Exclusive DIS interview with BuzzFeed’s Scott Lamb

Many media watchers will tell you that they saw the rise of BuzzFeed coming. They would argue that it seemed inevitable that a website obsessed with the quirky fringes of the internet and powered via social media shares would become a major media player.

Yet what many of course completely missed was the hugely impressive way in which BuzzFeed has morphed into a publishing empire that has embraced everything from serious news, offbeat innovative video through to longform storytelling. And all without alienating its core original audience.

With a recent cash injection courtesy of a partnership with NBC the company is now on the verge of its next major era of expansion. Will that war chest be used to drive video, create a news organization to rival the established giants like the BBC or CNN, or extend the reach of the group into new territories? Or quite possibly all of the above?

Below BuzzFeed’s VP International Scott Lamb, a speaker at the Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS) in 2014, offers a few clues as to where the company is heading.

The DIS 2016 takes place from 20-22 March in Berlin, Germany. Our 2016 launch offer, with savings of at least €1,000 on the final rate for tickets, is available until 31 August 2015. Register today to take advantage of this offer.

You have invested heavily in your news output. Do you think you still have a job to do to get people to trust you as a news source? Are you there already in certain demographics?

We are building a global news operation; for many of our readers around the world, BuzzFeed is already the first place they go to when looking to understand what’s happening in the news and in entertainment. Our investment along those lines is certainly going to continue. With our recent hire of Janine Gibson in the U.K., for instance, we’re looking forward to building a top-tier news operation in London.

It’s important to keep in mind how young BuzzFeed is, both as a company and a news organisation. We launched BuzzFeed News in 2012, and we’ve still got a lot of growing and building to do, though we’re proud of the impact we’re already having as a news organization in the U.S. and around the world.

Do you think that traditional display advertising as know it is heading for extinction? Why do you think BuzzFeed has been so successful at pioneering Native Advertising?

Our approach to advertising has mirrored our approach to making stories and videos more broadly: To create things people finding so moving, so interesting, so funny or so new that they’re moved to share it with the people in their lives. This content-focused approach has been key for BuzzFeed as we’ve grown.

As for display vs. native, I think it’s more fair to say that native advertising will be one future among many for digital advertising. The rise of social networks as part of the reason for this shift, and the rapid rise of mobile readership is another. Both of these massive changes presented advertisers with new challenges in reaching readers, and native ads meet people on the platforms where they’re most interested in spending their time.

In the future what percentage of content on BuzzFeed will be video based? Is it really going to dominate media brands in the way some pundits suggest?

Video consumption on the web is growing so quickly that it’s hard to make reasonable guesses about its potential size. Every media company is different, but BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, our L.A.-based video division, is a big part of what the company sees as the future.

Which of the international markets have you found the most challenging and why? Are there significant differences between international markets in terms of the content they consume?

As you’d expect, each new country presents its own challenges and has its own needs. So much of what BuzzFeed does is about identity, and to do that well we have to hire smart, sharp teams of writers in each new country – there is no single approach that fits equally well in each place. 

In France, for instance, BuzzFeed’s cute animal stories just never caught on in the same way they have in the U.S. French readers will happily read a story like that, but they’re much less likely to share it on a social network. Instead, we’ve leaned into growing a news team in Paris.

Is it increasingly hard now for start up media companies to innovate, because incumbents like yourselves and others with deep pockets can quickly copy what works for them? Any startups that have caught your eye?

Growth for any digital media company has to come from keeping your head down and making new things. We don’t look to others for new ideas, and if we can’t keep adapting and changing to the way people consume media, we won’t be able to continue to grow. If anything, it’s the big incumbent companies that are struggling to adapt; almost all the innovation you see is coming from smart, smaller companies.

We still like to think of ourselves as a start-up 🙂

Beyond Twitter and Facebook which of the newer social networks do you think offers the most potential for partnerships for media companies like yourselves?

We’ve recently launched a partnership with Snapchat, which is a really exciting and fast-growing new social platform. And internationally, we’ve been working with WhatsApp, WeChat and other social messaging services.

We’re increasingly focusing on how we can find smart partners that understand what we do well and who can take our ideas to different audiences.

Are you going to increase your investment in longform content? Do you have evidence that people read all of the article before sharing it?

We don’t really think of “longform” as a category of content — no one ever says to themselves, “I’d really like to sit down and read a longform story today.” Instead, we aim to make sure each story finds its ideal length. Sometimes, that’s an image and a few sentences; others, that’s 10-15,000 words on a single subject. But they need to be the right kinds of stories, done for impact and not for applause.

Metrics like read time or how far someone’s scrolled on a page are important and we do look at them, but they don’t always tell the full picture. We’re constantly looking for broader ways to measure the impact of a piece, especially on big stories: Did our story launch an investigation? Did it change a law? Did we spark a national conversation on an over-looked topic? Getting the right metrics on how people read an article is just one small piece of the puzzle.

Do you think that in the future all major media players are going to be global? Or at least based in the US with international arms? 

Growing an international company is hard. Digital media companies have the advantage of having distribution largely built out on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, if like BuzzFeed they’re focused on expanding through social sharing. But in order to have a real impact on a global scale, you’ve got to make good investments. For us, the real issue is finding and hiring the right editors and writers, and building the right team. With the right people and the right approach, scale will follow.

About the Digital Innovators’ Summit

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Each year in March, senior executives from media businesses, technology innovators and solution providers converge in at the DIS to share ideas, learn about emerging trends and see new concepts in action. 

The conference is an exclusive, premium event attracting senior executives from around the world. In 2015, more than 600 delegates from 35 countries attended the DIS in Berlin, a vibrant and always evolving city that is at the heart of Europe’s startup culture. 

Attendees included CEOs and other C-suite execs, Managing Directors, Heads of Online and Mobile, Publishers, Editors and Content Managers, Business Development Marketing and Sales.

The DIS 2016 takes place from 20-22 March in Berlin. Our 2016 launch offer, with savings of at least €1,000 on the final rate for tickets, is available until 31 August 2015. Register today to take advantage of this offer.

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