Behind the Scenes of the Buzzfeed Channel: An Interview with Ben Kaufman

buzzfeed channel shopify masters

Buzzfeed is a social news and entertainment company, one of the largest publishers on the planet with over 200 million readers and data-driven content that always seems to go viral.

In this special takeover of Shopify Masters, we sit down with Ben Kaufman who oversees Buzzfeed's Product Labs, exploring the future of commerce for the media giant.

This episode will take you behind the scenes of the new Buzzfeed Channel to unpack this partnership and what it means for you as a merchant.

Listen to Shopify Masters below…

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"We think we can turn a media company into a retailer. And that's why we're going about this whole Shopify Channel thing."

Tune in to learn

  • How Buzzfeed is approaching the intersection between content and commerce.
  • Why we partnered with Buzzfeed and the thinking behind the new channel.
  • Some of the bold experiments that Buzzfeed has been running.

Show Notes


Ben: We kind of used any method necessary, whether it be on-demand printing, injection molding, rapid prototyping, 3D printing. Literally anything necessary in order to take an idea and get it in front of the audience when it makes sense.

Anshuman: Hi, I’m Anshuman Iddamsetty, I’m Shopify’s podcast producer. Today, I’m taking you over the Shopify master’s feed to present a special interview with the person you just heard.

Ben: I’m Ben Kaufman, and I run the product lab at BuzzFeed. The product lab is a division of Buzzfeed focused on innovation in commerce.

Anshuman: We first spoke with Ben at Unite 2017, Shopify’s annual partner and developer conference. We decided to hold off on airing Ben’s interview until now. Because this week Shopify launched a brand new partnership with Buzzfeed. It’s the new Buzzfeed channel for Shopify. We’ve partnered with BuzzFeed to make showcasing your products to their writers and editors easier than ever.

But if you’re anything like me you wanna know more. How does this channel work? And why partner with BuzzFeed in the first place?

BuzzFeed Editors are always on the lookout for one of a kind products to feature in their campaigns, product lists, and viral content. But finding products that connect with their readers isn’t always easy. The BuzzFeed channel let’s you, the Shopify merchant, tag your products so it’s easy for a BuzzFeed writer or editor to search for them.

If they decide to feature a product you’ve tagged a unique link is created and used to embed your product in a post on BuzzFeed or a BuzzFeed product listing ad promoted to Facebook. When a BuzzFeed reader finds the post or product listing, that unique link will send them to your online store so they can complete the purchase. The channel also tracks sales contributed to BuzzFeed and seamlessly automates a monthly payout of commissions once a customer payment has been received. All you have to do is fulfill the orders.

That’s the how, but what about the why? Why BuzzFeed? Why partner with a site known for their lists and quizzes and trend pieces that always seems to go viral? A site known for content, not commerce. There are the obvious reasons. BuzzFeed is one of the largest publishers on the planet and commands an audience of over 200 million readers. So when the site’s editorial staff decided to place a product in front of that audience it tends to blow up. There’s also the fact that BuzzFeed carefully analyzes their readers for data on emerging trends in areas like style and fashion. Data which they then use to craft their viral content. It’s this data driven approach that makes BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed.

But to truly understand why we partnered with them you have to understand the story of the man overseeing their efforts in commerce, Ben Kaufman, who you heard at the top of the show. Ben is something of a serial entrepreneur. He invented the famous Mophie battery charger for mobile devices and he also founded Quirky, a platform for inventors to bring their ideas to market.

And now he’s at BuzzFeed exploring where commerce will go next. Take the emerging field of social commerce.

Ben: Social commerce is a commerce that is kind of initiated due to some social behavior. So, something that is either shared with you or something that you would want to share based upon your identity or the identity of your friends.

Anshuman: Ben sat down with Zabrina Hossain, a product manager at Shopify, overseeing social channels and conversational commerce. Take it away Zabrina.

