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It’s happened to you before. You post a status to Facebook and, unexpectedly, it takes off. Instead of the usual 5 or 10 likes, you get 50 or 100. You find yourself checking Facebook a little too often and each time you are thrilled to see another comment or share. Eventually, though, the attention peters out. You find yourself thinking, “I’d like to do that again!” But to your surprise, it’s not so easy.

The Birth of BuzzFeed

Something similar happened back in 2001 to Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, when he was a student at MIT. Peretti had an entertaining email exchange with Nike customer service, and decided to forward it to some friends. The email took on a life of its own, getting forwarded thousands of times, and within weeks Peretti found himself debating a Nike spokesperson on the Today show.

After this incident, Peretti became fascinated by the question of what makes things go viral.

Many people at the time thought the human psyche was too complex, that what makes an article or post clickable was not predictable. But Peretti proved them wrong.

The Huffington Post, Peretti’s first foray into viral publishing, is now the world’s second biggest news site. Its original business model was to aggregate news from other sources, thereby cutting reporting and writing costs, while boosting page views through SEO, analytics and other technological tools.

But that was only the beginning.

BuzzFeed, which, according to Quantcast.com, currently boasts 160 million unique visitors per month (by contrast, the New York Times has 19 million) started as a “viral lab” in 2006 that Peretti dabbled in on weekends while still working at the Huffington Post.

Two Steps to Virality

In interviews, Peretti points to two components that make an article go viral.

First, there is the article itself. It should contain a spark of inspiration or newness, he says. Also, the article should be positive and exciting, not depressing. It should be short, have a human aspect and feel authentic. Images and lists are often a big hit.

But that’s not enough. Peretti admits that he himself can’t write a made-to-order article and ensure that it will go viral. Instead, his writers produce over a 1000 articles a day, publish them and track them. Those that perform well will get further promoted using all the analytical tools at BuzzFeed’s disposal. For instance, if an article about cats wearing funny hats seems to be trending among women over 50, BuzzFeed will further promote it within that demographic.

BuzzFeed vs. NYTimes

Let’s face it. BuzzFeed does not have better writers than the New York Times. What it does have is a better algorithm. The New York Times publishes articles based on human editorial decisions, most likely adding SEO as an afterthought. BuzzFeed, on the other hand, is all about the technology.

If BuzzFeed were outperforming The New York Times and other traditional media by a small margin, there might be room for argument. But to reach 160 million unique monthly visitors in just 8 years of existence is a truly mind-boggling feat.

What Can We Learn?

The lesson is that in our digital age, you don’t need to be a literary genius to produce viral content (although it doesn’t hurt). Your content does need to be exciting, novel, human and authentic. But what Peretti had demonstrated is that no team of editors, not even those at the New York Times, can attract more readers than a well designed algorithm.

In other words, in the contest between humans and machines, the machines are winning.

But that doesn’t mean humans are superfluous. In his acclaimed book “Average is Over,” economist Tyler Cowan writes that, in the future, the best achievements in every field, from chess to medicine to scientific discoveries, will involve humans and computers working together, each applying their unique strengths to tackle a problem.

For marketers especially, this means that exercising your human judgement and ingenuity is the first step. But you can no longer afford to ignore technology. The more you harness data and real-time analytics to “know your customer,” the more likely that customer is to click.