Straight to the Source: Open Innovation at Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed uses social media to stay abreast of viral trends. Can they do the same with credible news?

Introduction

Buzzfeed was founded in 2006 by John Peretti as a website to track viral content. This tracking evolved into compiling and sharing viral content from other social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. With over 18 offices and 1,300 employees worldwide, it is no longer just a website where you go to find personality quizzes and funny cat memes. Through the use of crowdsourcing, Buzzfeed has been able to stay on the cutting edge of millennial trends, and in recent years, they have expanded on their initial skill set to enter the world of investigative journalism.1

 

Buzzfeed’s Strategy

Buzzfeed has utilized crowdsourcing to find the next viral idea by developing a way for individuals with creative ideas to contribute through their Community page. There are very few rules to become a community contributor, and it is free to create a profile. Signing up to become a community contributor also gives someone the ability to submit content such as quizzes, polls, and opinion pieces. One of the few stipulations is that the submission cannot be political.2 This crowdsourcing model is mutually beneficial to both the contributor and Buzzfeed. If the creator’s content becomes viral, it generates more hits for Buzzfeed and moves up in the submission rankings. One contributor even documented how he was able to get two of his submissions to the Buzzfeed’s front page through predictive data analysis.3

As the website has expanded to other areas in the media industry, they have even attempted to start an innovation lab. In 2015, Buzzfeed created their Open Lab to be the open source leg of their R&D department. They aimed to develop new ways to acquire the information needed to tell the stories that their readers wanted to see.4 However, after only two years, Buzzfeed’s Open Lab was dissolved. Instead, they have decided to integrate the engineers and data analysts into the newsroom to create a more efficient and effective system.5

The Columbia Journalism School defines journalism crowdsourcing as “the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task—such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis—through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.”6 Buzzfeed News, which began in 2012, has utilized both traditional news investigation and crowdsourcing journalism to grow into a burgeoning news source among millennials.7 Like the broader website, Buzzfeed News encourages interaction between the reporters and readers. There is a tip submission page that asks for untold stories and even makes it possible for the person to remain anonymous through the use of a communication method called SecureDrop.8 So far, this has proven to be a successful set up as Buzzfeed News has been the recipient of several awards and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. However, statistics from 2017 show that Buzzfeed has a lot of room to make up before catching up with more traditional news websites, such as Fox News, CNN, and the Washington Post.9

 

Recommendations

Other websites, such as Vox and The Guardian, utilize crowdsourcing to develop their news cycles, which can sometimes be seen as less credible.7 Building on their reputation as a trusted news source, Buzzfeed should continue to encourage their readers to submit tips and stories. However, the tip submission page is not as widely publicized as it should be. There is a link to the submission is on a banner on the Buzzfeed News homepage, but it could be worthwhile to somehow integrate their efforts into other social media platforms. Exhibit 1 displays the fact that Buzzfeed gets 42% of its traffic from other social media sites.9 This is would it easier for individuals to know that Buzzfeed News is soliciting ideas for new stories and help streamline the submission process. One consideration, however, would be that this could lead to a large number of submissions that are not credible. They could decide to utilize a software that can screen out the noise to get to the quality news stories, or they could have their reporters follow up on a random selection of them. A revamped innovation lab dedicated to discovering effective ways to crowdsource information for news stories.

 

Exhibit 1: Graph showing the source of top news websites.9

 

Open Questions

As Buzzfeed strives to become a more dependable news source, how can it further leverage the open innovation tactics that havemade it one of the most popular websites among young adults?

How can Buzzfeed use the community aspect of their broader webpage to grow the crowdsourcing efforts of Buzzfeed News?

 

Word Count: 756

 

 

1  “About Buzzfeed”, accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.buzzfeed.com/about

2  “About Buzzfeed Community”, accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.buzzfeed.com/community/about

3  Barby, Matthew. “How I Made it to the Front Page of BuzzFeed Twice, and How You Can Too”, Matthew Barby (blog), February 8, 2017. https://www.matthewbarby.com/buzzfeed-front-page/

4  Mullin, Benjamin. ”Buzzfeed is Closing Its Open Lab Later This Year” March 30, 2017. https://www.poynter.org/news/buzzfeed-closing-its-open-lab-later-year

5  Hickman, Amanda. “Welcome To The Open Lab” October 7, 2015. https://www.buzzfeed.com/amandahickman/welcome-to-the-open-lab

6  “Share Tips Securely & Anonymously”, accessed November 12, 2018. https://tips.buzzfeednews.com/

