Tag Archives: stuff about BuzzFeed

Nobody’s Going To Stop You.

Turner Field

There’s a fantastic story on Deadspin this week titled,  “I Covered The Braves For A Newspaper That Didn’t Exist.” It’s the story of how a real estate broker from Atlanta realized that he could get a press pass to cover his favorite baseball team by inventing a fake newspaper and becoming its one and only “employee.”

What I love most is this realization the author has about getting onto the field during the game. He writes:

“I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves’ dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, ‘walk until someone stops you’ remains undefeated.”

And he’s not wrong. From my years covering sports, I can tell you that you can get away with just about anything at a sporting event as long as you:

A) Look like you know what you’re doing, and
B) Nobody stops you.

I’ve watched rain delays from the dugout, and snuck into stadiums when I wasn’t allowed. If no one else is going to stop you, why should you?

And it turns out that the same philosophy applies to pretty much anything you do. Here’s a lesson from work: A few years ago, we started aggressively promoting newsletters at the bottom of most posts on BuzzFeed.com. There wasn’t a meeting where a bunch of higher-ups agreed that this was the right strategy. My team decided that we should try it. We told our boss on the editorial side, and one on the product side, and then… just started doing it. We figured we’d do it until someone stopped us.

That lasted almost two years.

We had so much success with those boxes that other teams at BuzzFeed decided they wanted access to that space at the bottom of the page. Eventually, we made some rules governing that promo space, and my team is happy to play by the new guidelines.

But the minute we see the next opening — a space where we can try something without a lot of restrictions, an opportunity where another team says, “Sure, that’s OK with us!” — we’re going to take advantage. The rule remains the same: Just start moving until somebody says you have to stop.

———

That’s a photo I took at Atlanta’s Turner Field back in 2010.

Everybody Does Something Else.

Jonah

A week before I started my job at BuzzFeed, I started to get the sense that this new job was going to be a little… different. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw everyone at BuzzFeed — literally, hundreds of my soon-to-be co-workers — retweeting an account called @SeinfeldToday, which imagined if Seinfeld took place in the present day:

That account was co-created by a BuzzFeed editor. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone at BuzzFeed, I’d discover, had something odd that they did on the side.

My co-workers were responsible for weird Tumblrs like Texts From Hillary, Onion-like Headlines In Real Life, and Daily Odd Compliment. They launched absurd internet projects like @Horse_ebooks. They had their own podcasts, newsletters, and comedy shows.

Even Jonah Peretti, the company’s founder, was responsible for hugely viral email chains and insane websites like blackpeopleloveus.com.

It’s not a coincidence that so many BuzzFeeders have a side project or gig. I work with an office full of people who love to make stuff — and are lucky enough to have a job that allows them to do even more of that during their 9-to-5. The common denominator at BuzzFeed is that we’re an office full of makers and creators. When you put people with a track record of making great stuff in a building together, you’re going to get some pretty impressive results.

It’s why I always tell people who visit BuzzFeed and want a job there someday: Do something weird with your spare time. You have the same tools that we do — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. You have the same opportunities to make something amazing on the internet that we do.

So go ahead and make something. It’s the best way for you to learn — and it might be the best way for you to get noticed by a place like BuzzFeed.

———

That photo of Jonah Peretti was taken by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch, and used here thanks to a Creative Commons license.

What Happens After The Rocket Ship Levels Off?

The rocket ship levels off

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.

You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)

Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:

“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?

It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:

American Idol ratings by year

Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.

Keep that chart in mind for a second. Now look at this:

Upworthy before

That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)

Now let’s zoom out for a second:

Upworthy after

That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.

But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:

“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”

“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.

It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.

Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.

One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.

And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”

It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.

Yeah, sign me up for that kind of failure.

———

That photo of a rocket comes via SpaceX and Unsplash.

  1. I still stand by my Ruben Studdard vote.
  2. I’m going to pick on them for a second not because I dislike them — I actually think they’re doing really good work! — but because their last 4 years have been so well documented.

The Job I Didn’t Get In New York.

Dan Oshinsky, Director of Newsletters - BuzzFeed

Four years ago, I took a job at BuzzFeed. I didn’t know BuzzFeed would grow into the company it is today. I didn’t know I’d get to do the work I’ve done, or get to work with the team I have. I took a risk in taking the job, and it paid off.

This isn’t the story of how I got the job at BuzzFeed.

It’s the story of the job I nearly got three months earlier — one that would have been a total disaster.

It’s August 2012, and I’m living in Springfield, Missouri. It’s the final month for the Stry.us team in the Ozarks. At the end of the month, we’re all about to be unemployed. I have no idea what I’m doing next, but I know I’m done with Stry.us.

I start applying to jobs. I want to go to New York. I think it’s the next big step for me.

And that’s when I see this story on the Nieman Lab blog about a news organization that owns a dozen papers around the country. They’re opening up an office in NYC that’ll be the central hub for all those papers. It’ll be the news desk coordinating national stories for all their properties, and they need a senior editor who can work with all these papers — and occasionally parachute in with a team to run point on big, national stories.

It’s the job I’ve been training for this entire time.

I apply, and I get an email back four hours later from the editor-in-chief: Let’s talk.

I interview with her, and I nail it. I do a second phone interview, and I nail that, too. I do a third, with a senior advisor to the company. He loves me.

They offer to fly me out to New York to meet in person. It seems like a formality at this point: I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job.

I bomb the interview. I don’t know why, but I’m a trainwreck that day. I’m evasive and vague in my answers. They ask me some personal questions that I don’t know how to answer. The interview gets uncomfortable, and then more uncomfortable. And worst of all: The trip home takes forever. It’s a three-hour flight to St. Louis, and then a three-hour drive back to Springfield. For 6+ hours, all I can think about is how I’ve blown the chance at my dream job.

I never hear from the newspaper company in New York again.

And then… three months later, I get the job at BuzzFeed. I don’t know at the time that it’ll change my life, but it does. And two months after that, the newspaper company files for bankruptcy. They close their New York office soon after that. Everyone gets fired.

The day I bombed that interview, I thought I’d blown it. I thought I’d missed my one big change.

I had no idea that I’d just experienced one of the luckiest days of my life.

Had I nailed the interview, I would’ve gotten that job. And five months later, I would’ve been out of work.

Instead, I landed at BuzzFeed, and I got the chance to be a part of building something amazing.

I’m lucky to be lucky, I guess.

———

That photo was taken by Anthony Lindsey, and graciously re-used here with permission of Campaign Monitor.

Owning My Own Thing.

running, by Linh Nguyen

I am not old — but working at BuzzFeed sometimes makes me feel old.

Our staff is filled with so many awesome and truly talented young people. There are a lot of staffers in their early 20s. At 28 — almost 29 — I’m probably well above the median age at the company.

And the thing about working with so many young people is that every once in a while, you see someone truly kicking ass and realize: Oh, they’re five years younger than me.

Sometimes, a little bit of jealousy sets in. I’ll wonder: Why wasn’t I doing that when I was their age?

Whenever that happens, I have to remind myself of something I wrote four years ago about that exact phenomenon:

“I get jealous, sometimes, when I see 25 year olds who are way ahead of where I am. I get competitive. How’d that person pull off a book deal at 25? How’d they get a movie done? How’d they make their first million already?

But then I remember that this isn’t a 400-meter race. We’re not all shooting for the same end goal.

We’re all on different paths. We’re all running our own races at our own speeds.

It’s tough to tell where each of us is going now. It’s only with time — a decade, maybe more — that we’ll start to understand where we’ve been going.”

That last sentence really echoes with me now, this idea that it’s only with time that you understand where you’ve been going. If you’d asked me in September 2012 where I was headed, I wouldn’t have mentioned anything about BuzzFeed or newsletters. I thought I was on one path. Four years later, it’s clear I was headed somewhere different — and had no idea how fast I was getting there.

As for BuzzFeed in 2016: I get to work with so many awesome young people. I get to help them make great work, and they get to push me to make better things. We’re all on different paths, but at this very moment, we get to work with each other — and for that, I’m thankful.

And most importantly: I am doing my own thing, and I love it. I have to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and keep owning my own thing.

———

That absolutely awesome photo of someone running comes via photographer Linh Nguyen and Unsplash.

How We Measure Success On the BuzzFeed Newsletter Team.

A photo posted by BuzzFeedx (@buzzfeedx) on

Fast Company has a cover story on BuzzFeed this month. In it, Dao — our publisher, and my former boss — talks at length about how we interpret data at BuzzFeed. She even dives deep into how we do things on the newsletter team!

I want to highlight one passage. When asked, Is the newsletter team looking at click-through rate(1), she answered:

For a long time, it was: you want to get subscribers up, you want to get clicks up, you want to get unsubscribes down. But one of the things we talk about all the time is there is no one metric you are optimizing for. Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem. This obsession over time spent. In some way I feel that sort of rhetoric has died down. There really is no one metric.

I’ve learned a lot from Dao over the years. But one sentence in there really drives home Dao’s biggest message: “Anyone who just optimizes to one metric is going to eventually have a problem.”

What we’ve learned with newsletters is that there is no “silver bullet” metric. If you try to optimize your email for open rate, you’ll try to game the system with headlines that entice subscribers to click. (Case in point: “You’re Fired.”) But if you overpromise and underdeliver, you’ll lose subscribers in the long run. If you try to optimize for clicks, you’ll use bold colors and buttons. It’ll work well at first — but readers will learn to tune them out. There are dozens of other metrics out there for email. And what Dao’s taught me is true: If you focus all of your energy on a single metric, in the long run, you’ll fail.

So what we do at BuzzFeed is keep an eye on about five key metrics.(2) Knowing what matters most allows us to get a better understanding of how readers are using our newsletters. The data isn’t the full story — we still have to interpret it and figure out what our readers are trying to tell us from it. But in the long run, those data points help us iterate and build a better product.

And the same is true for any product you want to build. Try to pick a few metrics that give you a complete picture of the success of your work. If you’re a basketball coach, you can’t just tell your team to focus on 3-point shooting percentage — because that ignores huge metrics (rebounding, defensive field goal percentage, turnovers) that also make a difference in the outcome in a game. If you’re an app designer and the only metric is total downloads, you’ll do anything to game the system to get more downloads — while possibly neglecting an important set of metrics that can measure how much people like and use your app.

Point is: There is no silver bullet. The sooner you stop chasing one, the sooner you can start working to build a more complete product.

At top, a screenshot of BuzzFeed.com a decade ago.

  1. Click-through rate is a way to measure what percentage of readers who open a newsletter click through to a piece of content on our site.
  2. The five big ones right now: Subscription rate, open rate, click rate, clicks per 1000, mobile open rates.

I Started At BuzzFeed Three Years Ago Today, And This Is What Happened.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 4.04.00 PM

Today is my three-year anniversary at BuzzFeed. I remember my first day vividly. My then-boss, Dao Nguyen, was out sick. So Chris Johanesen, our head of product, welcomed me and showed me to my desk. “You know what you’re supposed to do, right?” he asked.

I most certainly did not.

I had built out Stry.us and launched Tools For Reporters. I had launched newsletters with both of those projects, and I had enough experience to know that newsletters could work at scale. But I didn’t know how to launch a project at this level. I didn’t know how to grow it, or even what I was looking for in a team. I wasn’t even sure if I would last long enough at BuzzFeed to hire a team!

And now on my three-year anniversary, I’m looking back with amazement at a few incredible facts:

-On Sunday, BuzzFeed newsletters drove its 100 millionth click to BuzzFeed.com. ONE HUNDRED MILLION CLICKS.

-In the chart at the top of this post, the giant blue hockey stick of a line is traffic to the site on a month-by-month basis. How did we even do that?

-To put everything in perspective: The week I started, our five automated newsletters were driving 14,000 clicks a week. We’ve grown from those five newsletters to a dozen core newsletters, plus another 10 automated newsletters (like this) and original newsletters in four other countries on four different continents. Pretty good!

-When I started, we had fewer than 20,000 subscriptions across our newsletters. Now, we’ve got more than 2 million subscriptions across our lists. (And we’ve got plenty of room to grow!)

-The team’s grown from me to a team of four in New York, plus another half dozen BuzzFeeders around the world who pitch in to write newsletters in three different languages every week.

