Buzzfeed’s amazing growth story has now reached Asia, with the internet media company launching its operations in India this year. Even as journalism and content creation have been undergoing a paradigm shift with the advent of the social web, Buzzfeed has been working to integrate serious, long-form journalism with its penchant for funny and entertaining posts. Accompanied by India editor Rega Jha, Scott Lamb, VP (International) of Buzzfeed spoke to us on internet content, social media and why he feels display advertising is a broken model. Excerpts.
India is the first country in Asia where you have set up operations. Why choose India?
Scott Lamb: We already had Rega Jha (Buzzfeed India editor) working for us for a long time, which was very fortunate for us. Beyond this, if you want to build a media company with distribution channels of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and others, then India is a brilliant country. Social media usage here is high. We knew that the Buzzfeed model could work here because the infrastructure of the social web existed here already. Additionally, we do not approach our expansion from a business school/ MBA sort of philosophy where we crunch numbers and see where we can get the most business. We look at where we can do the most interesting stories; work that will be interesting to people in those countries as well as globally. We are building a global media company and not individual silos. Looking at the global cultural capitals, Mumbai is definitely close to the top of list.
What were the challenges in creating uniquely Indian content on Buzzfeed?
Rega Jha: One of the unique challenges and joys is that internet in India is so permeable and so open. There is a strong internet culture in the country. At the same time, in terms of pop culture, we had a lot of imports while growing up like Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and others. That still stands true today too when it comes to American or British pop culture. We see even more success if we tweak the content from an Indian perspective. A few weeks ago we had done a post on how successful Friends would have been if it were based in India, which became really popular because it taps into both sensibilities. So we will keep trying to hit that sweet spot. Simultaneously, the mantra that you are given while creating content in India is Bollywood, Cricket and Politics since these are the most viral concepts and this is true to an extent. But at the same time, sticking to that mantra too closely does a lot of disservice to other topics and we want to be clued into those, whether it is LGBT rights, sexual harassment, etc. We want to be at the forefront of those conversations as well.
Buzzfeed is known for its light-hearted content but you have been trying to show that you are also capable of serious journalism. How is this transition progressing?
Scott Lamb: In the US, the transition has already taken place. If you see cable news, you will have Buzzfeed editors all the time talking about politics and other topics all the times. In the US we are taken very seriously as a news organisation. When we ventured into news two years ago, there was scepticism but we hired Ben Smith, our editor-in-chief, who had the right sensibility, in terms of being a great journalist but also believing strongly in the power of the web. We were at first worried that even our readers would not react well. For example, the first vertical that we launched was politics, but we found that no one cared. If people were able to follow the 2012 elections on Buzzfeed they were happy, because it meant they had to go to one less website to get that information.
I think in the international sphere we are still known for the light-hearted stuff, which is because we have only recently started with our international posts. In India, down the road we definitely want to do serious news coverage and incorporate all the features that we see in the US. But initially we want to focus on growing the audience and understand the dynamics of the social web. And we think the best way to do that is to focus on the light-hearted content.
The trick, many digital content creators believe, is to have catchy headlines even at the risk of them being misleading. Does it necessarily have to be this way?
Scott Lamb: I think it is a total mistake to think that internet content can only work if there are misleading headlines. We have a very strong ‘No click bait’ strategy on Buzzfeed for the simple reason that is a really bad long-term strategy. If people are going to consistently click on your article and find something other than what they were expecting, they are going to start hating your website. Actually, when you look at Buzzfeed headlines, they are almost childishly descriptive and you know exactly what you are getting into. We do not create these headlines for click bait, but because we do not want to trick the reader.
News or content organisations that follow this strategy will not do so for long. For example, Upworthy was famous for descriptions like “You won’t believe what happened next.” but even they have had a change of heart and gone from click bait headlines to giving readers more information.
What would be your advice to content creators in India?
Scott Lamb: I think the most important thing I can say is that don’t get distracted with strategy or how many posts a day you should put up on Facebook or the length of a tweet. You have to focus entirely on people and creating things that have a real impact on them; that grab them emotionally, make them laugh or surprise them. This is the only way to succeed in this arena. I think, unfortunately, people get very distracted by all the other noise that goes along with social media. Social media is all about people sharing things. It is very, very basic and most of us understand it much better than we think we do. So, just remembering that and focussing on it will create better results.
How do you work with advertisers and are we going to see that facet of Buzzfeed in India too?
Scott Lamb: In India, right now it is just an editorial operation. In the US we have a separate creative team that works with advertisers to create posts and videos. We have a sales team that goes out to drum up business. We know how to make shareable content and we also have a distribution platform that allows us to do it.
So, when can we expect this model in India?
Scott Lamb: Not immediately. We don’t have a timeline for when that might happen. Because we have not done a lot of international expansion, we do not have rigorous system for how it will work. It will depend on how quickly and how much our team here can increase traction so that we are seen as an Indian media company and not just an imported American one.
Do you see Buzzfeed emerging as a viable alternative to Facebook and Twitter?
Scott Lamb: Absolutely. We already are in the US. What we provide advertisers that Facebook and Twitter don’t is our creative team. Facebook and Twitter are great platforms but they are just platforms. We are obviously nowhere as big platforms as they are, but we do provide the creative side of the equation too.
Buzzfeed does a lot of native advertising. Do you see this changing in the long run?
Scott Lamb: I don’t see that ever changing. Display advertising is a sort of broken model. CTRs are really low; CPMs are very low; it is not a good solution for advertisers or publishers and readers don’t like them. They are flashy and annoying. Rather than adopting that, I see more and more people going in Buzzfeed’s direction and saying let’s create more relevant content.