Recently, the New York Times reported that BuzzFeed, the website famous for its numbered lists (often of cute animals/funny movies), had received an influx of $50 million from Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
This was big news for 50 million different reasons. Those who follow Marc Andreessen on Twitter know how bullish he’s been about the news industry; whether BuzzFeed counts as “news” is a separate debate. One might argue that BuzzFeed’s competition actually looks more like Google than the Times: With an astounding 150 million average monthly viewers, those “listicles” start to look more like a pure traffic play than a content play.
But what jumped out at me was a different number: 75 percent, the share of BuzzFeed’s traffic that comes from social media. This is huge. Giant. And in my view, it means that BuzzFeed’s genius lies not in its design or its millennial-ness or even its content, but rather in its distribution strategy. By using social media to optimize content for different audiences at different moments of the day — by thinking about content in the context of a much larger journey — BuzzFeed has effectively redefined the future of content. And that’s a very good thing.
Recently, I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend a year in residence at Stanford University, as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. Having spent my career working mostly in local news (most recently, as editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico), I went there in hopes of figuring out a better future for the business of local news. After months of interviews, I had a rough understanding of the problem: Newspapers had once monopolized distribution, thereby controlling access to a captive audience. The Internet had disrupted this, flinging wide the floodgates so anyone could produce or consume whatever content they wanted.
It’s tempting to seek answers in beautiful, interactive, Pulitzer Prize-winning content. It’s tempting to believe that if we just find the right audience, they’ll come back and even help pay for the content they consume. Instead, I believe that the future of content hinges on thinking about it in an entirely new way: As a journey, not a destination.
Here’s what I mean: By the time Jane Doe clicks through a tweet to a BuzzFeed article, she — not to mention the content itself — has already undergone a journey. She’s seen it in another user’s feed, read it, and decided it was worth clicking. Maybe she’ll get to the post, read the first few lines, and send out her own tweet about it. This should not be accidental: Writers, editors, and social media managers should be thinking about how to facilitate these kinds of interactions by getting the right content to the right people at the right time.
“Content marketing is one of the most overused business buzzwords right now,” says David B. Thomas, senior director of content and engagement for Salesforce.com. “Companies are being told to become publishers. The problem is that most marketers don’t know what that means.”
Becoming a publisher doesn’t just mean turning your press releases into blog posts, Thomas adds. “If you want people to read and share your content, you need to focus on what they need, not what you want to tell them.”
“What’s keeping your customers awake at night? If you make their lives easier, they will read and share your content. And the solution you offer needs to be something more than, ‘Buy our stuff.'”
Of course, thinking about content as a journey can be more labor-intensive and time-consuming than simply writing a blog post and plopping it onto your homepage. But thinking strategically can also save us time and energy. Gone are the days when we thought the “24-hour news cycle” meant we had to be producing content at every moment of the day to “feed the beast”; today, we know that different beasts are hungry for different things at different times.
And we don’t all have to be BuzzFeed. At Salesforce.com, our goal is to publish useful, interesting content that helps people solve business problems. By partnering with Re/code, we’re hoping to reach beyond our usual audience, to sectors where we think our viewpoints and products will resonate. We’re not going for 150 million readers; we’re going for the right readers. We’re hoping to get the right content to them at the right time. As much data as we have, this is still equal parts art and science. But that’s the fun of it.
Alexa Schirtzinger is Senior Manager, Content, at Salesforce.com.
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