Buzzfeed is a site mostly known for its comical content and clever listicles, but its success is no laughing matter. Under the leadership of Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed has transcended purely social content and become a blend of legitimate news coverage led by Ben Smith, formerly of Politico. So alongside "33 animals who are extremely disappointed in you," you'll find a scoop on Obama's secret visit to Afghanistan — and it all lives in perfect harmony.
The first to achieve this kind of editorial with high viral lift, Peretti told SXSW all of his secrets at his Interactive keynote. And if you still wonder why he must publish so many photos of cute animals, he will simply respond with, "Are you a serial killer or an android?"
Learn from the Mormons
Akin to Mormons' faith and their commitment to dispersing it, Peretti says to spend half of your time thinking about your idea and the the other half broadcasting it — "not 95 percent [on the idea] and then only a tiny portion on how to spread the idea." He explains that Buzzfeed "starves" ideas that aren't catching on or giving a good return on investment and "feeds" the concepts that do.
Understand your platform
Different content spreads on Google versus Facebook. Peretti was one of the first in his field to understand that "Google is when no one is looking, and Facebook is when everyone is looking." Meaning, the more authentic, human, emotional story will be shared on social media while the more SEO-strengthened, aggregated story will rise on Google.
The big shift to social is coming
People have become accustomed to hating advertising, "but social can make ads great again," hearkening back to the golden age of advertising, in the '50s and '60s, when clever advertising made readers take pause rather than ignore.
Currently, Peretti says banner ads are far too intrusive and disruptive to the user experience. One hundred percent of Buzzfeed's revenue comes from social content marketing, i.e., stories that are programmed by natural viral rank.
For example, client Virgin Mobile advertised via a post titled "10 movie plots that would've completely changed if they had cell phones." Peretti reports that these in-stream story units have 1 percent click-through rates, 10 times over the industry average.
People love the Paris cafe
Publishing has become a Paris cafe, says Perreti. Say you're settling into a leisurely morning at a cafe on the Champs-Élysées. You're going to bring a variety of content with you — perhaps your Star Trek book, your news of the day — and, invariably, there will be a cute dog under a neighboring table that you will turn to pet.
"When you pet the dog, that doesn't make you dumb," Peretti says. "That makes you human!"
Social media streams are reflecting the same trend: Photos of babies appear next to photos of pets, breaking news and memes. "We're going to start at the source as a publisher, and we're going to take all those sorts of content and take it seriously," he says.
Social is a way of thinking
There are no tricks to making something go viral. "You have to be human," Peretti says. "Have a heart. The things that people want to share are things that move them," he said, referencing "26 things restored our faith in humanity this year" after the tragic, widely depressing Sandy Hook shooting.
"Google is about information, and Facebook and Twitter are much more about emotion and not just informational value."