On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, BuzzFeed’s Ze Frank talked about finding the sweet spot for shareable video length and topics — turns out, “40 seconds” and “food” are just right.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Ze at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Ze Frank. Ze, I normally describe you as the king of BuzzFeed video. You have a more formal title. What’s the actual title?
Ze Frank: [laughs] Thanks for having me. I’m the president of BuzzFeed Entertainment Group, newly.
That’s a new title. Before, you were called something else and you guys have shuffled the org. Actually, let’s just talk about that now and get it over with and have the rest of the conversation.
The way I view it, there’s BuzzFeed News, I don’t know if it’s actually called that. Ben Smith runs that. Smart, in general. Lots of scoops …
That is what it’s called. BuzzFeed News.
They’re on the East Coast. You run all the video stuff over here in Los Angeles and that’s where I think a lot of the company’s energy seems to be going. There’s a big debate about that. Anyway, you guys put out a memo, tried to explain it. There was a New York Times story that tried to explain what was going on. You in your own words can explain to us, the podcast listeners, how you guys have reshuffled the org and why.
Yeah, sure. I think that it was really a simplification of the structure. BuzzFeed News is amazing. It’s growing, it’s international. Increasingly the idea of having video as a medium be segmented just didn’t make sense.
You made all the video. There really was no news video for the most part, right?
There was some news video. We had recently had Henry Goldman, who is one of the very first hires in my group, go and join Ben.
Right, but you have literally a hangar full of people.
We have many hangars full of people.
You have many hangars full of people.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You showed me a year ago — maybe you’ve multiplied since then — but you have hundreds of people working on this stuff. They were all making video that was not related to the news stuff.
Yeah, that’s true. Both Ben and I had been looking at different ways of thinking about news and video. I think Ben rightly for a long time felt like news was best served as text and images. And we had a lot of back and forth about what the best strategy to go into that area was. I think that over time the idea of a segmented video department, like I just said, just felt like having a segmented mobile department. Right? It just felt behind the times. It’s a horizontal capability. There was a great title of an article which I didn't read which said “video is the new HTML.” And I do think that that’s right. I think it’s a literacy …
So we can pull it out a little bit from BuzzFeed and make it broader. There’s this big overarching momentum toward video. It’s coming from viewers, it’s coming from platforms like Facebook. We’re doing video. Publishers are saying we’re doing video and there’s a lot of logic to it. I think for folks like myself, who don’t make video, really, for the most part, grew up typing stuff, there’s a thought of, “Well, what are we going to do in that world, where the world’s moving toward images, visual images? It’s traditionally not something we’ve done." It seems like that was some of the tension going on at BuzzFeed, maybe still is. But what does the world look like for people who don’t make video?
Well, I don’t think that it fundamentally shifts that much, but if you look at where ... I mean, I think that the best work that we do, and I think a really good indicator of where things are moving, is where content and communication come together. And that’s really what is happening in Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook. And there’s a fluidity. It’s a hybridization of images, of moving images, of text, and video. And, you know, increasingly with cellphones and livestreams, there’s a literacy in visual aesthetics and visual communication that are just becoming part of culture.
We can get super nerdy about this, but do you think this is where humans just always have been and just that there’s now technology that’s bringing them moving pictures on their phones that they can carry around in their pocket? Or do you think something’s changed where people want this and they didn’t want it 10 years ago or 50 years ago.
It’s a really interesting question. You know, if you want to ... there’s ideas around pre-oral and post-oral culture.
Oh, I totally screwed this up. My whole fear is ... you’ve got a linguistics degree, right?
No, not at all. Not at all.
You have a fancy degree from Brown, right?
Neuroscience, excuse me.
It has zero application to this conversation.
You were going to brain me out of this …
No, no, the simple way of thinking about it is that communication that is rooted in visual aesthetics has a different kind of information flow than text does. Text is a much deeper rarification of information. And the way that you communicate, the things that you communicate about, are actually very different. And visual culture, you get a lot more bytes or bits of data with facial gestures, with all this other stuff. So I do think that it’s something that is innate.
I think that it’s probably too early to tell what it actually starts to shift in terms of industries and culture broadly. But we’re seeing a lot of it already just in how rapid the takeoff of video was. And I think maybe the most telling aspect of it was this unintended effect of when Facebook introduced the autoplay, where it just became obvious that people didn’t need sound. And that has shifted everything.
Because that was supposed to be sort of a Band-Aid thing, right? Like, “Until we can figure out how to do this, we’re just going to not run any sound so you don’t get stuff coming at you.”
Yeah, exactly. And then it turned out that watching things without sound ... I mean, anecdotally, I will say that when I take long flights, I catch myself watching the screen in front of me with no sound [laughs] and watching a full movie that my seat neighbor is watching.
So the first movies didn’t have sound. Now we’re in 2016, we’re making movies without sound. Do you think this is a temporary thing? Or do you think we’re going to change the way we do communication and sort of de-emphasize sound?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if ... I mean, the de-emphasis would just come out of the scale. I still think that there’s going to be a significant proportion of video consumed with audio because audio adds massive amounts of information. But I do think that an increased …
If you want to see “Star Wars” without the sound, it changes radically, right? It’s not as interesting.
