You’ve probably heard of a little company called BuzzFeed. But believe it or not, there really was a time when the company actually was little, but then they experienced incredible growth.

With over 150 million people visiting the site each month, it’s one of the 100 most popular sites on the web according to Alexa.

So how do they do it? How do they manage to get over 150 million people to visit the site every single month?

As a Campaign Monitor customer, we’ve seen BuzzFeed grow phenomenally over the years and thought we’d catch up their Director of Newsletters, Dan Oshinsky, to talk about how they use email and how they added 1 million subscribers to their list in just 1 year.

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What do you use email for and how does email marketing 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.

As a result, 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, and email is consistently the 5th or 6th largest referrer of traffic to our website each month. It actually ranks in the same playing field as social networks such as Twitter or Pinterest, which is huge.

It’s also one of our highest growth channels. In fact, in 2013, our traffic from email was up 23% month over month, and in 2014, traffic from email grew by 20% on a monthly basis.

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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 and we drive traffic to these pages by promoting them on social media 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 2014.

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 great emails here at BuzzFeed and obviously we get lot of visitors to the site from various channels, so for us, growing our list is all about figuring out how to make those visitors aware of the great emails we offer.

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 early days was to break our email program down into several types of lists and then let people sign up for them individually.

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 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:

  • Food
  • DIY
  • Animals
  • Books
  • Parents

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 view a post in the Animals category, you’ll see a subscribe form for the Animals newsletter. Same thing with Food, or DIY pages.

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

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 our lists and segments moving forward, mainly by identifying opportunities for emails that our audience would love and then launching them as quickly as possible, seeing how they go and making a decision 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 use more image-heavy styles for certain email lists, like Food for example. 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 using Campaign Monitor so we’re able to get a lot of great data from the reports on how people interact with our emails. We’re studying things like whether people open our campaigns, whether they click through to the site, what links they do click, 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 (I.e. DIY, Food, Books, etc) and we’re constantly measuring how these lists perform in terms of visits, time spent on site, number of page views, etc.

This helps us understand and prove the value that email adds to the BuzzFeed organization. We’ve found that not only is email one of the top drivers of traffic each month, but visitors from newsletters are some of the most engaged readers we have, spending 3 minutes longer on the site than those visitors from 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 tells us how many clicks we drive back to the BuzzFeed site out of every thousand subscribers we email.

We have KPIs around how many visits we need to drive each month, so we use this metric to model the effect of trying to grow our lists vs. trying to get more clicks from our existing lists, allowing us to 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, 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.

  • Myself
  • Adam Davis, Newsletter Editor
  • Lincoln Thompson, Associate Newsletter Editor
  • Kaelin Tully, Associate Newsletter Editor
  • Raymond Sultan, Deputy Director of Newsletters

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:

1. Popularity on the site

We have some internal tools and analytics programs that help us understand what content is the most popular on the site, and we use those to help identify the content that is going to resonate most with subscribers.

2. Our knowledge of what works for subscribers

Over the thousands of campaigns we’ve sent, we’ve also gotten to know our subscribers and what they like, and this factors into the content we choose as well.

For instance, we know from sending hundreds of Food newsletters in the past that recipes on healthy food you can cook for lunch significantly outperform dessert recipes, so this kind of insider knowledge helps us decide what goes into our newsletters.

Finally, what’s the best email marketing tactic you’ve found 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 great. People are very protective of their inboxes and they get a lot of emails as it is, so if we drop the ball just once, people will hit the unsubscribe button and we’ve lost them for good.

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

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Wrap up

This strategy has worked well for BuzzFeed and it might work well for you. However you decide to implement it—whether it’s through newsletters or automated series—email marketing can drive some serious traffic to your site and help you build a loyal, cult following.

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