January 29, 2014

When Dao Nguyen forgot to check a piece she wrote on a mobile device before it went live, she knew BuzzFeed had a problem. Nguyen is BuzzFeed’s vice president of growth and data, and “obviously it’s not my job to write a post,” she said by phone. But writing a big list post is a lot of work, she said, and previewing it on a non-desktop platform was a task easily forgotten.

Now when BuzzFeed authors click the preview button in their CMS, they see what their posts will look like on mobile devices as well as on desktop computers when they preview them, Nguyen said. That’s a fix that’s important for the site’s readers’ experiences, because sometimes writers use “embeds and large graphics that don’t scale down to mobile-sized screens,” Chris Johanesen, BuzzFeed’s vice president of product, said on the same call.

But it’s also important for BuzzFeed’s business: “Very often people discover our content on their phones,” she said. The site’s trademark lists and reported articles get lots of mobile traffic (almost half of the million views of a recent long BuzzFeed article were on mobile devices, Megan Garber reported earlier this month), but the site’s graphics-heavy quizzes “do really really well on mobile,” Nguyen said. One, “What City Should You Actually Live In?,” had more than half its views from mobile devices.

Preview a post in the BuzzFeed CMS, and you’ll automatically see what it looks like on a phone.

OK, so a tweak to BuzzFeed’s content management system isn’t exactly the most earth-shaking media news. And BuzzFeed’s mission is probably nothing like the one your newsroom has. But content management systems matter, as Felix Salmon wrote back in November: Publications that want to compete on a large scale need a CMS that “does everything well, from video to real-time storytelling to sophisticated ad integration,” like Vox Media’s Chorus platform. (Ezra Klein, in fact, cited Chorus as a major draw when he brought his as-yet-unnamed publication to Vox.)

BuzzFeed’s CMS may not scale in the same ways Vox’s can — it’s “so narrowly optimized to the unique BuzzFeed voice that it’s hard to see it being extended across a broad swathe of different sites,” Salmon wrote — but publications that want to compete in their own territory might want to look at how BuzzFeed’s product teams interact with its editorial and advertising pods, and build tools that help both sides succeed.

When I visited BuzzFeed’s new office late last year, I noticed that the tech teams were situated at the bottom of a “U,” with editorial up one side of the letter and business on the other. Between those departments was a thick wall. That real estate isn’t just symbolically important, Nguyen said: “At some media companies, technology isn’t necessarily a first class citizen. At BuzzFeed, technology is really core to the product, core to the success.”

As the site’s began adding content types beyond lists, the CMS evolved in consultation with all the groups who used it, Johanesen said. Editors have a dashboard that gives them data like what percentage of traffic to a piece is coming from mobile devices, for instance. “We know that certain social networks behave differently on different devices, Nguyen said. For example, Traffic that comes from Pinterest users on tablet devices is higher than traffic that comes from Twitter users on tablets. “A subtle distinction but one of the many things we look at,” she said. With those kind of tools, she said, “You’re a better editor.”

The creators of BuzzFeed’s sponsored content posts use the same tools, Johanesen said, benefiting from the same data insights as well.

Alice DuBois, who’s the product lead for editorial, meets weekly with the editorial department to discuss improvements to the CMS. “There’s lots of cheering in those meetings,” Nguyen said. Shani O. Hilton and Saeed Jones, both editors at BuzzFeed, confirmed in emails to Poynter that cheering is not uncommon in these gatherings. Hilton added that email chains DuBois starts are sometimes greeted by “dozens of excited reaction gifs, dispatched from staffers across editorial.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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