Buzzfeed’s approach to investigative journalism

Heidi Blake, at Social Media Week

After working for the Sunday Times as assistant editor and in the Insights Team, Heidi Blake made the radical decision to leave the traditional newspaper world, joining Buzzfeed as UK investigations editor in January 2015. Investigative journalism stories typically hang well from the reputation of a mainstream news title; Buzzfeed is a different animal.

Heidi Blake, at Social Media Week

Heidi has a well-known reputation in journalism for being behind some of the biggest investigative stories of the 21st Century; including the award-winning story into the alleged bribery to Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup (AKA. Fifa Files). Therefore her move to Buzzfeed, the infamously listical ‘social news and entertainment company’, did cause surprise in the industry; a well-known ‘traditional’ journalist moving to a new form of social media news website.

From the very start of her talk at Social Media Week London, it was clear that part of Heidi’s decision to move from the Sunday Times was due to their corporate decision to launch the paywall. As soon as the paid-for barrier was raised in 2010, it became much harder to draw people to the website, with the newspaper frequently losing out to social media sharing opportunities. So despite her award-winning Fifa Files story, competitors frequently gained more traction online.

Reading between the lines of her talk, clearly many journalists at the Sunday Times were concerned by the paywall decision. There was no doubt the newspaper was losing power to its competitors on social media, which really made the reputation of the Sunday Times’ name ineffective; nobody knows your article exists.

At the same time Buzzfeed was making a lot of money from social advertising but wanted to reinvest in hard hitting journalism; Heidi was the clear choice. The remit was the same as a newspaper, to see heads roll and a positive impact to society. Proper investigative journalism should be about bodies found and money stolen, and Buzzfeed can help frame those stories to make an impact.

Okay, clearly there were a few jokes about Heidi’s job becoming the master of Buzzfeed post-style lists. Heck, why not? The format of writing a story about “The top 50 bribes for the 2022 World Cup” may actually gain more traction than a long-form broadsheet article. It’s already working, the Buzzfeed investigations team’s post “15 Insane Confessions of a Buckingham Palace Guard” went viral on social media.

Integrating social media into investigative stories has been critical. Traditional newspapers could almost be likened to dictators, as it’s the editor who has the final say. Unlike Buzzfeed where people’s feedback on social media has democratised the news process; an online audience curates and stories can be targeted at different social media communities.

To an extent this allows Buzzfeed to guide it’s ethical decisions too, the guiding philosophy for Buzzfeed is to not be a barrier to information. If others are publishing sensitive photos that have already gone viral online, Buzzfeed may as well publish too.

Even in terms of investigating, it’s now possible to geo-lock social media searches to spot keyword related phrases that are linked with a current investigation. Incredibly useful for monitoring what staff of an organisation might be writing about on social media; it immediately provides a first-hand account. LinkedIn is another obvious choice, as the social network allows investigators to search vertically across typically difficult to navigate organisational structures.

Whether Buzzfeed can fulfil it’s aim to become the defining media company of the 21st Century remains to be seen.

We need to prepare for the PR industry’s ‘Uber moment’

As part of Social Media Week London, some of the finest digital minds met at Lansons to discuss how the PR industry should adapt to the changing digital landscape. This in light of the growth of job automation, future-proofing of workforce skills, and ownership of digital practice areas. It was felt we should be aware for the PR industry’s Uber moment, referencing how Uber disrupted the traditional taxi business.

We didn’t hold back on the debate. It ran for an hour and a half, in front of a 60-strong audience with precisely 179 people live-streaming via Periscope.

The panel featured Russ Graham, Head of Digital & Social at Lansons; Tim McLoughlin, Head of Social Media at Saatchi & Saatchi; and Thane Ryland, Head of Social Analytics at Microsoft Mobile. The fourth speaker, traditionally known as ‘the audience’, was represented by a number of FTSE companies and familiar names across the marketing space.

For a quick round-up of the event see this Storify which provides a summary through tweets of #SMWDigitalFuture. Alternatively listen to the below podcast which is of the panel debate section (you will hear it’s introduced by a familiar voice).

Lansons Live, voiceovers in studio
Doing evening voiceovers in the Lansons Live studio for the #SMWDigitalFuture podcast

Twitter: Your mobile phone is changing the world

Did you know that your mobile phone is changing the world? Twitter would certainly like to remind us, especially as it’s partly down to Twitter’s growth over the last 9 years to reach 302 million active users that has made the real difference. Familiar to digital crowds in the UK, Tariq Slim took to the stage at Social Media Week London to cover innovative ways Twitter is being used by brands, including how new functionality can breathe fresh life into old content, or better integrate mobile with other communication channels.

Twitter UK, Tariq Slim

He highlighted the three ‘Cs’ spearheading mobile; Communication, Content, and Consumption. Below are some of the cleaner notes I took during the talk.


