Tried and Tested: How BuzzFeed, Coca-Cola, and Mediabrands Win Over Audiences

If a piece of content is published online but nobody interacts with it, does it make a sound?

In the past, you’d publish. And wait. And hope. Now, there is a clear model for those who want to master distribution.

As we’ve previously mentioned on TCS, it’s possible to support any story with distribution resources, as long as you’re willing to invest. However, an even better strategy is to have an audience waiting for you, ready to share and comment on your article the moment it’s out.

But how do you make that happen? Last week, executives from BuzzFeed, Coca-Cola, and Mediabrands came together at the Unify Conference to share their tips for building dedicated audiences. The common theme: a loop of testing, strategy, and optimization.

Content put to the test

Making creative choices may start out as an art, but as capable publishers have found out, understanding which choices audiences respond to has become a crucial science.

A/B testing, the process of comparing engagement results for two variables, is now the popular choice for testing audience preferences and eliminating uncertainties. BuzzFeed is a leader, if not the leader, in A/B testing. They experiment with everything from headlines to item No. 42 in a listicle. Likewise, Upworthy pioneered the testing every element of a piece of content, including all the elements that surround it on a webpage.

“A/B testing is specific to the variables of campaign,” said Jonathan Vu, executive director of strategy for Mediabrands Publishing. However, most testing begins by asking questions, he said. “We start first with asking which are the overarching things we want to say? Then we have a hypothesis about how that one thing we want to say manifests in different arcs or themes.”

Stepping back

As BuzzFeed realized early on, building an audience requires a strong dosage of awareness. The numbers aren’t black and white; they require some degree of contextual interpretation. All the panelists said that in the course of testing, taking a step back to strategize is an important part of the process.

BuzzFeed Director of Social Discovery Ken Blom said testing often transitions into a listening and brainstorming phase. After initial testing, his team will convene to pinpoint the right audience for each piece of content. From there, it’s a matter of discovering which digital niche is the best fit by continually testing. “We make sure we get it to the right people to engage with it,” he said.


As some of these examples make clear, running tests is an important step, and so is taking steps back for strategy, but optimization is what brings everything together. “I like to say content marketing is like poker,” Blom said. “It’s not a lottery. It’s knowing when to double down.”

Blom may not be an expert gambler judging by that analogy, but he’s clearly onto something when it comes to connecting with audiences. The right data should fuel smart decision making, the crux of optimization.

Coca-Cola Director of Communications Anthony Martinez gave a basic example: “We were running a campaign on SmartWater recently, and we were publishing a lot of content, a mix of image, video, and text,” he said. “As we were distributing it, we were beginning to see that the audience was leaning to the image components the most. We were able to optimize the content so that it was much more compelling from an imagery standpoint.”

(Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a Contently client.)

Vu also added that there are times when feedback can immediately impact how a campaign takes shape. When Mediabrands worked on a reality television show for AT&T, audience feedback guided the script. “The feedback loop dictated what the shows would actually be,” he said. “We listened to the tweets. They wanted to see what would happen if so-and-so hooked up with so-and-so, so we would have them go bowling together and see the chemistry.”

These examples suggest brands don’t have to rely on intuition if they can get honest input from their audiences. As Blom said: “We like to think we create brand experiences that earn the right to be in that newsfeed.”

Image by New Old Stock
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