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April 28, 2015, 11 a.m.
Business Models

Here’s how BuzzFeed is thinking about its international growth

Mexico is the viral giant’s latest target for expansion. Will it continue leading with listicles and nostalgia, or is there more room for news in how it introduces BuzzFeed to new territories?

Last week, BuzzFeed launched in its seventh international country: Mexico.

The viral juggernaut opened its first site outside the United States in 2013 in the United Kingdom, and has since grown to add editorial operations in France, Australia, Brazil, India, and Germany too. There’s also the New York-based BuzzFeed Español that targets a Latin American audience. The expansion to Mumbai, Berlin, and now Mexico City were announced last summer (along with a planned move to Tokyo) after BuzzFeed received another round of funding. (All four sites were originally supposed to open in 2014; now the Japan site is slated to debut later this year. BuzzFeed is also expanding to Canada this year, as it announced Friday that it had hired Craig Silverman to lead the site’s editorial efforts north of the border.)

BuzzFeed’s international expansions have followed a similar path: Start with a small team creating the viral content BuzzFeed is most known for, then build out a news team. BuzzFeed is opening its Mexico office with a team of six focusing solely on its Buzz (i.e., viral) content. But Scott Lamb, BuzzFeed’s vice president for International, told me that BuzzFeed might tweak that formula moving forward as it continues to grow internationally.

“I think that as BuzzFeed as a company has evolved over the last two years, our thinking about how we might go into new markets has evolved as well,” he said via phone from Mexico City.

Lamb and I discussed how BuzzFeed decides where it’s going to expand, the challenges of adding international sites, and how BuzzFeed plans to continue to grow abroad. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: BuzzFeed is launching in Mexico, and then you’re scheduled to launch in Canada later this year, too. What makes a market right for you to enter?

Scott Lamb: We look at a couple of different factors. There’s the macro level and the micro level. On the macro level, we’re really looking for big trends that speak well to what BuzzFeed is and does. So, in Mexico, for instance, it’s the country that spends the second highest amount of time on social media of all markets of the world. So we know that it’s a place where people really like to use social networks, which is where BuzzFeed’s content likes to live.

We look at our internal traffic numbers to see if traffic seems to be growing very quickly, and we’ve seen that in Mexico already. We look at platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest, and then also general trends in mobile growth — in the use of smartphones — and demographic changes. We mostly look for growing young populations. So it’s sort of a matrix of those things on that level.

Then also on the very specific level, we look for cities that seem right for BuzzFeed. So we’re looking at cities that really have a connection to global culture, where a lot of ideas about art and film and music are happening, where there are interesting ideas in the media space as well, and technology. And where we feel that we can can hire good, talented writers to staff those local editions. So Mexico has definitely has been on that list for awhile, and Mexico City fits a lot of those conditions for us. And the list of places we have going forward is similar to that, looking next to launch in Toronto.

Lichterman: Last summer, you announced a number of international editions, and Japan was on that list. Of the ones announced then, that’s the only one that hasn’t launched yet. Is Tokyo next? Where else should we expect to see BuzzFeed growing?

Lamb: We are looking at Tokyo as a possibility for one our next launches. We’re working on the next year of where we want to go after that. We’ve been doing a lot of market analysis in-house. We don’t have anything to announce on that front just yet.

Lichterman: Looking specifically at Japan though, everything I’ve read from last summer when it was announced said it was scheduled to launch last year. I’m curious why that hasn’t happened. Is it difficult to launch in certain markets? What can be some of the challenges?

Lamb: I think that we’ve come up against two challenges. One is an internal one. BuzzFeed is growing very quickly, and to do these international launches is actually a very resource intensive process. We’ve spent a good portion of the first part of this year staffing up internally and getting a structure in place within BuzzFeed that we can scale and do these things in a more nimble and quicker way.

But there are some definite challenges in different markets. When we wanted to go to Germany, it was a little bit easier for us. I had worked there previously and had some connections. There are a lot of people at BuzzFeed who similarly knew the market in France and the U.K. Japan was one that we had very little internal knowledge about it, and it’s just taken us a longer time to feel like we have a good understanding of what the right market strategy is for us there.

Lichterman: I was in London last month and met with [BuzzFeed U.K. editor-in-chief] Luke Lewis, who told me there are certain things that work in the U.S. that don’t work in the U.K. — on the edit side, in terms of the type of humor, but on the business side as well. I’ve read interviews with you where you’ve said there are places where native advertising isn’t taking off as quickly as it is in the U.S. Is that a challenge for you as you’re looking where to expand?

Lamb: It’s sort of in the back of our mind. Really, our initial instincts and our initial drive and expansion is always editorial. So we’re looking for places where we think we can draw a large audience — where we think BuzzFeed just as an editorial site would be successful.