  • The way we are communicating is changing due to our mobiles. For instance, the most used word online in 2014 wasn’t a word at all, but the heart emoji, showing how often we use our mobiles for writing content online;
  • There is a small Spanish town that has decided to use Twitter to replace traditional civic communications. Residents use Twitter to report town maintenance and crimes, police uniforms show their individual @handles, more here;


  • There are creative ways to match social interactions with online advertising methods. One of the best examples is TopShop’s #livetrends campaign during London Fashion week that monitored for upcoming trends, then quickly updated Twitter Ads and digital ad boards around London to improve campaign results;
  • Good examples of Twitter video Ads have been done by BT Sport and EE, because they caught the attention of people in the first 3 seconds of the video and repurposed TV advertising for mobile;
  • First innovative campaign making use of the live streaming app Periscope was run by Skyscanner, who did a 24 hour periscope in 24 cities around the world. Travel influencers did an hour periscope each. More here;


  • The growth of mobile has impacted other industries, such as the sales of traditional cameras Vs smartphone sales.
  • Mobiles are changing the way we consume information and this was highlighted during the presentation through two creative images.


Kanye West, Nandos
Mobiles are changing our behaviours. When Kanye West invited people to take a photo of him, everyone faced away for a selfie.
1993 VS 2013
1993 VS 2013: One smartphone to rule them all.






Nescafé ditches traditional website, chooses Tumblr

Social Media Week London, Tumblr and Nescafe

Nestle announced at Social Media Week London today that they have consolidated their international websites for the Nescafé brand, making the decision to host the main Nescafé website on Tumblr. This will be the first time an international brand has decided to rely on Tumblr as a platform for a main website, potentially marking a key change in how organisations manage their ‘owned’ media.

Social Media Week London, Tumblr and Nescafe

Sitting on the front row of the Social Media Week London talk, global heads of digital from Nestle, Ogilvy, and a brand strategist from Tumblr, discussed how Nescafé has responded to the ever-changing digital marketing environment. Although the talk sounded a bit consumery, don’t be fooled – this move by Nescafé, if successful, could have a knock-on effect in industry. Nestle has confirmed if the Tumblr move proves fortuitous, other brands may follow suit.

The primary reasons for the move appear to be:

  • Nestle wanted to move Nescafé away from a static website to instead have a responsive and socially connected platform;
  • Nestle needed flexibility, simplicity, and functionality from a platform. Tumblr ticked all those boxes, including great search engine optimisation and mobile compatibility;
  • Tumblr is claimed to be the fastest growing social media platform and the younger audience (below 35 years old) is a key market for Nescafé.

Owned media is often the bridge between offline and online media. For example, brands putting web addresses on packaging to refer consumers online. So owned content for brands plays a very important role, which means chosen platforms must be flexible. In the case of Nescafé, consumers can now start their online journey on Tumblr and be referred to other social media sites. Nestle believes the new website marks a transition of how brands manage owned content, and can already see their messages are better amplified with Tumblr’s audience. This isn’t to say that the traditional website is dead, but Tumblr does believe that more brands will look to utilise existing social media communities, rather than trying to build an entire website from scratch.

One of the most interesting remarks from the session was that since major Google algorithm changes it has become much harder to maintain a traditional websites’ organic traffic levels. Essentially referral traffic from places like Facebook could be said to be directed towards a depreciating website. In a way, moving to Tumblr has hopefully strategically solved this issue.

Now that the website has launched, it’s necessary for Nestle to balance the traditional attributes of a website with the added functionality of Tumblr. This is an important test and there may be bumps on the road, but it’s a new idea of what a brand site looks like.


Challenges Nescafé may have to face
Whilst the panel at Social Media Week showed plenty of optimism and enthusiasm, all fuelled by agreeable ideas, there was a hint of scepticism from the audience. Some senior brand strategists found the move intriguing but not necessarily the best option. I certainly admire Nestle’s decision for how to manage the Nescafé brand online, but have a few doubts:

  • The benefit of a traditional .com website is that you actually own it. Moving an entire website to Tumblr could put the Nescafé brand at risk if Tumblr suddenly has a problem with functionality or strategically changes its focus;
  • Interestingly, when Google+ launched many bloggers were considering replacing their websites with Google+. In the end those who did suffered enormously because Google+ never really became a mainstream social site – Nestle now potentially has the same risk;
  • Tumblr’s audience is overwhelmingly young and so Nescafé may now struggle to frame some of their corporate messages effectively;
  • Whilst the Nescafé website isn’t obviously hosted on Tumblr, some users visiting may struggle with some functionality of the website. Especially if older generations now visit;
  • Whilst the Social Media Week talk was interesting, it did not cover what Nescafé’s audience wanted or how the functionality of the new website is now better in comparison to the old;
  • Measurement of Tumblr was not discussed, potentially a big issue as the current site is fairly locked down beyond integrating Google Analytics functionality. Many mainstream social insight tools have only just begun building on Tumblr functionality.

Will the Tumblr based Nescafé website survive a year? Let’s make a note in our diaries to check. Despite my scepticism, I have a lot of hope for Tumblr and even blogged earlier this year about why Tumblr is more than just a platform for teens.

