'It's Kind Of A Myth That Readers Love Personalisation'

We spoke to Buzzfeed's Luke Lewis about the current state of digital publishing


With almost a decade of experience in the publishing industry, Luke Lewis is the Head of European Growth for BuzzFeed. The first employee for the company outside of the US, he will be sharing his insight into how the company grew and how it looks to do so in the future at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit in London this October 19-20. Ahead of his presentation, we spoke to Luke about the digital publishing industry, his work at Buzzfeed and the rise of personalisation. 

How have you seen the digital publishing industry change over the last year?

This was the year publishers truly embraced distributed content. Hence the rise of nimble publishers such as AJ+ and Spain's PlayGround, who have built enormous audiences on Facebook in a short space of time by doing one thing well: shortform, audio-independent video.

There's also been a trend away from the bundle: forward-thinking publishers are focusing on clearly defined content areas. BuzzFeed has led the way in this respect, with properties such as Tasty and Nifty. I've been impressed by Vox's Circuit Breaker - another example of a publisher taking a vertical-first, distributed-first approach.

It's also been fascinating to see publishers investing heavily in international, from the New York Times' ambitious translation efforts, to new launches and partnerships by Huff Post, Business Insider, Vice. There's a consensus now that the media sites that will thrive will be the ones with global reach, able to reflect and give velocity to an internet conversation that is increasingly borderless.

What could the industry be doing to better meet consumer expectations?

Too many publishers are locked into an arms race around volume of content. No-one is impressed that you published 4000 aggregated news stories that day. It's a pile-it-high model of publishing that maybe worked in the SEO era, but makes no sense in the social age where the goal is to add value, entertain or delight, in the hope the reader will share with their peers. Commodity news is bad for consumers but it's bad for journalists, too. There are a lot of demoralised reporters out there who feel stuck on this hamster wheel, forced to write 8-10 stories a day, with no time for original reporting.

How much of a place - if any - do you think personalisation has in digital publishing?

It's kind of a myth that readers love personalisation. They often say they do in surveys, but when you look at the data the engagement with those tools is generally low. Particularly with news, readers are reluctant to edit their own feed too much in case they miss out on important stories. Too much personalisation also kills the serendipity element. It's part of the mix, but it shouldn't dominate your thinking as a publisher.

How can digital publishers best respond to the overwhelming shift toward video content?

It's a revolution but it's still early days, so the important thing is to be agile and keep testing and learning. Every time you publish a video it's an experiment in cracking the code of that particular platform. What works on YouTube won't necessarily work on Snapchat. A lot of publishers and advertisers agonise over: How can we force people on Facebook to unmute our videos? The answer is you can't. So lean into that behaviour. Figure out how to stop the scroll and grab people's attention in the very first second.

Where do you see digital publishing going next?

Though BuzzFeed is not rushing into it, I think 360 video will be huge, because it's the first time you've had content in the newsfeed that truly exploits the unique capabilities of the smartphone. That's significant, and opens the door to content that's not so much mobile-first as "this experience literally could not have existed prior to the smartphone". That's why publishing to Snapchat is so exciting: it's utterly native to mobile, and it forces writers and producers to think about tactility: the fresh possibilities afforded by having a device in the palm of your hand. I was impressed recently by a BBC video that forced you to imagine your phone was a refugee's phone. The publishers that thrive will be the ones who treat mobile as a liberating creative opportunity, not as a threat or limitation.

You can hear more from Luke, along with other industry-leading digital publishing executives, at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit in London this October 19-20. To see the full schedule, click here.

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