7  Roothman, Madre. ”Crowdsourcing: How The Guardian, ProPublica and Vox Media are Doing It” April 30, 2018. https://www.fipp.com/news/opinion/crowdsourcing-the-guardian-propublica-vox-media

8  “About Buzzfeed News” July 17, 2018. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/buzzfeednews/about-buzzfeed-news

9  Molla, Roni. “BuzzFeed is Losing Website Traffic as Readers Head for More Traditional News Sites.” November 30, 2017.  https://www.recode.net/2017/11/30/16709310/buzzfeed-losing-web-traffic-readers-layoffs-uniques-prefer-news-over-viral-sites

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23 thoughts on “Straight to the Source: Open Innovation at Buzzfeed

  1. In my view, Buzzfeed is the news platform of the 21st century. Content is a quantity game, as much as it is a quality game. Not every story lands, but the more stories you have, the more likely one will land.

    With that in mind, it’s vital for Buzzfeed to continue to grow their user-generated content. The community elements of their website allow for 2-way communication between authors and readers, which is prime real-estate for valuable interactions and exponential growth in content. By placing more weight on the importance of dialogue on the articles, each article can become a platform for further debate, which in turn drives the amount of content produced and engagement metrics.

  2. Crowdsourcing of content and news is a really interesting concept. It is also a very delicate issue in the era of “fake news.” Facebook has attracted so much scrutiny and criticism for allowing fake news to filter through in user generated posts and sponsored political advertisements. Buzzfeed needs to carefully balance giving its content-generators creative freedom to drive traffic with upholding editorial responsibility to maintain baseline standards of truthfulness and quality.

    Relative to social media or user-generated content, a news platform like Buzzfeed News should also be held to a much higher standard – journalism ethics, which involve accuracy, verification of sources, and impartiality among other norms. Open innovation definitely helps widen the top of the funnel sourcing of ideas (the aforementioned tip submission page and Sourcedrop) but probably so much so that many non-credible tips are let in. Buzzfeed News needs to manage the pressure of delivering fast product turnaround (hot news takes) with maintenance of Pulitzer-worthy reporting and editing integrity.

  3. Buzzfeed faces a massive uphill credibility climb if it wants to be a main player in news. In an era where our own government discourages trusting media and fake articles permeate our social media networks to the extent that elections are influenced, the idea that a website known by many for “cat memes” could be a trusted name in news seems farfetched. I do love the idea of SecureDrop and leveraging its user base to maximize its access to information – certainly there are myriad stories that could break via user contributions that the journalist team would never snuff out. But I can’t imagine the magnitude of the fact-checking department needed to peruse every “tip” that comes in. It makes me think of artists reading through YouTube comments searching for constructive feedback. Maybe, in the thousands of comments, a visionary has a creative idea that no one has yet thought of: but you’ll have to sort through a lot of “lollllzzzz wut is this. quit your job??!!?” before you find it.

  4. I’m interested at whether crowdsourcing in the way discussed here actually benefits buzzfeed as it seeks to transition from memes and quizes. It strikes me that, as you mention, it doesn’t quite solve the problem of making it a more credible site. I understand how this would help push more traffic to the site however and help increase reader involvement

  5. The comments above point to an interesting balancing act between the benefits of crowd-sourced stories and the potential for reputational decline if those stories are not accurate.

    I agree that Buzzfeed has a believability problem – they’re relegated to interesting headlines without much substance beyond that, in my experience. However, their valuation indicates an ability to capture a large volume of eyeballs. Buzzfeed should continue its open innovation platform but also increase its credibility by publishing data on the proportion of stories that it accepts vs. rejects by news category. It could actually benefit from telling the public that only x% of stories make it through its filters while still encouraging people to send in new tips.

  6. Hi! Thanks for the thought provoking post. I think moving towards more credibility through crowdsourced news is difficult, because Buzzfeed reporters just don’t have the access to the same resources as journalists at CNN/Economist/FT would. Additionally, I think crowdsourcing poses credibility issues that the traditional news outlets don’t have. The source does not really matter when I’m looking at cat pictures or rumours about celebrities, but will matter a great deal when I am, for example, presenting an opinion to senior management. If Buzzfeed wants to become more serious of a news source I think they will have to move away from crowdsourcing and therefore to some degree overthrow the current model of their success.

