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An article in the Financial Times entitled "BuzzFeed slashes forecasts after missing 2015 targets" brings about the startling news that the Listicle makin' gif sharin' take-me-seriously-as-a-journalist writin' company projected $250 million in revenues last year, but made less than $170 million. For the mathematically challenged, it means they were off by a whopping eighty million and change. Further, the article said Buzzfeed's 2016 projections, initially at 500 million, has been revised downward to 250 million.
Like most companies who operate in the digital sphere, and make sure through harmless looking quizzes that we share everything about our lives so they can in turn serve targeted ads, Buzzfeed is less than transparent about its actual numbers. They chose instead to release an innocuous statement that they are very happy with where they are right now and happy with where they are going etc., etc. Sure.
Because I do not have a microwave mentality and I'm not swayed by shiny objects or gifs, I would prefer to talk about where Buzzfeed has been to get to the root problem. I could care less about where they think they are going; it's already been proven by their revenue projections that they're wrong. So let's get to it.
Buzzfeed is run like a Tech company.
Permissionless innovation is another way of saying "We don't know what we're doing so we'll wing it and hope for the best." This leads to chaos, and confusion in the work place. And the worker bees don't like that because they get the sense the leaders are winging it. In January, Buzzfeed went through consolidation and, my favorite euphemism, restructuring. While Buzzfeed called the people who were let go, part of "regular attrition," and not "layoffs," the Yahoo Finance article seems to debunk that.
Some of the staffers who were let go this week were not told why they were being fired, sources tell Yahoo Finance. Four former BuzzFeed employees, speaking to Yahoo Finance on the condition of anonymity, say that this is commonplace at the nine-year-old company, where management has continually reorganized to accommodate growth.
BuzzFeed has a recurring public forum where employees can submit questions to editor-in-chief Ben Smith and publisher Jonah Peretti. "People keep submitting the question, 'My co-workers keep disappearing, why is that happening?'" says an employee who recently left. "And Ben says, ‘That doesn’t happen here, anyone who is let go has gone through months of performance reviews, they’ve been put on notice, they know why they’re being let go.’ That is just not true."
Indeed, in an all-staff email from 2014, obtained by Yahoo Finance, Ben Smith addressed this problem. "What we try to do, and will try to get better at: Make sure things don't come out of a blue sky, and if things aren't working, that you know from your editor that there's an issue and you're trying to fix it,” he wrote. According to multiple sources, this is still an issue at the company: writers are frequently cut without warning. BuzzFeed declined to comment on this subject.
Buzzfeed is more interested in manufacturing news than reporting.
Back in 2015, a writer at Buzzfeed put on their squinty glasses to drum up controversy about a headline on a Bud Light bottle, claiming it promoted rape culture, based on anonymous tweets, etc. This caused Bud Light to apologize for a headline. What was the headline? "The perfect beer for removing no from your vocabulary." Not "the perfect beer for removing no from her vocabulary." Which is why semantics matter and why good journalism matters, too. To drum up eyeballs, they forgo professionalism. The new sport of course is trolling brands and forcing them to apologize for whatever manufactured outrage possible. It's low hanging nasty fruit, but if the Gawker Hulk Hogan trial is any indication, that kind of sleaze behaviour doesn't bode well for the media outlet.
It also doesn't bode well for brands who have the option to choose not to advertising on the site any more. In the case of Gawker, brands have already chosen to walk away. I suspect Buzzfeed's missing its projections by more than a mile is also due in part to advertising revenue slumps. Whether or not it's because the brands finally know better is something I can only speculate.
Advertisers and maybe, just maybe, the public, are getting fed up with this kind of content.
Such is the need to feed the ever hungry content beast that Buzzfeed was notorious (probably still is, I haven't visited it in ages) for stealing content, or attributing a source after the fact and only in wee type at the bottom. Back in 2013, a photo I took was ganked and put up in an Buzzfeed article. This is the same reason that they recycle listicles all the time. It is also the same reason multiple imitators have popped up like Upworthy, whose traffic, by the way, has also dropped. People are tired of seeing the same stuff over and over again. It only takes modicum of focus before you realize companies who steal content, don't attribute it properly, and keep recycling the same content is a site that isn't worth much at all. Not to you, and not to brands.
The Financial Times article states that, while Buzzfeed still draws stupid amounts of numbers and we all know how easily it is to fake those but regardless, traffic isn't enough to make revenue. The ad model can only scale so much. A few years ago Jonah Peretti showed up to my agency to push the Buzzfeed's Snake Oil. Not one creative in the room was interested. Why in the hell would I leave the content in the hands of an employee whose main job is to create headlines like "13 Reasons why McDreamy is still McDreamy?" Answer: I wouldn't. And no self-respecting creative would. I'm starting to suspect a lot of agencies and their clients have wised up. Why spend the money on a media outlet that doesn't move the needle?
Buzzfeed is now chasing the content dream, putting up shop in L.A. along with every other media outlet from Vice to College Humor to Company Du Jour, hoping they can chase the money dragon to better times and bigger revenues.
I watch from across the street, almost literally, as this happens. And what I don't see is permissionless innovation any more. I smell desperation and a gaggle of ethically-challenged sleazeballs blundering their way to the next big thing, shitting on advertisers while begging for their money, making hubristic projections that are way way off, and hoping for enough revenue to keep the investor chumps coming. Or better yet, a buyout all together.
In other words, I see the same thing as I did when they first set up shop.