Even if you've never heard of PlayBuzz, you've probably come across its end product. Its platform is behind such Facebook quizzes as "Which Disney Mom Are You?" and lists like "18 Photos That Prove That Online Dating Is Terrifying." The company, thanks to the virality of such content, has become the most-shared publisher on Facebook -- yes, topping even BuzzFeed. And it's done so without paying for most of the content it publishes. That's starting to change.
Commonly called a "BuzzFeed clone," PlayBuzz has parlayed its quizzes and listicles into Facebook popularity. In January people shared more PlayBuzz stories on Facebook than any other publisher, according to social content analytics firm NewsWhip. But PlayBuzz, which launched in January 2014, doesn't consider itself a publisher.
"We're not a publisher in our DNA. We don't have an editorial staff," said PlayBuzz CEO Shaul Olmert, son of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Mr. Olmert isn't exaggerating much when he says PlayBuzz doesn't have an editorial staff. The 50-person company does have an internal content team of seven employees, but that staff typically handles content moderation and trains publishing and brand partners on how to create content on PlayBuzz.
PlayBuzz's content staff will sometimes publish articles to test new pre-formatted article templates, like one that enables people to create trivia posts, but it only accounts for 2% of the content posted to PlayBuzz, Mr. Olmert said; eight months ago the company said the figure was 10%. PlayBuzz's community of 5,000 creators account for the remaining 98% of its content, using the site's several article templates to create their own quizzes and listicles that are published on PlayBuzz.
As the amount of user-generated content on PlayBuzz has grown, so has its traffic. In January 2015, 14.7 million people in the U.S. visited PlayBuzz's site on their desktop computers, tablets or smartphones, according to comScore. That traffic has grown by 201% since May 2014, the earliest month for which figures were available. PlayBuzz's internal figures claim the site received 80 million unique visitors around the world in January, Mr. Olmert said.
What PlayBuzz has assembled with its user-generated content could be considered a content factory -- or a house of cards. Things are great as long as people keep giving PlayBuzz their content. To make sure that remains the case, PlayBuzz needs to offer an incentive.
Within the past few weeks, PlayBuzz has started to approach some of the people posting quizzes, listicles and other content to its site to see if they'd be interested in splitting the money PlayBuzz makes from the advertising run against their content.
"We're following the tracks of YouTube," Mr. Olmert said. He was referring to the Google-owned service's partner program that gives creators a percentage of the ad revenue from their videos. Similar to YouTube, PlayBuzz is eyeing its top creators in terms of how much traffic and how many shares their articles generate. Mr. Olmert said the talks are still early with contractual terms like revenue-split percentages still being sorted.
"This is a way for PlayBuzz to hedge their business model," said eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. Like most publishers, PlayBuzz relies on people sharing its articles to Facebook and people clicking on those Facebook links to read the articles on PlayBuzz. But it's just as reliant on people to create those articles. "I think it's part-and-parcel to make the people who contribute invested," he said.
In order to pay these people, ad-supported PlayBuzz will need to improve what it offers advertisers. Right now the site carries so-called "remnant" ads sold through automated ad auctions that typically prize the ad's audience over its surrounding content. This ad-network revenue generates "decent money," Mr. Olmert said, noting that the company is profitable. However it was never PlayBuzz's intended revenue stream and likely couldn't sustain the company's revenue-sharing plans.
"We started as a pure [business-to-business] play. The dream was to be used by thousands of different publishers and make money by charging them for premium services," Mr. Olmert said. The strategy has half-worked. Tens of thousands of publishers including NBC, AOL and Yahoo create content on PlayBuzz or embed the site's stories on their own sites. But those publishers only bring in a minority of PlayBuzz's traffic, he said. People unexpectedly gravitated to the site on their own.
"Compensation hadn't been something we thought of initially because we didn't expect to get adopted by end-users so well," Mr. Olmert said.
Now that PlayBuzz has turned out to be a publisher instead of a publishing technology provider, it has to start acting like one. These days that means it needs its own native ad. Borrowing from BuzzFeed among others, the company has started pitching brand advertisers on posting their own quizzes, listicles, etc. to PlayBuzz and paying to promote that content on the site and across a network of other publishers that would a receive a cut of the ad revenue. "We would charge the advertiser by exposures," Mr. Olmert said.
Advertisers may be willing to buy what PlayBuzz would offer, especially those already versed in today's branded content practices. Brands including Target, Domino's Pizza and Hulu have posted content to PlayBuzz using its self-serve publishing tool before they had an option to pay to promote it, Mr. Olmert said. And more advertisers may be open to PlayBuzz's pitch, given the buzz around native advertising that calls for a brand's content to be as good as the surrounding editorial content and PlayBuzz's ability to publish content that plays well on Facebook.
"We are doing more and more native every quarter for our clients because we know it's a terrific way to engage a consumer around a topic. That can easily extend to the quiz space as well," said Jonathan Adams, Maxus's chief digital officer for North America. "There's no reason to believe that if PlayBuzz has this success, that marketers wouldn't flock to it."
While PlayBuzz appears to have pivoted from being a publisher's tech tool to becoming a publisher itself, its ambition appears to be becoming a mix of the two. Like YouTube and Medium, PlayBuzz wants to be in the business of distributing other people's media.
"If content is king, content formats are the throne," Mr. Olmert said. "What we're creating is the throne of content that enables content to be king."