  7. Thank you for highlighting the work Buzzfeed has done to encourage more user-generated stories. I would be interested to know if their volume of user-generated articles fits more into their “credible” vs. “social” content generation. I would like to see Buzzfeed actually initiate specific news challenges to help guide their content generation community. Although greater instruction might dissuade some users from producing Buzzfeed’s more viral content, I believe it would enhance the quality and resonance of their stories over the long-term.

  8. I think Buzfeed could use crowd-sourcing to get ideas for their stories, and even be more reliable- if they a) use data analytics in conjunction to weed out articles below a certain quality. b) target freelancers and reliable news sources. This can even improve over time as their analytics engine becomes more robust. I think it is critical for a new-age website such as Buzfeed to do this if it wants to compete with traditional and credible news sources such as CNN and the NY Times. This can give it an edge over its more established competitors, by sourcing ideas that consumers would like to read, backed by real data and predictions.
    To your question on using their community page, it could serve as a tremendous opportunity to get its followers and writers interacting and debating, which is a great source of demand generation and marketing for Buzfeed. It could have users vote on a “theme of the week”, for example, and source ideas related to that.

  9. I think you have identified the perfect strategy for buzzfeed to remain credible while still using open source innovation. Buzzfeed inherently has two identities: a social platform that lists movies, funny memes and recipes. It has also recently tried to position itself as a credible news source, and contrary to their “no political” rule, a platform for social commentary. In order to keep readers engaged and stay credible, they need to be very judicious in where to crowdsource their information. Crowdsourcing points that need little diligence to confirm. Restaurant recommendations and movie lists are the perfect use of crowdsourcing. News, however, needs to be controlled by the company – including the comments section – if they want to stay objective and credible.

  10. Instead of asking how Buzzfeed can become a more credible news source, I wonder if the question should be whether it’s in their best interest to do so? The diligence required to verify the factual accuracy of news stories often runs counter to the benefits that are gained by crowdsourcing ideas. Buzzfeed’s strength in open innovation seem to be on the creative and entertainment side of content historically. It would be interesting to see how reliable their content is and how much they engage with open innovation during the news cycle as they make the jump to news.

  11. Really interesting article! I think the questions you pose on the article are very timely to the conversation around fake news and the intervention of external forces trying to move public opinion in a particular direction for political reasons. There needs to be a very stringent, and in my opinion human-based, filtering and editing resources to ensure the quality and the validity of the news sources. Additionally, there’s always the risk of not capturing the largest diversity of perspectives if the crowds are not leveraged in a way that are directly inputs to the news reported

  12. I believe Buzzfeed can actually use crowdsourcing to help validate the veracity of the information posted similar to the way it is done with blockchain for example – people get some kind of reward (can be status, discounts to partner’s merchandise or something in these lines) for verifying what is being posted on the platform, and the posts would gain an increasing rate of “reliability” as more people vouchered for it. Of course it is still subject to manipulation, but it is a way to start working on increasing the credibility of the platform in a cost effective way.

  13. Enjoyed reading your piece on how Buzzfeed aligns open innovation in their company strategy and how they executed it. I find that this piece hit a key point that is the frictionless signup process Buzzfeed has created in order to encourage more users to join the platform and contribute to sourcing their content. I found it fascinating to see how Buzzfeed’s self-created Open lab had failed, really reinforcing how integral open innovation is to Buzzfeed.

    You spend a lot of time discussing Buzzfeed as a journalism source comparable to Vox and The Guardian. From my personal experience, I sitll very much consider Buzzfeed an informal, entertainment focused site rather than a journalistic source. I would be very intrigued to read more about this tradeoff between open-sourcing content and jouranlistic integrity. While open innovation does define Buzzfeed’s creative and fun content, I wonder how they will go about managing quality of their content as they strive to become a more credible news source.

    Regarding how much Buzzfeed can leverage its community for more crowdsourcing efforts, I think it would be interesting to also analyze the dependency of this strategy on third-party platforms. For example, a lot of content on Buzzfeed is actually sourced from Facebook, Twitter, or other blogs. From a legal standpoint, I would be curious to see how these third-party platforms choose to interact with Buzzfeed, whether free usage of content from their sites is allowed, charged for a fee, or downright banned.

  14. Credible news continues to be top of mind in this day and age. A huge positive of the Buzzfeed open innovation lab is sourcing relevant stories, which are applicable, relevant, and top of mind to many consumers. In aggressively sourcing (diverging the funnel) and narrowing the set of articles (converging), I would be curious to understand what factors Buzzfeed is utilizing to sort, select, and publish stories. I imagine an important factor of selection stems from the editor’s “gut/intuition” of what articles will be the “most” popular on Buzzfeed once published. I would be concerned that some editors may push radically controversial topics that don’t present balanced and thoughtful arguments through for the sake of attracting more consumers and gaining more “likes.” How does Buzzfeed think about quality, as it considers expanding its scale and scope? What is Buzzfeed’s process for verifying content and fact-checking? Again, we live in a world where media and published content is being carelessly quoted (by some) in mainstream conversations without any considerations for whether the content itself is truthful and accurate.

