Media outlets have long known that the most reliable way to boost ratings, circulation, or page views is to publish stories that appeal to the least common denominator. Confect a morsel of news or insinuation that tickles the average Joe’s hopes, fears, stereotypes, or sex drive, and you’ll have a hit. The Web’s foremost practitioner of this approach is the shameless Mail Online, which has used headlines like this one and this one to surpass the New York Times as the world’s largest newspaper website. But good sensationalism is harder than it looks, and competition in the race to the bottom gets fiercer all the time.
Hand it to BuzzFeed, then, for recognizing and capitalizing on one of the less obvious ways in which Facebook has changed the media business: A story need no longer appeal to the average reader in order to go viral. Indeed, it need not be remotely comprehensible to the average reader. It need only be carefully tailored to appeal to one very specific demographic.
For example, I encountered in my Facebook feed recently a BuzzFeed post headlined “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley.” Off the bat, the headline excludes 99.8 percent of all Americans from the story’s target audience. You might think that’s a bad thing if your goal is to attract a lot of readers. But that’s the old way of thinking.
Click through anyway, as I did out of incredulity, and behold listicle item No. 1: “You were indoctrinated at CalSO.” What the hell is CalSO? The authors don’t bother to explain. Nor do they deign to elaborate on the meanings of GBC (item No. 6), FSM (7), or GSI (8), or any of the other runic acronyms that apparently govern the daily life of a Berkeley undergrad. That’s the point—only the select few who have in fact whiled hours at Dwinelle and missed TeleBEARS appointments will find anything of value in the post. Its exclusivity is its chief selling point.
Five years ago an item with such limited appeal would have struggled to pass muster at Berkeley’s student newspaper, let alone a national media outlet. The number of Berkeley grads visiting the BuzzFeed homepage on a given day is far too small to make such a niche story successful from a traffic point of view, and it would just alienate everyone else.
But, as BuzzFeed was among the first to grasp, a post can catch on in the social media age without appearing on a site’s homepage at all. Let’s assume the Berkeley story’s authors are Berkeley alumni themselves. (According to LinkedIn, they are.) They post the headline on their Facebook feeds, where a bunch of their former classmates see it, like it, and, in a fit of nostalgia, pass it on to their own networks, which are full of other Berkeley grads. Before long, a significant portion of the nation’s half-million living Cal alumni have clicked on the piece. Indeed, “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley” has racked up some 22,000 Facebook likes and 137,000 total views in less than 48 hours.
The best part, from the perspective of BuzzFeed’s business model, is how easy it is to replicate this success. Posts like this require little to no reporting, only a tiny bit of writing, and, evidently, minimal imagination. All they require is a very specific target audience and an author who can relate broadly to some of that audience’s shared experiences. Well, that and a bunch of stock photos from Flickr and Wikipedia.
Reuters editor Chadwick Matlin has come up with a name for these types of posts: “demolisticles.” He aptly compares BuzzFeed’s divide-and-conquer approach to the microtargeting that politicians have been doing for years, appealing to people’s identities to win their support. The best demolisticles, he concludes, “are the ones that recognize that all we want is for somebody to recognize us for who we are, and who we used to be.”
A little Googling suggests that the tactic is working for BuzzFeed quite well. Among the hundreds of unique results for the phrase “signs you” on buzzfeed.com:
They don’t even have to be written by actual BuzzFeed employees. A demolisticle headlined “32 Signs You Grew Up in Ealing” sports the byline of a “community contributor” named “karatay.” It has 5,000 Facebook likes. It’s not hard to imagine BuzzFeed adopting the same template for native advertisements—think a Ben & Jerry’s-sponsored post headlined “17 Signs You’re a Real Vermonter.”
Never short on self-awareness, BuzzFeed has already parodied its new favorite subgenre of listicle with a July 3 post headlined “14 Signs You Grew up as a Pygmy Marmoset.” Despite being actually clever, not to mention studded with adorable baby-animal gifs, that post garnered fewer than 500 Facebook likes—less than one one-hundredth as many as the “Irish parents” one. The lesson: Nostalgia trumps wit, and not even baby animals—the backbone of BuzzFeed’s past success—can match identity-based pandering when it comes to making a post go viral.
Far more promising from a shareability standpoint is a listicle the site published yesterday: “26 Signs You Work in Social Media” shrewdly targets the demographic most likely of all to tweet an inane listicle. My only criticism is that the author neglects to include the surest sign of all that you work in social media: You get paid to write posts with headlines like “26 Signs You Work in Social Media.”
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
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