Meet BuzzFeed's Secret Weapon
Dao Nguyen, the head of data and growth at BuzzFeed, eyes half a pie and narrates a brief history of the first part of her career. "I wanted to be part of the Internet revolution," she says, explaining her stint in the late-'90s New York startup scene. She fled after the dot-com boom's implosion--a particularly messy moment for her, since she had to lay off many friends as her company, Concrete Media, went down in flames in 2001.
She's no longer bothered by this fact, she says, as she unwraps her pie, forks a bite and explains that, with the dreams of the first Internet revolution in tatters, she declared to her then-boyfriend, now-husband: "This is terrible. I want to quit and move to France and eat cheese and drink wine. I want to learn French and sit out this Internet recession."
So she did, moving to Paris, consuming her fill of fromage and vin, and also working her way up the French paper of record, Le Monde. From 2006 through 2008 she ran its digital arm--and did so quite profitably, a rare feat for a media site in the aughts. For this she gained wide esteem in the French media circuit, and within Le Monde she launched a new digital publication--sort of a proto-BuzzFeed or -Huffington Post, replete with celebrity coverage some critics there deemed gauche--called Le Post.
And with that, she got herself fired.
"That was fine with me. I never set out to run a big media organization. I never meant to live in France for the rest of my life," Nguyen says. "I'm not even a Francophile." (A request for comment from Le Monde went unanswered.)
This c'est la vie, let's move on attitude works well at Nguyen's current employer, BuzzFeed, where she first arrived in the summer of 2012. So does her zest for experimentation. In fact, it works really, really well. BuzzFeed is famous not just for its quizzes and listicles, but also for pioneering a data-driven approach to Web content, and the more well-known BuzzFeeders are quick to point out exactly how crucial a role Nguyen plays there as its vice-president of growth and data. "She brings this incredibly high-powered, abstract way of thinking to editorial. We have a lot of data; she is really good at seeing what it means," says BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief Ben Smith. "She just has a lot of intellectual wattage."
Although Nguyen, 40, technically manages a team of just 10 people, she's become an in-office celebrity and is hailed as one of the key people--if not the key person--responsible for the company's outstandingly rapid growth in traffic over the past year.
"Since she's joined, we've had this tremendous and unprecedented run of growth," boasts BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, noting that the site has nearly tripled its traffic in the past year since Nguyen began managing the data-science team last summer. Unique monthly visitors more than quintupled, from 28 million to 150 million, in the two years she's been with the company. "It's just like incredible to hire someone and say 'your job is growth,' and then you look, and she just like knocked it out of the park."
Nguyen's data group has affected within BuzzFeed a lot more than just, say, inspiring the creation of a few more Guardians of the Galaxy-themed listicles. Her work has helped BuzzFeed's editorial team carve out new coverage areas, and nurture them to significant traction through social-media and in-site technology. In the wake of the announcement that BuzzFeed is taking $50 million in new venture capital investment, her work is also influencing the vast restructuring of the company's 200-person editorial team.
You'd think she'd have made big waves by driving so much change in her short tenure. In a newsroom, bringing in someone whose job isn't strictly editorial--but whose success depends on instituting changes through editorial--can be a risky proposition. Journalists (trust me on this) can be very possessive of their craft, especially when business-side executives start moseying around their part of the office.
But editors at BuzzFeed say they liked working with Nguyen from day one, thanks to her editorial experience and her clear desire to help them do their jobs more efficiently. She also possesses a unique set of personality traits that seem to have helped her along the way, not least of which is her appealing sense of curiosity.
"I love talking to people, like, 'what's going on in this part of the business, and why are you seeing that? What information do you think would be interesting to have to think about your problem?' And I'll find that for them," Nguyen says.
For instance, Nguyen says she decided to try to boost BuzzFeed's lackluster weekend traffic by first approaching an editorial director and asking about her current strategy for socially promoting existing content, because she recognized the site being shorter-staffed on the weekends necessitated such an approach.
"We said. 'OK. We can write a piece of code that sends you, on Fridays, according to our analysis, the top 20 posts we should be promoting,'" Nguyen recalls telling the editor. And here she is quick to add she firmly believes that data should not determine one's editorial strategy, but rather inform one's decision. "You can promote them or not," she continues. "But this is what the data suggests."
