Buzzfeed Has Cracked The Virality Code

Some of the biggest Youtube channels with millions of subscribers sometimes still need to prepare for 1 or 2 weeks to create a video that gets over a million views. Buzzfeed, however, pumps out numerous videos every DAY that captures 1 million views. And you may know this already, but the content is usually pretty mainstream and usually, in my opinion, a lot of fluff intended to simply entertain you. So I’ve done some major research and digging on Buzzfeed as I do for a lot of things I am interested in. Why? Because I really want to learn more about growing a social following especially on Youtube. A lot of the stuff I find I do not share but this, I want to share with you guys for free.

The first thing I found is that Buzzfeed is a big corporation with a lot of employees. They have literally broke this down to a process and science.

BuzzFeed is “very much data driven” said Gauthier, adding that the outlet uses Google Analytics, YouTube analytics and its own internal dashboard to monitor the social reach and impact of its videos.

“Everything is open for analysis,” he said. “For Facebook we chart not only shares but also likes and comments. On Twitter we chart tweets, retweets, favourites, all of the core structure.”

When a video is well shared, the BuzzFeed team will use analytics to investigate the reasons why, for example, whether it appealed to a certain identity, age group or demographic.

“When we look at a video that has performed well we’re breaking it down to all of its fundamental elements, and not making assumptions based on a hunch,” he added.

Although BuzzFeed’s analysis has revealed no hard and fast rules about what types of video content are shared most on different social platforms, Gauthier said that “a very simple breakdown is that Twitter is more news and information based”.

We get a lot of international traffic, so when we think about the different aspects of storytelling we like to think about what makes something universalAndrew Gauthier, BuzzFeed

Facebook, on the other hand, seems to be “much more about relationships, about identity, about emotions”.

The one very simply formula I want to share with you I found from one of their top executives is this: v = s * t with v being virality, s being shareability, and t being number of views. This is one of the formulas they have uncovered which is incredible. Why? Because it means that your viral video can almost be orchestrated (again, it’s not that easy).

What this means is that if your video is really shareable, which means a good percentage of the viewers share it because it is good, then you can influence it by buying views. That is precisely what Buzzfeed does. Before you go off and say, “SO THAT MEANS BUZZFEED BUYS ALL THEIR VIEWS?” No. It means they buy enough for it to get enough traction to explode on its own. I think this is very important because, as I’ve seen myself, there are really good videos out there that should have millions of views but because they don’t have the initial traction to bloom, they don’t go anywhere. Another Youtuber with millions of subscribers has also recommended to buy initial views just to set the kite sailing. You may not have to do this, but it is an interesting concept. 99% of you reading this, however, probably have an inflated sense of how good your videos are, so if the s in the equation truly isn’t there, it’s not worth it. And this means buying real views as fake views won’t do work.

Or, to simplify: a post will go viral depending on how many places it is linked and how likely it is to go viral. Which: sure. Most people creating content for the web realize that a post that’s more viral and is shown to more people will spread further.

Don’t worry guys.

I don’t have the cash to buy views anyways so I won’t do this for now. However, it is worth considering especially for big production videos. There are actually companies that get paid to do this and successfully orchestrate viral campaigns for videos and companies that need it.

Another important thing to consider would be the fact that who views your video is important. Since there are numerous niches and populations with different interests, your shareability will vary depending on the demographic that views your videos. Therefore, sharing in the right communities is important.

Another important thing: spark conversation.

One of BuzzFeed’s most shared videos in the last year showed ‘real’ women being Photoshopped to look like fashion models.

The video, which was published in February, has so far been viewed more than 8 million times on and has had “hundreds of thousands of shares” through Facebook, Twitter and other sites, said Gauthier.

“We suspect one of the reasons it did well was that it started a conversation about a lot of things – the use of Photoshop, how pervasive altered images are in the media, and also the issue of body image,” explained Gauthier.

In addition to the ability to spark conversation, videos that are widely shared also demonstrate an awareness of what people are already talking about on social networks, he added.

“I like to think of the internet as a party where there are all these conversations going on,” Gauthier said.

Viral videos “add to the conversation” by offering “some sort of emotional aspect or informational takeaway” which makes users more likely to share content with friends, he added.

“It allows people to pick up the conversation they were having earlier, or they share it and they say ‘oh, I saw this and I was thinking of you’.”

