It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.
Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:
Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:
Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.
As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.
The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:
There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.
Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:
[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.
As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.
Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.
You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”
In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.
Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.
Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”
“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:
[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.