The secret to BuzzFeed’s video success: Data

BuzzFeed Motion Pictures wants to be your best friend.

And by all accounts, it’s well on its way: Like the rest of BuzzFeed, the 40-person video department has centered the majority of its content around a cheerful, upbeat tone, an ethos that has helped BuzzFeed become one of the fastest-growing digital video publishers, having just started a video division in 2012. Unlike many text publishers that have pushed into video, BuzzFeed’s videos aren’t boom and bust. They regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. For example, the last 10 videos BuzzFeed created have view counts between 221,000 and 1 million on BuzzFeed’s primary YouTube channel, BuzzFeedVideo.

Andrew Gauthier, newly promoted to executive producer of BuzzFeed Video, is one of the main forces behind BuzzFeed’s impressive foray into video content. Gauthier, BuzzFeed’s first full-time video employee, now oversees all of the company’s non-sponsored video content. In a recent conversation, he talked with Digiday about BuzzFeed’s video operations and ambitions. Excerpts:

What’s the new role?
I’ve been at BuzzFeed for a little over two years. We’ve obviously grown a lot since 2012: Now we have 40 talented video producers that are making over 30 videos a week. In my new role, I’m focused on establishing short-form video as the engine that runs BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. As we experiment with doing longer-form, serialized content, short-form BuzzFeed video will be the place where we test out new characters, topics, storylines and styles, with the opportunity to bring those things into longer videos and serialized videos.

Following the $50 million Andreessen Horowitz investment, BuzzFeed renamed its video division BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. Does that mean long-form content is a major new focus for the company?
The scope is going to grow in a very organic way, where we’re going to test certain lengths of videos, characters, and topics. In terms of stuff we’re experimenting with, we’ve started an unscripted development team that’s being headed by Henry Goldman. That documentary-style content may run for five to seven minutes or longer.

How are you using data to inform video production?
Data influences every stage of production. In the pre-production stage, we’re very conscious of existing conversations on the Internet, about topics or identities or certain styles that appear to be resonating with people. Everybody that works here lives on the Internet, so it’s this very natural thing to say, “Oh, I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends are posting this type of thing on Facebook.” We’ll talk about why certain things went viral, then we’ll incorporate that into a larger conversation.

And after a video is released?
We pay close attention to how viewers are interacting with our videos. We look at share stats on Facebook, comments on YouTube and, and through those metrics, we will learn about what types of things in the video resonated with viewers, and also how viewers use the video interact with their friends whether they share on Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere.

Do you have an example of data-driven content creation?
We made a video called Weird Things All Couples Do. It got a ton of shares, and we noticed by looking at the comments and shares that a lot of couples were sharing it with each other. Now we’ve done a number of follow-ups. We did Weird Things All Couples Fight About, which has well over 1 million shares and 30 million views on Facebook — and that’s just the Facebook player. Then we did Weird Things Couples Do On Date Night. We have a number of follow-ups in the works about being best friends, siblings, cousins.

Looking at the analytics dashboard, what surprises you, and how do you use that data?
We are continually surprised by the reach of our videos internationally. Our video team is based almost exclusively in Los Angeles. Because a lot of us that are making stuff are American and are based in the U.S., we naturally create stuff for an American audience. But I am continually surprised by our reach beyond the U.S. and beyond English-speaking countries. Specifically, we continually get a lot of viewers from the Philippines, and that’s not something we have consciously targeted. It’s just perhaps certain elements to our viewers that have resonated with people in the Philippines. Videos about friendship and family have done particularly well with our Filipino viewers. We have done a couple of videos that were specifically about being Filipino, about growing up as part of a Filipino family, and we have a couple people on staff here who are Filipino-American, so they were able to build off their personal background to make videos that resonated with millions of people. We are continually surprised by our reach beyond the U.S. and are always looking to expand that to create content that not only American viewers want to share but also international viewers want to share.

Which social platforms have been the best distribution channels for BuzzFeed video?
A significant percentage of our views come from YouTube, but we’ve seen an incredible amount of growth and viewership through the Facebook player. Facebook is a lot more about personal identity and interacting with friends, while YouTube is a lot more about consuming video, so they have pretty different audiences.

Different how?
On YouTube, we recently had a video pass 10 million views: If Disney Princes Were Real. And on Facebook, we’ve had a number of videos that have more than 10 million views, and also some videos have a million shares. That’s really exciting for us. Shares are obviously a big part of what we consider when we’re attacking new platforms and looking at what resonates and what doesn’t.

There isn’t a perfect formula for virality, of course, but BuzzFeed has been remarkably consistent in making videos that are highly shared. What’s the secret?
Our video is a unit of conversation. After we make a video like 13 Things Only Siblings Understand, as an older brother, I’ll share that with my sister, and I don’t really have to add words to it, because in a small way, it sums our relationship. We strive to make videos that include pieces of truth. Hopefully, people feel they need to share it with their friends or family because it adds a certain amount of truth to their lives.

Is that tone something the video department learned from BuzzFeed editorial?
We’ve applied the BuzzFeed voice that our editorial team has established over the years to video. It’s not just positive; we approach the reader or the viewer from the standpoint of being their ally or their proxy. As we develop storylines, we want viewers to say, “That’s so me” and really see themselves in the characters.

How is the video department organized? How do you decide what content to make?
We don’t have a conventional division of labor here, in that we don’t have writers and directors and camera people and editors. We have a bunch of people that do everything. We call them producers, but effectively, they will create a video from beginning to end: write it, shoot it, direct it, edit it. If you have one person making a video from beginning to end, it gets infused with their personal passion.

How do you prevent the whole operation from sliding into chaos?
To some extent, chaos is great. We learn a lot by working in an environment where anything is possible, where we walk into work with the desire to take on new challenges.

Any hints about what’s coming up next?
We’re always pushing forward, testing new formats, new characters, new styles. We launched a channel, BuzzFeed Violet, a little over a month ago. The goal there was to establish a handful of characters and to really test characters and establish a community around the characters, similar to what you’ve seen with other personality-driven YouTube channels — the types of people you don’t commonly see on TV and movies but that exist in the world — and use them to tell many, many stories.