Zabrina: So, Ben, you have a very interesting history with retail and commerce and just a very interesting story. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

Ben: Interesting is an interesting way to put it. It’s very nice. It’s a very nice word to use. Yeah sure, so I’ve been making stuff and selling stuff for, oh man, 12, 13 years now. I started my first product company back in high school. It was an Apple accessory company named Mophie. Named after my two dogs, Molly and Sophie. Then went on to create a company called Quirky, which was an invention platform that enabled entrepreneurs and inventors to post their product idea and colaborate with the hopes of pushing out more great new products into the real world.

And after that company’s colossal failure I went off to try and solve social commerce and that’s led me to BuzzFeed, where we’re trying to really leverage the scale in reach of a media company to act as a retailer.

Zabrina: So you said you started in high school designing mobile phone accessories. What made you start? How did you think about the design process? How did you make physical products?

Ben: Yeah, actually we started as an iPod accessory company, because the iPod and mobile phones had yet to converge. But yeah, my first product idea I just prototyped it out of ribbon and gift wrap at home and got on a flight to China and landed there and just like started my journey of trying to figure out how to make physical goods. And really, I don’t think there’s any one way to do it, or right answer. It’s kind of a slog no matter what path you take. But I think it’s an important one. The world only moves forward if great new inventions are brought to bare.

Zabrina: Okay. So, after that you started Quirky, which was an inventors platform. Just throughout the last couple days a few people have come up to you while we’re chatting and like, “Hey, Ben. I love Quirky. I love your platform.” Can you tell me about it? How did people find out about it? What was the bases of the company?

Ben: Yeah, it was the best thing ever. It was basically this website where people could come and share ideas, work with each other on their ideas. And then, we as a company, did all the heavy lifting of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, sourcing, manufacturing. All of the things that stand in the way of people getting a good idea into the real world. We tried to turn it into a platform where if an idea was truly good, we would make sure there was no impediments to that idea actually spreading in the world.

And it was awesome. We had, at one point, three million community members. We looked at 5,000 new product ideas a week. It was absolutely amazing. The problem is, we lost a ton of money and ran out of money, and died, horribly, we just died.

Zabrina: That’s okay. You built a platform for inventors.

Ben: Is it Zabrina?

Zabrina: It is, because I firmly believe that we learn from our, like, all the tries that we have. I don’t necessarily think of it as a failure. At least that’s what I tell my husband when he’s hella stressed about his business. So, I stand by that. So, what were the challenges there? Was it that you guys were trying to do too much too fast? Or what would you do differently with what you know today?

Ben: The what I would do differently is always a hard question to answer because it was such a special place and I kind of stand behind the decisions we made in a lot of respects. I think it boils down to, yeah, we probably did do too much too fast. But the root of the problem actually kind of oddly brings me to here today. The root of the problem Quirky had was it was inventing at such a crazy fast pace. And there was no retail vehicle in order to absorb that invention and tell that story out into the real world.

So, we were making two to three brand new consumer products a week. And we were relying heavily on brick and mortar retail, Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, container store. To absorb those inventions, get them on the shelf. Tell the value proposition of those products to their customers. And given the way brick and mortar retail and physical retail, even eCommerce, is set up, it’s almost impossible to have that much new stuff. That much creativity done justice.

So we wound up making a lot more stuff, inventing a lot more than we wound up selling. And the focus of the company as an invention company was to always create, and we didn’t have a discipline around making sure that the backside of the business, once you’ve gone through the manufacturing process and so on was handled, in terms of marketing and distribution.

And that’s why I’m at BuzzFeed now, trying to solve that part of the equation. I feel really confident about me and my team’s ability to make products at a crazy fast pace and using all modern methods of manufacturing and design. And trying to pair that with the distribution reach and scale of a media company.

Zabrina: Cool. Okay, well that’s the perfect segway into BuzzFeed. I was lucky enough to visit your product lab, which is a very cool space in the middle of Manhattan. You guys have, I don’t know, like six huge 3D printers and you’re making things and there is a very cool vibe in that office. So, what are you guys doing? How are you guys merging media and product development? Because that is something very new and I don’t think many people are doing, many companies.

But I see new products coming out of the labs all the time. Like the Garbage Can, the Tasty Cookbooks. And they’re all doing remarkably well. Let me unpack that question. So, tell me a little bit about how you’re bringing these products to fruition. And how that merges with the media side of BuzzFeed?