When it comes to building out the business side we’re very aware that not all markets are like the U.S., that native advertising is still new in many places around the world. We have a lot of patience with that. We had to do a similar thing in the U.S.: When we started doing business there, native advertising was not something people were familiar or super comfortable with. It took us a long time to educate the market and to really prove our case that the thing we were talking about was an effective and useful form of advertising.

There’s sort of a scale. There is a spectrum of markets where native advertising has become accepted, where it’s known, and places where it’s really just only getting started. We actually feel very comfortable going into either situation.

Lichterman: I know that, as a practice when you launch international sites, you really focus on the Buzz side before building up to doing more news. In the U.K., it was really only in the past year that they’ve built out the news side. So, how do you make the decision when it’s time to expand or when you say; Okay, we’re doing well enough with the Buzz, let’s expand to news?

Lamb: It’s very experimental and very iterative, but we start with Buzz because in a lot of ways it’s the easiest thing to start with and the thing we know the best. It also helps us get to understand any new market that we’re entering.

That being said, we are going to try out some new approaches. In Canada, for instance, we are going to be launching with news and Buzz at the same time. I think that as BuzzFeed as a company has evolved over the last two years, our thinking about how we might go into new markets has evolved as well. If we see an opportunity in news, and we see that we can, even with a fairly small team, make a meaningful contribution to the news ecosystem in any country, then we’ll start doing that as well. We’re going to be coming in with a few more options when we come into new markets going forward.

Lichterman: What are some of those other options? What else might we expect to see as you enter new markets or how is the strategy changing beyond that?

Lamb: In Mexico, for instance, the team here is a small but mighty team of six, and they’re totally focused on Buzz. But, actually, our first hire here was a correspondent for Miriam Elder’s world team. So she’s writing longer, reported, really investigative pieces that will run in BuzzFeed’s world section, but occasionally will be translated into Spanish and will run on the Mexico edition as well.

Another thing that we started doing — we have a woman at BuzzFeed now who does international news coordination for us, which basically means she will look at the work that the U.S. news team is doing and stuff that is coming out of the U.K., and see if it might be interesting for markets say in Mexico, or France, or Germany, and then work to have that translated and run on those editions. So we’re trying to leverage more of the work that the news team is doing, so even in places like Mexico — where we don’t have any reporters except for the one from Miriam’s team, Karla — that we can still offer some of BuzzFeed’s news if we think it would be interesting to readers in that market.

It’s complicated, because it’s not always easy to tell what’s going to be interesting for a different market and also have to adapt the stories in ways that are useful. Sometimes they’ll need more context or a little extra reporting. But the goal, broadly speaking, for our international expansion is to create a network of globally connected sites. It’s really one newsroom, and they have access to all the resources and stories that are being produced globally by BuzzFeed, and their job is really to figure out how to make those work best for those readers.

Lichterman: I know in the U.K. they’re developing a new formats team, and obviously a lot of that stuff is mostly based in New York and in the U.S. But can we expect to see growth into product or other areas in international markets?

Lamb: I think so. We’re really excited about what’s happening in the U.K. with that team. I think what we would ideally like to see starting to happen — and where we’re going to be developing this, I think, in some of the new launches that we have — is that the global offices also having some areas of expertise. In addition to creating a new market for BuzzFeed or growing their readership in a specific country, that they are creating something — maybe on the product side, maybe just an editorial area of expertise — that has an impact on BuzzFeed all around the world.

To me, that’s really an exciting thing, and it’s certainly going to depend on the talent and the ideas that we’re finding in the new markets that we roll out — but it’s something that I hope to add to our expansions as we go.

Lichterman: How far do you expect international expansion to go? Should we expect to see BuzzFeed Mozambique or BuzzFeed Kazakhstan? What’s the end goal?

Lamb: Like many things at BuzzFeed, we’re trying a lot of stuff out and we don’t totally know exactly what the end game is just yet. We’re trying to go in a pretty smart way, and we’re focused on building a sustainable company that’s going to be around for a long time. So we don’t want to go crazy.

But at the same time, everywhere I go, every time I’m traveling to a new country and meeting with people about the media, it seems like there’s an incredible amount of opportunity. So we definitely are going to keep expanding. We’ll be doing, in addition to Mexico, Canada, and Tokyo, I think three more launches this year. I expect that we’ll have a similar ambition for next year as well. Definitely not ruling out any regions of the world. There are a lot of interesting places that BuzzFeed could go that are exciting for us as a company, and I hope exciting for readers in local markets to have BuzzFeed hiring local teams there, and also really building a valuable and interesting global newsroom.

Lichterman: Do you know where you’re going to be looking to go next?

Lamb: We’re still considering all our options.

Photo by Calsidyrose used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 28, 2015, 11 a.m.
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