Students Were Forced to Write BuzzFeed Click-bait For Grades. What Happened Next Will Rock Your World!

buzzfeed

By Scott Cowley, {grow} Community Member

Last year, I blocked BuzzFeed and similar sites from appearing in my Facebook News Feed, partly because I found myself too often engrossed in literary gems like “22 Signs You Are A Sign.” Last month, as a university marketing instructor, I made my students produce and promote the same click-bait content I refuse to be subjected to. And I’m glad I did.

BuzzFeed’s influence and reach are unmistakable. The media giant now boasts more content sharing volume on Facebook than the New York Times, BBC, or Fox News. It has spawned parodies and copycats across the world, each trying to capture its share of a market for shallow content that doesn’t appear to have quite reached its peak. If you know anything about BuzzFeed, you’ll understand why some people call it “a website that specializes in lazy click-bait articles made by losers, for losers” while others declare it “the most important news organization in the world.”

In addition to content, BuzzFeed also has a full-featured community CMS where anyone can publish their own articles, listicles, and other “distracticles” on the site. After publishing one myself with surprisingly good mileage in the academic community, I decided to make all of my senior marketing students write click-bait for BuzzFeed.

I based a good portion of this project grade on pageviews (1,000 views for max credit), so their promotion plans had to be workable. I like the idea of letting students do something meaningful and I would argue that writing for BuzzFeed is more meaningful experience than much of what happens in university classrooms. There’s some risk, but there’s a greater upside to experiential projects like this, especially in digital marketing. When I told my students that I was going to make them write for BuzzFeed, I could sense some collective astonishment.

“We’re really going to write for BuzzFeed?”

“You know about BuzzFeed?”

“Wait, am I in the right class?”

Yes, yes, and you’d better believe it!

Hyper-targeting is an underappreciated skill

What BuzzFeed does phenomenally well is something I want the students I teach to do well: know how to make compelling promises and then keep them. BuzzFeed gets the click with a compelling headline promise. BuzzFeed gets the share by delivering on the promise. Get attention, drive action. Create value, capture value. These are a marketer’s bread and butter skills.

I also want to help students understand and experience this idea of the “target market.” Part of BuzzFeed’s success is rooted in hyper-targeting—narrowly focusing on niche audiences in ways that sometimes border on ridiculous. Hyper-targeting is just a couple steps removed from full personalization and marketers are going to need to get good at both, due to increasing data availability and the focus on content-as-advertising. Writing a BuzzFeed article should, if done well, be able to lead a hyper-specific target audience along like the Pied Piper. Because after all, you’re playing somebody’s song that they don’t get to hear very often.

In addition to requiring the students to select and position their article for a niche audience, I also required their articles to relate to Valentine’s Day somehow, since I had them each publish their article on the Monday before Valentine’s.

My thought was that this would level the playing field a little by making the content more comparable and would force students to compete in a very crowded holiday content market, which would be good experience (since holiday content is pretty standard practice in almost any company). And finally, I gave them training on tools like Buzzsumo and Followerwonk to help identify influencers in their target audiences (Frac.tl has some great outreach research that I’ll add to future iterations of the project).

So what happened?

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, given the tight deadline, narrow parameters on content, crowded topic area, and my students’ inexperience with promotion, but I was blown away. The class averaged 1,085 pageviews per article, partly skewed by some heavy hitting articles that soared past 10K views that week.

Some students experienced major anecdotal wins in the process. One student was able to enlist the help of PetSmart in promoting her animal-friendly post. Another student was featured on the BuzzFeed community home page for an article about great places to cry. Many were able to get niche influencers on board because their content was well-targeted to the audience.

Maybe the biggest home run happened to a student of mine who wrote a music-themed article because of her passion for and closeness to the electronic dance music scene. In the process of doing outreach to promote the article, she got in touch with a major online music publisher. While promoting BuzzFeed wasn’t their top priority, they loved the student’s creative angle so much that they offered her a job as a freelance writer (at very good rates). Wouldn’t it be great if all classroom projects resulted in job offers?

Not surprisingly, plenty of students fell short of the 1,000-view requirement I set. The challenges were nearly all related to either content or promotion.

Content
  • Targeting too broadly with content that’s too generic (for the record, it takes a high level of creativity to target single people on Valentine’s Day)
  • Not fulfilling on the compelling headline promise (or not having a compelling enough headline to start)
  • Not crafting content to fit the platform (college-style essays don’t do well on BuzzFeed)
  • Not adjusting/repositioning the content in response to opportunities or mediocre campaign performance
Promotion
  • Believing that “if you write it, they will come” organically
  • Relying solely on friends and family to get visibility
  • Aiming small with outreach and not considering secondary audiences
  • Trying to get traction while avoiding social media as a channel

The great thing is, the students recognized these issues in hindsight and even those who fell short were enthusiastic about their newfound experience that they would leverage to do better next time. To me, this experience is priceless. Put it under the category of “things you just can’t teach” because these lessons are so common and many marketers still need to internalize them. We’re glad when we can help students get calibrated before they get their diplomas.

Has your opinion of BuzzFeed changed?

