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How BuzzFeed Uses Email Marketing to Drive Their Phenomenal Growth

AARON BEASHEL - APR 21, 2015

As part of a new series, we’re talking with Campaign Monitor customers to detail how they approach and run email marketing at their various organizations.

In the first post of the series, we had the opportunity to talk with Dan Oshinsky, Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed, about the inner-workings of their email marketing.

For those who aren’t already familiar with BuzzFeed, they are a news organization that strives to tell stories people want to share. While they’re well known for their light-hearted articles, their content ranges in subject matter from cats to hard news and investigative reporting.

Now with over 900 team members, BuzzFeed grew from just two main offices to having workspaces in New York, Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Mumbai, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Here’s what he had to say about how email marketing works for BuzzFeed:

What do you use email for, and how does it fit into BuzzFeed’s growth strategy?

BuzzFeed is all about creating stories people want to share—and email is one of the best ways for us to distribute those stories to our audience.

Our goal for nearly every email we send is to drive subscribers back to the BuzzFeed site where they can read the content and then share it with their friends and family.

Each email we send contains original content from the BuzzFeed site and we purposely only send a small snippet of each story along with a link to encourage people to click through to the site and read the full article.

This approach works extremely well for us.

Email is consistently one of the top 5 or 6 referrers of traffic to our website each month.

Email actually ranks in the same playing field as Twitter and Pinterest which is huge.

It’s also one of our highest growth channels. In fact, in 2016, traffic from email grew by 20% on a monthly basis.

What have you found to be the most effective strategies for building your email lists?

When I first started, there wasn’t much of an email list because it was almost impossible for users to subscribe to BuzzFeed emails.

Over the past few years, though, we’ve been much more vigilant about promoting email subscribe opt-ins in various places throughout the site.

One of the best ways in which we drive new subscribers is by creating and publishing dedicated posts around our newsletters, such as this one titled “19 cute ways the BuzzFeed Animals newsletter will ruin your day.”

We’ll work with the editorial team to write and publish these posts and include a call to action to subscribe to the newsletter at the bottom. These work really well because we give people a preview of what they’ll get in the newsletter and then give them a prominent, contextually-relevant opportunity to subscribe.

We’ve also got dedicated landing pages for every type of email we send and we drive traffic to these pages in various ways, including promoting them via our social media channels and linking back to them from relevant articles on the site.

We’ve also added subscribe boxes to the sidebar of specific categories on the site. So any post in the Animals category has a contextual call to action to subscribe to the Animals newsletter in the sidebar.

Collectively across all our different emails and all our different subscribe methods, we managed to add over 1 million new subscribers to our list in a year.

Looking forward, we’re testing different ways to capture email addresses and will likely blow that number out of the water.

I think we have awesome emails here at BuzzFeed and obviously get a lot of visitors to the site from various channels, so for us, it’s figuring out how to make those visitors aware of all the awesome emails they can be receiving.

I think we’ve done a great job of it so far, but we have a ton of room to grow.

Who are your subscribers, and how do you manage and segment your lists?

The best thing we did in the beginning, was to break our email program down into several types of lists and then let people sign up for them individually from there.

So instead of collecting a whole heap of email addresses from really generic subscribe boxes and then coming up with our own segmentation (or worse, just blasting everyone with the same emails), we try to let people self-segment up front based on the content they’re interested in.

We did this by creating lists for each different section of the website, including:

From there, we set up separate subscribe opportunities for each list that get shown in different areas of the website. So, for example: If you go to our Animals page or a view a post in the Animals category, you’ll see an opt-in for the Animals newsletter. Same thing with Food, or DIY.

This makes segmenting our subscribers super easy as readers are self-selecting the content they are interested in.

Following on from that baseline, we’ve since launched a number of more sub-categorical lists around popular topics. A great example of this would be one that came from our larger ‘Animals’ list called “This Week in Cats” which is just a really fun newsletter that goes out every Friday and is a huge success.

We plan to continue experimenting with and growing our lists moving forward, mainly by identifying opportunities for emails that our audience would love and then launch them as quickly as possible, seeing how they go and making a decision on them from there.

What does a BuzzFeed email look like?

We use a couple of different styles of Newsletters here at BuzzFeed.

The first newsletter we ever created was called “BuzzFeed Today” and is a very lightweight summary of some of the best content on the site. It’s designed to be super scannable and super lightweight so it loads quickly.

We also have more image-heavy styles for lists like Food, because we know those readers want to see images of the food before clicking through and reading the recipe.

Finally, we use more text-heavy styles for long-form content so that readers can really get a feel for the story within the email, and make an informed decision about whether they want to read it or not. This style would be used for something like our Sunday digest.

While our different emails have some variances in the way we present the content, they also have a lot of similarities. All of our emails are very simple and minimalist to focus the reader’s attention on the content, and our brand really comes through in each email with the choice of colors and fonts.

How do you measure the success of your email marketing efforts?

We look at a lot of different sources to gauge the success of our email marketing efforts.

Firstly, we send with Campaign Monitor so we’re able to get a lot of great data from the reports on how people are interacting with our emails. We’re studying things like whether people are opening our campaigns, whether they are clicking them, what links they are clicking, etc.

We then use Google Analytics to study what happens after they’ve clicked, and how the people coming from our emails interact with the site.

We actually have separate Google Analytics dashboards specifically set up for each list (e.g., DIY, Food, Books, etc) and we’re constantly measuring how these lists perform in terms of visits, how long these people are spending on the site, what devices they are using, etc.

This helps us understand and prove the value email marketing is adding to the BuzzFeed organization. We’ve found that not only is email one of the top 5 or 6 referrers of traffic, but visitors from newsletters are some of the most engaged readers spending 3 minutes longer on the site than other channels.

Beyond this, we’ve also developed our own metric called Clicks Per Thousand that we use to model our growth and prioritize the things we need to work on. This metric essentially answers the question ‘For every thousand subscribers we email, how many clicks can we drive back to the BuzzFeed site?’. We have KPI’s around how many visits we need to drive each month, so we use this metric to model out the effect of trying to grow our lists vs. trying to get more clicks from our existing lists and how we prioritize our efforts from there.

What does your email team look like at BuzzFeed?

Before I started at BuzzFeed we basically didn’t do any email marketing, so for the first year I created and sent every email campaign myself. Literally thousands of campaigns going out over the span of a year.

Fortunately, now, we have a team of 5 people working on email campaigns at BuzzFeed.

Each member of the team owns a number of different newsletters and it’s up to them to choose what content makes it into their newsletter.

BuzzFeed publishes a lot of content and not everything can make the Newsletter, so we usually prioritize content based on:

Finally, what email marketing tactic have you found that’s most effective for you that others can implement in their own email initiatives?

The one thing that has been most successful for us is an insane focus on making our email content really engaging. People are very protective of their inboxes and they get a lot of emails every day as it is, and if we drop the ball just once, people hit the unsubscribe button and we’ve lost them for good.

So focus on making every email you send epic, and if you do, you’ll continue to grow your list and drive results from your email campaigns.

If you enjoyed this behind the scenes peek at BuzzFeed, check out Dan Oshinsky’s post, “What is email marketing for anyway?”

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