Robots are real and they may threaten your job

This blog post is part of the #SMWDigitalFuture series leading up to Lansons’ event on 18 September, ‘States of Digital: Roles of the Future, In-house Structures & Agency Offerings’ as part of Social Media Week London. For more information and to secure your place, please click here. This post was also published on the Lansons blog.

“Don’t forget to pick up your car from Morden, Michael”. Those were the helpful words from my iPhone last week at the very moment I stepped outside the office. The term PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) has slipped out of use today, but it’s never been more relevant with the current direction of technology. Siri, Cortana, and Google Now are all becoming much smarter; detecting natural language faster, speaking with increased fluency and gradually serving useful roles.

Whilst this technology is helpful, it’s the evolution of digital assistance and machine learning that’s of real interest. It’s a subject that Geoffrey Hinton, a prominent figure at Google’s Deep Learning division has dedicated his life’s work to; the challenge of getting computers to write their own algorithms based on learning from observations.

This space can be broadly broken down into the following categories (research document here):

  • Supervised learning: A computer learning from user interactions, such as detecting spam email;
  • Unsupervised learning: A computer discovering data patterns without user interaction. This is used in social media network mapping;
  • Reinforcement learning: A computer learning to play chess through understanding winning or losing algorithms.

I had to tell Siri to set a reminder that I needed to collect my car… but what if Siri observed that I drove and parked my car at Morden, detected that I had left the parameter of the office in the evening, then knew from my personality that she should issue a reminder that I need to collect the car after work. This technology is so close to mainstream use and is arguably a form of artificial intelligence.

A similar form of deep learning is now beginning to challenge job roles in journalism and public relations through the automation of content. Robots are now writing their own news stories, with the Associated Press having signed up to Automated Insights, a platform that automates the publication of financial news stories.

“Minutes after Apple released its record-breaking quarterly earnings this week, the Associated Press published (by way of CNBC, Yahoo and others) “Apple tops Street 1Q forecasts.” It’s a story without a byline, or rather, without a human byline — a financial story written and published by an automated system well-versed in the AP Style Guide.”

There are only a few short steps between having a helpful digital assistant and developing a technology that could rival your job. Think about the everyday tasks you commit as routine with little thought; these are likely to be the tasks at immediate threat from machine learning, from robots.

The unavoidable truth is that the rate of evolution across digital practice areas means the entire UK faces an unknown skills shortage. Who knew there was ever going to be a need for 3D printing experts or automated journalism engineers?

Over a three year university course some of the skills taught may become irrelevant on graduation. The traditional marketing mix needs a major review because new technologies such as automation are gradually rendering it ineffective. As mentioned by my colleague Russ Graham in a recent blog post, “Organisations with data-driven marketing strategies are shying away from expensive, old-school advertising methods.”

Robots are now real, they are writing news stories and they could threaten your job. How do you feel about the future of digital? Debate it with us at our Social Media Week London event on the 18 September or tweet us using the hashtag #SMWDigitalFuture.

Find out more about Lansons’ digital and social media services here.

Exploring the States of Digital at Social Media Week London #smwldn

Identifiable challenges presented by technological evolution in digital practice areas for the PR industry includes the growth of automated content known as “robot journalism”. Potential reputational damage presented by the 36% of all web traffic that is faked; this will especially put the online advertising industry under pressure. Finally, tailoring digital content for multiple devices that have different features, including presenting to a smartwatch and making use of Apple’s Force Touch.

Behind all of this is the unavoidable truth that the rate of evolution across digital practice areas means the industry faces an unknown skills shortage. Who knew there was ever going to be a need for 3D printing experts or automated journalism engineers? Over a three year University course some of the skills taught may become irrelevant on graduation.

Amidst technological changes and challenges is the boardroom budget battles as digital practice areas are claimed by agencies across marketing communications; in-house teams, advertising agencies, content marketing, SEO, PR agencies. The state of digital could be described as a contested area where its role is still being defined in the marketing mix.

Interested? Join the debate with Lansons at Social Media Week London
As a reader of this little blog of mine you’re invited to Lansons’ Social Media Week (SMW) London event on Friday 18th Sept 2015, “States of Digital: roles of the future, in-house structures & agency offerings”. Tickets cost £25 (+ £2.15 charge from Eventbrite) and it will be held at Lansons’ offices in Farringdon.


The state of digital presents us with long term planning challenges, along with offering up some really exciting opportunities for the industry as we know it. Our SMW session includes a panel with different backgrounds and perspectives, and will also look to encourage thoughts and insight from the 4th panel member; the audience.

We will cover a range of topics from C-suite roles and digital specialists of the future through to the existence (or not) of digital agencies, online advertising and social media platforms. After the interactive debate there will be some drinks, food and networking before the weekend starts.

Of course, I’ll be there as well and always keen to meet readers of this blog and talk digital (or ale).