Yeah, it changes radically, but it’s still pretty exciting. I think the one thing is with globalization and the fact that a lot of borders and territories are kind of getting chopped down — and I’m thinking mainly in entertainment media where it’s been a highly territorial market and things get adapted and there’s a formats market in Cannes every year — but the big social platforms, it’s big global audiences, and if you want to take advantage of some of the biggest opportunities right now in lightweight entertainment, which is hitting global audiences, learning about other cultures, having cultures see themselves through different lenses, it’s post-literate. It’s really about post-literalism, and then it’s also about adaptation.
So you say post-literate — you think that’s a good thing? Because some people would hear that or see that and go, “This is the end of the world; we’re making stuff that can travel everywhere,” which means that you have to dumb it down. If you’re making something that someone in China and the U.S. can enjoy equally, that means you’ve just flattened it out and it’s just sort of babble.
Yeah, I come in contact with those kind of people [laughs]. I don’t know what to say. I mean, that’s a very defensive viewpoint.
I’m a defensive person.
I always like to think that regardless of who you are or what you’re doing for someone else, you’re an example that culture is in decline. [PK laughs] And this is just another example of that. I do think that you lose things in big cultural transitions that involve media norms shifting. But you also gain a lot, and there’s a kind of shakeout period where you have to mourn the things that you’re losing and embrace the things that are coming out of it.
That’s kind of the story of the internet, right?
I think it is.
You take some things down, you continue things in return, you get to weigh which thing you liked.
But there is a real loss. There’s no question about it. I do think that there are some things that we lose and I do think that it is a fair point. I don’t think that dumbing it down is necessarily how I would look at it. I think it’s the accentuation of different values. And you see that quite a bit with the sort of values around diversity, around identity, and these sort of softer skills that avoid intellectual dissection as easily.
I’m afraid of intellectual dissection. Let’s pull it back further. I mean dumb it down for myself.
If for some reason you’re still listening to this and you don’t know what BuzzFeed does in terms of video, give us a sense of scale and scope, how much stuff you guys are putting out, how many folks are watching this stuff.
Well, so, why don’t we actually take it back ... I think that before I do that, it would be good to just go through the split a little bit more specifically.
So BuzzFeed News, Ben Smith. Global news operation. This gives him the ability to double down where he sees fit without, you know, having an arbitrary companion that he has to clear budgets or strategy through. Obviously I work very closely with Ben, but I think this gives him an opportunity to put those priorities first. BuzzFeed Entertainment Group is BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, which is shows, characters, personalities.
There’s going to be movies? Actual movies?
Yeah, movies as well, yup.
No TV shows yet?
In development right now with a number of different partners. Matthew Henick is our head of development and has lots of different projects in play. Television, I think, is still a pretty exciting opportunity. I love digital media. It’s where my heart is. And I think that the SVOD and AVOD and the continued expansion of those spaces provides a really great play space with things that will look very familiar.
That’s the Netflixes of the world, and AVOD is …
The Amazons. AVOD would be YouTube and Facebook to some extent. Although they’re signalling a shift in that marketplace.
So you’re doing all that, and then you’ve also taken some of the …
There’s Tasty. Tasty is another organization under the entertainment group. And that’s just this giant juggernaut which is, you know, it’s a food brand. It also has spun out other lifestyle brands like Nifty and Top Knot.
My notes say “Ask about Tasty.” So I’m going to ask about Tasty later.
Okay. And then the third is BuzzFeed editorial, which is Peggy Wang, Tommy Wesely. They’ve been running this incredible group that is the intellectual powerhouse, I think, of social publishing for us.
This is what people talk about, the lists, quizzes …
Lists, quizzes, all that kind of stuff.
Everything that’s not news but it appears on a screen that doesn’t have moving stuff around. So all the lists. This week the hot quiz, at least in my social graph, is the “how millennial are you?” graph. Am I in a tiny bubble where that’s not really popular broadly? Or is everyone loving that quiz right now?
Yeah, no, no. Really, that’s where most of the real development of BuzzFeed’s thinking about social has come from. And a lot of our videos …
The creation of lists and quizzes like that.
All that stuff. It’s been this fast-paced iteration lab, and a lot video success has come out of adapting the big winners there for video. And so that group is now starting to not only think about the O&O [owned and operated] and the app but also starting to think about where the density of social publishing is happening for millennials right now, which is Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and these other platforms. So it’s a new …
So you have all the fun stuff.
You have all the stuff that’s growing really fast.
It really depends on what you consider fun. If you hang out with Ben for a couple days, you realize that there’s a whole other category of fun.
Ben has a very particular idea of fun that I actually gravitate to as well. But this is also where a lot of the money is going, right? Advertisers really like this stuff, whether it’s the listicles, and especially the video. So it seems like we talk about a split, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a real split. It seems like a lot of the weight of BuzzFeed has sort of shifted under you. And frankly it seems like it had been that way for a while.