After a few months of refining the weekend traffic-growth strategy, Nguyen says she's seen significant success: "The weekend growth has been faster than the weekday growth." (A company spokeswoman confirms this, saying that year-over-year weekend traffic in June and July rose 224 percent, while overall traffic rose 188 percent.)
Nguyen is also charged with overseeing growth in BuzzFeed's international sites, boosting its mobile traffic, and overseeing the algorithm the main BuzzFeed site uses to trigger certain content-placement. And she's created a new group--called Pin Ops--within BuzzFeed's editorial staff, almost solely to work in sync with remarkable traffic the site has seen from the image-centric social network Pinterest.
BuzzFeed Life now covers many areas editorially new to BuzzFeed, including parenting, DIY projects, food, and health. Pinterest has surged from barely being a traffic referrer when Nguyen was brought on, to now being the site's second-largest social-traffic driver. And the Life group is growing--according to a company spokeswoman, it is seeking to hire roughly 25 new editorial staffers.
BuzzFeed's growth hasn't come without strain. Recently, the removal of thousands of articles from the site drew much skeptical coverage (both Peretti and Smith maintain that staffers until recently were "not thinking of themselves as doing journalism"). Buzzfeed raised $50 million in a Series E round of funding in early August from Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, which valued the company at $850 million, a move that puzzled some onlookers.
Earlier this summer, I asked Peretti whether the company planned on taking another round of venture-capital funding, and gave a negative, with only a little wiggle room. "We're fortunate in that we're in the position where we don't have to take any more VC funding," he said. "So we would only take additional funding if we found a partner we thought could add a lot of value."
In addition to helping fund the editorial reorganization, the new investment will be used create an in-house incubator for new technology and expand BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, its Los Angeles-based video arm run by the online performance artist Ze Frank. It may also help fund future acquisitions, according to The New York Times.
Another newly announced change to the company is that it's investing in content that's "distributed," meaning that it's created by the BuzzFeed team, but isn't originating on the BuzzFeed Site. (This can entail use of communications and social apps--including SnapChat, Instagram, and Vine--to transmit content to fans.) That investment--which will require hiring 20 people--too, is based on research by Nguyen and her team.
In a digital media world stuffed with large personalities and self-promoters, Nguyen's disarmingly ego-free approach is readily apparent in conversation. She's quick to point out that some of her editorial ideas are "probably really bad," admits that she can't say that all of her "experiments have worked" and referred to a very cool diagram she dubbed "the growth funnel" she made when starting to analyze BuzzFeed's traffic growth as "not, like, totally innovative."
She's found that when it comes to the mobile Web--where more than 50 percent of BuzzFeed's traffic originates today--the second-most-common sharing method after Facebook was email, despite that sharing over email required several taps and much navigation. Nguyen tweaked the email-share button, making it more prominent, accessible, and ubiquitous on mobile devices. Within a week, she said, email shares rose by 100 percent. A pretty smashing success, by any standard, but Nguyen's reaction? "That's just an example, of, like, extremely low-hanging fruit."
And, as adept as she is at analyzing numbers (which she in part attributes to doing math problems at the dinner table with coaching from her Vietnamese-American parents), she is also adept at understanding the limitations of data.
"I think people would be surprised to know my relationship with data, which is actually one of great skepticism as well as great admiration," Nguyen says, adding that data only tells its observer what is happening, not why it's happening. "You have to know where its limits are. Using data properly is a constant stream of experiments and feedback. The human-learning of that is part of the culture that I think is probably the most difficult to replicate.
But when I ask Nguyen to tell me about her specific accomplishments as head of data at BuzzFeed, as someone who literally has "growth" in her title, whose team is behind numbers the company clearly wants to tout, she deflects the opportunity to take a victory lap.
"BuzzFeed is a place where people are set up for success because it's a culture where you're allowed to do your job," she says, citing a lack of bureaucracy, clear objectives, and plentiful resources as the keys to the ecosystem in which she's thrived.
"My career trajectory has been kind of accidental in many ways," she continued, still almost comically humble, but adding a dash of sly wit. "I set out literally to drink wine and eat cheese. Which I accomplished." Along with a few other things, too.
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CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.