Ben: Yeah, sure. So, we call it lab for a reason. You asked me how we do it, and I don’t really have an answer because every time is kind of different. We’re set up as an experimental arm of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s a huge media company. We reach 500 million people every month. Half of all Americans interact with a piece of BuzzFeed content on a monthly basis.

And so, the question that we’re tasked with as a product lab is, how do you take that reach and take that insight around what people are watching and responding to and gravitating towards from an identity standpoint. And deliver them products and experiences that they’re willing to pay for that leverage those insights and leverage our ability to go out and reach those customers.

So, we kind of use any method necessary. Whether it be on-demand printing, injection molding, rapid prototyping, 3D printing. Literally anything necessary in order to take an idea and get it in front of the audience when it makes sense.

Zabrina: So the BuzzFeed Garbage Can is a pretty fun story and I think it is a product that’s also done really well. Can you tell us about that?

Ben: Yeah sure. So, it was like my, geez I think it was my third month at BuzzFeed, and it was about a week before the inauguration of our great president, Mr. Donald Trump. And there was a press conference. And it was about a few days after, maybe one day after BuzzFeed released the Dossier, the Russian Dossier. And Trump was not very happy with BuzzFeed, and he got up on the podium and we were all watching in the office because we knew he was gonna say something about us, it was just like in the air. And he got up on the podium and he was just like, “BuzzFeed is a failing pile of garbage, blah blah blah blah.” And so, not knowing any better, I turn around and I was like, “We gotta do a garbage can.”

We built a BuzzFeed Garbage Can. Put it up on Shopify like an hour later. And sold out of them within an hour from that. And it was really fun, and kind of spoke to our ability to leverage the moment, leverage the ability to understand supply chain, reach an audience. And be self-deprecating and poke fun at ourselves. So it was cool.

Zabrina: That’s super fun. And another product that you guys have worked on is the Tasty Cookbook. So, Tasty, I learned a lot about that from you, like, I already watch the recipes all the time and I sneak a link, send them to my husband so it seeds the idea that he can make that meal for me. And it’s worked three times so far.

Tasty has an incredible reach. It’s a new brand that started in the last year, you were telling me. And how have you guys, at the product labs, worked to extend that brand?

Ben: Yeah. So, one of the things we do at the product labs is we take properties that BuzzFeed owns and try and commercialize them into meaningful products for that audience. So, Tasty is a good example of a brand that was grown pretty quickly within BuzzFeed. I think it’s only about 18 months old at this point. But I believe the stat is one in three Americans watch a Tasty video at least once a week. Which is terrifying and awesome.

But the cool part about this is that we were like, it was the midst of the holiday season, well let’s make it in to a cookbook. The cookbooks, I don’t know if you have a cookbook, because I don’t know. But cookbooks are weird because they usually contain a lot of recipes you don’t like, and one of the things about Tasty is we serve you up because we have all the data and so we only serve you up recipes we think you’ll like. Your friends share recipes you think you’ll like.

So, we wanted to do a cookbook in a custom way. So we built the world’s first customized cookbook, where you pick the cuisines you’d wanna cook, the ones that fit you and your family’s tastes. And we custom print cookbooks. We did that for the holiday season last year and it was a hug success. I think the New York Times best seller numbers were pretty crazy.

Zabrina: That’s amazing. And then now you’ve also made Tasty Jr. And that’s a really cute channel. At BuzzFeed product labs you guys are always testing new things, trying new concepts and you guys happen to use Shopify for a lot of the stores that you launching. Can you tell me a little bit about why you do that.

Ben: Yeah, sure. So, I’ve kind of played with all of the commerce platforms out there. Quirky rolled its own eCommerce platform. I’ve used all of the competitors, and frankly, like, in the past two, three years Shopify has just become untouchable in my opinion, in terms of what it delivers verses what the other buys.

In terms of customizability, in terms of scale ability, and specifically for BuzzFeed, we’ve launched shops that have gone from literally unlocking the shop and taking the password off to a million plus dollars in sales in minutes. And being able to literally scale, and we didn’t flinch, because we knew you guys would support it and stay up and not even blink verses if we had done that on our own or done that with another platform, we would have been terrified.