Some people consider BuzzFeed both annoying and diametrically opposed to good journalism. But consider the following:

  1. BuzzFeed has the richest analytics dashboard available to community writers of any open publishing platform I’ve tried, including Medium, LinkedIn, or similar entertainment sites like PlayBuzz. I can’t think of an easier introduction to analytics that goes beyond “views” by showing traffic sources, cumulative and incremental traffic visualization, etc.scott_cowley_graph
  2. BuzzFeed has higher traffic potential for new writers of any open publishing platform (and much higher than a typical “class blog” approach to content projects). I attribute this to the entertainment content focus, established audience, and BuzzFeed’s brand reputation. They also award badges for traffic performance on particular social networks.
  3. Students get to publish on a platform they’re familiar with about topics they’re interested in and experience some marketing realities firsthand. I’ve never received so much unsolicited positive feedback on a project. Even those who despise BuzzFeed understood the importance of strategic planning, positioning, and promotion.

So while BuzzFeed may not make your list, I’ve got my own list of “58 Reasons BuzzFeed is Great for Training the Next Generation of Marketing Strategists.” I know you’re dying to click.

What do you think? Is BuzzFeed the right tool to be using in higher education?

scott_cowleyScott Cowley is a Ph.D. candidate and marketing strategy instructor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, researching corporate digital marketing, content, and social media strategy. Connect with Scott on Twitter @scottcowley or LinkedIn.

 

 

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  • Merav Chen

    Scott, it did rock my world! What a great idea, wish I has such an exercise in school, instead of analyzing yet another airline’s marketing strategy. I wonder whether any of your students has gone on to produce more content for Buzzfeed following this experience.

  • That is amazing. I’ve looked at BuzzFeed as a place that mines my responses for information, but…wow.

  • OK, Scott. Now you have us crazy with anticipation. Where’s “58 Reasons BuzzFeed is Great for Training the Next Generation of Marketing Strategists.”! Nice job on this project. Love it. May I “copy genius” for my MBA Social Media students next semester?!

  • MaureenMonte

    What I love about Mark & His Guests is the immensely valuable information that is shared. The hard part is that there is so much that I don’t know, that I don’t know I don’t know. But that’s life – glad to share the journey with you Scott, and Mark. Well done on the school project!!

  • Thanks, Jack–of course you’re more than welcome to use it. Remind me and I can send you the assignment sheet/rubric I used too.

  • Well they definitely do that too. 🙂

  • Thanks, Merav. I definitely think there’s room for case analysis like you’re describing. But you’re right–it’s pretty unfulfilling and there are so many better things we could be doing. I like to try to find some middle ground with the traditional. For example, keep the airline analysis, but let’s post our thoughts in public and get some airline executives to weigh-in. You never know what could happen.

  • Now that’s what I call progressive teaching. Fascinating post – nice one Scott.

  • Great article and great class project Scott! Your students are very lucky to have you. Thanks to your article I will look differently at BuzzFeed. By the way where is your article? There is no link in the post. Thank you.

  • Stu

    I am all for anything experiential learning. Great idea, Scott. Did each student just send you an email with a link to their post for your review? For those that fell below the 1000 view mark, did that negatively impact their grade? I’m very curious about the assessment of this type of project.

  • Yep, they just sent me a link to the post, plus there was an additional short write-up about their positioning, promotion plan, and takeaways. And yes, 20% of the assignment was based on hitting 1,000, with partial credit for anything below that. I compare that to a similar project where I had students make their own outcome goals, but didn’t tie that to the grade, and I think the results were better with BuzzFeed, since there’s skin in the game.

  • Thanks, Maureen. There are an infinite number of things I don’t know either. But when I had the idea for this project, I knew that I could become more educated if I simply sat down and wrote my own post for BuzzFeed so I could experience it firsthand and guide my students through it, even if I was only a month ahead of them.

  • Thanks, Scott.

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  • Great idea and experiential learning. I may try this in my class!

  • I would love to get the assignment sheet/rubric, too! It would save me a lot of time. Thank you in advance. @BarbraSundquist on Twitter

  • One of my favorite premises when it comes to education is “Learning = Behavior Change”.

    There is a massive difference between learning something and understanding it. Understanding the theory about a subject alone doesn’t help a student to actually learn it to where their behavior surrounding that subject changes and is forever influenced.

    I took around 300 pages of notes while studying Eben Pagan’s Advanced Learning and Teaching Seminar and I came across a guy who was perhaps one of the most incredible teachers ever known to man.

    Wyatt Woodsmall, the gentleman who was co-presenting at this seminar with Eben has had the good fortune to model this man he believes to be one of the greatest educators of the 20th century.

    Modeling is the process of analyzing the specific behaviors and thinking
    patterns of another person or system in order to duplicate their
    successful results.

    Michel Thomas was world famous because he could teach you to speak a new language in 5 days.

