella, Lamb was first asked about the site’s plans for Asia…

BuzzFeed launched in Japan and India recently. Why those markets first?

For very different reasons. Japan has an incredibly connected internet culture, and people spend a long time on mobile devices. It also has a big and robust ad market. The tech, culture and business climates all make sense.

India [the third biggest market for Buzzfeed after UK and the US] is very robust market opportunity in a number of ways – relatively high internet consumption and an appetite for reading. There is lots of interesting news – such as the elections this year and women’s rights issues – that we want to cover.

After Japan and India, where next in Asia?

We’re curious about Singapore next, as it’s a natural starting point for Southeast Asia. I’m going to Hong Kong later in the Spring [for a World Association of Newspapers conference], so will be looking at the market there. Another option is the Philippines too, which is an intensely social market and where English is widely spoken.

In Asia, there are 960m people using social networks – the largest number of anywhere in the world, and growing quickly.

Which of those markets is most likely to be next?

Realistically, it will be Singapore, as it’s the place I have some working knowledge of. It also has a very friendly business climate.

What about the potential barriers to entry, such as the curbs Singapore’s media regulator now places on high-traffic websites that report on Singapore-related stories?

That certainly could be a barrier. We’re not a pure platform like twitter or Facebook, and we need the right to write what we want, including articles that are critical of governments. We don’t want our business presence to hamper our approach to news reporting.

Does BuzzFeed have ambitions to be taken seriously as a news course?

Absolutely. In the US, on NBC for instance, they have nightly news programming, but they also show sitcoms. Buzzfeed’s model is very similar. Under one umbrella we offer silly nuggets, but also investigative news – we have just launched an investigative journalism unit, and have been hiring foreign correspondents. People are very used to consuming media through Facebook and Twitter, and have always seen serious and silly next to each other. That said, we do have a perception issue, and that is certainly something we have to push against.

Is there a formula for creating a headline that is irresistibly click-able?

An article on Upworthy

An article on Upworthy

Not exactly. And we don’t do clickbait. We’re not in the business of just getting people to click headlines – the “curiousty gap” headline – which is popular with sites like Upworthy. It’s super effective, but it’s a double-edged sword. If a headline says to a reader that if they click through the article will blow their mind, it better achieve this otherwise you will disappoint the reader, and they’ll be less likely to come back.

Our headlines are very informative. And we want to make content that is surprising and feels unique. People will share content as a way of expressing themselves. I’m not saying that headlines aren’t important, but they’re just the first step in a process.

What was the inspiration behind BuzzFeed?

We had no idea that it would be a success. Our approach was very experimental, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. In one way we got lucky. We were thinking about the sort of content people share just when powerful social networks like Facebook were emerging. I joined in 2008, when BuzzFeed was nominated for Best New Blog alongside a little site called Twitter.

What is the most shared story ever on BuzzFeed?

It was a piece on Which state should you actually belong in? Most of our best-read content has a universal element [rather than relevance to one country] but still, we got crazy numbers for that piece – 40 million views, most from sharing on Facebook.

Which social networks are the most effective for sharing BuzzFeed content?

Facebook is the most important network for us. Pinterest is the second largest – we’ve just spent about a year thinking about tailoring our content for Pinterest, as its users are constantly looking for things to share. Our DIY editor spent lot of time on Pinterest looking at why and how content is share. It’s been incredibly effective.

While growth has been meteoric in the early stages, are you now starting to see it plateau?

Historically, BuzzFeed has grown solidly year in and year out. Only more recently, in the last year, have we seen the growth curve tilt upwards in a way that even we were surprised by.

We are waiting to see the curve level off, but it hasn’t happened yet. More and more people are spending more and more time online, and in some form of social network, so those numbers keep increasing.

We’ve just started going international [The site, which already has offices in Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, London, Sydney, Sao Paulo and Paris, also plans to move into Berlin, Tokyo, Mumbai and Mexico City]. We don’t see native digital publications creating content for social world in these new markets, so to me, there is a massive opportunity there.

What advice can you give advertisers on creating content that will get shared?

Final slide from BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO Jonah Peretti at SXSW

The final slide from BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO Jonah Peretti at SXSW in 2013

It requires a high level of internal buy-in, and a company that has something genuinely interesting to say. When BuzzFeed works with publishers and brands, they have got used to telling stories in a particular way. The traditional advertising method of using a tag line to get a conversation to happen is less about storytelling.

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