It’s the entertainment part of our content generation. The advertising portion of our business is not under me. That was another shift that happened fairly recently.
But you make the stuff that the advertising asks you, right?
No, we have a large branded-content group.
Oh, so the group that’s created the branded videos, that’s a whole separate organization. You don’t touch that anymore.
Yeah, under Greg Coleman. Our organization is such that everyone touches everything and we’re always in constant conversation. Most of the successes we’ve had have been by linking all the different parts of our organization, which increasingly — I would expect that one of the kinds of questions that you would have is that, in an entertainment and news paradigm in a distributed economy, you are left with all these kinds of disconnected pillars all over the place. You have a giant Facebook operation, you have a Snapchat operation, you have an O&O. And the key to it has been linking those things together. So there’s no way that I can go a week without having a conversation with Greg or Jim White or anyone in that part of the organization and likewise with Ben’s organization.
So, all right, so we’ve figured out the org chart. We’ll zoom back and just again, if you’re listening, you know what this is, right? You know that you have this giant video juggernaut and that you were early to sort of figuring out social video, Facebook video. It seems like you guys have really solved Facebook video. I assume you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out Snapchat. Are there platforms that you don’t feel like you have a handle on yet?
I actually still think that video on Facebook is evolving quite a bit. I think that that’s one of the most interesting pieces of creating entertainment content, certainly, is that the context constantly shifts, right? And I think that we certainly contributed in pulling media culture towards us, or at least the trend ended up around something that we were fairly familiar with. And so, you know, I still feel like there’s a lot left to explore there around different vertical categories.
You’ve got food; you nailed food.
Yeah, I mean, it’s all over the place. I think male content is still a territory that is …
Stuff made that men like.
Stuff, yeah, that attracts male audiences. Generally those audiences are hybridized, but gaming is certainly an area where there’s a plethora of male audiences. You have some of the sort of men’s rags from the U.K., that aesthetic starting to take off in social spaces.
Women in swimsuits usually attract eyeballs.
Yeah, that was certainly the Felix Dennis model. You know, the Maxim stuff model. I think that there’s also some really great other models like early Details, lots of lists and lots of queries about how stuff works. It’s actually ... it crosses over quite a bit. I mean, when you make stuff that is interesting for men in a sort of deeper way, I think you also get a women’s demo. In terms of platforms, I still feel like live is something that is coming into its own. I think the platform space is still a little messy there.
So you guys made a big splash with the exploding watermelon for Facebook Live. Facebook is paying you guys, they’re paying Vox Media, they’re paying a lot of other different publishers, to make live video. Would you guys have done live without Facebook saying, “Here’s a few million bucks, go make some stuff”?
Yeah, I mean live is certainly one of those places where content and communication come together, and you can’t avoid those spaces. You have to get into them. I think the big question with live is whether the goal is massive, singular tune-in, or whether there’s some other kind of aesthetic.
Because if you look at the majority of the livestreams that are happening at the consumer level, they're really about niche audiences and these sort of large scaled-out networks of individuals who are communicating. And then the paradigm that I think most publishers are interested in is television, and the massive tune-in on television. And that’s a platform mechanic issues. That’s about notifications. It has to do with a lot of different things.
But it’s also about, if you’re in the audience, why would you want to be watching something live that many other people are watching? I get why a publisher wants that to happen, why TV wants that, why an advertiser wants that to happen. To me it seems like the stuff that I care about being live, not many other people are going to care about that. It is going to be a niche audience.
It could be. I agree with you that this is certainly going to be one of those spaces that’s fraught with comparisons to models that we understand. And, you know, you quipped about the exploding watermelon. So the exploding watermelon came out of a prior little stunt where one of my producers, Ella, had pranked me and had put goats into my office. And what we saw ... like, I had been delayed at a meeting, so the prank just never went live forever, 45 minutes. And the viewership just kept on climbing just with an empty room full of goats and Ella coming in once in awhile, saying, “I think he’s going to be here in five minutes, sorry.” And then I walked into the room and everyone just left the livestream.
So the watermelon was an attempt to try to understand whether there was a rarefied form of suspense that had to do with this stuff, and I do think when live really comes into its own — and I think Facebook’s going to be a really big part of that and so will YouTube and obviously a lot of the apps, the sort of social messaging apps — I think that we’re going to see a lot of new paradigms for what live content can be besides just sports.
Because there was that phase a few years ago where live was interesting and YouTube and Red Bull pushed the guy out of the spaceship, Felix Baumgartner, and that got eight million concurrent views. And that was pretty cool. And my thought was, “Well, if you’ve already pushed a guy out of a spaceship, there’s not a lot more you can do that’s going to involve …”
Build a bigger spaceship.
Build a bigger spaceship. Make, I don't know, two people [jump]. And then at the same time you had a push on TV to do these kinds of stunts. I think they pulled back because they were worried about someone, like, falling off a tightrope over the Grand Canyon or wherever it was. And you guys had a non-threatening version of that with a watermelon, right?
Not from the watermelon’s perspective.
