Published: Monday 15th of May 2017

BuzzFeed has taken community-generated content to the next level.

Brett Vergara

Brett Vergara, Community Strategist at BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed’s journey to building their fervent fan following is actually a journey of leveraging community creativity. Their work can teach community builders and company leaders alike how to motivate people both to contribute and consume, and – internally – how to communicate community wins back to our teams so that we can get more resources.

Brett Vergara, Community Strategist for BuzzFeed, has been along for this wild ride. As one of the leaders behind the community-generated content on the site, he has been building the community at BuzzFeed for nearly three years and has seen shifts in editorial as well as managerial strategy. All the while, he has rolled with the punches and his team has made the community even stronger, in clearly quantified ways.

Last January, in fact, their team hit a major milestone: BuzzFeed’s user-generated community content fueled 100 million page views, a huge portion of the site’s overall traffic. And stats like those influence the company to continually expand and grow their community efforts beyond just paying them lip service.

Whether you’re new to this career path or looking for new ideas to engage your members, Brett’s insights can help you get unstuck.

CJ: Talk to me about this community milestone you hit in January.

Brett: We’ve recently shifted strategy. Instead of spreading our community editors thin and promoting everything they can get their hands on, we focus on the pieces that are really strong. We have two full-time community editors and then we have one that does it on the weekends, and they used to try to fix everything up even if there was a post that they were essentially building from scratch.

Now we only work with the best content.

CJ: And that’s helped bring consistently high-quality content to readers then?

For my job, we also do these challenge weeks with our top users, and I get them excited about a theme. So we’ve done Food Week, Kids Movie Week, Love Week around Valentine’s Day, etc. And, with Love Week, in particular, the average community post in that challenge got around 250,000 views, which is so much higher than last year’s average post. That’s been a big thing. The quality of the posts is just a lot better, and that’s something we’re really striving for.

CJ: So then are page views and post quality how your job success is measured?

We definitely look at views. That’s a standard one. We have social things too: we’ll look at link clicks, share rates, and things of that nature on our Facebook page.

As far as quality, it’s very important to us. We have an intern, and that was something that I really admired in her when she was applying. She wasn’t the community user who had the most posts or the highest traffic. But she had some really funny and creative posts. She did this one post where she re-illustrated Nicholas Cage’s face on different Pokemon, so it’s like nightmare fuel, but it’s also really funny and creative, and we admire that.

CJ: So your intern is actually a contributor herself? She is a member of the community?

Yeah, we always strive to get good community users hired here. In the very beginning of BuzzFeed, that’s how people got here. People tended to start off as community users and then someone would notice them, and then we have two different outlets for people who want to start at BuzzFeed. We have the Fellowship… and then we have internships.

I was a different story. I kind of got here in a weird way.

CJ: What was your weird way of getting here?

I interned here in [New York] City two different summers. The first summer I was at Atlantic Records doing publicity, and the second summer I was doing research for MTV. I was basically studying what “the youths” think is cool.

The first summer I maybe had three or four friends I did everything with. The second summer I was like, okay, I want to meet more people. That was an active goal of mine.

I found out about getting the MTV internship around a month and a half before the spring semester got out, and I was really antsy to start. So I created this Facebook Group called “New York City Summer Interns 2013” to tide me over until then.

I started off with just my friends, and I said, “You three, invite the people that are coming back to the city and have them do the same and let’s get a little community going.” So I was expecting it to get to, like, 200 people, that was the goal, but then it ended up really blowing up. It got to 3,000 members or something like that, starting with media and entertainment interns, but then expanding to industries I knew nothing about.

CJ: How did that turn into a community job at BuzzFeed?

My boss for the first two years at BuzzFeed was interning there when I set up that group and was part of it. Flash forward a year later, I’m looking for a job. There was an opening for a Community Moderator at BuzzFeed. I honestly didn’t even think that you could pursue a career in community at the time. Once the opportunity was in front of me, it slapped me in the face.

My initial job was going through all the comments on BuzzFeed and banning trolls. So I was doing that for six months, and then I got to what I currently do, and I have been doing this for two years.

CJ: Is the moderation more automated or outsourced now or is there a new community moderator?

