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BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti at #SMX: On Optimizing Content For Humans
Would I share this?
That’s the question BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti says BuzzFeed producers ask themselves when they are trying to generate viral content.
BuzzFeed has built a thriving business valued at an estimated $850 million upon the foundations of that basic tenet — 75% of BuzzFeed traffic comes from social referrals, including email and instant messages — but Peretti showed there’s much more to it than that during the keynote conversation with Search Engine Land founding editor Danny Sullivan at SMX East Wednesday night in New York.
The human brain, Peretti said, is very good at telling stories in hindsight about why something goes viral but often it’s wrong. That’s why BuzzFeed’s quest for content that will make a social connection is informed by continuous data crunching to see what’s working and what isn’t. Peretti said it’s important to have a “skeptical and nuanced” relationship with that data.
“I think you really need to have a sense of what is the underlying human dynamic that’s going on,” Peretti said, “and then how can I use data to guess what that dynamic is and make the human experience better. And how do I make media that has a useful and important role in people’s lives and not just something that makes the numbers go up.”
The optimizing-for-humans thread ran throughout the discussion.
Along those lines, he was especially complimentary to Facebook, which he said is getting very good at figuring out what people want to read and share.
Although BuzzFeed isn’t getting as many massive viral bumps from the social network, Peretti said it has been pleased with many of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. It’s getting fewer giant scores, but more articles getting a large amount of traffic. That, Peretti said, is better for BuzzFeed than “a crappy quiz that gets 20 million views” and diminishes the BuzzFeed brand.
“For us to succeed in the long term as a content business,” he said, “we need to know that when we make content and it gets traffic that that’s actually a signal of quality and not just a quirk of Facebook’s News Feed.”
He said Facebook’s changes have opened an opportunity to go after niche segments of readers. Instead of following the traditional media model of producing stories for that “80% of the people kind of like” you can write content for left-handed people or about what it’s like to grow up with Asian immigrant parents or what it’s like to have a certain sexual orientation.
Peretti said Twitter would do well to figure out a Facebook-like way to surface high quality content, something Twitter is experimenting with (to the dismay of many Twitter purists). Such a change “wouldn’t ruin Twitter,” Peretti said.
I think it’s a real strength that Facebook can look at data and show people content that they are more likely to enjoy and that’s why they have such high engagement numbers and that’s why the average user is confused by Twitter.
Either they are not following enough people or the right people or they are following too many people. And right now while you are all listening to us, there was probably an awesome tweet and that tweet is going to go off your timeline and you are never going to see it ever.
And on Facebook there was probably some awesome thing. Like your friend had a baby. You are definitely going to see that. You are going to see it if you look tomorrow. That’s an advantage that Facebook has.
Twitter has this very narrow advantage in real time which is powerful, particularly in certain moments where lots of things are happening. But I definitely think the News Feed algorithm is a pretty amazing thing. In general people feel like they can share stuff that they think is interesting and Facebook will route it to someone else who actually agrees that it’s interesting and try to not show it to someone who doesn’t.
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