BuzzFeed’s new Summer Writers’ Challenge could pay up to $10,000 for user-generated content that goes viral, in a bid to get its contributors to draw in readers interested in niche topics and potentially uncover new areas of coverage for BuzzFeed’s entertainment staff.
Contributors to BuzzFeed Community — a hub launched in 2013 that houses user-generated content like quizzes and lists created by people that simply sign up for an account — can opt in to have their posts be a part of the eight-week Summer Writers’ Challenge running from June 15 to August 15. The best posts on Community are amplified across BuzzFeed’s site by editors. The program’s payments are tiered, based on the number of page views each submission receives: posts with over 150,000 views will earn contributors $150; posts with over 500,000 views will earn $500; over 1 million views will get $2,000; and the highest tier of 4 million views will pay out $10,000. This is the first time BuzzFeed will pay its Community members for their high-performing contributions.
The goal is to “get new, different kinds of users” with this program, said Peggy Wang, BuzzFeed’s executive director of growth and trends. “As BuzzFeed is growing, our audience has new kinds of niche interests,” such as internet stars like TikTok influencers or new TV shows. “There are more fandoms, but there is no physical way that BuzzFeed can tackle all of those things,” she added.
That’s not entirely true. BuzzFeed could hire hordes of more writers. But employing people full-time is a major investment and a risky one if the content they are asked to produce is effectively throwing posts at the wall to see what sticks. Also, in the past year, BuzzFeed became a profitable company that is reportedly looking to go public and is averse to losing money. “Though BuzzFeed is a profitable company, we don’t have the resources to support another two years of losses,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said when announcing the company had laid off 70 HuffPost employees in March.
The Summer Writers’ Challenge appears, in part, to be an example of BuzzFeed being savvy with managing its content costs and ensuring a return on its investment. The tiers of payment were calculated “based on our previous Community traffic,” Wang said. BuzzFeed declined to share the average traffic a Community post brings in, due to the fact that “it fluctuates greatly” based on the type of post, timing and promotion, a spokesperson said. “We believe [the challenge] is a worthwhile test worth funding for two months,” Wang said.
Community has about 1,500 people, on average, actively contributing a post each week, according to Wang. Roughly 15,000 to 20,000 posts are submitted a month by contributors, and about 25 to 30 posts get promoted on the BuzzFeed site by editors (otherwise, the posts are essentially hidden on the site). Prior to the Summer Writers’ Challenge, Community contributors were awarded with “internet points” and “virtual trophies” for popular posts, which appear as a badge near the contributor’s byline on the page.
The program is like a “game,” Wang said, where people “are motivated to hit a goal, using a metric that is easy for us to track.” Community contributors can track their post’s views via their existing personal dashboards on the BuzzFeed site.
With this challenge, Community contributors can post character quizzes about a new show they are into but isn’t written about much online, Wang said, potentially tapping into “something that is about to be really big.” A few years ago, for example, BuzzFeed editors started noticing an influx of quizzes from contributors on “VSCO Girl,” a teen subculture that BuzzFeed wasn’t covering yet, but then “exploded into this big thing,” Wang said.
BuzzFeed Community “can influence the direction of the site and kind of highlight trends” that BuzzFeed’s staff might be missing, Wang said. Insights from the summer challenge, such as trends or topics that are identified, will be shared with staff.
Before posting content, users have to agree to abide by BuzzFeed’s Community Rules: essentially, no brand- or self-promotion posts, no politics, no plagiarizing, no reporting, no spam, and no posts that are “threatening, harassing, defamatory, deceptive, fraudulent, invasive of another’s privacy, tortious, vulgar, or pornographic.”
BuzzFeed editors comb through Community posts and remove any that violate its rules. They also take down posts flagged by readers. The posts that get promoted are often ones that match search terms trending on BuzzFeed’s site or topics that editors think might resonate with readers. “It’s a cool way to be able to experiment quickly with lots of different kinds of content,” Wang said.
The challenge could even mean a new job for a Community contributor. “We have used Community in the past as a pipeline for hiring,” Wang said. The challenge can be “a way to identify new talent,” she said.
The risk for a program like this? Quality control. “The only value by which we are judging this content is views,” rather than “quality engagement,” Melissa Chowning, founder and CEO of audience development and marketing firm Twenty-First Digital, said in an email. “We’ve seen what happens to content quality and the information ecosystem when we reward simply the ability to capture attention,” she said.
When asked about issues of potential low-quality clickbait as a result of the Summer Writers’ Challenge, Wang cited the Community Rules.
“As long as [contributors] fall into these editorial guidelines, I feel pretty good about the content that we’re choosing to amplify through our network,” Wang said.
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