BuzzFeed’s Jonathan Perelman likes to say that “content is king, distribution is queen, and she wears the pants.” As Vice President of Agency Strategy and Industry, Perelman plays a hand in pioneering a new model for publishing in today’s arena. Traditional content distribution has transformed into something resembling amplified word of mouth. Moments of discovery and interaction happen at scale across a dizzying range of platforms and timeframes.
This is, as Perelman puts it, “the social web.” After demonstrating their chops on the now-famous listicle, the BuzzFeed team has expanded their ambitions: new ventures include longform journalism, investigative reporting, and foreign language editions. Is this the new face of publishing?
Perelman sat down with us to discuss BuzzFeed’s position as a disruptor, the implications of merging technology and content for a connected generation, and why BuzzFeed couldn’t be anywhere but New York City. The following is an edited version of the transcripted conversation.
NYC Media Lab: So, your career is really at the intersection of digital media and content.
Jonathan Perelman: Yes; I’ve spent my entire career basically in the digital space. What led me to BuzzFeed was that I saw the web changing a little bit. The web became less about pure technology and more about the content, and that’s what really excited me about coming to BuzzFeed—is the real intersection of technology and content and entertainment.
NYC Media Lab: So when you think about that interplay between content and technology, if you had to pick which is more important to BuzzFeed’s success, what would you say?
Jonathan Perelman: I don’t know that I could pick, to say that technology or the content is more important to BuzzFeed. What makes BuzzFeed really special and unique is that we are both a media company and a technology company. But if we start from the idea that content has to be good to be shared, to be seen—and we start with that as a foundation, I think that’s where you have to understand the technology and the power of the social web today. One of my famous sayings is that content is king, distribution is queen, and she wears the pants. To get a piece of content seen, we should spend as much time thinking about the creation of that piece of content as we do how it will travel and distribute across the social web.
NYC Media Lab: Is BuzzFeed investing in technology?
Jonathan Perelman: Heavily investing in technology. We have a big technology platform where we can sense the virality, or the sharability, of content very, very early, so we know almost before it’s social that it will be social. And we have various levers that we pull to create that piece of content and ensure that piece of content is seen as frequently as possible.
NYC Media Lab: And why do you think BuzzFeed makes sense in New York City? Why New York?
Jonathan Perelman: BuzzFeed and New York are inextricably linked. You look at New York as the media capital of the world, and as a growing, bourgeoning technology capital. Silicon Alley is as powerful as Silicon Valley. It just makes the perfect marriage for BuzzFeed, where we are a media company and a technology company. I don’t think there’s any other place that it would make sense for BuzzFeed to be headquartered but New York.
NYC Media Lab: For managers who are watching this and technologists who are thinking about disruption and innovation: BuzzFeed is seen as a disruptive entrant into digital media, web publishing—what do you think they can learn from your model? What can they take from your experience?
Jonathan Perelman: I love the idea of disruptors, or innovators. Because that makes the market move. I think what anybody watching this should really understand, to learn from BuzzFeed and, quite frankly, a lot of other media and publishers who have been disruptive, is understanding that as the web changes, and social becomes the starting point online, there’s a different way to get your content to be seen. You can’t rely on the old models anymore. You really have to understand the new technology—understand the value of it, study the way it works, and the habits of it—and then create the content that will spread across those channels. And so it’s a thing to understand, and it’s hard, and I get it, but really look at companies that are innovative and disruptive, and follow it backwards to say, “Why are they disruptive? What are they doing that is different than the way that we’re doing it, or someone else is?” And try and follow that trail back.
NYC Media Lab: When we talk to a lot of media companies, they talk about problems with talent, particularly around engineering talent, data, that sort of thing. How has BuzzFeed addressed that?
Jonathan Perelman: BuzzFeed really started as a technology company. Jonah Peretti, our founder and CEO, is a technologist. It’s at the core. It’s at the heart of everything we do. The consumer probably sees BuzzFeed more as the place where they go to get viral news, breaking news, cat memes, and the like. But there’s so much behind the scenes. There’s a background that is built upon technology. And the way we overcome a perceived gap in hiring the right people is that is core to who we are, to what we do. Everyone understands the importance of technology, and I think that makes it easier for us to ensure we have the right talent.
NYC Media Lab: When you think about BuzzFeed’s model broadly, and the way that news and information is distributed—think three to five from now. What’s changed? What’s fundamentally changed about the way people are consuming content?
Jonathan Perelman: Three to five years, it’s hard to know what the web, especially the social web, will look like. Platforms will probably change. There will be some incumbents today that might not be as important or powerful as they will in five years, and there are others that frankly don’t even exist today that will be on the scene in three to five years. What’s important is to understand that those are the tracks. The tracks are those platforms. What’s most important is what goes over the tracks: it’s the trains that are sending the content back and forth, because those social platforms are really nothing without interesting content. So from our perspective, we’re going to keep studying those different platforms and understand why a piece of content will travel differently on Twitter than it does on Pinterest, and why something on Instagram is different than StumbleUpon. And we’ll continue to analyze that, to your earlier question, about how to understand technology. That’s where the technology at our core enables us to continually evolve based upon the newest social platform.
NYC Media Lab: Is there anything BuzzFeed knows right now about the social web that would be surprising to people watching this, in terms of platforms and how they’re performing or changing?
Jonathan Perelman: I don’t think there’s anything that’s surprising that BuzzFeed knows. A lot of it is inherent. You look at something like Twitter: Twitter is a quick hit. Content on Twitter won’t last, typically, more than two or three hours, and usually not more than a day. As quickly as a piece of content rises on Twitter, it will fall, because Twitter is about immediacy. You look at something like Pinterest: Pinterest could take a couple weeks to a couple months to really start driving traffic. But it will continually drive traffic for up to a year afterwards. Facebook: Facebook could take two or three days, and it could last for two weeks. So I don’t think it’s anything totally surprising, but we have the analysis to look at this, to understand how a piece of content will travel across the web.
NYC Media Lab: You’re a fellow at the Center for the Digital Future. Talk to me a little bit about that experience and why that’s important.
Jonathan Perelman: I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School, which is just about the longest title in the history of anything, and the Center does a lot of work around understanding trends and the digital aspect. One of the most important things is the World Internet Project, looking at the way that people use digital media and the Internet around the world. In my work there, it is really fascinating to look at the way people are using the tools and products that we work in every day, and understanding how what we see in the future might happen to a Facebook or a Twitter, or even a newspaper industry. It’s been fascinating to look and analyze and study the data to understand future trends.
NYC Media Lab: So I’ll ask just one more question: when you think about BuzzFeed, when you think about the future, what do you imagine BuzzFeed looks like as a company?
Jonathan Perelman: BuzzFeed as a company in the future is something I quite frankly have no idea. And I don’t think any of us really know. What we’re going to do is understand the zeitgeist of the web and see trends and then capitalize on it. I think we’ll get into reporting a lot more different types of content. I think we’ll have reporters all over the world—which we already do—we’ll just have more of them. We’ll invest heavily in different languages and overseas. But inherently, what we focus on is what is core to the social web, is understanding content people want to engage with, and then also share. I don’t see any of that changing, I just see the topics that we’re covering expanding.
Interview conducted by Justin Hendrix, Acting Executive Director for NYC Media Lab. Reach him at justin [dot] hendrix [at] nycmedialab [dot] org or follow him on Twitter @justinhendrix.
Video filmed and edited by Julia Evanczuk, Marketing Manager at NYC Media Lab. Reach her at julia [dot] evanczuk [at] nycmedialab [dot] org, or follow her on Twitter at @juliaevk.