    I think Buzzfeed’s growth and increase in reach will likely stem from its community at the grass roots. Other media sources have substantial reach and access to resources. I feel as through Buzzfeed’s reach can spread with an empowered fan base continuing to share articles on social media and utilizing word of mouth tactics via their peers, especially to gain access to the population that is not on social media. Consumers tend to be loyal to news sources and one way Buzzfeed can continue to scale is to make sure its open innovation platform continues to produce high-quality content.

  15. This is a really interesting piece on Buzzfeed as a new source and I learned many things about Buzzfeed’s news program (including that they had Pulitzer finalists!). At the risk of straying into marketing territory and as many have pointed out above, the Buzzfeed brand is associated not with credible news, but with viral and pop culture. I wonder if the very fact that they are so crowdsourced undermines their ability to ever become a credible news source in the eyes of the public. I don’t think that it does, as long as they institute a strong system of internal quality control, but that can be an arduous and labor-intensive process.

    In addition, I’m wondering how Buzzfeed can leverage their users or “crowd” for more than just story ideas or tips, but for the actual investigative part of the journalism. For instance, would it be possible to have internet users not only report trends they find but also do the online digging to get to the bottom of the story? Outsourcing the research function would require large amounts of quality control as well, but could be an interesting way to source information as well as identify budding journalistic talent on the internet.

  16. While the prospect of ‘open source’ solutions sounds extremely alluring, promising cheap labor and diversified ideas, there also needs to be some consideration into whether an organization actually needs to implement its own open source solution in order to realize its benefits. In Buzzfeed’s case, I would actually argue that it’s not necessary.

    Buzzfeed’s use of open source revolves around its desire to source realtime news ideas. Essentially, it gathers live data through a social media approach, an area in which traditional social media institutions like Twitter and Facebook already excel at. In this case, Buzzfeed might be better served by partnering with the existing players, and getting a feed of their content, rather than creating their own pipeline. The use of open source is only meant to generate ideas, which can benefit from the scale of a large user base, but Buzzfeed’s competitive edge in this space has to come from the quality of its editorial, which I believe should be where they invest more of their resources. Buzzfeed has already tried to maintain an in-house team for developing and maintaining more technically advanced forms of journalist, such as the Open Lab1 and the podcasting initiative2, and both ventures have been closed. Hence, Buzzfeed might not be adept at handling these projects internally, and be better suited to capitalize on the open sourced solutions of more established organizations.

    1. Mullen, B. (2017, March 30). BuzzFeed is closing its Open Lab later this year, Poynter. Retrieved from https://www.poynter.org/news/buzzfeed-closing-its-open-lab-later-year
    2. Spangler, T. (2018, September 20). BuzzFeed Shuts Down In-House Podcast Team, Variety. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/buzzfeed-shuts-down-podcast-layoffs-1202950157/

  17. Although Buzzfeed has gained popularity in recent years, I am skeptical of their ability to overcome their reputation of being a “gossip” media company in order to become a credulous news source. While their use of crowdsourcing to write articles has been the reason for their success, I believe this is also the main obstacle to why they will never overcome the stigma associated with their brand. A lack of checks on the content posted to their website has allowed for rampant plagiarism, a lack of accuracy and reliability of their articles, and posts of libelous content that can open them up to lawsuits. In order for Buzzfeed to continue to succeed and build up their reputation they need to have stringent procedures on the verification of their posted content while also tracking and banning users that don’t adhere to their quality standards. I do believe open innovation in news is a worthwhile endeavor, however, I’m not sure that Buzzfeed has the tools nor the integrity required to become a credible news source.

  18. Crowd sourcing content has quickly emerged as one of today’s hot button issues, and I think your questions hit the nail on the head.

    In response to you question — “As Buzzfeed strives to become a more dependable news source, how can it further leverage the open innovation tactics that havemade it one of the most popular websites among young adults?” — I see one solution as tiering content based on the type of contributor. Buzzfeed could go about doing this by using a system like Instagram does where it gives users a check next to their name if they are a verified user, a user that in this case has a track record of producing value-add content that falls within the limits of the company’s broad boundaries. Although you risk alienating some of the platform’s early adopters, some sort of system that gives the best users credibility would be a step towards prioritizing strong content and implicitly fighting content that is factually incorrect.

