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March 17, 2015, 12:22 a.m.
Business Models

London calling: A look at BuzzFeed’s British invasion

The viral masters aren’t just interested in pushing its U.S. model overseas: “The idea is that we want international offices to start being not just satellite offices, but being centers of gravity themselves.”

— BuzzFeed is, of course, known for mixing news with lists and quizzes, so it was inevitable that when British Prime Minister David Cameron sat with BuzzFeed U.K. for an interview on Monday, he’d not only have to address questions ranging from his positions on housing policy and whether he’d debate his opponents before the U.K. elections in May to his favorite character in Game of Thrones and whether he’s on Snapchat.

Cameron (ominously?) said he liked Ned Stark and said he was not a Snapchat user. But the fact that the prime minister agreed to an interview with BuzzFeed is a testament to the site’s growth in Britain — even though Cameron did reportedly refer to it as “The BuzzFeed” and a “digital paper.”

Launched two years ago this month, BuzzFeed U.K. was BuzzFeed’s first international site, and its growth is indicative of the model it plans to use to build out other international sites.

“The idea is that we want international offices to start being not just satellite offices, but being centers of gravity themselves,” BuzzFeed U.K. editor Luke Lewis told me when we met here earlier this month in a coffee shop as BuzzFeed was in the process of moving offices.

BuzzFeed U.K. had just three staffers when it debuted in 2013. Later that year, BuzzFeed expanded to Australia, and it has since added or announced editions in Brazil, France, Germany, India, Mexico, and Japan.

The staff for the U.K. site now totals about 50 across all departments. It has an editorial staff of 35, though Lewis said he plans to grow the editorial staff alone to about 50 this year. Throughout 2013, Buzzfeed U.K. focused on what it calls Buzz, the lists and quizzes most identifiable with the site. But last year it began to scale up its reporting teams, including a five-person political staff led by deputy editor Jim Waterson, who interviewed Cameron on Monday. BuzzFeed U.K. also last year hired noted investigative reporter Heidi Blake to lead a three-person investigative team.

After he was hired by BuzzFeed in December 2011, in advance of the 2012 presidential election, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told the Lab he wanted to “hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have” with “phone calls, trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives.” Through this approach, BuzzFeed was one of the big winners of the 2012 election cycle, and it’s continued to grow its news operations as it has expanded its coverage globally; last month, BuzzFeed was one of a number of new media outlets to secure a one-on-one interview with President Barack Obama. (Vice is the latest.)

That’s a formula BuzzFeed U.K. is following as the United Kingdom approaches its general election on May 7. “The idea with the election is just to get out on the road and talk to people — really old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground reporting,” Lewis said. “We’re not overly focused on building fancy show-off infographics or interactives. We feel that’s not an area where we want to compete. Where we want to compete is getting on the road and getting small scoops, really.”

Last month, for example, the Conservative Party held an auction fundraiser. BuzzFeed News reporter Siraj Datoo staked out the event, speaking with attendees as they departed. He obtained the program listing all the items that were bid on, reporting that donors spent £220,000 ($326,000) on a weeklong vacation at a 17th-century Spanish fortress and £210,000 ($311,000) for a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

Sure, a small story — but Datoo’s reporting was then cited in publications such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Independent.

BuzzFeed attracted more than 18.8 million unique visitors in the U.K. in February, up from 13.4 million unique visitors in February 2014, according to Quantcast data. BuzzFeed is hopeful that its sizable audience in the U.K. and on its other European sites will be able to attract advertisers. Just last week, BuzzFeed replaced Will Hayward, its European vice president of advertising, with Kate Burns, a former Huffington Post executive who helped build out that site’s international presence, according to The Financial Times, which also reported:

Greg Coleman, BuzzFeed’s president, said that the company needed a “sales thoroughbred” to develop its relationships with advertising agencies and brands in Europe. By the end of 2016, the continent could generate up to one-quarter as much revenue as the US, he added.

BuzzFeed began building its U.K. sales team in September 2013 to work with British and European clients. But many brands in the U.K. are more conservative than their American counterparts, and advertisers see BuzzFeed U.K.’s growth on the news side as an appealing prospect, Digiday reported earlier this month.

“BuzzFeed initially went after the brands that felt right for the platform, Liam Brennan, digital strategy director at advertising agency Starcom Mediavest, told Digiday. “To grow that, they’re going to have to create more serious stuff to get more people on board.”

Still, BuzzFeed U.K. has had to work to develop its own identity, Lewis said, as much of what works so well in American BuzzFeed posts — nostalgia, sentimentality, uplift — doesn’t work with British audiences. “That stuff just completely bombs in the U.K.,” Lewis said. “Nobody wants to be uplifted, particularly. But if you can make the articles funny, and a bit needling and a bit satirical, they do well.”

There are some posts, like #TheDress, that translate, though, and Lewis said BuzzFeed U.K. uses about 20 or so posts that originated in the U.S. everyday.

Beyond just the content, BuzzFeed U.K. has worked to adopt the office culture that’s originated in BuzzFeed’s U.S. offices. Staffers in London are constantly communicating with their American counterparts through Slack, and there’s a regular stream of BuzzFeed staff who visit the U.K. office from the U.S. and vice versa. BuzzFeed U.K. has also sent staffers to the company’s German office to continue the process there.

“We sort of swap staff for short periods of time,” Lewis said. “The really valuable thing about BuzzFeed is the office culture, and I think it’s important to try and import that as much as possible.”

Similarly, on the technology side, BuzzFeed U.K. is happy to leave product development to the staff in the U.S. — but the British site is in the process of creating a London-based team to experiment with new formats for presenting BuzzFeed content. Nicknamed BuzzFeed Hogwarts, the effort is led by BuzzFeed U.K. editorial director Tom Phillips, who will lead a four-person staff. The team’s first developer started at the end of February.

But it will look to work on things like a tool that will let readers plug in their postal code to get location-based information. They’re also interested in redefining BuzzFeed’s quizzes so that they can adapt to a user’s answers and allow a “choose your own adventure approach,” Lewis said. “We want to do quizzes that are more intelligent, so maybe they branch off,” he said. “So if you answer one way it’ll take you to another part of the quiz. So as you take the quiz they become versatile.”

Regardless of what it ultimately builds, the new formats team will be charged with creating products meant to be used throughout BuzzFeed. Often new tools at BuzzFeed will catch on quickly — remember the picture slider? — as staffers see those stories rise to the top of BuzzFeed’s charts, and want to replicate the success. BuzzFeed calls that swarming, and that’s why it’s published so many posts around big viral stories.

“We’re interested in creating new formats that people really, really use and actually become templates that unleash a wave of creativity amongst the wider BuzzFeed team,” Lewis said. “So you can create some new way of doing a quiz and suddenly you’ve got like 200 editors in New York and L.A. who are like, ‘This is awesome,’ and they’ll use it and have a ton of new ideas.”

Photo by Leonard Bentley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 17, 2015, 12:22 a.m.
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