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On Monday October 10 published an 11,000-word article entitled The Dash For Cash: Leaked Files Reveal RBS Systematically Crushed British Businesses For Profit. The piece is an in-depth report in conjunction with BBC Newsnight, highlighting the bank’s alleged scheme to boost its profits by exploiting and destroying small businesses.

It’s a serious piece of investigative journalism; the work of four journalists featuring leaked internal documents, quotes from all the major players, heavy research and exclusive revelations about one of the world’s largest and oldest financial institutions.

Reading the piece, it struck me just how much Buzzfeed has grown up. After all, this is the same site that brought us ‘the 25 gayest animals’, ‘15 hedgehogs with things that look like hedgehogs’ and ‘Which Ousted Arab Spring Ruler Are You?’

Buzzfeed had become the very embodiment of depressing clickbait: a race to the bottom of the content barrel that has infected blogs and mainstream news sites the world over. But since 2014, its ‘I-team’, the brainchild of Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist, Mark Schoofs, has produced the kind of hardline news reportage you’d normally associate with a broadsheet.

This maturity is something that brands should be taking notice of. In an era where 83,000 blog posts are published every hour and over half go unread, any new or existing content marketing strategy needs to play by different rules to make an impact.

This week’s round-up will analyse what we can learn from Buzzfeed, and how we can use our content more intelligently to maximise its effectiveness.

Focus, focus, focus

First up, you need a target to hit. In an interview with Fast Company earlier this year, Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti stated his dream to build a 100-year media company: you don’t do that with funny cat blogs. You do that by producing work that lasts, and work that matters.

With SMEs and brands looking to content to help them grow, this focus matters too. Knowing both the company mission, plus the targets for the next 12 months, 2 years and beyond gives a framework for the content to perform within. You want to double your turnover next year? Cool. Now, what’s the content that is going to best help that aim? Having a clear goal gives a sense check to every piece of content that goes out the door. What is the point of this article and how will it contribute to the overall aims of the business?

 

When we began writing content in 2012, we produced a blog for a work clothing company. We set up a separate WordPress blog for them and we posted content every week. The site looked like crap, the content wasn’t optimised and there was no distribution strategy, but within three months it was generating more traffic than the main company site. That scattergun approach simply doesn’t work any more. Focus is everything.

Hiring the best

Buzzfeed’s move into hard news has not been overnight, but it has been well-planned, and key to its success has been hiring the best writers and journalists it can. Hiring Schoofs gave Buzzfeed gravitas and showed how serious they were about moving into mainstream reporting, plus gave other journos the confidence that they wouldn’t be joining a two-bit, viral schlock company, but one with serious chops.

Thinking of getting your intern to bash out a couple of posts each week? Think again. Readers are more mature and more fickle than ever. If an opening line doesn’t excite, if a message doesn’t connect, or the article doesn’t have a clarity of purpose, forget it. At the very least you should hire a professional freelance writer. Better still, a business that understands your company and can align and deliver an effective strategy tied to your overall goals.

Loving the data (and learning from it)

Data scientist Ky Harlin was one of Buzzfeed’s first 25 employees, charged with the job of discovering exactly what articles were going viral, and why. Skip forward to 2016, and the site attracts over 180 million unique views a month. This isn’t by luck. The site understands its audience and the individual platforms the content is hosted on—constantly tweaking and honing its output based on the data.

Buzzfeed operates on an intimidating scale, and has invested seriously in data analytics to predict the future. Most of us have Google Analytics which essentially tells us the past. But we still need to be aware of the lessons the data is telling us. Yes, it’s great to boast high traffic numbers, but it’s equally important to learn from what you could be doing better.

 

As Buzzefeed’s Dao Nguyen says: “Knowing our top-line numbers is useful for understanding large trends and for bragging (yes, we do brag!), but it doesn’t help us make better content or connect with our audiences. Ultimately, the reason we care about data is that we hope to learn something from it. We should look to other, smaller numbers for that.”

Distribute well

“Our CEO, Jonah Peretti, started talking about BuzzFeed’s distributed strategy to internal teams in January 2015, says Nguyen; “Instead of focusing primarily on our website and apps, and using social networks as a way to send traffic to them, we were going to aggressively publish our content directly to platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat.” This push was partially down to the data (as mentioned previously), but it also comes from a proactivity and knowing what content works well, where.

You are not going to replicate Buzzfeed’s distribution strategy. Ever. BUT, what we can take from their strategy is the need to effectively deliver the content you produce. A social strategy is key, and of course you should know which channels your audience is likely to be loitering around in. An email marketing campaign should also be a high priority, both for existing customers and prospective ones.

But a lot of people forget how direct content can also be. When you’re producing weekly content, what you’re actually doing is creating a hub of collateral marketing material. The whole team needs to know what’s on the blog, and the whole team should be primed to use the content where relevant. The principle of ‘saw this and thought of you’ is one of the most direct ways of using your content, but it’s also one of the most personal. If you have an article relevant to a conversation you’ve had with a prospect in your locker, send it to them.

Get the mix right

At the risk of contradicting myself, Buzzfeed hasn’t suddenly had a moment of clarity and focused all its energy on creating hard-hitting reports. A glance at its front page this morning still brings up the listicles and trash you’d expect it to. What Buzzfeed News, however, has done is provide the business with authority, and it’s this authority which builds respect, attracts peers, attracts readers and gains attention. And it’s not just Buzzfeed: Vice strikes this balance well, too, as does Snapchat-funded Real LIfe magazine.

Generic list pieces aren’t likely to build your brand, so you need to find the value you can offer, and write the hell out of it.

When Mark Schoofs was looking for writers to join the Buzzfeed investigative team, the ad asked for writers who could “report like a pit bull, write like an angel”. Similarly, a content strategy should be savage and single-minded in its attack while the content itself needs to be compelling, definitive and heavenly. So go do that.

Clickbait does still work, but the way. And you won’t believe how we’ve helped our clients with their content marketing. Number three will blow your mind…

 

Photo credit:

Buzzfeed logo via Wikimedia Commons

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I’m the Head of Content for Future Content and the man in charge of words. As a former journalist for a number of publications, from Chat to MailOnline to that’s Shanghai, I have a wealth of editorial experience and a way of making words do good.