“What makes something go viral?” That has become the $64,000 question among journalists. Ask 10 different publishers and you’ll get 10 different answers. Emotional pull. LOL factor. Cuteness. Shocking statistics. Breaking news. A headline that’s been rewritten 25 times and systematically tested for clickability. As more and more people declare Facebook and Twitter their primary news sources, media outlets have turned their efforts away from SEO and homepage redesigns and toward social media to capture readers. Researchers and data analysts have found that we like to click and share things that make us feel something, teach us something, make us think we’re part of the zeitgeist. And media companies are investing a lot of resources in trying to nail down a specific formula.
Defining the nature of virality can be a struggle when editors are targeting an audience that’s more or less like them. Throw in a language barrier and a divergent set of cultural reference points, and enticing readers to click becomes even trickier. Yet that is the challenge many US news outlets are facing as they use social media to pursue an international audience.
These digital newsrooms have realized that they have a lot of readers to gain by looking beyond America’s borders to markets in which there are far fewer outlets vying for clicks. In January, The Huffington Post launched WorldPost, an internationally focused site. In addition to offices in the UK and Canada, it opened Huffington Post Deutschland last year and plans to launch an Indian edition this spring. BuzzFeed has Australian and British sites (sample headline: “The Super Bowl Analysed By A Briton Who’s Never Seen American Football Before”), and plans to expand to Brazil. Other relative newcomers like the Atlantic Media’s social-oriented business site, Quartz, see themselves as international news outlets that happen to be based in the United States. All of these sites are reliant on social media. BuzzFeed, for example, gets 75 percent of its traffic from social—which means being able to answer the $64,000 question in a variety of languages is going to be crucial to its success.
One of the many great promises of the internet was that it would expand our horizons by allowing access to information and perspectives beyond the limits of our geography and personal circle. But research has shown the opposite to be true: Our digital worlds mostly mirror our offline experiences. We tend to use the internet to find people who are like us, and we talk to them about stuff we’re already interested in. As media companies seek to snare an international audience, they’re forced to make a decision: Do they play to this tendency or try to transcend it?
There are two basic editorial approaches these new-media juggernauts are taking. One is to open offices in locations around the globe and cater to the local population’s language, sense of humor, and interest areas. The other approach is to keep the number of foreign correspondents to a minimum but aim to make all content appeal to—or at least not alienate—a global, English-speaking audience.
BuzzFeed aims to tailor its content for each new market, setting up shop in the most “media-centric” city in a particular country and having local editors create content that appeals specifically to the local audience. After all, it’s how it’s successfully targeted niche audiences within the United States. “We’ve done this very specialized version of identity-focused content, like ‘Times You Went to the University of Michigan.’ The potential audience for that is not huge, but it makes for really high engagement,” says Scott Lamb, BuzzFeed’s vice president for international. “That content does really well on social media.”
“The way BuzzFeed is going about it is exactly the right way,” says Neetzan Zimmerman, who was until recently an editor at Gawker, focused on viral content. “You set up local markets that cater to local audiences, and there isn’t a lot of cross-traffic between those markets.”
There may not be a lot, but some things—usually those with an emotional appeal—do cross cultural and linguistic divides, Lamb says. Articles about aging (“30 Unexpected Things You Learn In Your Thirties”) and parenting (“23 Kids You Meet As A Parent”) are broadly popular. So are lifestyle posts like “23 On-The-Go Breakfasts That Are Actually Good For You,” and cute-overload clickbait like videos of interspecies cuddling. For posts like these, BuzzFeed uses the translation app Duolingo, then local editors will swap out gifs and change pop-culture references, reformatting it to appeal to their local audience. “Anything idiomatic or particularly American doesn’t translate well,” Lamb says.
Quartz, which launched in 2012, has a smaller staff and takes a different approach. It employs journalists in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Bangkok who are “trying to write pieces that are intelligible to everyone around the world,” says global news editor Gideon Lichfield. “One of our style points is that people shouldn’t write in a way that’s too America-centric.” Editors and writers workshop headlines together in a group chat, where they chime in if a reference or phrase seems too culturally specific. Still, this doesn’t mean every article has to appeal to every reader. “Most people who read things on Quartz are seeing them through some social stream, which means they’re not seeing the whole of Quartz,” Lichfield says. “The articles they see are likely to be the ones they’re interested in. Which is why we say not everything has to be of interest to everyone.”
Of course, Zimmerman cautions, for socially optimized content to go viral, there must be a platform where users can share it. Facebook and Twitter are global, but vary in access and popularity. Russians have VKontakte, a popular social network similar to Facebook. In Brazil, BuzzFeed’s US-based editors were curious if the Google-owned social networking site Orkut was still a major destination—turns out that it’s got a reputation akin to MySpace in the States. Reddit is surprisingly popular in Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking world, Zimmerman says. Users of each of these platforms have their own quirks and preferences, many of which can be broken down culturally. Lamb says the “cute fuzzy cat buzz” doesn’t do very well in France. Americans love a positive story with a happy ending. The British prefer their humor with a bit more bite and satire.
But while the tone may differ from culture to culture, “I think human beings are the same everywhere, and the stuff you want to share is the same kind of stuff,” says Heather Timmons, who joined Quartz as an Asia correspondent after seven years in India, where she wrote for The New York Times. Even though Quartz publishes only in English, it has seen some of its graphic-heavy stories widely shared on Sina Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging social platform where users discuss universal topics like weight loss and Hollywood gossip, as well as more specific issues like child labor. “We’re writing stuff that’s news to a Hong Kong audience but also tells you something broader about the world. That’s the ideal situation.”
In the past, even when US publications concerned themselves with news beyond our borders, most were still publishing with American readers in mind. That’s clearly not the case anymore. Digital publishing has erased the previously prohibitive costs of reaching news consumers in a variety of time zones. It’s also allowed for homegrown competition to proliferate. If BuzzFeed, for example, ever decides it wants to lure more Indian readers, it’ll have to compete with Scoop Whoop, a site that aims to “curate and create stories that are relevant to India.” These days, gaining international readers means hiring journalists who understand what those readers want. And even if those journalists are employed by US-based publications, odds are most of them are not going to be American.
This is a good thing. Even if US-based outlets successfully spread by perfecting virality in dozens of international media markets, they’ll be successful because they aren’t simply projecting an American worldview. “The traditional US bureau structure was ‘send the white guy out to the hinterland and have him send back letters explaining this crazy place to the people at home,’” Timmons says. “No one’s doing that anymore.”