BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti talks Facebook Live and Ivanka Trump

Whether it’s through building a food-porn empire or extending its breaking-news content internationally, BuzzFeed has ambitious global expansion plans.

This week, CEO Jonah Peretti was promoting the company in Japan, which he claims is BuzzFeed’s fastest-growing international market. Since launching in January with an 11-person editorial team, BuzzFeed Japan has expanded to over 40 staff. It claims to get over 10 million unique visitors a month. BuzzFeed has 10 international editions.

“Even before BuzzFeed tried to be a global company, the internet made us a global company,” he said during a press conference in Tokyo.

Digiday Japan sat down with Peretti to talk about the struggles that publishers have with monetizing their digital content, BuzzFeed’s reliance on Facebook and his infamous Ivanka Trump tweet. (Here’s the Japanese version of the interview.)

Why have publishers struggled to monetize their digital content?
Part of the challenge is that shifts happen in the media industry very slowly. Twelve years ago, The New York Times was at its peak in terms of its market capitalization. But it became clear that digital was coming. And 12 years later, they still make most of their revenue from print, and some more from digital. But it just takes a long time.

I think with TV you will see the same thing. At least in the U.S., we saw Disney and ESPN lose subscribers for the first time and some TV ratings go down for the first time. But you will still have a whole decade where they will make a lot of revenue. The agencies are fairly conservative, and money shifts fairly slowly.

The industry as a whole will take years to shift. So you have to have patience and keep working and improving. Over many years, you’ll see that digital is an incredibly powerful form of advertising. And really, Facebook and Google have proved that to be true.

What is your preferred metric for digital advertising?
It depends on the kind of advertising. A lot of the advertising we focus on, it’s brand lift or purchase intent. What we find is that when people are sharing or engaging in a deep way, then that increases their brand awareness, brand lift, purchase intent. And so, they are correlated with each other. I think when you move down the funnel, you might look at something like sales or direct-marketing metrics. And sometimes with Tasty we will see a product integration that’s focused on sales. And usually it’s brand lift plus sales. So it depends on the kind of advertising.

Facebook has changed their algorithm. They now emphasize friends’ posts more than publishers’ or brands’ posts. What do you think of this?
Well, it’s not quite that they’re not emphasizing publishers. They’re emphasizing sharing. But if you share a Tasty video or a BuzzFeed list, that still counts toward what Facebook values. I think what you’re referring to is they are giving less promotion to things that come from pages. So if no one shared to you, but you’ve liked a page, you might be less likely to get something from a publisher. But if your friend shares something that they find from a publisher, then that fits the mission of Facebook connecting people to each other. A lot of BuzzFeed’s content is about that connection, so it fits well with and is very complementary with Facebook.

Some experts say that BuzzFeed over-invested in Facebook. What’s your opinion of this criticism? 
Facebook is one of the most powerful, most important platforms. I’m very happy that we invested in Facebook. I also think that we have a very strong relationship with YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, and we hope to build deeper relationships with Line and platforms that are big outside of the U.S. The media consumption is moving to these platforms. And being a closer partner with them is as important today as it was to be a closer partner with a cable network or satellite TV provider or other forms of distribution that existed in the past.

What do you think of Facebook Live?
It’s really exciting and new. What was exciting about the watermelon video was that the numbers were starting to look like television numbers in terms of simultaneous viewers. Usually the Internet is good for asynchronous consumption of media. But this was synchronous consumption. You see digital technologies keep moving into new areas that it wasn’t in before. So now synchronous live media is going to be a big area for media. But it will still take a few years for it to really develop.

What areas do you think Facebook Live will expand into two to three years from now?
Focusing more on niche audiences or groups of people or subcultures, that’s all going to be possible in a way that wasn’t before. If there’s some sport that you really care about that isn’t the most popular sport in your country but is something you played in school, you’ll be able to watch the finals of that on your phone live. And the algorithms will know you are interested in that and recommend it to you. That’s going to be new and exciting.

But won’t user-generated content rival publishers’ content because everybody can make live video?
User-generated content often is the most important in the early stages of a new distribution technology. But then people at companies like BuzzFeed and others can have full-time people who think a lot about the medium and can see the stuff that’s working that’s user-generated and make it better and improve upon it and learn more about it. So it wasn’t an accident that the watermelon video was huge. It feels like anybody can put rubber bands around a watermelon. But we had smart people who spent their whole day thinking about how to make something that people will respond to.

I think over time, you will see professionals start to figure out how to do some of this in a way that you can’t do if you just have a job and you’re doing it part-time. So I think user-generated will be important. But you will start to see the biggest things won’t necessarily be done by an average person. It will be done by celebrities, media companies and people who really understand how to connect with audiences.

Why has Tasty been so successful?
Part of it is we always learn from everything we make and get better over time. Our first food videos were little experiments. Then we saw that they were connecting with people. Then we added to them. And over time, we were able to make something that worked really well for the platform and for Facebook’s news feed.

What’s the deal with your Ivanka Trump tweet?
I don’t have much more to add. Maybe eight or 10 years ago, I had drinks with Ivanka Trump and a few other people. And she was talking in kind of lewd language and saying things that were somewhat surprising to me because I had only met her one time. So I saw that she was writing about how she was shocked by what her dad said and his language. And I was reading that while getting off a plane, and I was like, wait a second. I’ve only met her once, and she’s like saying to someone who is a stranger who she just met, things that I would probably never say. So I tweeted that, maybe a little bit impulsively.

With Ross Benes in New York

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