The head of International for viral content powerhouse BuzzFeed talks about the language of the Internet and expanding beyond the U.S.
FORTUNE — Scott Lamb joined BuzzFeed in 2007, when the company was more of a goofy user-generated link-sharing site than the viral powerhouse it is today. Now, the company, backed by $46.3 million in venture funding, employs 150 journalists who attract more than 130 million unique visitors per month. Last year, BuzzFeed began overseas expansion, a rarity for any digital-first publication that’s not run by Arianna Huffington. BuzzFeed now publishes in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and has a growing stable of correspondents and freelancers in countries like Russia and the Middle East, as well as newly opened regional offices in London and Sydney.
Fortune spoke with Lamb, who last year became the company’s VP of international, about how BuzzFeed’s international growth was spurred by a gimmicky job application, why GIFs are the universal language, and how the French don’t share cat photos.
Why did BuzzFeed decide to expand internationally?
The first office we opened was in London last year. We were expanding a lot and trying to figure out which areas to expand in. We had a really great applicant for a night editor who was based in London. It was one of those kinds of applications we get a fair amount of, as you’d expect, like “23 Reasons You Should Hire Me.” But he (Luke Lewis) really blew it away, and that’s not an easy thing to do.
What made it so good?
It was just a good, funny list. A lot of people just make 90s GIF jokes. The bar for those is pretty high at this point. But his was both idiosyncratic, and it really felt like his voice. It was really informative and told us a lot about who he was.
So now you have correspondents in different countries, as well as international editions that you translate into a three different languages. How does that break down?
We have foreign correspondents in Cairo, Instanbul, and Moscow and starting soon, a woman in Nairobi, and that is a very particular part of our growth. They’re all reporting to Miriam Elder, who is the foreign editor. That came out of us wanting to do some international coverage. That was a bit of a separate push.
[When we launch new offices], we start with a very small team, just three people, and we have them focus on the social shareable content. They make the lists and quizzes that people share at a really high volume. That’s the first push and the natural place to start. It’s core to what BuzzFeed does. If that is working — if people in this new market are really sharing the content the same way that readers in the U.S. do — then we expand and figure out which venues we want to push more in.
Can you explain how you’re working with Doulingo (an app for learning languages) to translate BuzzFeed content into different languages?
We have a partnership with Duolingo where their users translate some of BuzzFeed’s content for the French, Spanish, and Portuguese sites. But we also know translations will only take us so far. We have two editors in New York (who run our French- and Spanish-language sites) and freelance writers in all those countries.
Buzzfeed is not a humor site per se, but a lot of what we do is based in humor. You really can’t translate humor or jokes. They don’t hit the same way in other languages, which is partly why we’re so interested in hiring and developing local talent and letting them experiment and figure it out. BuzzFeed Brazil is going to be very different than it is in the U.S.
Did it work?
I think it has. Especially in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, it works much better than we thought it would. It seems like there’s a real hunger for the model that BuzzFeed has in other places. There are not a lot of digitally native publications in a lot of these other media markets. They still have very powerful large newspapers and magazines that are trying to adapt to the web, but very few startups along the lines of BuzzFeed in these countries.
What’s gotten the most interest: the entertaining lists or the journalism-with-a-capital-J?
We have been translating a much higher volume of lists. It has been interesting to see what does well and what doesn’t. Stuff that is highly visual is much easier to translate, and irrespective of your culture, something like that tends to have a much bigger impact.
A lot of the lists we do about aging, anything about the anxiety of getting older does really well across cultures, as well as things about parenting. When I saw that, I was like, “Of course.” It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It’s universal. Those posts are also very BuzzFeed-y. They use a lot of animated GIFs.
So are GIFs the universal language?
There is a bit of an international language on the web. GIFs are a part of it, especially if they’re not all about the text at the bottom. They are a part of a shared culture. They’re tied to Hollywood, but the sensibility of web culture is fairly universal because from its inception, it’s global. YouTube is an incredibly global site. A hit like Gangnam Style was so big because it was easy to enjoy even without understanding the lyrics. That’s true of web culture. There’s an advantage to being a web-first publication and being able to speak that language.
Any interesting cultural differences you’ve observed so far?
In the U.K., the cultural difference is not so great, and there’s not the same language barrier. But if you look at the posts the U.K. team is doing, they do have a different sensibility. BuzzFeed in the U.S. is very enthusiastic and largely positive. They have a bit of a “no haters” policy. Similar to the original Office, the sensibility in the U.K. is a little more satirical and biting. They have developed their own sensibility and have approached things in a different way.
One of the greatest Internet clichés of all time is cats. In France, people might click on cute cuddly things, but they don’t share them. They would much rather share something with a political or contrarian take, and that has affected the way the French editor thinks about translating and what kind of content to create herself.
Have advertisers in international markets caught onto this whole native advertising and sponsored content trend, or are you going to be the trailblazers there?
In a lot of places we’re going to be trailblazers. The conversations about native advertising are similar to what we saw in the U.S. two to three years ago. In some places, it’s not even at that point. The way the digital market is developing is very similar in Brazil and Germany to what we saw here, and this notion of social advertising is still fairly new.
Will you build out local sales teams, or sell ads to American companies with global presence, such as your first deal with Intel in Latin America?
Ideally for us it will be a mix in each market. A lot of our brands that we work with currently are also global brands. Other media companies like The Mail online and The Guardian have been expanding their global footprint a lot, and as brands are starting to think about unifying their global message, we’d like to continue working with them.