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Note: As noted in my previous post when I first mentioned this assignment, please know that this assignment is based largely on the work of Scott Cowley. See his post about when he ran this assignment in his class.
BuzzFeed in the Classroom Review
That post got a ton of shares and feedback. So I want to offer a follow up and reflection of how the project went. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to first get some background about the assignment via my post “What’s Changing? My Writing Across Platforms students will write for BuzzFeed and More in Spring 2016. Oh, And here’s the syllabus!“
The BuzzFeed Assignment
I was super impressed by the variety and creativity of the posts. The topic was ‘spring break’ and the students came up with everything from “17 Outdoor Adventures You Need To Try This Spring Break” to “10 Things To Do When You’re A Broke College Student On Spring Break: As Told By Animals” to “Ten Locations You Dream Of Exploring Over Spring Break.”
The biggest success story, in terms of views and shares, came from Abby Buchanan’s “14 Things You Do When You’re Stuck In A Small Town For Spring Break.” The post was featured on the Buzzfeed.com/Community page within 24 hours of being posted.
Click any image below to enlarge.
Due to its success, it then was put on BuzzFeed’s main site.
By the end of 1 week, the student earned 29,000 views!
For a little while, the post was also the first result in Google search when searching “spring break small town.” Congrats to Abby!
In review, the biggest challenge students faced was reaching their goal of 1,000 views in 1 week. Many students were stressing big time about this project, because reaching 1,000 views was part of their grade (20% of their grade came from views earned).
I spent some time considering why the majority of students struggled to reach 1,000 views. Here are some thoughts:
- The topic had some drawbacks: The students posted their spring break articles after our university’s spring break, but some universities (and high schools) around the country were observing spring break the week their posts was posted. With that said, the spring break thing may have been a bit old by the time our students’ posts were up. Further, BuzzFeed didn’t seem as interested in spring break articles as it is in Valentine’s Day articles, which has a wider appeal. We had 1 student who had their Spring Break post on the main page of BuzzFeed community and of BuzzFeed.com – the home page – but I didn’t see too many other articles on either page during that week related to spring break.In addition, from analyzing all of the assignments against performance, there are a variety of reasons why students didn’t reach the mark:
- Lack of a thorough promotion plan. Students who rushed this part ended up paying the price in the end.
- Poor targeting: On a related note, students who didn’t have a robust picture of who their hyper targeted audience was.
- Focus: If the article subject lacked a clear focus or specificity to it, then it struggled. For example, if a student was trying to create an article that would appeal to ‘everyone’ or didn’t really hone in on what made their post unique.
- Poor or lack of iteration throughout the week: Some students did a great job of iterating in terms of their headline as well as some of their content. Students that took a ‘one and done’ approach and failed to improve their post as the week wore on, didn’t have success if their initial post didn’t catch fire.
- The student’s social media network: Some students do not use certain social networks for personal reasons. Students who suffered the most were those who do not have a presence on Facebook – which served as the primary driver for many of their peers.
Students who had success:
- Had beautiful or funny visuals
- Linked to other articles in their post – like national or regional parks. Then, they shared the post with the social media accounts of that location. That goes back to the promotion plan. Successful students had robust promotion plans targeted at influential thought leaders that would benefit from their content. For example, the student who wrote “17 Outdoor Adventures You Need To Try This Spring Break” talked about the great adventures at nearby national parks. Then, she reached out to those parks on social media. Smart!
- Tended to share across a variety of platforms. They thought of sites like Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, etc.
- Shared with different types of potential audiences – i.e., they did a good job of thinking of more than 1 audience that may enjoy their content and got the post into their hands.
Made adjustments and changes to their headline or content, or shifting their focus on who would serve as a good opinion leader to share their content and thus who they reached out to.
In reflection, there are some pitfalls in how I executed this assignment and things I plan to improve for next year.
The biggest pitfall was the way views were incentivized. Once students reached the 1,000 mark, they tended to give up – even if it was in just a few short days. For example, one student reached 1,000 in 24 hours and gave up (see below). After that, she stopped promoting it and only gained another 100+ views. The assignment doesn’t reward students past 1,000 unless they get to 10,000 views – which many likely see as impossible and thus they aren’t motivated to do so. Furthermore, I only gave 1 bonus point her 10,000 views, further reducing the benefit to cost.
So what adjustments will I make?
- Require students to draft the social media posts they plan to use to share their BuzzFeed article:
Some students weren’t creative in coming up with different types of social media posts to attract their audience. Next year, students wil draft 3 different Tweets and/or posts to other platforms they plan to use to promote their post via your own social media accounts below. Students will be given some commonly used formats for writing social posts and will be told to use a variety of types from this excel spreadsheet of headline formulas or this list of headline formulas. The idea is to help students to learn to try different strategies for crafting the message.
- Headline writing: Though I spent a good amount of time talking about how to write effective headlines, this is something students still struggle with. I added the below info about the power of writing emotional headlines to the assignment for next time. Students will be told to read this article. Then, students will be required to use this tool to test the emotionality of their headline in order to iterate and improve it.
In sum, even though students were as successful on the whole as I’d have liked in terms of views, the assignment was a great success. The students had to think outside of simply turning in an assignment to me. They had to measure themselves against their own ability to plan a piece of hypertargeted content with the audience and promotion in mind, like they will do outside of the university. They learned from their successes and failures. I had a lot of conversations with a lot of students worried about not succeeding. I informed them that the purpose was to learn by doing – to adjust, adapt, and improve. And to me, that’s a big win. I think much more was learned in this assignment than in the assignment I replaced it with.
As noted, we did have a breakout success beyond my expectations with a student landing her post on the main Buzzfeed.com site!
I plan to continue with this assignment next year when It each this class with the above modifications.
If you run this assignment in your class, I’d love to hear how it goes!