Yeah, no, very threatening for them. I mean, we can get super heady, but I always thought the whole point of the internet, and what you guys really exploited, is it’s on demand. I watch something that’s interesting to me, when it’s interesting to me, not because a network or someone has said, “Watch this thing live now.”
I wouldn’t characterize that as the point at all. I think that it’s ultimately about people connecting to other people. I mean, that’s actually the biggest …
When they want to connect, right?
Well, yeah. I think that there’s circumstances when the fact that there is some kind of simultaneity counts. Now, I ... oh man, I had a point and I lost it.
Should we take a break? We can hear from advertisers?
All right, we’ll hear from an advertiser. We’re back in one minute. Thanks.
I'm back here with Ze Frank, king of BuzzFeed video. He’s remembered his point. What’s your point, Ze?
[laughs] Well, no, I guess one of the things that I have thought a lot about and Jonah has thought a lot about …
Jonah Peretti, your CEO.
Yeah, Jonah Peretti, that’s right.
Of course if you’ve listened this deep, you know who Jonah Peretti is.
So, is that a lot of the paradigm for making entertainment has always been this idea of connecting to the audience, but it’s always been the audience connecting back to the media or the person who created the media and the point. I think the paradigm shift is really about creating media that allows people to connect with people that they already care about. Which is actually different, right? I mean, one is kind of pointed between the creator of the piece of media, the media, and then the audience member. And you try to increase that connection around loyalty and all those things.
The other paradigm is to make media that allows people to strengthen the connections with people that they care about and all that. So live interestingly pushed a little bit ... it does have that idea that a lot of people are connected to the same thing simultaneously, and to your point before, that idea of simultaneity itself, maybe there’s something there. I don’t know. I mean, why do we gather together in movie theaters to watch? It’s not just the visceral experience. I think that there is something about the density of people.
Right, and then if you listen to the people that I talk to all the time, they say, “We will not go to movie theaters anymore. I would pay a giant premium to watch this first-run movie at home.” But I think there are still a bunch of folks who do want to go see that movie in a theater if they can.
We talked about Tasty a couple of times; let’s talk about it a little bit more. This seems like a thing that has been around forever, but it’s just a year old, right?
It’s just a year old, yeah.
So again, you probably know what this is. Tasty is your food vertical, right? And it’s got a very specific look and feel that everyone has now copied. But it’s an overhead shot of someone assembling something sort of rapid-fire.
Hands, yup. Hands in frame.
Hands making stuff.
I suppose that you could watch it several times and learn how to make it, or you click on it and you get the recipe. How did you guys come up with that concept? How was that hatched?
It really came out of a number of experiments that were going on when Facebook launched its autoplay for real. And we started to see signal around sort of 40 seconds and the idea of audio independence became really big. We had a team called FB 40, which was 40-second Facebook videos.
Wait, explain what that means.
The 40-second part being important.
Oh, we just noticed that those were getting shared and watched more.
The videos that were …
Yeah, around 40 seconds.
If the entire video was 40 seconds, that was a sweet spot.
It was a sweet spot, yeah.
And you guys, through trial and error, figured that out.
In terms of like, yeah, completion rates, all that kind of stuff. This is a while back. This is over a year ago now and we tried a lot of different stuff. We looked at hacks, we looked at FAQs videos, we looked at all sorts of things.
So the length you knew was a winner. You didn’t know what the content would be.
Nope, nope. Yeah. And you know, what we do at BuzzFeed is we go back and we look at things that have been successful in the past and we put them through that kind of platform lens. The food group, part of BuzzFeed Food at the time, did an amazing kind of quick cellphone shot of a sort of Nutella hack. And then it just went from there. It became obvious that food in and of itself was a sweet spot on top of all those things.
So you had a food group, they’re making all sorts of content. I’m sure it was popular, because food’s always been popular. You guys independently decide 40 seconds is the sweet spot for Facebook instant, or autoplay video. Then you cast around and say, “Who can make stuff that’s 40 seconds?”
And the food guys go, “Here’s a cellphone shot of a Nutella …” What was it?
Yeah, I forget what the exact thing was, but it was a monster. It had a massive share rate. That’s really what we were looking for specifically. And then even from there, it took a while because we just started doing a whole bunch of food hacks and tricks and like a bunch of stuff.
One thing that I’m always sort of obsessed with, and I think other people in my group are as well, is that generally if you can find a workhorse category ... so a category where there’s just limitless iterations and possibilities available, and generally it’s something that people have kind of decided is done, right? And recipes was just sitting there. The world of recipes had not been reinvented beyond, you know, just a list of text and image.
Right, and then also the internet and recipes are closely linked, right? As soon as people had the ability to share stuff, post stuff online, they did recipes right away. It was a big thing from the get-go. So the idea that you would go back to that category seems silly because it had already been done.
