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BuzzFeed’s Big Pitch: We Don’t Know What Works (But Neither Do You)

May 4, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC

Earlier this week, inside a giant, dusty warehouse near Penn Station, executives from digital media startup BuzzFeed wooed and wowed an audience full of advertisers and press. The pitch event, part of a series of ad sales events in New York called the Digital NewFronts, was meant to show the media world that BuzzFeed’s video operation, known for goofy stunts like men wearing high heels for a day, has grown up and into a full-blown media empire.

A stunt from BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman showed off BuzzFeed’s massive scale: At 9 a.m., BuzzFeed’s cooking channel, Tasty, published a video for making marshmallow graham cracker chocolate balls to Facebook. As the ad event wrapped up at 1 p.m., Coleman proudly announced that over the previous four hours, the video had racked up more than eight million views and 70,000 shares. Event workers came around to serve everyone the marshmallow balls, the audience murmured approvingly, stuffing them into their mouths.

“If you haven’t figured it out, we’re open for business,” Coleman said as everyone packed up to leave.

This was a very different tone than BuzzFeed had taken in past years. As I wrote earlier:

Previously, BuzzFeed rejected the cheesy hard pitch formula of NewFronts, instead using its event to indoctrinate advertisers about How BuzzFeed Thinks About the World. Consciously or not, it sent a message that BuzzFeed was a tiny bit too cool and authentic and millennial to really care about tawdry salesmanship.

Those days are over. BuzzFeed found there are limits to its original business model of sponsored listicles, and sees the big money in sponsored videos. This is nothing new—a year ago, general manager of video Jonathan Perelman, who is no longer with the company, told me he hoped to go after the “very big bucket” of TV ad dollars—but the company is under a lot more pressure to deliver after missing its revenue target last year.

A sign on display at BuzzFeed's NewFront event.
A sign on display at BuzzFeed’s NewFront event. Erin Griffith
Erin Griffith

Live video is one way BuzzFeed thinks it can attract TV advertisers. CEO Jonah Peretti told the crowd he was especially excited about a live video of an exploding watermelon that BuzzFeed published using Facebook’s (FB) new live video feature last month. The 50-minute stream of two BuzzFeed employees doing children’s science experiment attracted more 800,000 concurrent viewers, which Peretti said was “exciting because it’s the first time we have a number that’s comparable to TV.” He added: “800,000 is the closest we have come in terms of live viewership and having lots of people watch the same thing at the same time.”

Beyond live, BuzzFeed touted its employees-turned-Internet stars, like the Try Guys, a group of BuzzFeed employees that do comical experimentation (edible lingerie! getting drunk! mud runs!), or Ashly Perez, and Quinta Brunson, both of which write, direct, star in and produce their own scripted videos. The latter two played up their authenticity, explaining that the videos they make reflect their own experiences, something they didn’t see reflected in any other media. (Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed’s video stars attempted to recreate exploding watermelon magic by blowing up a giant balloon. The broadcast lasted an hour and a half and nearly a million viewers tuned in.)

See also: The (Very) Big Fight for the Small Screen

It’s possible none of BuzzFeed’s approaches work for long. Even Tasty, which now boasts 360 million monthly viewers in its nine short months of existence, could fade out as quickly as it took off. “You don’t get to churn these things out forever,” warned Ze Frank, president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. “You have to change.”

That’s the inherent risk in digital media today. BuzzFeed’s executives were clear in their warnings that even though it may look like the company knows what it is doing—indeed, BuzzFeed is the poster child for digital media innovation—it is in a constant state of figuring things out just like the rest of us.

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Driving it all home, the final slide of the event blasted a not-so-subtle message: WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL WORK, BUT WE KNOW HOW TO FIND OUT. The subtext? You, dear advertiser, don’t know what will work either, except you don’t know how to find out.

It’s not a bad message—everyone in media is scared of the seismic shifts that seem to be happening all at once. You may as well listen to the team that got 800,000 people to tune in for an exploding watermelon.

Update: This story has been updated to show that BuzzFeed’s Tasty video had 70,000 shares, not 700,000.