Memes vs. MBAs: What Is Quality Content, Anyway?

Ginny Mineo
Ginny Mineo



hbr-vs-buzzfeed-imageThere are lots of concrete principles of writing that can help determine the "quality" of a piece of content. Verb usage, spelling, sentence structure -- these all have defined rules that, for the most part, have stayed pretty constant. It's black and white. That is wrong; this is right. 

Then there are the gray areas in writing. Stylistic preferences. Imagery. Storytelling. And the king of all gray areas: quality content itself. No one can exactly define what it is, but somehow everyone just "knows it when they see it" ... which isn't exactly helpful for aspiring and current content creators. 

How can you make your content "better" if you don't know what "better" is? It's like telling someone to run north after they finish playing dizzy bat.

And while I don't think we can put this debate to rest once and for all, I do think we can get some clarity on what defines quality content by looking to successful publications ... and who better to examine than two media outlets that seem like total opposites?

We examined BuzzFeed and Harvard Business Review -- one famous for its abundance of cats and GIFs, the other a go-to resource for business professionals. And because content guidelines are shaped by a slew of organizational influences, we took a look at the whole enchilada. What's the company's history? Who does the site write for? And what is the company's stance on quality content?

Hopefully, by the end of this article, we'll be one step closer to figuring out this whole mess ... but that's when we'll be turning over the conversation to you. What do you think quality content is? Do you agree with what we conclude? Do you just want to show your boss that you got featured on another blog? Tweet your thoughts using #BFvsHBR and your tweet will be featured in the article below. 

So, without any further ado, let the great debate begin.

BuzzFeed: Can Quality Content Ever Be Cat Pictures?

Lots of people hate on BuzzFeed for it's listicle-heavy, "fluffy" content, but it'll probably have the last laugh on that one. The media site now has over 80 million monthly unique visitors so it must be doing something right ... right? 

Truthfully, there's much more depth to the BuzzFeed content machine than just pictures of adorable kittens. First off: It wasn't really founded to be a booming media site. In an interview with Business InsiderFounder Jonah Peretti explains that "BuzzFeed started as a lab with a small team where we would play with ideas." 

While Peretti and his team would play with a few different tech ideas before landing on the BuzzFeed concept, they always cared about answering one question: What makes ideas worth sharing? The lab originally created a product called BuzzBot -- an instant-messaging client that would alert users to trending stories of the day based on an algorithm measuring the speed of links being shared to hundreds of popular websites.

But that product didn't exactly take off ... so Peretti and his team made a website that aggregated the top stories that BuzzBot detected instead. Human editors were brought on board to help curate the best links of the day on the website -- and BuzzFeed as we know it was born. 

Since then, BuzzFeed has evolved from a small-time tech startup to a full-fledged, technologically advanced media company that is always solving for its reader. And who might that be, you ask? If you're reading this blog, chances are you're BuzzFeed's target audience: people who spend every waking moment online, whether they're at home, at their jobs, or just waiting in line for a latte. (Sound familiar? ;) When these people are bored, they want an entertaining distraction ... and that's where BuzzFeed comes in. 

And the thing that bored people love most? Lists. So BuzzFeed's got fluffy list posts galore like "48 Pictures That Perfectly Capture The ’90s" (+1.6 million views as of today's date) and "The 19 Worst Things Ever" (+130,000 views). But recently, the media site's been expanding its content types. In an memo to the BuzzFeed team that was published on LinkedIn Today, Peretti defends its infamous content format and future content formats, saying: 


Lists are an amazing way to consume media. They work for content as varied as the 10 Commandments, the Bill of Rights, Google search results, ESPN’s Sportscenter, and internal company emails. We will always do lists but we have the advantage of not being limited to a single format like many traditional media companies. We do long form, short form, quizzes, video, original graphic art, rubbable gifs, apps, and more."

Besides trying different content formats, BuzzFeed's been leading the charge on new advertising formats with sponsored content. You won't see BuzzFeed putting out advertising formats that readers hate -- banner ads, takeover popups, or even slow-loading slideshows. Instead, you'll see BuzzFeed's advertisers and partners creating content that looks just like any other piece of content on the site -- but it's written on behalf of a company. 