Our process is changing for that too. Moderating comments becomes a lot with a platform like BuzzFeed because of the sheer volume. We are actually going to be shutting off our native comments soon for a lot of posts except for the posts that we want to be more interactive, our “Add Yours” and “Flipped” posts specifically.

We had a full-time person looking through every single comment that was on BuzzFeed, and we found that like 97% of that stuff was fine, and then 3% of that was someone being a jerk or someone being spammy, which is a problem with a lot of comment sections.

CJ: Now that you’re not a moderator, what does your role entail?

Our community editors will go through all these posts that come in from the community and if they see something that’s well done and they think it will do well on our site… then they’ll promote it. Then it just appears as a normal post on BuzzFeed, and it can get something like 300,000 views or even way more.

So I come in once our users get a post promoted. I’m their “hype man” of sorts. I’ll email them directly and say something like, “Hey! This post was amazing. Welcome to community! This is your first post and you killed it. You clearly have a knack for what BuzzFeed does. Here are some suggestions for the future, and if you ever have any questions, just let me know!”

So I’m the welcoming, overly friendly face of the BuzzFeed community.

Then we also have a Facebook Group I manage, so I’ll invite them to this secret Facebook Group for BuzzFeed’s top users.

That’s where they can get to know each other, share each other’s posts, get to know us, and also just post about random stuff and share their favorite memes. I’m friends with a lot of our users and I always love when I see our users posting on each other other’s walls, or they have gotten together and coordinated their own little meetups too.

It feels like a more personal thing, rather than just throwing content at the BuzzFeed wall and seeing what sticks. We share things with them, like certain posts that are doing well, trending topics, so we have this open communication.

Another big part of what I do is on the Support end. When people contact BuzzFeed, I’ll respond to a lot of the feedback. But the intern next week will be taking over a decent amount of that, so my job will change and lean a bit more into community-user interaction.

CJ: So the community interaction mainly happens on Facebook Groups?

Before I started, we had a Google+ group, and that didn’t work quite as well. Google+ wasn’t a natural part of most of our community’s lives, especially because we have high schoolers, people in college, etc. They’re not going to be on Google+.

Meeting people where they are is the trick to keeping people engaged in the group. So when they are just on their phone lying in bed at midnight and get a notification saying someone has posted in the group, it’s just a natural part of their routine, and I think that’s super important.

CJ: Is community member retention in that group something that is important to you currently?

Absolutely. It’s tough because we are often working with people in college or just out of college. Sometimes people get hired away, and it’s bittersweet. We try to hire as many community users as we can, which is great for the company as a whole, but then we are losing them as users.

But it always re-populates from somewhere. In order to keep the people we have, we try to keep people hooked with just getting to know us and getting to know the other community users naturally. Then we’ll surprise people with swag just as a bit of kudos and recognition. Finding out ways to get new users is always something I’m thinking about, and it’s definitely something we can always be doing even better.

CJ: I remember Jack Shepherd of BuzzFeed talking in 2014 about the importance of community back then, but he said it was “flying under the radar”. Why do you think community continues to be something that BuzzFeed invests in? Couldn’t you just hire more writers and be done with it?

One, it’s a good way for people to just play around and get a feel for BuzzFeed. And it provides a great talent pool for future hires.

Two, this community is just super creative and allows us to think differently. For example, now that I’ve been at BuzzFeed two and a half years, sometimes I’ll get stuck with ideas, I’ll want my posts to do well, and then you can get caught up in what is already being done well here. I think what I always admire about community is this freedom and weirdness that comes out of it, like Nick Cage’s face on Pokemon.

Sometimes you just need this outside random idea that no one else here could have thought of. The 100 million views we got in January is a big testament to that.

I think a big reason the BuzzFeed Community took off is that it stemmed from people seeing some silly quiz we wrote and thinking “I could totally do this, too, so I’m going to.” That type of ingenuity, I think that’s really cool. It makes us who we are.

CJ: What do you think actually motivates these people to do this beyond just thinking they can?

I think people get addicted. If you get a post promoted and it gets 300,000 views, you all of a sudden realize, “Wow, that is 300,000 real people.” Especially for a college kid, someone who is sitting in their dorm, writing a post, and all of a sudden “Surprise! It gets promoted!” you get carried away with the thrill of it. Maybe their post gets shared on our Facebook page and this college kid’s crush shares their quiz organically.

