Why Buzzfeed’s Business Model is Doomed to Fail
“Chris Hemsworth Werks It In Leather Pants”
“26 Ways You Have Actually Become Your Mom”
“If WWE Superstars Had Tinder”
What do all of these titles have in common? They are recent headlines you can find over at the fountain of overflowing intelligence we all know and love: Buzzfeed.
Okay, yes, that’s sarcasm. There’s nothing intelligent about Buzzfeed, and there’s certainly very little to love, unless you’re a Paris Hilton clone who wants to see Chris Hemsworth “werk” it in leather pants.
Recently, here at MakeUseOf, some of the younger members of the staff started to speculate that Buzzfeed actually serves a useful purpose on the Internet, and that its business model is a good one. I’m here to bestow a few drops of wisdom upon these whippersnappers, and I’d love to hear your opinion as well, at the bottom of this article.
Buzzfeed Uses Deceptive Advertising
Buzzfeed has StartUpDudeBros around the web announcing that Buzzfeed’s business model is the latest and greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet.
So, let’s take a sane step back here and really examine that business model.
First, let’s look at what a few of the Buzzfeed ooglers are crowing about. The most recent, and the most talked about commentary on this topic was the article, “Why BuzzFeed is the Most Important News Organization in the World” by independent blogger Ben Thompson over at Stratechery.
Ben is a well respected blogger in the tech websphere, and I’ve nothing bad to say about the guy. However, it’s important to note that his technology experience only extends so far. In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Ben admitted:
“Still, though, I only began working in tech a few years ago, first as an intern at Apple while at Kellogg business school, then as a product manager with Windows focused on apps, and now with Automattic. Before then I spent six years in Taiwan, first simply teaching English, and later building a computer-based teaching system for use in advanced English schools.”
Why is this important? It’s important because those preaching the Buzzfeed gospel are treating Ben’s article these days as though it’s the very word of God – the last word on Buzzfeed.
Ben’s argument is that the old-school business model of keeping the profit side and the editorial side of journalism separate, has been turned upside down by the Internet itself. According to Ben, Buzzfeed has tossed away this outdated artifact of journalism, and has come up with a brilliant new approach to making money from journalism again.
“What’s especially exciting about BuzzFeed, though, is how it uses that knowledge to make money. The company sells its ability to grok – and shape – what works on social to brands; what they don’t do is sell ads directly. By ads I mean the sort of display ads you see on just about every other publishing site; your typical BuzzFeed page will have links to stories they have created for brands for pay”
Ben even made the false claim in one of his Tweets that Buzzfeed doesn’t directly make money from its editorial efforts.
BuzzFeed is the best at viral content because they don't (directly) make money from it.
— Ben Thompson (@benthompson) February 27, 2015
Which is….completely false.
The reality is that Buzzfeed takes part in one of the most underhanded and deceptive journalistic practices since email spamming first started in the 1990s. That is the practice of publishing sponsored content from an advertising partner under the guise of editorial independence, without making it blatantly obvious to the reader that the author is not writing from a journalistically unbiased perspective. They camouflage the fact that Buzzfeed is in fact directly making money from the post.
Plenty would argue that listing the brand as the sponsor on the main page and on the article page is clear enough. That’s debatable. This is the crux of why Buzzfeed’s business model is doomed to fail, once people catch on to – and get tired of – these tactics.
How Buzzfeed Makes (a Ton of) Money
BuzzFeed’s content is carefully crafted to appeal to users of other social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The goal of the majority of the 400+ new stories published every day is to become viral.
According to Quantcast, the site gets just over 13.5 million unique visitors per day. It is ranked sixth – I repeat, sixth – in terms of traffic by Quantcast. This is behind only Google.com, YouTube.com, Facebook.com, MSN.com, and Yelp.com.
With evidence like that, what could possibly be wrong with the business model? They have enough traffic to put everyone else to shame. They have sponsors scrambling to purchase “sponsored” posts for a piece of the traffic action. So what’s the problem?
The way to reveal this is by looking beyond traffic itself. What is the stated purpose of sites like Buzzfeed and MSN – the two highest ranked “news” sites?
Beth Nichols, writing for The Motley Fool, points out the fatal flaw in Buzzfeed’s business model – the company is trying to create a brand around one mission statement, while partaking in business practices that betray that mission.
“BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti has described the company’s goal as becoming ‘the defining media company for the social age,’ a phrase notably front and center in the press releases of its investors. BuzzFeed’s redefining of how the business of media gets done would seem to be more about leading publishers into more effective ways of monetizing their businesses than it is about content.”
In fact, the Buzzfeed model is entirely about monetizing content, and very little to do with content itself. Aside from recent attempts by the company to start building up its investigative journalism offerings, the bulk of its content remains shallow and empty – poorly researched and often containing stolen content like images.
In one Slate article, one photographer who had his photo stolen by Buzzfeed wrote:
“If you really want to get picky about it, BuzzFeed, which makes money with sponsorships and ads placed next to content, has linked to a Yahoo page that doesn’t show ads rather than the main page that does. They’re making money from their own ads while keeping click-throughs away from ads of the original host.”
As a supposed “media company”, Buzzfeed breaks just about every rule of journalism. Sources are rarely used or cited, copyrighted content is used without permission, and worst of all – Buzzfeed writers are guilty of the cardinal sin of journalism, which is conflict of interest.
Don’t. Trust. Buzzfeed. http://t.co/YWBM6mDG0R
— Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero) April 14, 2015
In a section of New York University School of Journalism’s student handbook titled “Ethics, Law and Good Practice”, the author opens the section with the following conflict of interest description:
“In an era of great and growing dissatisfaction with the media, it is imperative that journalists avoid conflicts of interest, defined as situations in which there are competing professional, personal and/or financial obligations or interests that compete with the journalist’s obligation to his outlet and audience.”