Whether a piece is written by an advertising partner or just one of its staff writers, BuzzFeed content must always hit its quality standard. What does quality mean to BuzzFeed? In an interview with The Guardian, president and chief operating officer Jon Steinberg says:

More so than the technology, you have to write and produce news for the social web: it has to be novel, important and have this social imperative behind it ... The most important thing you can do is to think to yourself 'why would somebody share this content?' That's very high-quality content."

There's your answer folks. According to BuzzFeed, quality content gets shared. Because if it's naturally shareable, it's making an impact on its readers -- and whether that's a fleeting moment of happiness or a shocking yet informative reality check, doesn't matter.

Harvard Business Review: How Does an Old-School Company Maintain Quality in the Age of New Media?

On the other side of the debate, we have a blog born from an industry-standard print magazine. Chances are, you've read something by them sometime in your career. Founded almost 100 years ago, Harvard Business Review launched a few years ago -- and the digital spinoff has grown exponentially since then.

Today, gets 4 million monthly unique visitors -- a huge chunk of which come from its 2.5 million followers on social media. According to an interview on Digiday, Eric Hellweg, HBR's Digital Strategy Director, social media drives 25% of the overall site traffic -- which makes sense when you consider its massive social following. “To unearth these ideas and tell them in the social realm, it becomes an effective way to spread these ideas around the world,” Hellweg said in the same interview. 

While the numbers all compute around social media driving traffic for an old-school turned new-school publication, it's kind of counterintuitive. Why would the old-school business professionals be looking for HBR's articles on social media in the first place? 

Because HBR isn't just for old-school business professionals. Originally, HBR wrote for the senior executive and business professionals currently running companies. Now, HBR hasn't forgotten that original reader persona, but it's added a new one: the ambitious professional who is aspiring to run a company one day.

"The new persona are people who are very aspirational, interested in successfully gaining entry into upper management." said Hellweg." We know that people who are in lower ranks want to know one thing: what is my boss reading?" 

The great thing about the new reader persona? These people help support the initial persona, according to editor, Katherine Bell: 

These folks want to be out ahead of their bosses. They want to watching out for cutting edge and interesting content so they can forward it on to their bosses. These readers give a lot of social energy to the post and sometimes, the posts end up being filtered up the upper management chain."

So yes -- very different personas on the surface, but the common denominator is that HBR is writing for the professional who wants to become better at his or her job. Whether that job is the final stop the professional ladder or the beginning stepping-stone to a successful career doesn't matter to HBR editors.

To reach two different, yet equally important, audiences, HBR started integrating shareability into the framework of its content strategy. It mostly sources content from contributors -- smart, experienced professionals and researchers who have decent followings on social media -- so when those contributors write, they'll share the post with their network. Somewhat ironically, HBR also uses BuzzFeed's viral alerts to quickly spot which posts are taking off on social media -- and then it promotes those posts more aggressively

When working with these contributors, HBR strives for the utmost quality. Like BuzzFeed, quality isn't about article length. Instead, HBR specifically screens for four things:

  1. Evidence Based Content. "Whether it's research- or experience-based, we want contributors to earn authority through the piece itself -- not just through their title," says Bell. 
  2. Individual Voice. "One thing that was really new to us in the blog network was we wanted people to have really individual voices," said Bell.
  3. Usefulness. "The post can't just be interesting," adds Bell. "It also has to solve a problem for a reader or help the reader understand something better for her career or job."
  4. Alignment With HBR's Mission. "Our editorial mission is to rid the world of bad management," said Hellweg. "When we are publishing across various channels, we really are thinking about that mission."

So unlike BuzzFeed, it has a much more narrow view of "quality" content. Yes -- it must be shareable -- but it's got to be shareable for the right reasons. 

Though HBR has a pretty clear standard for the quality of posts it accepts, they aren't shy about testing out new content formats and authors. In fact, that's one of the main purposes of the site -- to test out content for the magazine. Because the publishing cycle is a lot faster than the magazine, has much more flexibility to test and iterate on new ideas and content. Then, if the experiments are a success, HBR has a leg to stand on when publishing the experimental content in the magazine. 

So yeah ... quality content according to HBR would be evidence-based, useful, original and tied back to its mission, while also being shareable. It's a pretty concrete framework compared to BuzzFeed's free-for-all guidelines (basically any content works, as long as it gets shared). Despite the pretty drastic difference in their definitions, these media sites actually have a commonality when it comes to content.