We had Chrissy Teigen share a BuzzFeed community quiz recently, and when she shared the quiz, that user printed out the tweet and hung it up at his desk. How else would that even happen? That’s the root of the BuzzFeed community.

A big part of my job is keeping that addiction up, but I’m trying to make sure it’s still fun for them because I never want community users to feel we are taking advantage of them. I want them to have fun and feel playful with stuff and not get too caught up in the numbers. This is entirely voluntary. I don’t want them to be beating themselves up for a post not doing well, because that’s our job. For them, it’s playful, it’s fun, and it’s satisfying.

CJ: And is that something that other companies can emulate or is that something only BuzzFeed has?

It’s tough. There are obviously ways that community professionals can all relate to each other. But the BuzzFeed community is a unique beast and certain things are relatable and certain things aren’t.

The whole idea of trying to be personal with your community and not making it feel like we don’t care about them as a person, anyone can apply that in their job. Just having that degree of personal connection, personality, and fun is vital for anyone.

It’s very cool to have a very unique thing, and it is also sometimes kind of scary having a very unique job, because then I am thinking, “How does this apply elsewhere?” But that’s my own anxiety to deal with!

CJ: I feel that way all the time.

Don’t we all, though, don’t we all.

CJ: As a community person, how do you get access to the metrics you need to show your value?

We have some internal tools. We get our automated reports from them. Then as far as how we report, our structure has changed a little bit, so now instead of me reporting to someone else on the community team, I report to someone in upper editorial management.

The community here has always been pretty self-sufficient and we’re kind of unique creatures at BuzzFeed. So we report to upper-management and then we compare our work to staff work and what chunk of community user traffic is our total traffic.

CJ: And that’s what makes it worthwhile for them to continue to invest and grow this team?

Yeah, for sure. It’s not just a small chunk of our total traffic, otherwise it would be a lot harder to take it seriously. Instead, it’s a big part of what we do. So we do get a lot of support here, but community people can relate to sometimes needing to argue their case.

For example, when we need to request a fix to a community bug or an issue some users are having, that needs to be prioritized alongside staff requests as well, and there are only a certain amount of people and resources to tackle these things. But I do feel like we are valued here because of the results we can report back.

CJ: I am seeing this at more and more editorial organizations. They’re really making this investment and changing old-school editorial standards.

Yeah, community can really change its face depending on what it’s being applied to. It’s so important to a company, but how it is important changes from place to place. If you have a product you are trying to sell, your community is going to be important with the feedback you get or the support you give. With a contributor-based community like how ours operates, they’re important for generating content. So while I have a major understanding of how our community operates, I’d have a lot to learn elsewhere.

CJ: I think that this is just one larger way that community can be valuable to a company. That’s why I am always arguing that there is no one single ROI equation. 

That’s the thing there. I think when you’re talking about how you measure success, you have to determine that based on who you’re talking to. I’m always a sucker for Myers-Briggs and figuring out how people work.

If I’m talking to a very analytical person like my former boss, he’s numbers-driven, so if I give him a great stat, he’s going to be excited about that. That’s how I sell my value to him.

But I’m definitely an emotional person, so if you tell me some sort of emotional story, I’m really going to care about that.

Jonah Peretti, our CEO, will say this a lot that BuzzFeed is important because people use the content to relate to their friends and relate to their family. Because sometimes relating to people is hard, like with my friends from college who I don’t really relate to as much anymore because they’re married and have a kid now — while I’m in New York and my dating life is still a mess. How do I relate to them?

But if I see some quiz that reminds me of them, I can send it to them and start a conversation that way. So that’s another “measure”, and that’s something that has been a foundation for BuzzFeed for a long time.

So while those stories or data might not resonate with everybody you talk to, knowing your audience is really important. That’s the key.

Yeah, it’s about knowing your audience and meeting them where they are. It’s like you’re a comedian reading the room, because everyone is going to want something different.

Well, if you can tell us the one definition of success, I’d love that. Everyone else seems to be looking for it too.

Thank you for all your insight, Brett!

This interview was conducted in March 2017. 

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.