What Jonah Peretti Taught Me About Journalism: Make it Emotional, Social, Shareable

One of the highlights of my trip to SXSW, the music, film and interactive festival in Austin that ended last week, was hearing Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, speak Buzzfeed,although still a startup, gets 40 million unique visitors a month, 40% per cent of whom read it on mobile devices.

Is Peretti, who also co-founded Huffington Post, a great journalist? Nope. He’s a guy who. while a grad student at MIT Media Lab, experimented with how to make things go viral. Read his Wikipedia page; it’s hilarious.

His key target audience? The “bored at work” network. The bored at work network is made up of people who have to spend all day at a desk on a computer, but who aren’t necessarily working all the time. These people use their mental breaks to shop online, and also to share content. If Buzzfeed puts out some content that interests them – say, a cat photo or a diet that gets you into a bikini in 24 hours – this network will share it because they can.

With the rise of the smart phone, a second, even larger network emerged: the bored in line network.
Mobile used to be where viral died, but now its where viral lives. Even reporters are part of the bored at work network, often scanning online for story ideas.

From his youthful experiments, Peretti concluded that if you want something to be seen by a large audience, half the time should be spent on the idea, and the other half on how to spread it. If content is attractive to people on social networks, it can get as much as 34x the traffic as it gets on the original site. So Buzzfeed went to the market with social and shareable content, becoming quickly known for its quirky cat videos.

However, that wasn’t Peretti’s total intent. He wanted to have a place for long form serious journalism that was equally shareable, so he hired Ben Smith, the highly respected reporter from Politico, to be his political editor. Smith broke the story of Romney’s running mate, and now Buzzfeed has lots of serious journalism.

What kind of news is good for social sharing? Scoops are good (everyone wants to be the first to know). So is any story that’s a matrix of fact and emotion.

So good sites should be like a Paris cafe: philosophy and politics are vociferously discussed, but dogs are allowed, and discussions stop to pet the dog. That’s why you like your Facebook news feed; it’s a combination of inspirational quotations, family news, and fascinating photos.

Only certain topics, however, lend themselves to sharing. To make you share something, you have to identify with it in some emotional way. Nostalgia is social. Breaking news about things like the Jody Arias trial or a tsunami are social. Humor is inherently social, as are cute animals. Buzzfeed did a promotional campaign with Toyotus Prius called “25 Hybrid Animals You will Love.” It got millions of shares and views.

This, people, is the future of journalism: emotional, sharable, and social. Get used to it.


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