    Curiously, among Michel’s critics, no one had the courage to come forth to
    challenge Michel personally regarding his method. In light of this,
    Michel proudly expressed the following to Wyatt Woodsmall:

    “In three days, in less than three days, I achieve in teaching what it
    takes several years in the language department of any university. If you
    ask the language department of any university how long it would take
    just to cover but not to achieve, but to cover, they will gladly tell
    you that it will take two to three years, not including the years in
    high school. What I do in three days is more. It is not to cover it, but
    to know it. I challenge any university. Nobody takes me up on it. It
    only takes three days to prove it or to disprove it. In all these years,
    nobody took me up on it. No university, no college.”

    He lived to be 90 years old and Wyatt and his wife published a book not too long ago chronicling how he did what he did; The Future of Learning – The Michel Thomas Method.

    Wyatt spent half of his time as a sophomore in college learning German and the best grade he ever got was a C while he got A’s in everything else.
    And he spent more time studying German than everything else combined.

    My step-mom had the same experience with French. She had such a hard time learning it in college that she eventually surrendered and changed to a
    major where learning a language wasn’t a requirement. And like Wyatt,
    this was the only class where she wasn’t able to get an A (I think she got a D in it) in spite of being far from stupid and studying her ass off at it.

    When she finished college she went and backpacked across Europe and when they got to France she was worthless when it came to speaking and
    interpreting and in her words, “Everyone there was an ass,” because they
    wouldn’t speak English to her.

    Both of these stories are perfect examples of students being taught with a
    crappy strategy. Both of these people excelled in academics. They wanted
    to learn, but for this topic, no one had made it easy to do so.

    So when Wyatt heard that you could learn to speak a language proficiently
    in 5 days, his knee-jerk reaction was to say, “BS.”

    Wyatt says that as a modeler he’s got to meet some incredible people and
    Michel is one of the most remarkable people he has ever met.

    Michel was born in Poland and when the Nazis came into power so he fled to Vienna. When the Nazis bull dozed into Austria, he then fled to France.

    When the war started, he was caught several times and put into deportation camps, slave labor camps, and was caught several times because he escaped several times and he finally joined the French Resistance.

    He fought with them when the allied army invaded Europe. He made
    connections with the American army and they quickly realized what an
    amazing talent he was and they recruited him into army intelligence. For
    the rest of World War II he was in intelligence and counter-intelligence.

    At the end of the war he did some incredible things and was awarded with the bronze star for bravery . . .

    He captured all of the Nazi party’s records before they could be destroyed
    which served as the basis for the Berlin Documents Center . . .

    He was able to capture the U2 scientists so they were brought to the U.S. before the Russians got them . . .

    And he captured the most notorious war criminal and he lived through things were absolutely unbelievable.

    From War Hero To World Famous Teacher

    When he was a student in France, before and during the war, he took at
    course at one of the prestigious schools and one of the teachers told
    him that no one knew anything about the learning process of the human
    mind. Michel felt this was tragic and thought, “How the hell can anyone
    not know about this?”

    “There’s nothing so simple that it can’t be made complicated,” was a belief that one of his teachers had and he felt that it should be the opposite way
    around.

    When the war ended, he came to United States and settled in Beverly Hills in California. And this is where he decided he wanted to delve into and
    make discoveries about the learning process of the human mind.

    So he thought of what would teach him the most about the learning process and he came to the conclusion that foreign languages would be one of the steepest learning curves anyone would encounter.

    He set out to teach foreign languages because he wanted to learn about the learning process of the human mind.

    He also wanted to demonstrate that there was nothing so complicated that
    it couldn’t be made simple which was contrary to what his professor in
    France believed.

    So he started teaching language in Beverly Hills and he started teaching
    people how to speak a new language in 12 weeks and in 30 years he
    refined that 12 weeks of instruction to 5 days. And he spent the last 30
    years of his life teaching that 5 day course.

    The people who came to him where the anybody who was anybody in Hollywood, politicians and their wives, the major CEO’s of corporations studied with Michel and at the end of his life he was charging $20,000 for
    one-on-one instruction for learning a new language in 5 days.

    Scott, like Michel, I believe your BuzzFeed exercise did an excellent job in
    helping your students to KNOW/LEARN in DAYS rather than just cover a subject for half the year in hopes that the kids will remember data points only until the test day only to forget them as soon as the test was taken and I honor you for this.

    The world needs more professors like you. 🙂

  • Todd Bacile

    Great project, Scott. We need more hands-on experiential class projects for students. Plus, if it is something that the students can learn from and take the skills with them into the workplace to further their careers, then you have done an awesome job as an educator.

  • Thanks, Todd. Experiential projects are plentiful, in my experience. The question is how much time do you want to spend on them as an educator. BuzzFeed was pretty good as far as input/output ratio, but I’ve done others that ended up taking way too much bandwidth due to all kinds of failure points. That’s a huge consideration when you’re trying to do research or have other class loads to manage.

  • Thanks for the kind words!

  • Akilah

    Me too! @englishist on Twitter

    Also, I don’t teach marketing, but my students blog, and i was thinking of having them write a click bait type article too, but never thought of using Buzzfeed’s community feature. Awesome.

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  • I despise BuzzFeed for the shallowness of its content. However, the team knows who they are targeting.

    Kudos, Scott, on this excellent idea. I’m sure your students learnt a lot more than they would have ever dreamed of!

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  • Very interesting experiment!

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