That’s right. And, you know, I kind of forget the first win that was in the recipe space, but then it got cracked wide open. The team had been really thinking about different ways of remixing and rehashing, and they got very interested in the idea of the amateur chef, of bringing cooking back to the sort of more pedestrian level. They really thought very carefully about things like making sure that it was okay if the flour spilled on the table. It was okay if …
To not be pristine.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that even the food, the categories of food that were explored, were back to a sort of simplistic view. At one point, somebody said 99 percent of the food content that you see is created by experts. And 99.9 percent of the food that’s eaten is eaten by amateurs.
Well, I don’t …
Or that’s the way it’s commonly ... it’s aspirational.
I think that’s right.
You’re never going to make this, but look, you could.
I think also underlying this was a lot of social thinking, which was that food is the thing that we connect over. If you think about, you know, “I want to go and see my best friend over dinner. Over drinks.” It’s also a social glue. It’s one of the few things where you and I can have a fundamental disagreement and still have a great conversation over your love of a particular food item.
So how long did it take you guys to go, “What’s the right length for video? 40 seconds. What’s the right content? Food.”
It all happened over a couple months.
A couple months, you guys created this out of whole cloth. Seems like an instant success. I think it is. No need to repeat the stats, but it’s huge, right?
So two things happen. One, it becomes a money-maker for you guys, right?
Just started in January this year on the monetization front.
Okay, because that’s …
The fastest-growing part of our business.
It’s a super obvious way for GM or whoever, General Mills or whomever, to insert their product. It’s something that travels on Facebook. You can get paid for it. It’s an identifiable format. It also seems like it’s super easy for anyone else to replicate. I mean, you guys can’t copyright an overhead camera making food, right?
Yeah, that’s right.
So anyone can and now does make the same thing. When everyone now has a Tasty clone, what does that do to your business?
I think it’s good overall. I certainly invite everybody who wants to to participate in this format. The truth of the matter is that we’re four times larger than our closest competitor. Just in the United States alone, something like 8 or 9 percent of the population subscribe to the page. And then if you look at sharing, it’s 50 percent of the population has seen a Tasty video each month.
So more people cloning that format, doing the same thing, doesn’t cut into your traffic. It doesn’t put any pressure on the advertiser front because they [say], “Oh, actually I can do this myself.”
Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s going to be a tendency, no matter what you do. This is internet culture, where we’re looking at a lot of things that I think appear easy on the outside, and once you get your hands dirty, you realize that it’s pretty difficult — the devil’s in the details on this stuff.
The bottom line is that the videos that we make are just so much more successful. Just from a share rate and organic view rate, they just do so much better. Partially that’s how we make them. It’s because we’ve been thinking about the social underpinnings of this from the beginning. It’s a constant evolutionary process. And partially it’s just because we’re so huge.
And then how much pressure is on you …
We’re over a hundred million page likes globally now. And in the U.S., bigger than Beyoncé, and I had to say that. And the next page we have to overtake on Facebook is Manchester United, so …
Beyoncé is smaller than Man U, huh?
I guess so.
So how much pressure is on you guys internally and externally to take what you’re doing with food and Tasty and say, “Well, this can obviously work for 20 other formats, so hurry up and figure it out.”
I don’t think it’s so obvious that it would work for 20 other formats.
You haven’t done that.
Well, Nifty. You know Nifty grew even faster than Tasty.
And Nifty is …
Nifty is a creative home. So DIY, design, all that kind of stuff. So I do think that there are categories where the idea of having a simple overarching mechanic or recognizable format that leads to large-scale growth, there is stuff there. I do think that it’s probably a fallacy to just try to do the rinse-and-repeat model.
Because you haven’t done that, right? You haven’t done 20 other versions of Tasty. You’ve got Nifty …
Well, global. We've made a lot of ... there’s a lot of global Tasty …
Right, so by Cuisine and …
… Country. But the point is, you haven’t done one for auto repair or ... I don’t know what it would be. But the point is that format, you can’t transfer it or you’ve tried transferring it, doesn’t work to other things.
Yeah, I think that just doing a straight one-for-one on the presentation of it is a mistake. You really are looking for some other underlying mechanics. I think that those mechanics are there, but you have to think about it on a vertical-by-vertical basis or on a demographic-by-demographic basis. What I think is the smarter idea is to think about how you can use all that potential energy to learn more and start to promote other entities.
So with Nifty, one of the things that we very quickly did was find ways for Nifty to integrate into Tasty. So Nifty Kitchen is an obvious one. When we’re looking at health and well-being, it’s the same kind of thing. When we have our talent across our organization, there’s opportunities for them to do videos in Tasty and drive subscribers to their Facebook pages, to videos and back to the O&O as well.
And the structure you had set up where you guys could have the original insight that a 40-second video worked really well and then sort of cast around for what would work, I’m assuming you’re trying to do that all the time, right? Trying to figure out, “Oh, this thing works well here, what would work …”
That is the basis of our entire business.
That’s how you’re set up.
It’s just the core process. So when we move into Snapchat Discover, it’s the same kind of thing. And, you know, you have to be set up for that. I think that’s the kind of distributed publishing paradigm — that you have to have some centralization of knowledge and you have to be able to get that out to the edges as fast as possible.
