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A media organization's brilliant use of AI

And how to take their best tactics

Happy Actual Friday, Collaborators!

Last week, we talked about how CNET fumbled its AI approach (41 of 77 articles they published with AI had to be amended due to errors and/or plagiarism). Honestly, it scared us.

CNET’s problems had readers asking how we could use AI safely. This week, we’re looking at a media organization that offers an answer. Let’s get into it!

-Mariah

Buzzfeed’s Brilliant AI Strategy

Buzzy, Buzzfeed’s AI pen name. Credit: Buzzfeed

Jonah Peretti, the founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, has a unique way of celebrating the holidays.

He spent the 2022 festive season testing different uses of AI.

Buzzfeed had used AI since 2021 (when they launched a slightly disturbing quiz that creates your soulmate with an AI image generator). However, as Peretti looked at ways to infuse AI into the site’s most popular content, he was surprised by how much fun the new tools were.

The seeds planted in that holiday test would blossom into a unique AI content strategy for Buzzfeed.

“I think that there are two paths for AI in digital media,” Peretti told CNN. “One path is the obvious path that a lot of people will do — [...] using the technology for cost savings and spamming out a bunch of SEO articles that are lower quality than what a journalist could do, but a tenth of the cost. That’s one vision, but to me, that’s a depressing vision and a shortsighted vision because in the long run it’s not going to work.

“The other path [...] is the new model for digital media that is more personalized, more creative, more dynamic — where really talented people who work at our company are able to use AI together and entertain and personalize more than you could ever do without AI.”

By mid-January, Buzzfeed announced their first test of AI content. They were beginning with an unexpected asset: quizzes.

Why quizzes?

Ten years ago, Summer Anne Burton noticed something odd.

Buzzfeed’s “Which ‘Grease’ Pink Lady Are You?” quiz - which wasn’t a hit when it was first published - had become the site’s most shared post of the year. Digging deeper, she saw that a number of quizzes had a “long tail”, high engagement, and lots of social shares.

If content goes viral on social media, it can get as much as 34 times the traffic it gets on Buzzfeed’s site.

Burton and her team leaned into creating quizzes. They discovered that quizzes perform best when they guess something about the person (“What City Should You Actually Live In?”), or tap into their fandoms (“Which ‘Friends’ Character Are You?”). 

By 2022, quizzes had generated 1.1 billion views for Buzzfeed in a single year. Quizzes drive a significant share of site traffic for Buzzfeed and offer cool opportunities to be creative–which made them the perfect place to start AI tests.

Buzzfeed’s AI Quizzes

Imagine taking a quiz where your results are unique.

The quiz can choose what you eat for dinner, or even write a short story about your dream date with a celebrity crush.

You don’t actually have to imagine it. Buzzfeed has already created those quizzes.

Buzzfeed’s quizzes give you unique results, generated by AI. Credit: Buzzfeed

Around Valentine’s Day, the company launched the first of its “Infinity Quizzes,” which give readers hyper-personalized, AI-generated responses based on their answers. The possible results are infinite–hence the quizzes’ name.

The quizzes are a cooperative effort. AI (Buzzy) is featured in the byline alongside the quizzes’ human writers. The Buzzfeed team comes up with quiz ideas. A writer creates the quiz questions and responses, and then writes a prompt for OpenAI’s public API to generate personalized results with the readers’ answers. A team of humans tests the results.

Three groups create the quiz content: writers, users, and AI. Credit: Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed uses anonymized data from the quizzes to improve quiz results and determine which quizzes to build next.

Buzzfeed presents its AI strategy to advertisers as a safer way to put their brand next to AI content. Scotts Miracle-Gro was one of their first advertisers with a quiz on designing your ideal soulmate (hint: it’s a houseplant!).

A Better AI Strategy

So far, Buzzfeed’s quizzes have not encountered the blowback that has hit so many other media brands, from CNET to Deadspin, Gannett, MSN, Men’s Health, and The A.V. Club.

There are a few reasons that the AI quizzes have been more successful:

  • Buzzfeed announced that they would use AI to create quizzes in advance.

  • They clearly labeled AI content.

  • Human writers created the quizzes and the AI prompts to generate results.

Most importantly, the quizzes are low-stakes, and all in good fun. AI getting your houseplant “soulmate” wrong is very different from it giving bad investment advice.

The Results

According to Buzzfeed representatives, AI material generates ~3x more traffic than regular content. Site visitors spend 40% more time on AI quizzes compared to legacy quizzes.

Building on the success of the quizzes, Buzzfeed launched their first chatbot game - Under the Influencer - which tells users if they can make it on the internet. Visitors spend 4x more time on the game than on quizzes.

Darker Signs

When he talked to CNN, Peretti directly called out CNET: “There’s the CNET path, and then there is the path that BuzzFeed is focused on. One is about costs and volume of content, and one is about ability.”

However, the allure of SEO bait is overwhelming.

Less than two months after Buzzfeed launched their AI quizzes, Futurism discovered that Buzzfeed was quietly publishing AI-generated travel articles. The articles bear a striking resemblance to the content that Peretti criticized as “depressing” and “shortsighted.” 

SEO-focused content might bring the fastest and most impressive results. That said, the success of Buzzfeed’s quizzes show that creativity can make AI safer and reduce blowback.

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