In a session at the International Journalism Festival last week executive editor Doree Shafrir discussed BuzzFeed's approach to 'social storytelling'.
According to Shafrir, BuzzFeed, which recently introduced a UK team, has more than 40 million uniques a month, with more than half (60 per cent) of its audience in the 18 to 34 age bracket.
She highlighted the changes in how people are discovering news, from portals, to search and now to social.
"Portals and search have not gone away," she added, "but the move to social is something new".
And within the area of social itself, there has also been an evolution in the content being shared, she said.
"First you had the corgis and the memes and the baby pictures that people were sharing" she said, "and people are still sharing those", but "breaking news, original reporting and long-form journalism have been added to the equation".
BuzzFeed has "not abandoned the corgis, the memes and the baby pictures", but has "also expanded the scope" into breaking news, original reporting and long-form stories".
Is quality the key to shareability?
Early on in the session Shafrir sought to tackle a common myth that "quality is all that matters" when it comes to content going viral on social media.
"In an ideal world sure, the cream would rise to the top all the time, but that is not true," she said.
"You hear things like 'quality content just goes viral on its own' or 'the best content is the most viral content' or 'the ideas always win'. Again, if only that were true.
"Quality does matter but it's not enough for something to go viral," she added.Quality does matter but it's not enough for something to go viralDoree Shafrir, BuzzFeed
Instead she pointed to "scoops" as an example of shareable content, along with quality reporting and storytelling.
She used the recent Boston marathon bombings as an example of a news event that "really hit home the need for quality reporting".
"Everyone's trying to chase after the same stories," she said, so therefore it comes down to "who can come up with the best reporting".
"But storytelling is really important to us as well at BuzzFeed," she added. "By that I mean really the power of narrative. Every post we do tells a story."
As well offering content which "strikes some sort of chord within", content that people will want to share is also about accuracy, she explained.
"If you're not trusted as a news source, if you make mistakes all the time, people aren't going to share your stuff because you can't be trusted, because then it reflects badly on them.
"So another core tenet of this question of what goes viral is people don't share from sources they don't trust".
'Breaking news is social'
Again, the Boston marathon bombing also shone a light on how people turned to BuzzFeed in breaking news situations. Shafrir said that recently BuzzFeed has built up a team of 10 journalists focused on breaking news, and last week took on a news director "to really take our breaking news team to the next level".
"A big part of what we do with breaking news at BuzzFeed is incorporating social into breaking news," she said, such as using Instagram images to illustrate first-person accounts.A big part of what we do with breaking news at BuzzFeed is incorporating socialDoree Shafrir, BuzzFeed
According to Shafrir, BuzzFeed received record traffic to its homepage as the events played out in Boston.
This bigger step into breaking news is supported by a 'sensitive' tag in the content management system used by BuzzFeed, which means stories covering sensitive news, such as the recent events in Boston, will not feature advertising "or other related links".
"We don't want to seem disrespectful or distracting from the seriousness of the occasion".
She added that, such as during breaking news, "sometimes part of the news is debunking things out there on social media or on other sites".
She referred to an example of a story BuzzFeed published during Hurricane Sandy of '19 viral images that definitely aren't Hurricane Sandy', and similarly in the aftermath of the Boston bombing the site published 'Six mind-blowing ridiculous conspiracy theories surrounding the Boston bombing'.
"Is there a hard and fast rule about when you should do this? No," she said.
"But with both Sandy and the Boston bombing we felt like these images and conspiracy theories had reached enough of a tipping point that we felt it was incumbent upon us to say 'hey guys, these are fake'."
New storytelling formats: the animated GIF
The London Olympics in particular gave BuzzFeed a great opportunity to use GIFs to tell stories in a way "that is really social".
Shafrir used the example of how BuzzFeed reported on the fencer who disputed a ruling during the Olympics, using animated GIFs to add to their coverage.
"We could have written a straight ahead article, with maybe a photo of her sitting there defiantly. Plenty of people did that and it would have been totally fine but we felt there was a more dynamic way of telling the stories, kind of play-by-play."
'Long-form is shareable, it's social'
In an earlier panel session, Shafrir spoke about the assumption "that people don't want to read long things online" – an assumption which "is totally false", she said.
In fact long-form is an area which BuzzFeed is actively targeting and "trying to crack socially". The company has therefore taken on an editor, Steve Kandell, "to head up our long-form initiative".
Discussing the "renaissance" in this area online, she credits sites such as Longform.org, Longreads.com and Byliner for helping drive this movement.
There have been a number of new entries to the long-form digital market recently, such as Matter, which describes itself as covering "science, technology and the future" and was recently acquired by Medium. And late last year the New York Times partnered with Byliner, the first result of which was its award-winning Snow Fall long-form multimedia story, which journalist John Branch last week received a Pulitzer prize for.
Now BuzzFeed is providing readers with a weekly piece of long-form, the majority of which is produced by "outside contributors", making it an "exciting opportunity" for freelancers, she added.
And the site "is trying to play a little bit with the format" long-form is presented in, Shafrir added, using the example how it reported on a video game, in a way which would reflect the subject of the story.
"We noticed reaction to the story was both 'hey, that was a great story' and 'wow, that looked really cool'.
"We have all these tools at our disposal with online media. Why not try and use them to their fullest?"
So how does BuzzFeed keep track of how its content is being consumed and shared? Articles themselves display pageview statistics as well as the "social lift".
Social lift is "the ratio of sharing", based on a comparison of how many readers arrive via social, compared to those who came directly via the BuzzFeed website, the latter being the "seed views".
As well as the statistics shared at the top of each article, anyone with a free BuzzFeed account can also view statistics for each story on a "viral dashboard".
BuzzFeed staff can also see how a story is "performing" on the homepage via a traffic light system viewable only to them, which compares the results to "the average story in that space on the homepage".
Those with work published on BuzzFeed will also receive an email to let them know if and where their story is "taking off", which can help guide decisions on the best platforms to "re-promote" certain content.
As for which content gets the most buzz on social, Shafrir said it is usually "the funny lists" style of content which go most viral. But, she added, "the 'hard' stuff is doing better and better".
Below is a video of Shafrir's keynote, filmed by the International Journalism Festival:
Free daily newsletter
- How publishers can tell better stories for mobile audiences
- Tip: Use this card game to plan which storytelling elements your project should include
- Tip: Here are seven questions to ask before choosing comics journalism as a format for your story
- Advice from 24 news organisations to help you tailor your story pitches
- Storytelling advice from Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker