VIVID Ideas Review: The Rise of the Cat Memes Empire with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

The first fifteen minutes of the live discussion saw Jonah Peretti, CEO of Buzzfeed, probed by Leigh Sales, anchorwoman of ABC’s 7.30, Dr Phil-style. This was Vivid Ideas’ first Game-Changer talk for 2017, and quoting Peretti, following questions on where he was born, what his childhood was like and which teachers supported him the most, ‘this is not the direction I thought this talk would take’. Those of us who were patient and retained faith in Sales’ approach reaped the benefits of understanding the environment in which Peretti grew up in and the context of which BuzzFeed was born. When you look beyond the cat photos, memes and quizzes and into the psychology and data-driven decisions, you realise that so much of BuzzFeed is Peretti and so much of Peretti is Buzzfeed.

‘Being dyslexic taught me from a very early age that I can’t be good at everything,’ said Californian-born and raised Peretti. He struggled with reading, admitting that he was probably only able to read at a functional level at a high school age. But the idea of having to be a well-rounded individual, a concept that is often instilled from young age, he says is a flaw in our education system and upbringing. Instead, Peretti focused his time and energy working on things he was passionate about and could excel at. Knowing that he could not be everything to every endeavour, he says is the cornerstone of his brand of entrepreneurship, he is comfortable with asking for help. This gave him the understanding of the importance in building a great team at BuzzFeed and to delegate tasks to people better equipped to solve it rather than doing it all on his own.

Peretti had his first taste of virality when the e-mail thread between himself and Nike was forwarded to over millions of e-mails globally. For a phenomenon like this to occur in the days before social media platforms and sharable news, was remarkable. What he found curious regarding this wasn’t strictly speaking the social justice issues (the e-mail exchange was in regards to Peretti’s request to print ‘sweat shop’ on a pair of Nike ID shoes), but that somehow this story had all the right elements . This is the framework of viral content, it isn’t informational content of the best quality or with the most pressing story. It’s content that is social, conversational and has all the drivers to create a desire to share it.

Digressing further into the topic of content, the rule of thumb Peretti says is that good content invokes a response and not only forms a connection with the audience but between the audience and their social networks. He divvies content up loosely into two categories: humour and identity. Humorous content is akin to telling an upset friend a joke to cheer them up, what the joke was isn’t important it’s about how it made them feel. Cat photos and memes are thusly important as vessels that facilitate the feeling of closeness between two people through that bond. Identity content serves a dual purpose, firstly of again creating that closeness between people who share the same background on themes such as ‘23 Signs You Were Raised By Asian Immigrant Parents’. Secondly (and arguably of paramount importance), as communication to people outside of your culture or background to showcase minority viewpoints.

When your audience is every person on the planet with an Internet connection, you realise that a piece of content’s share-ability also hinges on its delivery. For this reason, BuzzFeed has teams all across the globe, creating local content but also localising content from other markets to make it relevant to their intended audience. This is why visual content that transcends language such as images and video spread the most easily, sometimes faster than BuzzFeed can even localise, and how the rise of visual culture even in mainstream media has come into play.

For a creative-inclined organisation, it’s surprising that the shape and form of BuzzFeed’s work isn’t dictated purely by a team of veteran producers and editors. It’s you and me and the world, in the form of data. Peretti gives the example of video, touted as the hottest form of content of 2017 based on information found within data. But an astute organisation that utilises and respects data doesn’t just farm it for the sake of it, he says. At BuzzFeed, they are constantly sceptical of the data they find. On the topic of video, many within the industry took the average video retention rate falling around three minutes to mean that this was the suitable compromise between watch time and reach. BuzzFeed realised instead that three minutes was suboptimal and that they should instead be making both longer videos and shorter videos. The success of this inference is mirrored in @buzzfeedtasty, BuzzFeed’s Instagram food arm which produces sped-up 30-40 second videos that are watched by hundreds of millions of people a month and some of BuzzFeed’s YouTube series such as Worth It which are typically 12-15 minutes long and receive well over a million views per video.

In an era of alternative facts, fake news and filtered content, it’s refreshing to hear that Peretti and by extension, BuzzFeed, feel a responsibility to their audience to not just provide entertainment but to inform them of public affairs and issues of cultural importance. Another key takeaway is their utilisation of data to develop the sweet spot between creativity and technology. With numerous media organisations attempting to duplicate the success, it’s impressive that BuzzFeed has retained their lead through constant disruption of their own business practices to ensure they aren’t anchored to processes for processes’ sake. Most poignant of all lies in BuzzFeed’s ability to still operate as a media company while staying true to their authenticity.

Jonah Peretti featured as part of Vivid Idea’s Game-Changers series on Sunday 28th May 2017. Head to the official website to see what else is coming up. 

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