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Feb. 19, 2014, 11:32 a.m.

Are quizzes the new lists? What BuzzFeed’s latest viral success means for publishing

They drive huge engagement and otherworldly pageviews. From internal analytics to a flexible CMS, the recent quiz boom provide a useful peek into how BuzzFeed sees itself as a platform.

Lately, it seems like the hardest content format to avoid on the social web is the BuzzFeed quiz.

What city should I actually live in? Paris. How will I die? Eaten by piranhas. Should I learn to code? IDK, maybe? Which Al Roker am I? I’m Too old for Drake Al Roker.

The quizzes, ranging from the almost serious to the utterly absurd, have been gaining so much traction on the web that Slate saw fit to publish a quiz of their own titled, “Which BuzzFeed quiz are you?” — which, Ouroboros-like, prompted even more metacommentary:

Summer Anne Burton, BuzzFeed’s managing editorial director, is leading the quiz initiative. “I had a data team pull numbers for the end of 2013, and there was a quiz that our entertainment editor had done months previous — Which Grease Pink Lady are you? — that hadn’t really been on my radar before,” she says. “Somehow, over the course of the year, it had accumulated the most digital shares of any post of the year.”

(I’m Rizzo. Joseph is Sandy. Justin is Frenchy.)

After that, Burton kept an eye on quizzes and came to realize how intensely shareable they could be. Ashley Perez, BuzzFeed’s travel editor, made the quiz “What city should you actually live in?” — over 20 million views. “We had a few staff meetings where I mentioned it,” Burton says. “Our staff is very excited when things get a response. People started experimenting even more around the beginning of the year.”

BuzzFeed developers built a template for quizzes into their custom CMS about a year ago. “We wanted to have interactive games, but not have the developers build them every time, so that we could experiment freely,” says Burton.

After around a month of experimentation and data collection, Burton made a comprehensive tip sheet for building successful BuzzFeed quizzes. (The first rule: “Make sure you break some of these rules sometimes.”) Burton encouraged quiz makers across the editorial team — both reporters and non-journalist BuzzTeam members — to put real thought into their quizzes, with serious consideration to how the questions would lead to the answers.

She also told her team that quiz results should be more pleasant than dire, sticking to yet another BuzzFeed truism: No haters.

A quiz is not, generally speaking, journalism, and it’s far from a new form. But it’s a highly compelling type of reader engagement that, despite its long history in media, BuzzFeed latched onto only recently. “For me, it’s almost impossible to not take a quiz,” says Burton. “You’re like: I must know what Muppet I am.”

As we saw before with the rise of lists, once BuzzFeed find a format that works, expect to see a lot of them. The rapid pace at which BuzzFeed employees, including the news team, are producing new quizzes — several are published every day — says something about the companywide quest for traffic. It’s a feedback loop: recognizing the trend via analytics, strengthening the proprietary tools in their flexible publishing platform, and capitalizing quickly.

With lists, BuzzFeed sought to put likable content into the most appealing, clickable format possible. Quizzes work the same way: “People really like to have organization and structure — it’s just appealing,” Burton says. “There’s something reassuring about it. Quizzes have that in common with lists — they make content accessible.”

At the end of the day, while quizzes are formally comprised of questions and answers, what you’re getting is content that interests you disguised as a narrative about yourself. “It’s like the plate you serve your food on,” Burton says. “You don’t talk about the plate — you talk about the food.” Consider, for example, this Katie Notopoulos quiz that is actually a snarky commentary on the media’s tendency to exaggerate “learning to code” as a cure-all for any career.

The quiz-as-vehicle-for-self-discovery is nothing new either, in either print or digital. From Teen Beat to Cosmo to LiveJournal, publishers have long taken advantage of the quiz for its ability to attract reader attention. Recently, journalists and academics alike have been thinking more about the quiz as an educational device for the audience — another method of delivering information. Author Jordan Shapiro writes in Forbes that quizzes tap into our narcissistic desire to be categorized, which has been exploited in quiz form since the early 20th century.

For others, online quizzes are reminiscent of playground games like MASH and paper fortune tellers, both of which aim to predict the players’ future through random means. In the same way, BuzzFeed quizzes are crafted to create the illusion of truth, or potential truth. “You sort of write them like horoscopes, with tidbits people can relate to,” says Burton.

Creating a character type that readers can compare themselves to is a genre of content that BuzzFeed has long been working to perfect with its lists about identity, which features centrally into the company’s strategy for sharing. “The quiz is kind of like the broken-down-to-its-core of what BuzzFeed is — it gives someone something that they can relate to well enough that they can share it with others,” says Burton. “When people share things, it’s partially because of what it says about them. Quizzes are like the literal version of all that.”

Quizzes have always been about sharing, according to Burton. What’s fun about taking quizzes in Seventeen Magazine with your girlfriends is the sharing of personal information and opening up to each other face-to-face. From a technological standpoint, BuzzFeed is working to recreate the pleasure of that experience on the web. That’s why, in addition to making quiz questions more attractive, BuzzFeed developers also focused on making your quiz results easily sharable.


Burton says she saw the introduction of easy, clean looking ways to share your quiz results on Facebook and Twitter as a “big turning point” in the rise of quizzes at BuzzFeed. Also key to sharing was making them more easily usable on mobile, where they already perform well. (BuzzFeed content gets around 50 percent of its traffic from mobile, but the most popular quizzes are getting mobile traffic closer to 70 percent.) “For me, anecdotally, quizzes lend themselves to mobile because people are taking them with friends or administering them to each other,” says Burton. In that way, quizzes go from being digitally social to a literally social game for users.

Its rapid adoption of quizzes is a useful window into understanding how BuzzFeed sees itself as a platform. “We’ve talked about whether or not people would like it if there was a place they could share the results of different quizzes as a snapshot of themselves,” says Burton. “We’ve joked that it would be a great dating service.” BuzzFeed’s marketing team also has access to the quiz template as a platform that brands could possibly take advantage of — think “Where should you go on a road trip?” sponsored by Hertz. Says BuzzFeed spokesperson Catherine Bartosevich: “You can expect lots of sponsored quizzes in your Facebook and Twitter feeds soon.”

For the time being, BuzzFeed collects only the same data on quizzes that it does on other content types — engagements, shares, unique visitors, etc. But the company says it’s working on building custom analytics for them. What information will be collected, and how it will be used, remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that plenty of people would be interested in knowing the favorite foods, songs, artists, places, cars, jobs, brands, and more of millions of BuzzFeed readers.

Though quizzes are, in some ways, perennially popular, there’s also a significant chance that BuzzFeed’s quiz bubble could burst — either because of outside forces like a Facebook algorithm change or just because people get tired of seeing them. Some recent quizzes are almost mocking in tone, suggesting, perhaps, a bit of internal quiz fatigue. (For example, “Are you in love?” which only offers the options Yes or No and a taunt, or the borderline Dadaist “Who are you?” quiz.) Some have asked the same question about lists — whether or not they’re a fad that readers across the Internet will inevitably grow tired of. What BuzzFeed’s embrace of quizzes suggests, however, is, should that ever happen, its employees — from reporters to developers — stand ready to jump on the next big thing.

POSTED     Feb. 19, 2014, 11:32 a.m.
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