And you guys have talked about that, right? You’ve got a team that does Facebook, you’ve got a team that does Instagram, and they monkey around trying to figure out what works and they share that knowledge with other folks.
Increasingly it’s not team by platform anymore. It’s more by other things. There’s certainly vertical expertise, but there’s also these interesting platform mechanics. So viral loops overall, just this core intellectual technology of the loop virality. So in our case, one of the most exciting things for the site was the basic technology that drove quizzes, where the answer that you had you could share and that would have a link back to the quiz and you could generate that kind of loop. We’re seeing those kinds of loops in distributed economies as well. So Snapchat quizzes are massively popular because you can DM somebody the answer and it pulls you back.
I was going to ask about that because Snapchat is social but it’s very different socially than Facebook, right? So I assume there’s a lot of stuff that has worked for you in Facebook that just has no application in Snapchat.
Rarely are there things that have no application. We sort of abstract the media from the platform and think about it more at the conceptual level. On the other hand, yes, you’re absolutely right. There are things that work better in Facebook than in Instagram than in Snapchat than in YouTube. But generally it’s not as much the concept, it’s more the presentation mechanics and the format. So we spend a lot of time adapting content so that it works better on a different platform. In some cases, the core concepts are the same, but it shows up as an illustration somewhere and a quiz somewhere else.
But the impulse that you guys started off really on Facebook, you were tightly tied to Facebook for a long time, still are. Make stuff that people want to share, right? That still works on Snapchat, which is sort of less public, in that the network is private, basically. There’s a public part of it, but that’s not really where the action’s going on.
Yeah, sharing is just a great signal. And it’s one of the most convenient signals to understand how people are using the media to better their relationships or using it to connect to other people. You know, certainly in Snapchat, the sharing signal is there and at different times in our relationship with Snapchat and in the Discovery channel in specific, that signal was stronger or weaker — it really depends on the overall dynamics.
Just a small platform tweak can suddenly change the influx of new users to loyal users, and all of a sudden everything kind of gets skewed. And the kinds of content that will do the best also changes. But just generally overall, it’s a really, really great signal to iterate off of.
So that’s all the digital stuff, but we talked about the fact that you’re making — not all the digital stuff — but you’re making a traditional couple of movies, right? What have you announced publicly so far?
“Brother Orange,” Warner Brothers. It’s going to be co-produced with China.
And that’s a feature?
Yeah, that’s a feature.
Because there’s a documentary. This is a story based on the story about a BuzzFeed writer in the U.S. who found that there’s a guy in China who had his phone.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Yeah, it’s really good.
And you guys did a great job of exploiting it, I mean in the best possible way, on the site. And it was originally going to be a documentary, right?
Yeah, still in the works.
You said this is actually better as a feature story. I mean as a movie.
I mean different. I think that docs and features are fundamentally different. I think that one of the things with a documentary is that we didn’t really know what was going on. We didn’t intend for there to be a documentary. We just wanted to capture footage. So I think that it’s probably more of a challenge to get through a documentary with the footage that we captured on that particular run.
So you sent out a guy with a camera, but it turns out it’s not going to be a movie because there’s not enough there. Or it doesn’t work as a movie.
Well, no, I mean that it’s an ongoing thing where the story itself kind of evolves. Especially when you have a feature in the works, you’re thinking through where the story’s going to head, when the feature is going to land, all that kind of stuff.
Right, so you’re making this movie. I’m going to see it in a theater? It’s meant to be distributed in theaters?
And beyond the fact that it’s super cool to say, “I’ve made a movie,” and presumably there’s financial reward, what’s the point of you guys trying out movies or making a movie?
Aside from the fact that I love movies and I still think that it’s just a massive and viable business, I don’t think that we’re the best at making mass-scale, big-budget feature films. I think that the opportunity of taking stories, either that come out of our ecosystem or are fabricated from the IP that we work on, and partnering with big studios to make great cultural moments that you experience in theaters, is a great thing.
Does all the work that you’re doing on Facebook and on Snapchat — you’ve got real interesting data about the way people consume media — does that get imported into the movie in any way? Or is this going to look and feel like, not any other movie, but will it look and feel like a traditional movie and it won’t have, beyond the fact that BuzzFeed’s name is on it, it won’t be some radical new way of a telling a story?
I’m probably not the best person to speak to that. I think Michael Shamberg, who’s producing it, is going to have a better sense.
He’s a traditional film guy.
He is a traditional film guy. I think the point on this is to make a traditional film.
And, you know, the extent to which whatever special sauce that we have as a company enters that movie is going to be something that happens in the next, what, two years as this thing gets made. On the other side of it, we have “Broke,” which is a show that Quinta Brunson created. That’s hitting YouTube Red next week. We have “Squad Wars,” which is in development.
This is stuff that you guys bubbled up on your own platform. Quinta’s someone who came and started working for you and started making a scripted show about her life loosely, right?
