International expansion may be part and parcel of most publishers’ strategies, but extending brands across multiple countries, each with its own language and culture, is tough. What plays in the U.K. doesn’t necessarily resonate in Spain. BuzzFeed has been working hard at cracking the code.
Its U.K. office has exploded since its 2013 launch, with 100 editorial staff and 50 commercial. It has also launched editions in Germany (2014), France (2013) and Spain (2015). Paris has the most staff, with 12 editorial; Berlin is a close second with 10, and there are four editorial staff in Madrid. All commercial deals are sold from the U.K. for now.
But what resonates in the U.S. and the U.K. isn’t necessarily the same in Europe. Sense of humor alone varies wildly across the continent. BuzzFeed has broken through in markets like Spain by targeting specific areas of interest like LGBT and gender-related topics,. In France. the reporting team is the most established and has broken through on topics like social justice, sexual violence and gender equality.
BuzzFeed doesn’t release its own figures externally, although comScore puts its U.K. traffic at 12 million monthly uniques, France at 2.3 million, Germany at 3.2 million and Spain at 2.2 million.
BuzzFeed’s head of European growth, Luke Lewis, spoke to Digiday about what it has learned so far.
Nailing content sweet spots
BuzzFeed gained huge traction in the U.K. from the start by tapping into Britain’s self-deprecating sense of humor, which doesn’t necessarily translate well to the mainland.
“In our early days, a lot of our most popular posts were in key with British identity,” said Lewis. “That doesn’t work so much in Germany where people are less inclined to share posts about German identity.”
Nor would it work in France. There, BuzzFeed has learned that the way to many a French heart is through their stomachs.
Enter Tasty, BuzzFeed’s video food channel, which runs on Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Tasty Miam in France has 1 million followers, and videos that have gone over particularly well include how to bake crusty bread with Emmental cheese, which has had 15 million views.
Another popular one in France was this chocolate fondue pudding, which generated 9 million views on Facebook. “Tasty Miam ties into a different sense of pride [than the British]. The French are very proud of their cuisine,” said Lewis, who added that the French are less likely to laugh at themselves. “A snarkier tone on content in France also works better than it would elsewhere.” Tasty now has pages in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Japan. Most of its focus for its Europe editions has been on using native video to build audiences on Facebook.
“If you don’t get the balance right, you can easily offend people. You can’t centralize the content, just produce it in Los Angeles and then just translate it,” said Lewis. “It needs to be laser-focused to the people in that country. That detail really matters.” When it comes to original versus repurposed, translated content, it’s aiming for a 50-50 split, according to Lewis.
That’s the view at the agency level, too. Joseph Burtoni, social media strategist at Berlin-based agency Jung Von Matt, said Tasty is popular among his colleagues. “They like the U.S. videos. But they want more German content on there,” he said.
Evolving beyond viral hits
In the U.K., BuzzFeed has been diversifying beyond its roots as a site known for viral cat videos and listicles. It has hired established journalists — chief among them former Guardian editors Janine Gibson and Stuart Millar — to grow its investigative news reporting, and it has broken some big stories since. Its latest investigative dive was “The Secret Files Behind The Collapse of Britain’s Only LGBT Domestic Abuse Charity.”
In Germany, it has not quite shrugged off that listicle reputation just yet. That means there’s some distrust around it, said Burtoni. “There are big cultural differences in Germany. When people go online, they often want to learn something rather than scroll through sites like BuzzFeed for entertainment.”
Daniel Horzetsky, director content marketing at Publicis agency Newcast Berlin, said BuzzFeed was impressive when it launched and has inspired a lot of publishers with its social distribution strategy. That has not all been to its advantage, now that copycats like Heftig.de, with 3.5 million monthly unique visitors, have sprung up.
He added that the hype surrounding BuzzFeed has dissipated somewhat, and that advertisers tend to opt for more in-depth partnerships with publishers or build out their own branded-content strategies rather than seek out partnerships with sites like BuzzFeed.
“They’re good if you want to do something funny to generate traffic. But for deeper things for brands like General Motors, which want deeper integrations with publishers, it’s not the right content,” he added.
For others, the content mix is spot on. BuzzFeed has established native ad partnerships with the likes of Diageo, and Barclays across Europe.
Some stories resonate everywhere
Of course, there are those stories that do well regardless of where they originated. “Gender quality, LGBT rights, ‘Game of Thrones.’ And, of course, the great leveler: the human body,” said Lewis. “Posts on body image, sexual health, gross habits we all have: These work everywhere, no exceptions.”
A post that reprinted the Stanford rape vicitm’s letter to her accused rapist Brock Allen Turner, for example, was translated into French, German, Spanish and was widely read in every language. “It resonated because it was an incredibly important, articulate and emotive piece of writing, one that stimulated a global conversation around sexual violence,” said Lewis.