-Our newsletters used to be automated, and almost unreadable on your phone. Now every newsletter is written by a human, and they’re all responsively designed.

How’d we achieve all this? By testing out lots of weird ideas (This Week In Cats, anyone?) and spending a lot of time looking at the data and trying to figure out where it was pointing us. By being super clear in our mission: to send newsletters that were always useful and delightful. And by seeking out great people who could bring the ideas, energy, and work to take newsletters to amazing places.

Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of growing newsletters into such an tremendous program at BuzzFeed. Here’s to what we’ve accomplished — and to everything we’ll learn between now and our billionth click. (Hey, we’re 10% of the way there already!)

What I Learned As A One-Man Band (Working Within A Larger Company)

I got asked the other day about how you make it work as a one-man band — if you’re starting at a decently sized company, but you’re the only advocate for what you do.

And I told this person:

At BuzzFeed, when we launched email, I was the only staffer fully devoted to email. Every single newsletter that was sent in 2013 — and they numbered in the thousands — was written by me. (It was a lot. I wouldn’t recommend doing that.)

But now, we’ve three — and soon to be four — others helping write our newsletters, and the email team continues to grow.

So how’d we get from there to here?

-We set simple goals for the products we wanted to launch.

-We figured out the metrics that were more important, and worked hard to meet — and exceed — those numbers. But we didn’t obsess over those day-to-day numbers, especially if the overall feedback about the product was strong.

-We launched things quickly. Like I always write: When you build something with Good/Better/Done in mind, you’re able to get it out the door quickly, and then improve it as you go.

-We didn’t waste motion. After the first few weeks, we didn’t spend too much time talking about the What Ifs before a launch. We picked a target, we roped in the necessary people we needed for support, and we got the product out the door. Everything up until launch is an exercise in theory — so just get the thing launched.

I knew when I started at BuzzFeed that I was going to have to work like a crazy person to get email off the ground. But now it’s starting to take off. And as it has, my bosses have been hugely supportive of the project, and are helping give it the fuel it needs to grow.

I couldn’t have done this alone forever. But to start, I didn’t need a lot.

That photo of an actual one-man band comes via Flickr’s William Ward.

Data + Story.

kiyomi and taro shibas, on the couch

Two weeks ago, while I was writing out my annual “What I Believe” post, I had a small epiphany, and jotted this down:

If you can show it in a spreadsheet, you can sell it. And if you can pair that data with a great story, you’ve really got something.

In my job at BuzzFeed, I report to two people: Dao, our director of traffic; and Erica, our managing editor. With Dao, it’s all about numbers. Show her that the numbers are trending upward, and she’ll listen.

With Erica — and any of the other editors at BuzzFeed — it’s all about the story. If you can tell a great story, they’ll listen.

When you pair those together, that’s when the magic really happens. I wrote that when you put them together, “you’ve really got something.” Which is true.

But what I really meant to say is: When you pair them together, you’ve really earned respect. In your work, you’ll have to sell your ideas to others. One of the secrets to sales is being able to pair data and a great story. Get those two elements together, and they’ll not only listen — they’ll follow you where you want to go.

That’s a photo of two shibas, because, you know, BuzzFeed. It comes via Taro the Shiba Inu on Flickr.

Building Big Things Never Happens Fast.

“Velocity, not speed.” — Siqi Chen

 
There is a funny misconception that exists in the general public about building big companies. They see something like Instagram, which sold for a billion dollars, and think: The path from A to B(illionaire) doesn’t take that long.

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I work at BuzzFeed now. That photo at top is what our office looks like today.

But this is what it looked like in 2007, in the earliest days of BuzzFeed.

Not quite as exciting, right?

I remember those types of days at Stry.us. I remember sleeping on the floor in a small apartment next to a cow pasture. I remember that when I hit the “Sleeping On A Floor In A Small Apartment Next To A Cow Pasture” point, that was actually a big milestone for Stry.us.

Good things come slowly. You build with good people. You find ways to hang in the game as long as you can.

The road is slow and long and kind of boring sometimes. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, that’s okay. Building big things isn’t for everyone.

But if that sounds like something you like? Well, start as soon as you can. You’re going to need all the time you have.