Paul: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it's Paul Kemp. This is the show that we go around the world and we introduce you to the most inspiring, interesting guests that we can find in the world of PR, entrepreneurship, mobile apps, whatever we can do to help us in our journeys. So if you're an app entrepreneur, or if you're working for a startup, if you're actually running a startup this is the show for you. Man, I've got a great episode. I actually went recently to Apps World and met with this wonderful guest, he's agreed to come on this show. Let me introduce Ryan Johnson. He is the VP of Mobile Engineering at BuzzFeed and we're going to talk about BuzzFeed, I'm sure that you've heard of that. Ryan, welcome to The App Guy Podcast.
Ryan: Thank you, Paul. It's good to be here.
Paul: It's good to have you on. Now, Ryan, we're going to talk a lot of stuff but I'd love to know about you personally before we start... How long have you been at BuzzFeed and what encouraged you to join?
Ryan: I've been at BuzzFeed for about two years now. They were actually a client of mine when I was doing consulting back about three years ago. I've been doing apps for about six, seven years now, [unintelligible 00:01:29] and then when the opportunity came around to work for BuzzFeed I jumped on it. It's a part of what we do at the company, it's a part of how we view distribution of our contact, and when I had the opportunity I joined the team, to evolve the team and grow our ever-expanding series of apps. I was pretty enthusiastic, I moved halfway across the United States to do it.
Paul: Actually it's a really big outfit as well because I know in your presentation you were talking about just the size of the number of people working at BuzzFeed... Maybe you can give us a sense of the size of the operation.
Ryan: Overall we're well over a thousand people throughout the entire company, but as it relates to apps we've grown the team from when I started from about four or five people, including design and engineering, to well over 50. So in about two years we had ten times growth, which kind of shows how important all this is to us.
Paul: Okay, so we're going to have to jump into some of the things that I can remember from your wonderful presentation at Apps World, and one of them is the sheer growth of the way we share content through messaging. Probably you can talk a little bit about what you're seeing with regards to mobile apps and the way we're actually sharing.
Ryan: Yes, I think it's a bigger picture thing. You look at how people are using their phones, and primarily it's a social communication device, right? In a way I think we've lost touch with that. We call them phones, but we act like they're more computers. A phone itself is a communication device, the entire device started around people talking to each other, communicating with each other and reducing the friction around doing that. It's expanded from there and it went from people calling each other, to people texting each other, to people broadcast-messaging, so when you post something to Facebook you're broadcasting to all your friends, or Instagram to a larger audience, to really now even back to a focus on one-to-one messaging. And you can see that there's been this increasing time spent on social apps and now an increasing time spent in messaging apps, and you look at something like WhatsApp which has 800 million users. Facebook Messenger has 700 million users every month and they're being kind of the primary way people communicate nowadays. I don't know about you Paul, but I always find a way where somebody calls me, as opposed to messages or texts me, but I think that's more a matter of a growing trend.
Paul: Let's just try to understand this behaviour from people, because we love to learn about the way people are using apps, it's something that I'm passionate about as well. So if we see something interesting, we jump to WhatsApp, to Facebook Messenger, to WeChat, to Slack - I guess that's growing - and all these different ways of communicating almost directly with the recipients, or doing group chats. Is that the difference between that and social media?
Ryan: Yes, I think there are different reasons for both. Sometimes you want to broadcast your message out to a large group, you want to maybe announce the birth of a child or some important life event, you want to share it with everyone.
Paul: Ryan, if you want to announce the birth of a child you can do this on this show. We've had this several times now.
Ryan: Well, there's no birth of a child that I know about right now.
Paul: I actually had somebody who almost... I think his wife, ironically, texted him to say that she was going into labour, and he had to finish off the interview.
Ryan: That's a good excuse. Paul, I may be worried if my girlfriend shows up on this show.
Paul: It has known to happen, yes.
Ryan: But anyway what I was saying is that there are different utilities for both of these social experiences, and the messaging one is that inter-personal but one-on-one relationship. I share very differently with my girlfriend than I would with, say, broadcast everyone. I have maybe more public persona that I want to maintain, an image I want to maintain and I think everyone does, and that's different than the one-on-one interpersonal relationship. For us, one of the questions is how do we harness both of those experiences and leverage that in our apps.
Paul: Yes, so how are you harnessing that whole explosion of these messaging apps? What are you doing for that?
Ryan: We recently about a week ago launched QuizChat, which is kind of a [unintelligible 00:06:01] on our quiz format, which allows you to take quizzes with your friends and family, and instead of being focused around one person taking a quiz and then posting it to Facebook, it's about two people taking a quiz together and then sharing it with each other, as opposed to broadcasting it. So we've launched that, it's been doing great. It's also around the idea that the app itself can go viral, and there's a re-engagement there. So far it's been great, it's been growing internationally.
Paul: I noticed in your chat about the QuizChat, you're actually not promoting this through the normal channels, you're just seeing how it grows organically. What have you seen from those organic results?
Ryan: Yes, so first of all as you said, we soft-launched this which is kind of unique for us. We wanted to really treat this like an experiment and see what happened, so we didn't do anything more than the bare minimum amount of promo to get some seed users on the app. We haven't been featured by Apple, we haven't been featured by Google. We leaked a little bit of PR, but not much by our standards. We really wanted to see if there was something to this, whether you could drive app installs from the content of the app itself.
Paul: Yes, because that's actually how a lot of apps have become successful. I'm thinking back to all those apps that have been bought out by bigger companies, and in a way they've all started with this kind of crazy, viral sharing.