Yup, yup, yup. And a number of other projects like that. So, in terms of formal exploration of media and what it looks like and all that kind of stuff, there’s places where you can do a lot of work and experimentation and then there’s places where you let people who are really great at a particular form …
“You know how to make a good movie, go make a good movie, we’re going to stay out of your hair.” It seems like TV is a place where you guys could experiment more since the line between traditional TV, digital, is breaking, is being erased. A lot of the TV networks are freaked out because all their viewers have ended up on BuzzFeed and many other platforms. Thoughts about how you remake a TV show?
It depends on what you mean by TV. You mean consumed on TV. I think that the biggest things I think about are, you know, the cycles of feedback. How and where are you going to get feedback from your audience and are you set up to make adjustments based on that feedback?
Right. For the movie, you’re going to put the movie out and that’s it.
It’s like two years ... yeah, there’s giant long cycles. So I’m really interested in ... you know, I just came back from Brazil and got a chance to see the Globo telenovela studios, which is just like ... it’s almost like a different evolutionary line of media creation. Globo has 80 percent of the market and makes all the telenovelas.
It’s their version of the BuzzFeed video factory.
[laughs] Well, yeah, but it certainly harkens back to a different time and different era. I think they’re the largest consumer of a certain kind of wood in Brazil because they just fabricate all cities. The scale is astronomical. But they think about this too. With a different cost structure, but the telenovelas are increasingly being shot and edited in real time and sent out to test audiences, and decisions on characters are kind of being made.
I still think that those lead times are a little too long, but we’re already doing things in conjunction with some networks where we’ve been testing some premises for television shows and digital shows.
What does it mean, testing a premise for a show?
So doing it in ... you know, releasing it in AVOD. Releasing it on YouTube. And just seeing what a …
You create an entire show?
Ten minutes. Ten to 15 minutes, as long as you feel like it takes.
But you don’t present it as “this is a test.” You just: “Here’s some stuff.”
This has been one of those things people have talked about for a while with the internet. “Why don’t we use this as a test bed instead of creating these pilots?” There’s lots of inefficiencies with traditional Hollywood and TV. “Why don’t we start farming some of this stuff out to the internet?” Amazon’s played around with that a little bit. It sounds like you’re doing the same thing.
Yeah, I think that the sweet spot is really to get into a rhythm of putting stuff out in front of large groups of people. And we happen to have a very large group of people that we can put stuff in front of. It also takes thinking about production a little bit differently. It takes a certain lack of preciousness, let’s say, to take that kind of feedback in and look at the implications of it and make adjustments, which is something that most creative cycles had a difficult time doing. And that’s not to say that the independent voices and very distinct points of view aren’t incredibly valuable in this, too. And that’s the whole thing.
So room for auteurs, but we really value the feedback of what an audience said about this thing.
I think so.
Either by expressing it or turning it off, right?
Right. I think that the way that this collapses into ... I think sometimes there’s a mistaken idea that this is somehow an argument between cold data and irresponsible gut [laughs]. But the truth is that data doesn’t generally tell you what to do. It breaks ties, right? It’s like if you have a question, you can have data help you try and make a better decision. But ultimately it’s gut.
This is sort of what we started the whole conversation with, is visual aesthetics. It’s a deep kind of weird emotional sensation, and most of the stuff that you instinctively do as you edit, as you speak, as you write narrative, as you explore these spaces, has nothing to do with data.
Or to frame it a different way, you say, “The problem with this,” or, “I worry about this,” is that you rely on data to guide you a certain way, but you might have the wrong data set.
Here, I’ll make it more concrete. There’s the “Seinfeld” story. Low-rated show for the first year or two. Eventually it becomes a giant hit. There’s the thought that, oh, if you’re just putting this out on the market and you let everyone look at it on YouTube and they go, “I don't like it, I don’t like Seinfeld, it’s not very good,” took a couple years to mature, you don’t get a “Seinfeld.”
And you can find a million versions of this anecdote. “Breaking Bad” wasn’t good the first couple of years, on and on and on. How do you try and hedge for that? All right, maybe this is a thing we need to give six months, or a year, or two years. Or do you go, “Nope, we’re not going to lean that direction. We’re just going to iterate quickly with the data we have.”
I don't know if I have an answer to that. I think that hindsight bias obviously is a very difficult proposition for every story of something deemed a failure that becomes a success. There are many, many stories of things deemed successes that become failures, and even more things deemed failures that were actually failures.
Right — the market said, “We don't like it,” and the market was right.
Yeah. You have to have a point of view on the value of the work that you’re creating. And then also the value of scale and distribution and then for us, you know, entertainment. I heard Jordan Peele once say, for him, 100 people laughing is better than 10 people laughing, and that will always be true, and I think that that’s right. For entertainment, you want to have things that impact people’s lives, that in our case draw them closer to the people that they care about. But you want a lot of people to be impacted.
So you’re willing to leave some niche stuff on the table.
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, increasingly when you think about entertainment space in the cultural conversation, when you think about the shows that can change certain entertainment paradigms, can open up new categories, a lot of times this idea of critical success does not have scale attached. And that’s definitely an area that’s important and we value as well.
