5Qs: Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

Jonah Peretti knows a thing or two about viral content. He made a splash back in 2001 when he used the NikeID customization technology to scrawl “sweatshop” on a pair of Nike sneakers. He was a co-founder of The Huffington Post, then went on to co-found Buzzfeed, a hub for discovering shareable content — and giving brands a shot at getting their ads passed along. He spoke to DIGIDAY about the effects of the web moving from a search model to a social paradigm, the opportunities for brands to act as publishers, and the challenges for Google to muscle its way into social media. Follow him on Twitter @peretti.
Your recent Web 2.0 Expo presentation dealt with the shift from the Google worldview to a Facebook-centric one. What are the implications for media? 
Google has had a big influence on online publishing. The Google worldview is information should be sliced and diced by keywords, topics and verticals. Google makes it very easy for that kind of content to find its audience. People are entering into Google what information they want. Before Google, the earliest online publications thought of people coming to their front door. Google led to search-driven publishing models like About.com and Demand Media. The Facebook worldview is poorly understood. The biggest difference is in a Facebook world, it’s more your reaction to content and how you interact with your friends around content than the informational value of the content. It still matters, but it’s on equal footing with the social story that unfolds around the content. It might be that a piece of content is about how Barack Obama is ahead of the polls. People on Facebook and Twitter who like Obama have a vested interest in sharing that media. People who hate Obama have an interest in hating it. Those interactions allow the content to become more important. If you’re a publisher who wants your content to spread on Facebook, you have to think of the network and not the individual.
So the downsides of the Google world was SEO spam and the downsides of the Facebook world is polarization?
It’s like a dinner table. Sometimes people get into fights about politics. It allows people to take a stand. Sometimes people talk about the weather. It might seem vapid, but it might be a way to get closer to people. It could be a way to share an experience. Google is private. People search for things like Rihanna news. People don’t tweet or post on Facebook, “Do you know where i can find nude pics of Rihanna?” Our social selves are our better selves. You’re more likely to post, “Join me in helping Japan.”
Can brands act as publishers? 
A lot of brands are getting diminishing returns from banner ads that interrupt people. It’s well documented. You’re seeing click-through rates of .02 percent. Brands are spending billions on advertising that consumers are avoiding and ignoring. One way around that is creating advertising that’s useful, entertaining or interesting in some way. Publishers can help. That’s what they do for a living. We’re posting things people like to click on and share every single day. It’s a natural thing to go to a publisher to say, “What are the tricks?” There are additional constraints if you’re a brand, but they have the advantage of a big marketing budget. If a brand makes interesting content, has the standards of publishers and spends some of its marketing budget to distribute it, it can have a lot of success. If a brand takes it seriously and spends some money it can go from having banners people ignore to having content people will share.
What mistakes are brands making in social media?
Brands will put all their eggs in one basket. They’ll have one epic interactive experience at one URL. What we’ve seen is that if they think of it more like a publisher launching lots of articles, they have a lot more chance of having things take off. They can adjust their campaigns based on what’s happening. But they fall in love with one idea and lose the ability to optimize across assets. They get into an all-or-nothing mindset. It’s either spend millions on a TV ad or spend nothing on a social campaign. The reality is something in the middle. They should spend on media that benefits their campaign. Even if for every paid view they’re getting one additional view, that’s amazing.
What’s your take on Google’s +1? Is it a threat to Facebook?
Facebook gives you something to react to. People love to be able to click a button and express themselves. The second piece is once you’ve said it’s funny, you want to pass it on to your friends. Google allows you to say you like this and make it about you. The harder piece is going to be once you +1 something how do you share that with your friends? That’s the harder part for them because it’s not what you do on Google. The first half of saying you like something is a great first step, the next step of sharing with your friends socially isthe piece I’m not sure they’ll get.
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