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Five lessons from BuzzFeed on winning the Internet

We all know BuzzFeed as the Internet's home for animated GIFs and sad puppies. But what makes them one of the most successful brands on the Internet is the way they use data and experimentation across all aspects of their business.

Eric Harris is BuzzFeed's Executive Vice President of Business Operations, and he spoke Tuesday at Dx3, a digital conference and tradeshow in Toronto.

Here are a few of his big lessons for publishers and advertisers – or anyone who is trying to reach an audience on the Internet these days.

1. Publishing is like a Parisian cafe

At first blush, it may seem odd to see a 6,000-word feature on Scientology on the same site as a quiz asking: What kind of cat are you?

How can a company sustain this kind of high-low mix without damaging its brand? We’re thinking about it all wrong, according to Mr. Harris. Instead, we should think of a publisher as a place where all kinds of content mix together.

His analogy is the sidewalk cafe. The French intellectual may be reading La Monde or Foulcault, but if a cute puppy walks by, he won’t ignore it. “Petting the puppy doesn’t make him stupid. It makes him human,” Mr. Harris says.

2. Not all social platforms are alike

The half-life of an article varies widely depending on the medium.

A link on Twitter becomes stale after only a few hours. A story posted on Facebook, meanwhile, will do well for 12 hours or more.

And for BuzzFeed, Harris says, Pinterest has the longest tail of all, where stories can keep gaining traffic for days at a time. Brands need to keep this in mind when deciding how and when to promote their content.

An example of a photo that makes a reader feel good: Darron Cummings/AP

3. The art of social content

Mr. Harris says BuzzFeed’s successes typically fall into one of a few categories: inspiration (a story that makes the reader feel good), identity (a story or an image that strikes a chord with a small group of people), nostalgia (a list that connects the reader with a fond memory or time in their lives) and things that make us look smart.

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins, for a Globe and Mail news quiz

4. The science of social content

Cat GIFs aside, BuzzFeed takes social media very seriously. Even their now-ubiquitous quizzes – perhaps the current height of easy-to-consume, sharable content – only became successful after a long string of experiments and design changes.

BuzzFeed went so far as to obsess over the default text that appears when you tweet the link to a quiz (I got Barcelona! What City Should You Actually Live In?) with the goal of trying to encourage as much additional traffic as possible.


5. Mobile, mobile, mobile

A poor mobile experience is one of the biggest impediments to building an audience on social media, Mr. Harris says.
BuzzFeed articles can get 50 to 75 per cent of their traffic from mobile devices, so if what you’re building doesn’t look go on a phone, no one it going to want to share it with their friends.
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