From these creatively modest beginnings, Peretti has talked of building “the agency of the future for a social world.” Last year, he hired Jeff Greenspan, an ad-industry defector, to devise new premium formats as BuzzFeed’s chief creative officer. Though he previously worked for agencies like BBDO, Greenspan says Peretti was more interested in stunts he pulled in his spare time, like painting “tourist lanes” on Manhattan sidewalks. BuzzFeed’s ad department includes people like the authors of Unbaby.me, a tool that removes parental oversharing from Facebook, and Guys With Fries, a Tumblr featuring “selfies” of dudes holding McDonald’s fries in various states of undress.
Peretti believes that certain people have a knack for creating virality. But it’s an extraordinary task, which gets even harder when the content is weighed down by a sales message. “Advertising people love advertising, but everyone else hates advertising,” says Gerry Graf, a former chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA\Chiat\Day, who now has his own firm. “People hate advertising so much that they had to make inventions so they didn’t have to look at it.”
There are few precedents for phenomenally successful viral advertising, at least in the “Where’s the Beef?” sense. Two always come up: a series of web ads for Old Spice with that muscular, bare-chested black guy, and the “subservient chicken” website, created for Burger King, which featured a costumed character who appeared to respond to typed commands. “That was like lightning in a bottle,” says Benjamin Palmer, whose firm, the Barbarian Group, created the chicken site. “It’s not going to happen again.”
Memes are easy to make, but virality depends on novelty, cleverness, and luck, all of which thwarts the duplicative craft of advertising. Peretti, however, says BuzzFeed has developed a new formula. It’s actually, literally, a formula. In speeches, he projects a simplified version of the epidemiological equation for viral reproduction, expressed as R = ßz. (in epidemiology, the z represents the number of people who come in contact with a contagious individual, while ß represents the probability of transmission.) This is the starting point of a theory that Peretti calls “Big Seed Marketing.”*
“To me, advertising is fascinating, partly because it’s part of culture, and partly because it sucks,” he told me one evening in February. “There’s a bit of the geek mentality, which is that when you see something that’s broken, you try to fix it.” We were out at a Soho sushi bar with Duncan Watts, who left academe a few years ago and now works at Microsoft. He serves as BuzzFeed’s official “science adviser,” consulting over regular beer nights.
“We have this very Newtonian view of causality,” Watts, a square-jawed Australian, shouted over the din. “Like, billiard balls hitting each other, that’s the most complicated thing that we can wrap our heads around.” But his research suggests that the commonly understood, Gladwellian model of virality, with its linear progression through influencers and tipping points, doesn’t really reflect the way viral messages spread. Instead, he says, they tend to grow from seeds scattered in little clusters, popping up all at once like toadstools after a rainstorm. BuzzFeed has found its most popular posts don’t take off because Kim Kardashian shared them but because many people did in small groups—the median figure is just nine Facebook friends.
A real virus is constrained by biology. A disease begins at an origin point—its Patient Zero—and it will continue to spread so long as its reproduction rate stays above one, meaning that each person communicates it to at least one other, on average. If its reproduction rate drops below one, the contagion will die out. But a marketer doesn’t have to be constrained by nature’s rules. Seeds can be planted in many places at once, and even if they reproduce only at a fractional rate, that can add up. Watt’s calculus looks like this: n = pN(1+ R+ R² + R³ + ... ) = pN/(1- R).
Watts and Peretti first set forth their theory in a co-authored 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “Viral Marketing for the Real World,” partly basing it on data from an experimental ad campaign at the Huffington Post. Watts has since continued to refine his research. His standard is that for every ten views an advertiser pays for when it buys a viral ad, it should get two shares. (“There is no free lunch,” Watts likes to say, “but maybe you can have a cheap snack.”) Peretti is convinced he can engineer a higher reproduction rate. “You can make money with that,” Watts says. “If they are predicting 20 percent of the variance and the competition is predicting 10 percent of the variance, they’re kicking ass.”
*This article has been updated to clarify Peretti's “Big Seed Marketing” formula.