BuzzFeed is rethinking how it does business both at home and abroad, and layoffs have ensued.
On Thursday, Le Monde reported that BuzzFeed was shutting down its France operation, laying off all 14 staffers at the American publisher’s offshoot, which launched in 2013. In a memo sent to employees, BuzzFeed’s vp of international, Scott Lamb, described the layoffs as a “first step” toward reconsidering its presence in France, writing that it had “started a consultation process” with staffers there. “We have questions about whether we can build a sustainable business in France,” Lamb’s memo read.
Meanwhile, a separate memo written by chief revenue officer Lee Brown and published in Recode revealed that the publisher will be making changes to how the business side operates in the coming weeks. The company posted 45 job openings it said will position it to “operate more efficiently” and ease the workload of some “overextended” teams.
Nearly five years after BuzzFeed embarked on an international expansion plan, charging into nearly half a dozen countries in less than two years, the publisher is going to put more emphasis on entering new markets through partnerships, while adopting a different strategy for the markets where it’s already carved out a presence. At home, it is tacking away from the sponsored content that formed the bedrock of its business, in favor of more programmatic advertising.
“Moving forward, our strategy will be more dynamic, more tailored to specific market conditions, and more informed by the local business environment,” Lamb’s memo continued. “Our global network will be the glue that ties our international businesses together, but we’ll also be more open to new approaches and partnerships that expand our current model.”
Though BuzzFeed’s foundation of quizzes and listicles might have seemed like a very American thing, it had already been widely copied in some of the markets it tried to enter. In France, for example, BuzzFeed had to fight for buyers’ attention with sites like Demotivateur, which at the time was trafficking in the same kinds of quizzes and entertainment-heavy content that BuzzFeed had. Demotivateur also has a Facebook audience more than three times larger than BuzzFeed France’s, according to CrowdTangle data.
And while BuzzFeed’s foreign offshoots managed to grow their brands on social media, they had trouble achieving the fast growth that defined its presence in the United States. At its 2014 launch, BuzzFeed Deutschland’s founding editor said she’d like to amass 1 million social followers before the site began covering politics or other serious news. Today, BuzzFeed Deutschland’s Facebook page still has fewer than 500,000 likes, and its current total is up just 20 percent from where it was 12 months ago, according to CrowdTangle data.
(It did wind up moving into hard news despite missing that 1 million follower target, even bolstering that side of its newsroom ahead of Germany’s national elections last year.)
The success and impact of the news teams’ reporting across BuzzFeed’s international bureaus remains a point of pride inside the company. Editor in chief Ben Smith became fond of sharing stories published by BuzzFeed France starting during last year’s election; two months ago, BuzzFeed UK won Website of the Year at the Society of Editors Press Awards.
But as most publishers know, impact reporting doesn’t always translate into business success. In BuzzFeed’s European bureaus, its teams had to deal with an unusual arrangement: No local sales teams. Despite years of clamoring for a local sales team from France, according to Le Monde’s report, the ad sales for BuzzFeed’s French, German, Spanish and British operations were all handled by a central team in London.
While the strategy of selling media across European markets is not unheard-of, it is not common, in part because there are enough local market idiosyncrasies that specialized sales teams are normally required.
“Sometimes [American publishers] have the mistake of lumping Europe as one place,” said Dale Lovell, the chief digital officer of the native advertising vendor Adyoulike. “If you really want to be successful you have to have feet on the street in these spots. At the very least you need native speakers working the patch from London making weekly trips. Otherwise you are only picking up ‘international’ ad plans for Europe planned out of London.”
BuzzFeed has editions in 10 different markets outside the U.S., including China, Japan, India, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Spain and Germany. The company claims more than half its audience lives outside the United States. While BuzzFeed didn’t enter any new markets in 2017, it announced a content licensing partnership with Chinese media company Bytedance in January.
The style and structure of those operations differs. BuzzFeed Japan, for example, is run as a joint venture with Yahoo Japan, while in countries such as Brazil, there’s a greater degree of autonomy. BuzzFeed Canada, for the past two years, has operated as a kind of extension of BuzzFeed News, posting content on its own social media sites infrequently — it hasn’t posted a story to Facebook or Twitter in over a week — while staffers focus principally on BuzzFeed News. Content written by BuzzFeed News staffers across all its English-language offices is frequently syndicated or shared across its accounts.
But in the past year, Germany and Spain have become empowered to do more selling on their own. Germany, for example, recently sold a bunch of sponsored quizzes to Sky Deutschland.
Yet without superior social distribution and in an increasingly crowded branded content marketplace, the path forward on BuzzFeed’s old map seems less clearly marked. “If you’re looking for someone to make something in the BuzzFeed style, there are 20 other people that can do that quite easily,” Lovell said.