Deeper Than Listicles: BuzzFeed
When BuzzFeed launched its first podcasts in March 2015, there was widespread speculation that the company, known for its metrics-driven approach, would figure out how to make audio “go viral.”
The reality, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, Jenna Weiss-Berman, explained, is that virality is the last thing on her mind. Since arriving at BuzzFeed in November 2014, Weiss-Berman has been focused on one thing only: creating quality content so “that the BuzzFeed name is on good stuff.”106
Weiss-Berman likens BuzzFeed’s podcasting venture to the company’s decision to spearhead an award-winning investigative journalism team. In Weiss-Berman’s words:
They change lives through their work, by doing these amazing investigations, but their numbers are never going to be as high as a 100 cutest cats list. That’s just the way the world works. [...] What we’re doing is more in line with [them]. We’re not trying to get 10 million listens. We have things on the site that easily get 10 million hits. We’re trying to do something that shows that BuzzFeed has many different sides. We’re trying to dive deeper into some of the stuff that we do. That’s what BuzzFeed is great at. The things that make a bunch of money can support the things that make less money.107
Without the immediate pressure of generating traffic, Weiss-Berman has been given license to experiment with content. So far, she has tapped into internal talent by creating a pilot season in which interested BuzzFeed staffers pitch a show. From the first round, two podcasts emerged: Internet Explorer and Another Round. However, Weiss-Berman assured me her team is “not precious about anything”—should the numbers drop, they’ll “cancel it and try something new.”108
With Another Round having proven popular with readers, BuzzFeed has already been able to generate advertising revenue without even really trying: “When I first started,” Weiss-Berman confessed, “they said just worry about the content, don’t worry about the money making stuff. We’ll revisit that a year in. [...] We got so much interest quickly that I [thought], it’s crazy for us to say no to free money. Within three months, we were doing a trial thing.”109
The “trial thing” has been a foray into native advertising—however, not by Weiss-Berman and her editorial team. With her journalistic ethics formed in public radio, Weiss-Berman said she has tried to establish a hard line between editorial and advertorial. (Although hosts can read spots, for example, they do not do endorsements.) Members of BuzzFeed’s creative ad team—who had never used a recorder before—produced the first series of ads, promoting a razor designed for African American men. Weiss-Berman admitted that they’re still progressing and experimenting with the ads, which draw heavily from Gimlet’s example. On the positive side, since the ad team is unencumbered by the history of radio and podcast CPMs, it’s open to experimenting not just with different (higher) rates, but also new ways of charging for content (charging lump sums for a short-run series, for example).110
Looking to the future, the BuzzFeed editorial team plans to work with external talent, most likely on short-run, series projects. Weiss-Berman is even open to one day hiring a creator to produce a show under the BuzzFeed umbrella—a move that would put BuzzFeed firmly into network territory. However, for now, Weiss-Berman remains committed to developing shows from within the BuzzFeed family, to provide consumers a different kind of content.111
Podcasts can be used to diversify content and add value to online audiences.
Outlets can tap internal talent as a way of creating new content.
A strong brand identity and audience can ensure advertiser interest.
It’s possible to establish a line between editorial and advertorial, though ad quality may be sacrificed.
Podcasting rates are still in early days; CPMs need not be the only method of advertising revenue.