You guys want scale and you’re clear about that and unapologetic about it. Good. What do you think about you guys and Viacom? There’s a lot of people who said … Kenny Lerer, who’s one of your founders, is now chairman of Viacom. We’ve just been talking about TV and movies and how you’re interested in that. Viacom was a movie and TV business; they need a lot of help. Is there a way that you see BuzzFeed and Viacom combining successfully?
Kenny is a massively successful, interesting person who has lots and lots of different pursuits. The connection between BuzzFeed and Viacom doesn’t go any further based on that relationship. But we have lots of relationships with Viacom, and we’re constantly in discussions with them about creating shows. I mean obviously we’re very close to NBCUniversal and, you know, I think that there’s a lot for us to learn there. They’re very, very different business models, and the notion of reconciling them anytime like immediately I think is sort of farfetched.
It’s hard for me to imagine, but it’s been floated, so I figured I’d ask you.
Talk about your talent. You mentioned Quinta’s making a show for you, for YouTube, right? She’s someone that started working for you, became a star. Very often in media today someone becomes popular on one platform, they get an audience, and they leave and want to go somewhere else and translate that into a different platform, they want TV, etc. This is something you guys have sort of been thinking about maybe changing your perspective on for the last year. So what’s your thought on someone who comes and creates something with you at BuzzFeed and then wants to do something else with it?
We have a fundamental challenge, which is to create a work environment that is rewarding and that leans into skill sets and opportunities that aren’t available in other places. And for us, you know, you’re absolutely right. The folks that appear in videos do become stars. And that’s certainly not limited to just the development partners that we have a specific relationship with, but all the folks that are appearing in these videos, right? They'’e all stopped on the street. For me, the marketplace of talent is one that’s kind of broken.
Well, I think that because of how everything is shifting and changing, the number of traditional avenues that can lead to a successful creative career, where you have really great relationships with people and are pressed to do your best work and get your work out in front of audiences, is narrowing.
Really? I thought it was the other way.
In traditional avenues, I think it’s narrowing in the long view. In terms of television shows and movies and things like that.
Isn’t this the golden age of TV? We’re making a million awesome TV shows and …
And there’s lots of people paying money. Traditionally this would have been three networks and now there's a million.
Yeah. I’m talking about a career. I’m talking about stable careers. So I think that there are a good amount of opportunities for people to do a show and have a limited run of success. I don’t think that those opportunities necessarily net out with the possibility of a great career. So for me, what I’m really interested in with talent development is exposing our talent to a wide range of opportunities, helping them understand not only the craft of being talent, but also how to make things, how to promote it, the business of it, the marketing, distribution. This is the multi-hyphen …
And continuing to work for them and having them work for you — it sounds a bit like the old sort of studio system.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think that you know in some cases …
Where someone would align themselves with a studio for many, many pictures.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s certainly one way that the relationship can play out. I think in some cases, people will want to take a sort of sojourn off into the world of gigs, right? Like these sort of one-off gigs. And I certainly can’t blame people for doing that. But yeah, I think that ultimately it’s a challenge for us. It’s a challenge for us to create a really vibrant, exciting space where you’re learning a lot of things and have a lot of opportunities to do stuff that you can’t really do on your own. I spent 13 years on my own just making media by myself.
Yeah, you were literally a one-man show.
Yeah, and, you know, I know what that’s like and I know the benefits and some of the tradeoffs that come with working in a highly supportive atmosphere. I just think that it’s a better system for the future of creative talent.
You were a one-man video guy back in the early days of internet video, when internet video was a thing that was difficult to get on your desktop computer, and then I think you stopped, right? You stopped making videos at some point? Had Jonah Peretti not reached out to you and said, “We’re starting up this BuzzFeed video thing,” or, “I want you to start up BuzzFeed video for me,” what would you be doing today?
That’s a great question. I don’t totally know. I mean, I had moved into the world of startups. I had a kind of gaming startup that was going sideways. I had already pivoted into video at that point when BuzzFeed bought the company. My guess is that I would be in that space.
You’d be making video, working on video somewhere.
Yeah. It’s really, really difficult. The landscape changes so quickly. I don’t think that I would be working with as many talented and amazing people or working at the scale that I’m working at, that’s for sure.
You think you’re more of a solo operator?
Do I think I’m more of a solo operator?
Yeah, because now you’re out in public, now you’re managing many hundreds of people and many hangars. You’re a very public person, you have a profile. But it sounds like you’re saying, you know, for a long time you were creating your own media by yourself, a one-man show.
In terms of pure creative space, that is certainly the idiom that I’m much more used to, in terms of just making stuff. This job has activated a different part of my brain, which is trying to understand systems and also trying to understand how people work together at scale. And it’s been incredibly exciting. It is a very different part of my brain than when I narrate true-facts video or do comedic talks or things like that.
So are you still making stuff? I see you onstage selling stuff to advertisers, but do you make your own videos?
I have not made a video in about a year. A little over a year.
You gotta scratch that itch occasionally.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
All right, thank you for your time, Ze. I want to let you go back and make videos and whatever else you want to do.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.