So, what about a post about plastic that’s sponsored by CleanPath – will it present a clear and balanced view about plastic?
Would a company that sells refillable products, based upon the entire premise of reducing plastic use, sponsor anything other than an article that destroys the public’s opinion of plastic? How much journalistic integrity can the site maintain when it allows advertisements to exist as just another piece of content like any other? How can readers know what to trust, and what is simply paid-for promotion?
On Buzzfeed, they don’t – unless they pay careful attention to the brand icon pasted on the main page near the article or video link. Someone scrolling and clicking titles quickly may not even notice.
Camouflaging Sponsored Posts
The concept of producing highly clickable titles is nothing new. In fact, it’s what most websites on the Internet did throughout the 1990s, before Google came along and stared making it harder to win the game with spammed keywords and clickbait titles.
These days, most websites that want to list well in search engines avoid the sort of underhanded tactics that can be found on Buzzfeed. Beyond clickbait titles, the more serious offense is that of advertorials.
The reason for this is made very clear by none other than Matt Cutts himself in a 2013 video on advertorials.
In this video, Matt explains that for a site to be considered credible and an authority, it should be very clear to readers when specific content is paid for.
“Likewise, if you are doing disclosure, you need to make sure that it’s clear to people […] So a good rule of thumb is there should be clear and conspicuous disclosure. It shouldn’t be the case where people have to dig around buried in small print or have to click and look around a long time to find out, ‘Oh, this content that I am reading was actually paid.'”
And before you say, “Well Buzzfeed doesn’t care about search traffic, because it gets all its traffic from social media!” – consider the fact that at the SMX Advanced 2014 Conference during a Q&A session, Matt told the interviewer that Buzzfeed overvalues the site’s value.
“Matt said Buzzfeed has contacted them asking why they don’t rank better. Matt said everyone thinks their own website is above average in quality, even when their average or below average. It was obvious he thought Buzzfeed was overestimating their quality in regards to how they should rank.”
Even so – even with the fact that it doesn’t obtain as much search traffic as most other sites – the social side of the equation more than makes up for it. So what’s wrong with a business model that adopts a sponsorship technique and leans on the viral nature of social media for its source of traffic?
One word: credibility.
The bottom line: when it comes to online journalism, your actions influence how readers view your credibility.
Digital marketing blogger Sam Crocker described this situation perfectly.
“Forget about EdgeRank, Earned media value, and something as simplistic as CTR for a moment – and think about your long term credibility as a publisher. In some instances these headlines may actually begin to erode the the brand value of the publisher.”
Buzzfeed is making a great attempt to publish credible journalism alongside its WalMart-cheap titles. But how credible can an article be that’s titled, “Obama Takes ‘Full Responsibility’ For Two Hostages Killed In U.S. Operation”, when it’s published right alongside another article titled, “14 Times The Olsen Quadruplets Were The Baddest Bitches On The Block”?
Sam explains that these cheap Upworthy/Buzzfeed tactics have saturated the Internet to the point that people are getting sick of them.
“Yesterday was the first time in my life that I saw a ‘news’ article shared in my feed that I really wanted to read but refused to click it because of the headline. Do I want to see ’26 Majestic Dogs Who Totally Redefine Perfection’? You bet I do. But you know what else would work, a trusted source of cute images with a link to ’26 Adorable Dog Photos’. Headlines like these need to stop, the user backlash is coming.”
Does the Buzzfeed model work? Yes. For now. It’s a cheap parlor trick that has a limited lifespan. Ultimately, I believe that people, when they want to get “the real story” will always turn to those sources they know and trust as credible.
People may get their cheap, fast meals at McDonald’s, but when they want something with flavor and substance, they know to go to an actual restaurant.
Liam Boogar wrote it best in a post for LinkedIn where he explained that while Buzzfeed’s model works for Buzzfeed (for now).
“Buzzfeed is successful because they have aligned their business model with their journalists – journalists are there to pump out content ad nauseum, and viewers pay for it with their eyeballs, clicking through the never-ending lists & videos chopped up into .gifs.”
Ultimately, this isn’t the right model for legitimate, intelligent journalism – or any site that prides itself in having a respectable brand and reputation, really. That is why any of Buzzfeed’s attempts at legitimate journalism will fail.
“Media that prides itself on journalism, being smarter, and having more insight – from bloggers like Robert Scoble & Nate Silver all the way up to publishers like the New York Times & the Wall Street Journal – need to find a revenue model that aligns that leverages in its purist form that intelligence, access to intelligence, and insight.”
Is Buzzfeed an important organization? Just the fact that it ranks as the sixth site in worldwide Internet traffic says yes, that it is. However, is it an important news organization? Hardly.
It isn’t at all surprising to anyone with an interest in real news, that a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found Buzzfeed to be the very least – bottom of the list – trusted news source in America. Lower than even Rush Limbaugh. Ouch.
Most important news organization indeed…
Buzzfeed has been a cheap Internet fix for millions of web travelers for a long time now. However, it’s past and present tactics make it a joke when it comes to credibility and authority as a news source. And once the passing fad of such titles fade away, so then will the Buzzfeed monster.
Will it assume its place as another relic – another bad idea in the train of bad ideas – from the long evolution of this thing we call the Internet?
That all depends on the direction Buzzfeed leadership takes moving forward. The website can not exist trying to achieve both goals – it must either continue its course down the dead-end clickbait road, or it must resolve to overhaul into a site that’s completely dedicated to hard-hitting journalism and serious news. In one case, the end is assured. In the other, there is hope for a Buzzfeed anyone will be proud to admit they read.
So, now it’s your turn. Do you hate Buzzfeed? Do you love it? Share your take in the comments section below.