BuzzFeed on making digital shows break through at scale

Whether it’s a 30-second clip on DIY channel Nifty, original drama series ‘Broke’ on YouTube Red or the Try Guys (above), each month BuzzFeed video content clocks up over seven billion global views.

One in six people in the UK now subscribes to one of BuzzFeed’s Tasty food channels on YouTube, while an episode of ‘Worth It’, the series that pits high-end items like a $1,120 cake against a budget alternative, can rack up more than 12 million views in a month.

To put that into perspective, Strictly Come Dancing won the 2016 Christmas Day ratings battle by attracting 7.2 million viewers. While not necessarily directly comparable, the power of online video is undeniable.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Dodgy video metrics prove TV is way ahead

“We are entering a phase now where massive digital shows can happen,” reflects Ze Frank, president of the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group.

“When we look at serialised shows, there are very few examples of digital-only shows breaking through at scale. Then I look at a show like ‘Worth It’, which regularly gets over 10 million views, with a 75% retention rate. In terms of minutes watched, you’re starting to get to numbers that are bigger than cable.”

Over the next year, Frank and his team will be developing content aimed at reaching “maximum advocacy”, anything from gifs and six-second micro videos to long-form digital, TV pilots and BuzzFeed’s first film, ‘Brother Orange’, which is in production with Warner Brothers.

It is the real time immediacy of digital, however, that inspires Frank. Based on direct feedback from its online audience, BuzzFeed can modify content as it goes along, enabling brands that work with the publisher to adapt their advertising strategy around a show in real time. The agility of digital platforms is the main reason Frank does not see TV or film as the end game, rather just another opportunity.

“I think of film and TV as incremental businesses. They’re not the place you’re trying to get to because the digital audiences and digital platforms allow you to be close to your audience and that closeness manifests itself in different ways.

We are entering a phase now where massive digital shows can happen.

“Hollywood and the amazing entertainment industry in the UK have additional kinds of skill sets and can bring new and other versions of those digital assets to life, but they don’t have those [real-time] qualities. So we look at it as additive.”

If BuzzFeed was to have what Frank calls a “great breakout moment”, it could immediately pull that idea into television or subscription video on-demand (SVoD) platforms, but the risk might then be breaking the connection with the audience.

“Sometimes it can mean you have a lag of six months to a year before something is actually aired [on TV] and ultimately it’s the closeness to the audience that is helping us learn, grow and get ahead of the curve. Those are the things that we have to weigh when we make those kinds of decisions,” he adds.

Being media agnostic

With new platforms popping up on a near daily basis BuzzFeed has to move quickly, drawing on rich data about its viewers and platforms, as well as the skills of its in-house teams around the world. Frank describes them as “multi-hyphenates,” people who write content, shoot it and appear on camera, meaning creative ideas can go live far quicker.

Frank explains that when the BuzzFeed team is looking at what’s next, it isn’t just a “grab-bag of new technologies”, but a case of exploring a variety of opportunities from virtual reality and Facebook Live to Snapchat and Instagram Stories.

The measure of success is different on each platform. Whereas Facebook is built on sharing in a specific social context, YouTube has more of a consumption paradigm driven by subscriptions and Snapchat Discover is a hyper-condensed version. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed.com has deep engagement with audiences, sharing anything from long-form pieces to community posts.

READ MORE: YouTube now wants to work with TV

“We made a very conscious decision four years ago to become a distributed media company, publishing directly into these platforms and that just accelerated how much we learnt about culture broadly,”explains Frank.

“That has allowed us to look at our business through a lot of different lenses and it’s just about the different opportunities that are afforded. From the editorial side there’s a lot of different ways you could think about success. I certainly look at views and watch time, I’m also really interested in the kind of cultural impact a show is having.”

Brand value proposition

When working with brands, BuzzFeed always looks to incorporate an element that has proven successful, whether that be the format, demographic or even a specific show. Since launching in November, BuzzFeed’s ecommerce product lab has been working closely with its content marketing team on affiliates and learning more about conversion, insight it hopes to share with partner brands.

“We have to understand in a deep way what their goals are. We think of the brief as just the beginning of the conversation, there’s only so much you can really get across in a one-page brief. There’s lots of campaigns that did or didn’t work in the past and the more we can have that conversation the better we can get to a solution,” says Frank.

The industry has to shift into it and publishers and brands have to work together to find the really powerful advertising paradigms for the next 50 years.

Ze Frank, BuzzFeed

“Sometimes brands want to push forward anyway and in those cases we challenge ourselves to find some value proposition we can bring. If the brand is married to a particular creative idea, where there isn’t that much flexibility, then we’ll talk to them more on the media distribution side and we’ll think about modern strategies to get in front of the best audiences.”

A successful brand partnership of recent times is the ‘Dear Kitten’ video series created in collaboration with pet food company Purina. The videos show an adult cat, originally voiced by Frank, teaching a kitten about the world to promote Purina’s Friskies brand. Released in 2014, the series attracts up to 28 million views per episode.

In a world of ad blockers where people would rather skip an ad and share a video on Facebook, it makes sense for brands to move into content. Frank, however, believes good advertising will always have its place.

“I tend to think that people like good advertising. The ad blockers are more about the fact that a lot of advertising just isn’t very good and it’s not very connected to audiences,” he reflects.

“A lot of advertising is made in a bubble and so content offers a huge opportunity, but also I feel like people love brands. We see it again and again.”

Frank’s advice for advertisers venturing into the branded content space is to go beyond the brief and keep an open mind. He encourages brands to approach content as an opportunity to learn about their audience and commit long term.

“It’s also important to anchor yourself in the world of digital, so not to be thinking of digital video as smaller television commercials. That’s sometimes a little bit of a shift, but it’s incredibly valuable to have that kind of openness,” he adds.

“Brands have to embrace that we’re just at the beginning. We talk about programmes like ‘Worth It’ and the amazing value that can come out of these opportunities, all of the real-time stuff. But the industry has to shift into it and publishers and brands have to work together to find the really powerful advertising paradigms for the next 50 years.”

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