BuzzFeed’s Ashly Perez: The Secret To Viral Content Starts With A Gut Feeling



Her advice to content creators: Use the data available, but look inward for your next a-ha moment.

Ashly Perez, an influential content creator and producer for BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, says that while data is important when it comes to optimizing content, it all starts with a “gut feeling.”

“You have to be a little insular,” she said during a SMWLA fireside chat with VideoInk founder Jocelyn Johnson. What she means is that the most effective content creators look inward when it comes to concepting the next viral hit. It’s not about chasing trends; it’s about thinking about what kind of content you as a consumer would want to see. Which stories are NOT being told? If there’s a topic that hasn’t been touched yet, there’s a good chance that there’s an audience out there that looking for someone to tell that story.

Here’s what else we learned during Perez’s main stage talk.

On balancing the viral drive with authenticity

Johnson asked Perez how she and her team at BuzzFeed balance the desire to create viral hits with authenticity. Perez said that her approach starts with a gut feeling, and also the simple question of, “So what?” Why will the audience care about this piece of content, and more importantly, why should they care?

In this regard, she spoke to the importance of shares (what BuzzFeed calls “social lift”) as a metric versus simply looking at clickthrough rate. A high CTR would indicate that the headline and image were click-worthy, but this metric doesn’t speak to how that content was able to connect to the audience. Sharing a piece of content is a more powerful metric when it comes to assessing how authentic and relevant that content was in the eyes of the audience.

When it comes to working with advertisers, Perez says that creators shouldn’t be making content just to appease their brand partners. Instead, she suggests viewing advertisers in the context of their ability to “enable your craft.” By this extension, brands like McDonalds can act like the new Medicis, financially supporting the storytellers that will move culture in new directions. This is a key takeaway for advertisers looking to partner with creators like BuzzFeed: Support relevant stories and storytellers, but grant the appropriate creative freedom to promote the greatest authenticity.

On BuzzFeed’s role in shaping culture

Interestingly, Perez pointed out that while BuzzFeed certainly drives culture in terms of subject matter, their more significant contribution has been their pioneering of ownable formats that translate into what she calls “social languages.” BuzzFeed achieved early success with identity lists, designed to incite readers to share due to their feelings of pride and relatability. From there, they pioneered GIF lists, which have become a popular format for many media outlets. They also brought quizzes to the forefront, increasing a reader’s ability to interact with content through a short, choose-your-own-adventure style user experience.

On the role of data in content development

Data is obviously important when it comes to analyzing how successful a piece of content was and distilling key learnings for future efforts. That said, Perez warned brands and creators to not get stuck in past data as they dream up the content pieces that will engage people in the future. “Don’t be so obsessed with data,” she said. “You’re chasing the last data set.”

Perez’s approach to data is to look for what she calls “cultural spike-points,” or patterns in the data that reveal things the team did not expect going in. These can be things like upticks in traffic from a specific region, or data that indicates a specific behavior around a piece of content. To this last point, she shared an example of a city-based post that was shared by people as a point of pride more so than a recommendation to friends. Based on that insight, she began to think of ways that content could help people demonstrate their personal pride for various places and passion points.

Perez, who started at BuzzFeed as an editorial fellow, added that she connected with the BuzzFeed team after viewing a Social Media Week live-cast while she was living and working as an English teacher in South Korea. After watching BuzzFeed founder Ben Smith and Jonah Peretti give a talk, she reached out and secured a job. That fearlessness has extended to her expanding role at BuzzFeed, where she is one of their most prominent producers.

As a content creator, you can’t be afraid of failure, she said. “Our failure rate is huge. But if you think about it, Oprah was on TV for 25 years and only had about ten moments that broke through culture.”

The big takeaway for creators: Keep looking forward, and “once you make it, forget about it.”

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