Jonah Peretti is the Founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, social news and entertainment company. He was also the Co-Founder of The Huffington Post. Peretti was intrigued by viral content and launched BuzzFeed in 2006 to track contagious content that was a big hit.
It is an exciting story that got Jonah Peretti into the spotlight. It all started with a service that Nike launched customizing their shoes, which was a novel thing at that time. Peretti decided to see what words the system allowed him to put under the Nike swoosh: “I first tried a four-letter word and it rejected it, and so I was trying to figure out how the system worked. They had blacklisted a bunch of words. … And then I put the word ‘sweatshop’ in, and it went through.”
Soon, the next day, he got an email from Nike rejecting the order and “saying the word ‘sweatshop’ is inappropriate slang,” Peretti tells the audience in New York City: “I just responded … and said: ‘No, it’s in the dictionary. It means a shop or factory where workers toil around in unhealthy conditions. Now can you send me the shoes?’”
After a series of back-and-forth emails, in which Nike continued to reject the order, Peretti pasted the correspondence together and sent it to a few friends.
Peretti’s email spread so widely that, despite knowing little about the sweatshop issue, “I ended up on the Today Show with Nike’s head of global PR and Katie Couric talking about sweatshop labor.” He starting asking himself, “How can a student with no context in the media reach millions of people about an issue he knows very little about?” As told by Peretti to Guy Raz at a live taping of NPR’s podcast “How I Built This.”
As time went on, the viral Nike email put Peretti in contact with Ken Lerer and Arianna Huffington, with whom he eventually founded the Huffington Post in 2005. Shortly after launching HuffPost, which sold to AOL for a whopping sum of $315 million in 2011, Peretti started BuzzFeed as a side project due to his obsession with contagious content.
During his time at Huffington Post, Peretti began a side project called Contagious Media, LLC with John Johnson and Ken Lerer, in May of 2006. He was curious about how content went viral and started his quest to discover the world of viral media. According to Peretti, “BuzzFeed started as a lab with a small team where we would play with ideas.” In September of 2006, BuzzFeed (Contagious Media at the time) made its first editorial hire, and BuzzFeed officially launched the following month.
Buzzfeed was initially known for its instant messaging client called BuzzBot. It used algorithms to examine links from hundreds of blogs and then messaged users that day’s most popular content. However, Peretti soon realized that the idea would not work in the long run as it was not scalable and so BuzzFeed instead began to focus on building a site highlighting the popular links found by BuzzBot. According to Peretti, “We found that using the detector worked well, but having the detector plus a person to frame the link was good.”
Peretti then turned his focus on why people share things and what makes it spread like wildfire.
Their first viral post was a meme titled “Disaster Girl.” The meme entailed a young girl standing in front of a burning house, and she had a sly look on her face like she set the house on fire.
The picture was sent and shared all over the Internet, and Buzzfeed grabbed the opportunity with open arms. The editors cropped the girl and made several memes placing her in front of other things that made her look guilty and relatable to everyone.
Another tactic that Buzzfeed found was using pictures of cute animals with silly captions. According to Peretti, “People say the Internet is made of cats. The reason is not because of cats; it is because people like to have an emotion where they say ‘aww’ all at the same time.
These images turned out to be a great way to share content among friends and family, where the sharer looked cool for finding something funny, while also keeping in touch with near and dear ones. With deep insights into what makes people want to share, supplemented by a culture of data and testing and a strategy that distributes BuzzFeed’s content everywhere, its global audience has grown to greater than 200+ million uniques per month with over 6 billion global content views under Peretti’s brilliant leadership. Soon they went from having billions of impressions of their links on these social platforms to having billions of content views on the social platforms because it was easily accessible.
In his interview with Business Insider, he advised young entrepreneurs, “If you want to build an empire – I accidentally/reluctantly found my way into building something much bigger than I expected. But I think, start small and focus on the customer or the audience, solving problems for them and focusing on that small thing. Then figure out how to scale that into something much bigger.”
Peretti believes that as we continue to see the disruption of technology, online companies such as BuzzFeed will continue to grow and follow a similar trajectory like that of film studios and TV stations, that started small, with limited content, and later expanding to become mainstream content providers. Furthermore, true to his word, the industry is booming now more than ever.
The charm behind Buzzfeed is Jonah Peretti’s mentality; he is the kind of person who never sees the cloud, only the silver lining, no matter how dark things get. The lessons we can take home from the rise of this empire is that anything can be transformed into something big and marvellous if you have the vision to make it grow and keep with it even on the bad days.