The traditional news industry is crumbling. Revenue is falling, readership is down, and once-influential news organizations are shutting down. Banner ads don't work and internet-users aren't keen on paying for online news, leaving newspapers fumbling to work out a way to make money.
If you have a Facebook account, you've probably stumbled upon a link with a title like "This kid went to the store for a jug of milk -- and you'll never guess what he left with!" or "10 reasons why the dandelion is the most underappreciated flower." The titles raise questions; they entice people to click in order to understand the specifics of such a vague title. This style, sometimes referred to as clickbait is manipulative.
I sat down and loaded the current frontrunners in the field of social news — I opened Upworthy’s main page right alongside Buzzfeed’s. The first thing I noticed was the large quantity of visually-stimulating things: pictures. And I noticed that nearly all of the pictures were of people — and the pictures aren’t taken from far away from the people — they’re all close-up. Emotive. Intimate. It gave me a feeling like I was looking at a fire — it’s really easy to get caught up in just noticing it — in just staring at it and all of the little details that you wouldn’t see if you just glanced at it. It’s intriguing, and this fundamental fascination is written into our DNA. Back when humans lived as small groups of hunters and gatherers, fire was a very useful thing, and so if you were the type of person who was curious about fire, you were probably going to win. In the same vein, we are wired to process other people to in order to talk and communicate with other people.
There were a lot of articles about the person or group of people in the “thumbnail,” and I’m putting thumbnail in quotes because “thumbnail” can make the picture seem like a small icon. It’s not, at all. The headline paired with each picture always refer to the subject(s) in that photograph, pairing a human face to a piece of (often emotionally provoking) written piece of information.
Another striking thing about a glance at the webpage is the lack of apparent advertisements embedded in the pages. There are a lot of pictures, sure, but you can’t point to any flashing banners or intrusive headlines trying to sell a product.
But the thing is, in practice, thats what the website is. There are images vying for your attention, and there are titles trying to entice you to click. In place of banner ads are large buttons inviting you to share the article your reading on all of your social media — Share with friends on Facebook — Tweet to followers on Twitter. Instead of using advertisements which distract from the content, Upworthy and Buzzfeed choose to emphasize sharing articles to others, creating a impromptu web of distribution.
I clicked on an article about how “the internet is making us more connected than ever before,” which went on to detail the various benefits of our interconnected world, complete with interspersed GIFs and lines with large text. At the very end of the article was a very small paragraph which alluded to the presence of hackers, and which warned internet users that there were dangers that came from using the internet. Just following this was a video which essentially presented the article in video form, including the short sentiment of warning at the end. At the very end of the video was a logo for Norton Antivirus — who also produced the entire video. When I saw the logo, I was stunned; the whole article was given a new context with a new agenda that I had been unaware of for the duration of reading the article.
This technique of quiet advertising integration is the backbone of social news sites. The sites focus on getting people to share seemingly ad-free content while being paid by advertisers for producing it. Essentially, Buzzfeed and sites like it have figured out a way to get people to share advertisements for them without knowing it. Importantly, Buzzfeed readers share the articles with their friends, essentially saying: “I like this, and because you know me and the things I like, you might like it too.” Sharing to friends gives an article (i.e. advertisement) a social stamp of approval from someone close to you. This model of “native advertising” silently intermingles editorial content and business, which have long been seen by traditional news institutions as a kind of “church and state” which should remain separate.
Corporate-Orwellian concerns aside, Buzzfeed has realized that times have changed and that traditional advertising is no longer an effective business model. The site is one of the few media producers actually making money; it is hiring prestigious figures in journalism and embracing the strengths of the internet (including tweets and user produced content in a cohesive manner). Buzzfeed knows that the way people consume content has changed: people nowadays check content more frequently for sharp bursts of attention. Frankly, Buzzfeed is winning. It is able to charge double the price for advertising (as compared to most publishers); posts receive organic shares from actual human beings to their friends (providing Buzzfeed and its advertisers with a “brand lift”). This concept is new to advertising. Their model is so successful that traditional publications (e.g. The Atlantic and The Washington Post) are playing with strategies similar to Buzzfeed’s in an attempt to adapt to the digital age. I am not sure that it is good for your psychology, I do not know that you are going to learn much from it, but it appears that Buzzfeed is here to stay.