Also… Only tell part of the story…?

Videos which tell just a small portion of a larger story, and do it well, are often more effective for sharing than telling a story in its entirety, said Gauthier.

In a way, this is reminiscent of the narrative technique of telling a story in medias res, or ‘in the middle’, as opposed to from the beginning.

It is also a very different approach to more conventional forms of video journalism, such as the television news, where there is more of a focus on telling a complete story.

“There is this inclination, a natural creative or journalistic impulse, to tell a complete story, and to tell an entire story,” said Gauthier.

“But thinking small is good, being laser-focused on one aspect can be a symbol or a metaphor for something larger.”

Expanding on specific details of a story makes the videos “hangers for conversation”, Gauthier said, returning to his main point about why videos are shared online.

“It’s important to kind of leave people with the ability to add their own thoughts when they share it, or inspire people to talk about a certain subject.”

Interesting and good is NOT ENOUGH.

“Well. it can’t just be interesting and good, it needs to have some social imperative as a part of it. And that is difficult to pin down. There is no list of rules to just check all the boxes. It really is a sort of editorial instinct,” Lamb tries to explain.

Double down on the winners. Hide the losers. For BuzzFeed it works at least.. (Don’t apply to this life or business. Let’s just say not all advice is universal)

Lamb elaborates on how this works internally: “We have 200 editors at Buzzfeed, we publish 700 to 900 stories today on our website. So we let our writers publish a lot of stuff, but not everything lands on the front page. If people are not sharing something enough, it disappears without a trace. There is no downside to that. If it is really doing well, we promote it like crazy, kind of push it out to as many people as we can.”

Long form articles can work well…even on mobile

Time spent on an article has become an increasingly important metric, and it favors the long-form content. “The Detroit story I mentioned,” says Lamb, “had well over a million views. It was an 8,000-word essay. People were spending 20 minutes on average on their phones reading that article, which is much higher than the average time on our site. And it is much higher than our average for the same article read on desktops. People were spending a much longer time reading it on their phones. I guess, people were just lying in bed, started reading the story and got hooked, and read all the way till the end.”

Clickbait titles aren’t working as well, especially if you underdeliver.

“Early on, UpWorthy talked about the notion of a curiosity gap where you sort of pose a question or leave something vague and tantalizing in the headline so that the reader will have to click through to get the answer. I do see that as a strategy that involves diminishing returns, because if you say ‘you won’t believe what you are going see’ in the headline, and the reader clicks and says, ‘Oh, I saw that coming,’ they feel disappointed.”

When pressed on the point, he concedes that some BuzzFeed headlines might be doing the same thing to readers. But, as an editorial strategy, he wants BuzzFeed writers to give as much information as they can in the headline. “Because we are so focused on sharing, it isn’t enough for us to make a reader click on the headline to see what it is about. A click is not that valuable by itself, we need to create something that people are going to be interested enough to share. And if their first interaction is already disappointment, it is very unlikely that they will want to share it. So we want to sort of under-promise and over-deliver.”

Facebook Video is a great vehicle for shareability just as much as Youtube if not more.

A significant percentage of our views come from YouTube, but we’ve seen an incredible amount of growth and viewership through the Facebook player. Facebook is a lot more about personal identity and interacting with friends, while YouTube is a lot more about consuming video, so they have pretty different audiences.

Make videos that are a unit of CONVERSATION and get SHARED

Our video is a unit of conversation. After we make a video like 13 Things Only Siblings Understand, as an older brother, I’ll share that with my sister, and I don’t really have to add words to it, because in a small way, it sums our relationship. We strive to make videos that include pieces of truth. Hopefully, people feel they need to share it with their friends or family because it adds a certain amount of truth to their lives.

One person doing most or all of the video creation creates a level of pure passion that can help

We don’t have a conventional division of labor here, in that we don’t have writers and directors and camera people and editors. We have a bunch of people that do everything. We call them producers, but effectively, they will create a video from beginning to end: write it, shoot it, direct it, edit it. If you have one person making a video from beginning to end, it gets infused with their personal passion.

If you liked this article, please check out my Youtube and subscribe. One of the topics I cover is social media optimization.


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By Will Chou

I am the the founder of this site and I am grateful you are here to be part of this awesome community. I help hard-working Asian American Millennials get rich doing work they love.

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