The mobile app is fantastic. The app ecosystem is untouchable. Like, I don’t know. This is like a Shopify commercial now, I gotta stop. It’s good.

Zabrina: So, let’s talk about a couple of trends in retail and eCommerce. One of them that we’ve been tinkering around with is live selling. What are your thoughts on live selling? And what’s your experience with live selling in the past?

Ben: Yeah. I’ve done all that, too. I spend some time on TV selling on QVC and HSN. It’s a fascinating world, it’s a fascinating way to interact with customers and sell product. It’s a way to tell your story as well as conduct commerce at the same time. And I think that’s compelling but in the past year or two you’ve seen, particularly QVC and some of these other businesses start to decline rapidly. And my super non-politically correct reasoning for this is that it’s because their customers dying. Literally dying.

The product selection, the programming, the strings that they pull in order to close a sale don’t work on this generation. And very interested in trying to figure out how to build content that is more compelling to a younger audience and carry a product that’s compelling to a younger audience. But still leverage a lot of those proven methodologies that live commerce has pioneered in the past few decades.

Zabrina: Cool. So, we’ve already done a couple of experiments that are out in the wild. And you guys converted your office into a studio. It looked amazing. There was a kitchen set, there was a stage, there was a living room. And there were all kinds of cool products that we experimented with. How did the experiment do?

Ben: It did okay. It’s gonna be a learning curve, but then again, that’s why we call ourselves a product lab. What interesting is that the places where people consume content aren’t necessarily the place that people conduct commerce. And sort of like merging those two things and getting peoples’ mind to switch from like, “I’m watching entertainment.” To, “Oh my God, I have to take out my credit card or tap my Apple Pay.” It is the challenge.

But I think think it’s 100% solvable. It’s just a matter of like, we need to continue testing and keep trying.

Zabrina: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to continuing these experiments and seeing what formats work and I think it really unlocks a whole new medium for merchants to sell, for channels to sell. And I think it’s really gonna be interesting.

Okay. So then we also have been working on something very cool over the last few weeks where BuzzFeed has been building a channel on Shopify. It’s a channel unlike the ones we have right now, but using the same tools that are available on our platform. Can you tell us a little bit about the new channel with BuzzFeed and Shopify?

Ben: Yeah, I can. But first I wanna tell you why. So I’ve been selling retail for over a decade. I’ve sold to every major big box store, pretty much around the world. And I’m fascinated by what’s happening right now. So, retail in general used to have like three major things that they could provide to a merchant, or to what is traditionally called a vendor. They provide curation, meaning they, to their customer, curate the best vendors and the best merchants. They, to their customers, tell the stories of vendors, and tell the stories of great products. And they also provide distribution and reach in scale.

Those are the three things that have literally carried retail forever. Right? So curation, beautiful boutiques, and shop and swap experiences and so on. Story telling, the Sear catalog. Like, these things that have forever made retail, retail. And then distribution, malls, Sunday afternoons. These are things that were Americana at its very core. And literally all three of those pillars of retail, all three of the things that have driven retail forward in a brick and mortar sense. For decades is vanishing at a ridiculous pace.

So, from the curation side, retailers don’t say no anymore. Like, they literally don’t say no. They say, “Yeah, we’ll put it on the website. We’ll put it on dot com.” So, there is no more curation.

From the story telling side, because they are accepting literally any product, they’re not telling your story anymore. In fact, retailers are starting to say, “Well, retail is media.” And asking their vendors, asking people creating products to buy shelf space. To buy ads in the circular. To buy placement in the catalog.

And then the third thing with distribution, you see the news, the stores are fucking closing. Like, stores are closing at an alarming rate, people don’t go to malls. This is all happening. And so, if we take a step back and figure out, like, “Okay, what the hell is happening?” Its pretty easy to figure out. People’s attention span is changing. People’s ability to do what I call seek and destroy shopping, like I need toilet paper, that used to be a trip to Target. But it’s not anymore. It’s a tap on your Amazon, you know, [inaudible 00:20:50] button.

