Jonah Peretti, founder and chief executive of the wildly popular website BuzzFeed, is trying to choose his favorite online video.
“ ‘Drunk vs. Stoned’ was pretty fun,” he finally says, singling out a BuzzFeed video in which a staffer tests whether it’s easier to function on alcohol or on marijuana by getting really drunk and, on a different night, getting really baked. The three-minute video, featuring side-by-side comparisons of dancing, ball catching, drawing and Lego building, has scored more than 3.1 million views since its debut two months ago.
BuzzFeed itself is riding high these days. “Drunk vs. Stoned” was just the latest monster hit in its arsenal of viral social content, which altogether attracted record traffic of 85 million unique visitors in August, three times the number it had a year earlier. By this time next year, Peretti predicts, BuzzFeed will be one of the world’s most visited websites.
Peretti and BuzzFeed’s staff members, self-described Internet nerds, have an uncanny ability to predict what will blow up online. The Manhattan company measures success not by page views but by shareability – the number of people who like a post enough to pass it on to their friends via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media channels.
“We would rather someone get to a post because a friend suggested it to them,” said Doree Shafrir, BuzzFeed’s executive editor. “No one wants to share something crappy because then they look like idiots. We’re very cognizant of that.”
Launched in 2006, BuzzFeed is dominated by lighthearted, frothy fare: the funniest cat GIFs of the week, scandalous Miley Cyrus photos, 19 Reasons Why Pants Are the Enemy.
But Peretti, who also co-founded the Huffington Post, is determined to turn BuzzFeed into more than just a site known for funny lists and has been vocal about his ambitious plans to grow the company into an all-around media juggernaut for the mobile social age.
To do so, the 39-year-old hired Ben Smith from Politico to be BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, beefed up the site’s hard news coverage and invested in long-form journalism. To reach international readers, BuzzFeed on Monday announced that it would add Spanish, French and Portuguese versions of the site.
His latest push: A major video initiative that has brought BuzzFeed, naturally, to Los Angeles, where it has converted a former beauty supply store into a bureau largely devoted to conceiving and producing viral videos. It also leased a smaller production facility a couple of miles away in Hollywood.
“Video was a huge missing piece,” Peretti said during a recent visit to L.A., where he discussed his plans while shuffling a stack of yellow stickers printed with “omg,” “lol” and “cute.” “We wanted to do for video what we did with other kinds of content.”
The video space has seen radical change in the last few years thanks to smartphones and tablets, which enable viewers to watch content online when and where they want.
The massive potential for social mobile video was exemplified last year by “Gangnam Style,” the over-the-top, dance-happy music video by Korean pop star Psy that attained new heights of virality. In December it became the first video to hit 1 billion views on YouTube.
“No media executive said, ‘We’re putting this on at prime time, it’s going to have millions of viewers and it’s going to be the biggest thing,’” Peretti said. “It was people in their offices, people on their mobile phones, seeing it and saying, ‘Oh, I want to share this, I want to pass this around.’ ”
BuzzFeed’s L.A. team, he said, is building the “TV studio and movie studio of the future” by creating original videos to fit these new patterns of media consumption.
The company is predicting that its core audience of 18- to 34-year-olds will binge watch and share its videos with the same fervor with which they spread BuzzFeed lists such as 30 Signs You’re Almost 30 (7.9 million views, 111,000 Facebook shares, 10,000 tweets).
It’s also a slick advertising move, media watchers say.
“The easiest money to be made in content is pre-roll ads in front of videos,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. “There’s been kind of a stampede into video.”
Not that BuzzFeed needs help generating money. The social news site gets all its revenue from so-called native advertising – shareable ads that look like BuzzFeed editorial content. Its revenue grew from zero four years ago to $20 million in 2012, and the company is on track to do $60 million this year.
BuzzFeed is also profitable, although the privately held company declined to say how much it earns.
BuzzFeed, which has raised $46.3 million to date, has been on a hiring spree and now has more than 340 employees; most are younger than 35.
The L.A. office officially opened Wednesday, but a team of BuzzFeed videographers has been filming and editing content around the city in the last year. They’ve already churned out more than 700 videos, 123 of them amassing 1 million views or more, said Ze Frank, who was hired last year to lead the team.
The videos vary in content and tone. Some are silly, such as “Sad Cat Diary,” a compilation of the thoughts of supposedly depressed felines (10.4 million views). Others are somber, including “The Time You Have (In Jelly Beans),” a look at how the average human spends the finite amount of time in his or her life (2.4 million views).
BuzzFeed’s entire video operation, currently numbering 30 people, is based in L.A., along with a handful of ad sales reps and 10 editorial staffers who focus on entertainment coverage.
The 12,000-square-foot, two-level office, decorated with red foam letters that spell out “BuzzFeed,” red Ikea bookshelves and red chairs, is BuzzFeed’s largest after its headquarters. The company also has offices in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and London and is opening a bureau in Australia.
In New York, BuzzFeed’s meeting rooms are named after famous Internet cats such as Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub and Henri, Le Chat Noir. In sunny, laid-back L.A., its rooms pay homage to well-known dogs.
Company executives say they are looking to build the same kind of influence in L.A. that the brand has in New York. And they’d like to dispel the notion that BuzzFeed is, as its detractors say, a hub for superficiality and so-called click candy.
That reputation shouldn’t be a big concern, USC’s Kahn said.
“BuzzFeed’s whole nature is that it takes its cue from the audience,” he said. “So people who want to knock it are knocking what the audience says it wants.”
BuzzFeed is just one of several websites – including the Huffington Post, Politico and even TMZ – that are redefining the news industry through “bite-sized chunks of information,” said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of social and digital media at Columbia University.
“These new players are born on the Internet, they’re of the Internet, they’re for the Internet,” he said. “They go places where a more careful publication may not go.”
Despite its push for more substantive, hard-hitting content, BuzzFeed remains a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Staffers don red BuzzFeed hoodies and thick-rimmed hipster glasses and say the collaborative environment feels more like a startup than a rapidly growing media company.
Videographers are divided into three teams – red, blue and yellow – that playfully trash-talk one another and hold separate weekly meetings to generate ideas. Each person aims to make two videos a week.
During Team Yellow’s brainstorming session on a recent Monday, eight video producers toss around ideas that they can film in the next few days: cute animals that are actually creepy, best roommate pranks, ways to annoy a barista.
As the hourlong meeting winds down, video producer Andrew Gauthier proposes a follow-up to “Drunk vs. Stoned”: “Drunk vs. Baby.”
The idea catches on immediately.
“Like who could crawl faster, or who could eat spaghetti more neatly,” fellow producer Micaela Mielniczenko suggests, eliciting raucous laughter. “ ‘Drunk vs. Baby’ I think needs to happen, honestly.”