Inside BuzzFeed’s plans to conquer Europe

Burns: ‘More local than the natives’

A 15-hour flight delay is enough to rattle anyone’s cage, especially when en route to a global conference like Dmexco in Cologne. But it wasn’t enough to dent Kate Burns’ spirits.

Speaking to Digiday the morning after her trip from hell, BuzzFeed’s new general manager for Europe said her energies are focused on the next phase of BuzzFeed’s growth across the continent. The London team alone is already bursting at the seams of its new office, and on the lookout for new digs as a result, according to Burns, who has hired 30 people to the commercial team, since she joined in April — doubling its size.

“We have new starters almost on a weekly basis” she added.

Given nearly half (45 percent) of its global, monthly 200 million unique visitors are from outside the U.S. it’s just as well. Commercially, the U.K. currently holds the biggest opportunity, though she wouldn’t reveal revenue figures, but France and Germany are catching up.

“We’re at a stage now where we are still a start-up, but are coming into the second phase of being a large start-up, where demand for us from both an audience and business perspective is really high. So we are going through this second evolution of educating and evangelizing and waving the flag,” said Burns.

BuzzFeed has already made a swathe of U.K. editorial hires, most notably the Guardian’s former deputy editor Janine Gibson, who started two weeks ago and has brought several members of its senior team with her. This marks the digital publisher’s plans to expand beyond its heritage of listicle-based content into serious breaking news.

It now has editors on the ground in Paris and Berlin and is eyeing how best to grow both those along with the other European key markets.

Tackling the “idiosyncrasies” of each market so as to meet content expectations is a challenge. BuzzFeed’s German market has grown 32 percent to 3.3 million monthly unique visitors, while France has seen its audience more than double to 2 million in the last year, according to the company. “We will focus on the top five European markets and are just deciding where we land next. The commercial part will follow,” she added.

Jerry Daykin, global digital director at Dentsu Aegis-owned agency Carat, said BuzzFeed is just at the start of its journey with brands but seems “incredibly collaborative” and willing to push new opportunities with agency partners.

“Like many global publishers BuzzFeed’s European presence is still dominated by English language content. But they are uniquely good at shaping content which can travel across borders and resonate in different cultures despite that. Their increasing reach is important but it’s that priceless ability to create relevant content that brands want to tap into which is what they’ll have to work hard to ensure scales without losing its edge.”

Daykin added that today’s marketers have “powerful digital pipes” such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, at their fingertips, letting them get their content in front of millions of people. “But ensuring content resonates and drives a brand message at the same time is still an art. BuzzFeed is building a powerful destination site with effective native advertising solutions, but it’s also learning more about what makes great content than almost anyone in the world,” he added.

Toward that end, Burns said Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries are all likely targets for expansion, as they are regions in which BuzzFeed has already identified “pockets” of audience, and so likely to feature in its road map.

Next year Burns will look to put sales teams in place in the France and Germany to support the growth generated by its editorial output in those markets.

When it comes to growing its editorial presence in the different markets, understanding the nuances of each is key.

“The German market is very regional, and huge geographically. But it’s quite decentralized, so although we have journalists on the ground in Berlin, we will be looking for regional hires across Dusseldorf, Munich, and Hamburg.”

France is regional too, though it’s more centralized with a lot of the focus in Paris, similar to how the U.K. is with London, she said. “We can still have a regional tone of voice, but can more or less cover the nation out of a central London office, which makes us efficient. We must treat each market differently depending on what it is and who they are. Unfortunately it’s not one size fits all.”

Prior to joining BuzzFeed, Burns was Google’s first international hire outside Europe becoming managing director for the U.K., Ireland and Benelux in 2001. She has also served as chief executive of AOL Europe.

“One thing I’ve learned through years of working for big American companies is when you look at European expansion you need to be more local than the natives,” she said. “In France some of our most successful posts have been the ones about regionalism. So we do a lot of posts that focus on identities of the audience: ‘Where are you from’ or ‘Which town are you?’ Those kinds of posts really resonate in there.” That hyper-local approach to content has resonated in Germany, too, she said.

Video is also contributing hugely to BuzzFeed’s European growth, having surpassed 2 billion monthly video views, she added, “and Europe is a huge contributor to that.”

Growth will also stretch to new digital products, predominantly apps. “We launched our news app a few months ago so expect to see some more specific apps around what we do. Content is being consumed within apps more and more, so that is something we will respond to.”

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