Customer-obsessed marketing

6 Reasons BuzzFeed’s Revenue Miss Is OMG!

Ryan Skinner
Senior Analyst
April 15, 2016

BuzzFeed's supposed to be the media company that holds the answer to the media business's future in a post-banner world. While the media world is dying, BuzzFeed's been hiring, growing to new markets, winning new investment on high valuations and projecting hockey stick sales growth.

But worrying signals that BuzzFeed was struggling were confirmed in an article by Financial Times, which cited a miss on 2015's revenue target and a halving of 2016's target. To this, BuzzFeed's chairman said "There's nothing cratering in the industry. It's better than ever." Meanwhile, he offered no evidence to the contrary, reminding this analyst of:

 Counter to Lerer's assurances and in line with FT's findings, there are some pretty good reasons BuzzFeed may be missing its numbers. I'll present them in true BuzzFeed listicle style (all gifs credited to giphy.com). Here goes:

1) BuzzFeed's tried to position itself and its expected revenue as a software play, but it's just….not.

BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti likes to style himself not as a media baron, but a start-up guy. Unfortunately, start-up guys create and ship software for other people to use; right now, BuzzFeed's the only company paying for and using BuzzFeed's software. Without a product to sell, a channel to sell products through or recurring subscription revenue, it's a lot harder for revenue to take that hockey stick-like shape. BuzzFeed may have great software, but it's on a services revenue model, which constrains growth.

2) Snapchat (and everyone else) stole much of BuzzFeed's fire

For a brief and shining moment, BuzzFeed was the hottest ticket to millennial-land you could find. But it can't be entirely chance that BuzzFeed's revenue struggles began about the same time as Snapchat launched its first product, and asked marketers a cool $750K to play (it later came down off that figure). And BuzzFeed's got a lot more competition in the native, in-house content studio game. Vice, Gawker, Mashable, Vox, and even totally unhip outfits like the Washington Post and the New York Times have all launched their own in-house editorial offerings linked to native placement. BuzzFeed's first-mover advantage didn't seem to create an economic moat.

3) Despite the NBCUniversal link, BuzzFeed's not gained any broadcast distribution

BuzzFeed's clearly put many of its growth eggs in the video basket. But it hasn't gained the kind of broadcast distribution that wins the attention of big advertiser dollars. By contrast, BuzzFeed competitor Vice Media recently launched Viceland, a TV channel with international broadcast distribution. Big and highly-distributed programming can create some of the product effects that drive strong revenue growth, but BuzzFeed's video programming hasn't gained that yet and isn't known for any particular program products.

4) Brands are doubting the 'better because it's made here' story
 

In talking to some marketers recently, I've heard a recurring refrain: "The publisher tells us its in-house content studio gives us something unique and special, something that reflects the media brand's unique voice and brand, but what we see from them doesn't do that." These comments weren't directed at BuzzFeed specifically, but BuzzFeed-like offerings that may or may not include BuzzFeed. It's not surprising that the creators who go on the 'brand team' aren't exactly the superstars, and – as BuzzFeed's been trying to grow quickly – many of its 'branded content professionals' may increasingly just be college grads who think they have a good sense of humor.

5) Social agencies don't like being held out of the social content party
 
 
In talking to BuzzFeed together with social agencies, I was always eager to ask the social agencies how they felt about the arrangement. My feeling: They'd fear losing their strategic mojo to the media partner, and become just an administrative function holding BuzzFeed 'to task'. That view was corroborated by recent calls with agency heads, who – when I asked where they were turning for native plays – told me they looked to Facebook, Pinterest, twitter, and other pure-play distribution outlets. No self-respecting social agency's going to long suffer the illusion that BuzzFeed's creatives are sexier than their own creatives. When they can get the reach without the creative, that's what they'll do.
 
6) The big creative and media agencies cling to video
 
 
A further piece of friction that slows BuzzFeed's trajectory as a video studio will be some creative and media agencies' reluctance to let go of control over video production. Even when the agency isn't going to make it themselves, they're not excited about tying budget in to one source when there may be better and cheaper (or, more importantly, more manageable) video production options elsewhere.
 
This all tends to leave BuzzFeed in a position where revenue growth (at least, rocketing revenue growth) is challenged. Against that backdrop, the team may simply temper its ambitions and aim to grow a respectable and profitable business, but – given the insane valuations it's received on the back of being a growth engine – that's not really an option. This leaves the company needing to get to some kind of product play quickly. This could mean an actual BuzzFeed product (but the media industry's not a great market right now), a channel to sell actual products (possible but Refinery29 tried that before without huge success) or a subscription play (but those – even when successful – grow very, very slowly).
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