The Buzzfeed Approach to Social Media Strategy

Posted by Daniel_Marks

[Estimated read time: 6 minutes]

I initially started writing a post about how BuzzFeed tailors its content to different social networks. What image sizes do they use? What type of content works on one network but not another? What tactics do they employ? But as it turns out, there isn’t anything that revolutionary in the way BuzzFeed approaches their content on these social networks. There are a few interesting things they do, such as:

  • Using silent, square videos on Facebook that work well on any device and don’t require sound to be understood — more info from Tom Critchlow here: “Intermodal Media
  • Posting almost exclusively list-based articles on Twitter:

  • Aggregating Reddit-type content from elsewhere onto their Instagram feed without much connection to BuzzFeed:

  • Having different individuals run their Snapchat account in a story format that you would expect from your own friends. For instance, someone might document her time at a concert or trying a new type of food or visiting Central Park.
  • Occasionally appending ?sub_confirmation=1 when linking to their YouTube channel to generate a subscription popup: https://www.youtube.com/user/BuzzFeedVideo?sub_confirmation=1

But, I don’t think these tactics are the most interesting part of BuzzFeed’s approach to social media.

A different approach to social strategy

BuzzFeed made a fundamental change to its social strategy in early 2015. This is what BuzzFeed’s publisher/data guru Dao Nguyen had to say about it:

“Our CEO, Jonah Peretti, started talking about BuzzFeed’s distributed strategy to internal teams in January 2015. Instead of focusing primarily on our website and apps, and using social networks as a way to send traffic to them, we were going to aggressively publish our content directly to platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat.”

I’d recommend checking out the entire article as well; it’s awesome.

BuzzFeed’s Instagram feed is one of the more extreme examples of this strategy. Their posts have little chance of immediately sending traffic back to BuzzFeed and typically look like this:

This post isn’t going to directly send traffic to BuzzFeed anytime soon, but it is going to engage users. In this sense, Instagram is basically a branding platform for BuzzFeed. It puts the BuzzFeed name next to engaging content for millions of users and almost certainly increases the effectiveness of BuzzFeed’s marketing efforts elsewhere.

This doesn’t mean BuzzFeed has stopped using social to send traffic back to their site. In fact, almost all of their Twitter posts are click-baity listicles:

But the common thread is that BuzzFeed doesn’t try to enforce its own goals on the channel. If Snapchat or Facebook or YouTube users want to mostly consume native content directly on those platforms without leaving their feed, then that’s where BuzzFeed will reach them.

One of the obvious takeaways from all this is to tailor your content to the channel. This has been talked about to death. A more interesting takeaway is using these channels as branding channels rather than conversion channels.

There’s nothing wrong with exclusively posting engaging content that doesn’t relate to your product. You see the Buzzfeed name every time you interact with a Buzzfeed social post. It comes up in notifications from Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or SnapChat. You see it in the feeds you spend your time in everyday. Isn’t there tremendous value in simply putting your name in front of users every day? Isn’t this Branding 101? Who cares if you’re not talking about your product?

It’s kind of greedy. You could have the attention of your target market. You could have your name show up next to content they consume EVERY day. You could be the subject of a notification they receive straight to their phone. But that’s not enough for most brands. They also need that attention to be closely related to their product.

Therefore, the biggest mistake many brands make is forcing social media further down the funnel than it should be. Most brands and products simply aren’t suited for engaging social media content that converts, and are better off aiming for branding-related goals because it provides more creative flexibility.

Engaging & product-related: doing it right

The brands that do pull off engaging and product-related content aren’t social media geniuses — they simply have products that lend themselves to interesting social media content. Some examples would be:

  • BuzzFeed:
    People want to read their articles (on some channels)

  • The New York Times:
    People want to be kept up to date on the news

  • Etsy:
    People want to discover unique products

  • Bloomingdale’s:
    People want to see cool outfits

There’s also a whole class of accounts that have successfully made themselves authorities on certain topics and provide value that way:

  • Distilled:

  • Moz:

  • HootSuite:

The value prop

What’s your “social media value proposition?” In other words, what are the reasons someone would follow you on Twitter or Instagram or wherever… OTHER than simply liking your brand? What content are you providing that they would care about? If your “social media value proposition” isn’t strong when focusing on your product, you need to find another one.

To put all of this another way…

The question most people ask:

“How do we use social media to promote our product?”

The question most people should be asking:

“How do we create engaging social content? (for our target demographic)”

Trying to answer both with the same content usually results in awkward content that is tangentially related to your product and almost certainly not engaging:

Seen through this lens, you’d change 90% of branded social media accounts overnight. Stop trying to force your product or brand into posts. Just post engaging content.

Instead of posting this type of content:

You would post content that people actually care about — product-related or not.

Content people care about

Some examples of executing social right when you can’t focus on your product would be:

  • Red Bull:
    People aren’t interested in energy drinks, so they post about extreme sports

  • Dove:
    People don’t care about soap, so they post about inner beauty

  • Intel:
    People don’t care about computer chips, so they post about technology broadly:

Changing your core accounts might be too risky. In which case, take another page out of BuzzFeed’s book and experiment with a new social feed dedicated exclusively to a certain type of content without overhauling your main accounts. For example:

  • Coke could create an account solely dedicated to highlighting happy and uplifting moments
  • Dos Equis could create an account solely dedicated to profiling interesting men
  • Old Spice could create an account solely about lifehacks for college students
  • Mint.com could create an account solely focused on financial tips and tricks

It’s easy to treat social media as just another traffic-generating channel. Posts are mostly promotional or product-oriented, with the occasional and reluctant “engagement”-related post sprinkled in. The way Buzzfeed treats certain channels hints at a different goal: brand awareness. It’s not about focusing on your products. It’s just old-fashioned branding: associate your brand with the right emotion and put it in front of as many relevant people as possible.

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