So, anyway, what we are starting to see at BuzzFeed is our ability to drive commerce, kind of leveraging those same three pillars. Curation, story telling, and distribution. From a distribution stand point BuzzFeed reaches more people than Walmart on a monthly basis. We have 500 million people a month interact with BuzzFeed content. From a story telling standpoint, that’s what we do, we tell stories, we create content. And from a curation stand point, we have these amazing data feedback loops where, in real time, we understand what the world wants and why the world wants it.

So, we think we can turn a media company into a retailer. And that’s why we’re going about this whole Shopify channel thing. So, with literally two clicks a merchant can enable the BuzzFeed Shopify channel. And what the Shopify channel does is it gives our editors, gives our writers and our curators access to your product listings, your price points, and crucial data that allow us to make editorial decisions. And merchants around the world will be able to have a their product featured by BuzzFeed in a curated, distributed, and story told way. And if we’re successful in helping you drive a sale, you may choose to give us a little bit of commission. That’s what we’ve built.

Zabrina: This is really exciting. I think it really opens up doors for our merchants. I see it as basically small merchants that are having trouble gaining reach, or followers, or an audience, or just getting that initial boost. Like today, how Toby was talking about that first sale, that first boost, like getting that trajectory going forward. I think this is basically unlock this for them. Where you consider it basically your marketing cost, I think. So, you’re paying this commission and all of a sudden you just have eyes, and you don’t have to pay anything unless you get a sale. And that’s the beauty of it. You’re not just hoping for something, or guessing. Like literally, you get featured, if you get sales you pay a commission and everybody wins. I think that’s really exciting.

Ben: Yeah. So, here’s the super shitty part. This is like the super shitty part about retail. So, retailers ask for this huge margin. Normally 40, 50, 60, sometimes even 70 points to get your product in their store. And now, because they don’t do any of that story telling anymore, and they have shrinking distribution, and they’re not even curating anymore, you’re giving them that margin and then you, as the vendor, as the maker of a product, as the inventor of a product, still have to figure out how to reach an audience.

And if I could do one thing, it would be to make sure that the people creating products, the people moving the world forward, are capturing the maximum amount of value possible. And taking away as many middle-men as possible. So, what’s exciting about BuzzFeed as a retailer, as we start to experiment in this space is if we are able to close that sale for a merchant, and take our small commission, all of the rest of the margin is going directly into that maker’s bank account. It’s not getting cut up to a retailer that’s providing little to no value. A marketing firm, all of these various people that basically stand between you and a sale. Instead it allows you to capture the maximum value for that creation that you’ve made, and you’re likely to keep inventing, keep reinvesting that money into driving the world forward.

And that’s why this feels like, not just an important product for BuzzFeed or for whatever, but for makers and creators everywhere.

Zabrina: So, BuzzFeed is doing an amazing job of creating this unique content and you have this dedicated audience, so 500 million people a month. And this is driving commerce. So, I see this as the new commerce. Can you tell us a little bit about how much you’re driving, or some stats around that?

Ben: I mean, I could, but I don’t think I’m allowed. So, I mean listen, so here’s the deal, BuzzFeed just started its affiliated commerce business, kind of passively, 14 months ago. And we are driving well over 100 million dollars of GMV to partners right now. And growing very rapidly. We, as of eight months ago, didn’t have a dedicated team of writers for our commerce content, now we do. We didn’t have product line, now we do. We didn’t have a Shopify channel, now we do.

So, while it’s growing rapidly, we are just at the early phases, hardly even half way through the first inning here.

Anshuman: And that’s the end of our show. In this episode, we unpacked our brand new partnership with BuzzFeed. The BuzzFeed channel connects Shopify merchants with BuzzFeed’s audience of over 200 million readers. Once a merchant installs the BuzzFeed channel on their Shopify account they simply tagged the products they would like a BuzzFeed writer or editor to discover. The merchant then selects a commission rate. And that’s it.

[00:26:19] You can find more information about the BuzzFeed channel on our site, My thanks to Ben Kaufman and Zabrina Hossain. And special thanks to Jennifer Daly, Dayna Winter, and Braveen Kumar. This episode was produced by me, Anshuman Iddamsetty. Mark Macdonald was our executive producer. Music was provided by Pond5. Filex, more till next week.

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