They're More Alike Than You'd Expect

If you were to ask HBR and BuzzFeed point blank what quality content is (like we did above), you'd get really different answers. Helpful, experienced authors create quality content says HBR. Viscerally shareable content is what we're looking for, says BuzzFeed. 

But if you dive a little deeper, you realize these media sites are quite similar. Both care about their audiences -- deeply -- because they want that audience to share their content with others. And by focusing on their readers and what their readers want, they end up creating quality content. It doesn't matter that their readers like different things -- all that matters is that BuzzFeed and HBR create content to be read, loved, and shared by its audience. Creating content your audience loves -- and wants to share -- will mean your content is high quality. 

... But Does Quality Content Actually Impact Their Bottom Lines?

Okay, so we have a better understand of what the spectrum of quality content is ...  but does it really drive bottom-line results? After all, these two media companies are companies that need actual revenue to stay afloat. So how does quality content help pay the bills for BuzzFeed and HBR -- or does it at all?

BuzzFeed's business is driven by sponsored content -- which still is held to the same quality standards as its editorial team -- and for now, that seems to be working just fine for them. Since 2008, BuzzFeed has raised nearly $50 million, and it's been rumored to be making upwards of $40 million in revenue. The only potential roadblock to exploding with money? Its people-heavy organization -- with so many content creators, editors, and sponsored content specialists, they've got lots of people to pay. Will viral, spreadable content always keep paying the bills?

I'm gonna bet "yes" here. While BuzzFeed won't continue to bring in millions of dollars because of cats and memes, the company is continually experimenting to find out what its audience likes -- which means that the content that falls under its umbrella of "quality content" will definitely change over time. 

In his company memo published on LinkedIn, Peretti defends his company's business model, arguing that experimentation will help BuzzFeed stay relevant: 

quotation-marksWe will NOT launch a white labeled version of BuzzFeed to power other sites or a BuzzFeed social network - we’ll leave that to pure tech companies in Silicon Valley. We will NOT launch a print edition or a paywall or a paid conference business - we’ll leave that to other publications. We have a great business model that has a bright future as social and mobile continue to become the dominate form of media consumption. We will stay away from anything that requires adopting a legacy business model, even a lucrative one like cable syndication fees or prime time television ads. What seems like a lucrative opportunity today is often a distraction from building something much more exciting tomorrow. We need to stay patient and focused." 

While experimentation will mean that its content topic balance may shift, one thing won't change in BuzzFeed's business model: People want to share content. So as long as BuzzFeed uses shareability for its quality threshold, I think it will help bring home the bacon.

Now, on to HBR's business model. From the get-go, the media site has a much more complex business model. is just one content offering of the whole Harvard Business Publishing -- which is a not-for-profit, wholly-owned subsidiary of Harvard Business School. And, to make money, all of Harvard Business Publishing works together. In a conversation with Hellweg, he outlined HBR's business model into three solid branches:

  1. Content Subscription: Right now, Harvard Business Review has a paid print circulation of over 260,000 -- and with these print subscriptions comes access to almost all of its digital content.  
  2. Advertising: This includes most traditional online and print advertising opportunities. HBR has not experimented with sponsored content.
  3. Ecommerce: HBR also has a content catalog that includes individual article reprints, case studies, learning products, and ebooks for sale.

Okay, I know that's a lot of business babble in one blog post, but here's what that all means: has an incredibly diverse business model -- which helps with its stability -- that all relies on it producing and selling quality content. Because it has the Harvard name and brand to live up to as well, the pressure is on to keep quality up.

So yes, for these two media companies, quality content is essential to their bottom lines. If they're not creating content that their audiences crave, they stop getting people visiting their website or buying their content. Loss of subscribers and advertisers naturally follows.

It boils down to this: Without quality content -- which is determined based on their audience's interests -- these companies are done. So it's in their best interests to keep solving for their readers' interests. The bottom line will follow.

What Do You Think? Tweet #BFvsHBR

Let us know what you think. Is shareable content quality content? Or perhaps persona-focused content is what defines quality? How would you define it? Does quality content even matter? Go on, take a stand using hashtag #BFvsHBR. Your tweets will be automatically populated in the stream below: 

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