  19. Thanks for a very interesting read on BuzzFeed’s application of open innovation methods to news media. I think crowdsourcing news has the potential to be really powerful and a real game changer for the news industry, as we saw from the use of Twitter during the the Arab Spring revolution. Buzzfeed could use its skill and scale at crowdsourcing to differentiate itself from traditional news outlets, who similarly also seek tips and real time news from readers on the ground, but have a user base that is much less engaged on social media than Buzz Feed’s customer base, and I would imagine, much less likely to contribute content to the site. However, as we’ve seen recently from the proliferation of fake news on Facebook during election cycles, crowdsourcing of news content can also be very dangerous. I think the key to using crowdsourcing news media effectively is to marry it with a high degree of curation and fact checking. I think this would be an instance where there are tremendous benefits to a more selective application of open innovation – opening “idea generation” but not “idea selection”. If Buzzfeed can find a way to sift through and qualify crowdsourced news quickly and at scale (whether through machine learning techniques or human effort or some combination thereof), it could have a real edge over traditional news outlets in producing a high volume of high quality news, which, in the 24-hour newscycle world, seems like a key competitive advantage.

  20. Despite Buzzfeed’s desire to foray further in the news segment, I believe Buzzfeed should stay focused on what made it an internet sensation: social media, entertainment news, and the like. Buzzfeed does not need to become all things for all people. I believe it will be difficult for Buzzfeed to swing its reputation over from pop culture mecca to hard-hitting investigative news source in the near term. Credible news sources require significantly vetting sources, fact checking and rechecking. Further, reputable news sources and their anchors are held to high standards (e.g. Brian Williams’ suspension from the NBC nightly news after the Iraq reporting scandal) and it would be extremely difficult for Buzzfeed to hold often anonymous contributors to anywhere near these standards. Further, given Buzzfeed’s historical perception as “entertainment news”, I believe Buzzfeed’s news will be even more painstakingly scrutinized by the public and other media. Though Buzzfeed’s open source platform may be a great way to get “tipped off” on interesting stories and topics, I believe the time necessary for the Buzzfeed staff to vet and fact check the news stories will outweigh the benefits.

  21. Reading this I’m reminded of another user-driven viral media site that some of us may remember: Gawker. Gawker was of course sued over the Hulk Hogan debacle and forced to shut down. Buzzfeed could benefit greatly from tempering some of its open innovation with machine learning focused on detecting potentially controversial or legally problematic content and preventing it from being published. One actually real product (unlike watson) that IBM has is a natural language sentiment analysis tool – it would be capable of reading any given article and scoring likely consumer sentiment towards the article. Articles that score negatively could be forwarded to BuzzFeed editors for review eliminating a lot of the human quality control risk. Again this would be a human-augmentation product rather than a full automation product.

  22. Enjoyed reading your article, interesting to see how a modern day news outlet works. I do question the assumption that Buzzfeed with its user generated content can take the place of CNN, BBC, Fox and other traditional journalism, which derive content from professional journalists. If they do challenge traditional journalism, I wonder how reporting and journalism itself would change as content gets supplied more so from (amateur?) users than professional reporters.

  23. Thank you, Tyrion Lannister. I have seen BuzzFeed news before without having any idea on their business model. Your post has enlightened me. Two things intrigued me from your post.

    First is the knowledge that crowdsourcing has its downsides if not managed well. BuzzFeed constraint in prohibiting political content makes the case for this. I would be very interested if this restriction came after a mishap or if it was just an area where BuzzFeed preferred not to concentrate.

    The second that I found interesting is the feature for telling their contributors what stories have yet to be told. BuzzFeed, having the data of what their customers read and enjoy, is in a prime position to nudge contributors to certain areas. Your analysis of the deficiencies that this feature has is very thoughtful, laying a concrete set of ideas that BuzzFeed could enact to further promote submitting the “untold” stories.

    To conclude, your final consideration warning on having non-credible stories/Fake News is on point (I’m sure you this issue is close to your heart having worked with Varys and Little Finger). Facebook decided to counter unfounded stories by hiring dozens of curators. BuzzFeed could go down this road as well, but not having the financial capabilities that Facebook has might find it difficult. I would be interested in the development of the ideas you stated (e.g., utilizing software). Potentially they could use open innovation to find a solution.

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