Ryan: I think it's something that we as app developers need to be cognizant of, and I think there are very legitimate concerns about app discovery. It's tough to do, there are a lot of apps out there and I think instead of just saying that app discovery is tough and then resigning yourselves to that fact, it's like, "How do we work in that context?" And one of the ways you do that is by focusing on virality in the app itself, and this is one of our experiments around that. But more broadly, we all should be thinking about that; it's an important part of the experience. And you ought to do it in a good and engaging way, you don't want to be annoying. You don't want to be that game that's messaging Facebook friends without people's permission, right?
Paul: Yes, you just click that one button and suddenly you've got posts galore. We've obviously all gone through that with the early parts of FarmVille, and CandyCrush as well was pretty big on that.
Ryan: Yes, and every now and then you still hear that app that still tries to do that or that one thing that slips through where they text message everyone in your contacts or some other horrible thing. In a way, it's losing sight of the goal, which is to create a great user experience, and you can do that if you think about a good virality of the app and the user experience. That's two intertwined things and not like, "I'm just going to blast this out there to promote the app." You can always kind of get focused on the metric and not the reason you're pursuing the metric, and I think those apps lost that fact, but I'd like to think that social quizzes aren't that.
Paul: If anyone's driving and they want to download the app, they can actually go to the show notes; I'm going to put all the links into Episode 388. Just search Ryan Johnson for TheAppGuy.co.
Actually really interestingly, the episode before you we did actually talk about BuzzFeed, and it was because BuzzFeed made a massive difference to this app. About a year ago they featured this app called Beam Messenger and it was life-changing for the founder, because he went from five downloads a day to this crazy viral app, and it was all because BuzzFeed took the initial interest in the app. So it makes such a massive difference to developers when you feature apps. I wondered how you actually go through that whole process of choosing who to promote and how in a way we can catch your eye to get mentioned by BuzzFeed for our apps?
Ryan: First of all we have a great group of tech reporters in our San Francisco bureau who cover all things tech, and I think they're always on the lookout for new apps that provide great user experiences in new and innovative ways. I'm not familiar with the app you talked about, but all the apps they focus on are those fun, new ways to approach problems, they solve problems for users and they're great apps, too. So I really think if you focus on the user - just generally, this isn't just how do you get featured by BuzzFeed, I think this is how you get featured and be successful generally. If you focus on the user and you create a great quality product, a great quality app that solves a problem for people, the rest kind of flows naturally. You have to do the outreach, it won't necessarily sell itself, but if you focus on those kinds of things you'll be successful.
Paul: Yes, because Ryan, if you can imagine, many of the people listening to this do actually get slightly despondent when thinking about trying to get those apps discovered, because we're all competing against the mighty companies now that have huge marketing budgets, they have their own PR agencies. I wondered if there is any room for the small, indie app entrepreneur who is trying to promote their app without any kind of sizeable marketing budget?
Ryan: Yes, absolutely. I think it's difficult, right? It's a lot easier when you're King Games and you have a million billion dollars and you can go buy AdSense at $10 a pop. That makes it easier, but it's not the end-all and be-all. There were a lot of times that that's failed, and there are a lot of indie success stories. Discovery is only part of the issue. You can go get your app discovered, but if users aren't coming back to it, if they're not finding value in it, the discovery is all for nought, right? It's the same thing if you're a big app maker; you can go spend all the money on app installs, but if you haven't made this quality product that has good retention that users love and they want to share it with their friends, it's only part of the issue. You need that discovery, I think we should view discovery as a way of getting those initial seed users for the app, that then want to share it with their friends, than then have that viral mechanism to come back, to tell their friends about it, to go and message their friends that piece of app content. Discovery is a launch, it's step one. Step two through four, which is keeping users coming back and sharing out your app is equally, if not more important.
Paul: I've actually had one or two people listening to this show ask me to ask you how sites like BuzzFeed manage relationships with the large, major companies that have maybe an attachment to a large venture capital fund, and they have a lot of contacts and a professional PR agency with all the contacts. How do you manage those relationships compared to maybe the smaller, solo entrepreneur who's maybe working from a garage on their own where they're doing apps? Have you got any guidance for us?
Ryan: Yes, I've been on both sides of the isle here. I've done some solo stuff and now I had the chance of working at a particularly large app company, but I think in the end you don't just get to that point where you have those relationships with the big publishers and the big VCs until you kind of reached scale of your app. Once you do that, your entries are aligned. Apple and Google have a desire to promote great, amazing apps and it doesn't matter to them if that's a BuzzFeed or if that's an independent publisher. They have a vested interest in just featuring the best that's out there, providing the best value to their users.
Paul: Yes, I can actually resonate with what you're saying because I recently helped get an app into the Best New Featured section and it was truly because the app was good, and not because we had any influence other than that. I was wondering, you are actually into news and discovery, what did you think to the Apple News default app with iOS 9? Do you have any views on that?
Ryan: Yes, we partnered with them actually. I was responsible for that project at BuzzFeed, working with them to get our content there. We're excited about it, we're excited to get our content anywhere they will pretty much have it, and we think the news apps are a good opportunity for people we may not reach otherwise to read BuzzFeed news, which is a growing part for us. And the native experience there is really solid, the native articles are really well done. It's something we're actually trying to emulate in our apps.
Paul: Yes, I have to say Ryan, clearly BuzzFeed are taking a slightly different viewpoint to maybe other PR and people in tech, because you are focused purely on the content and getting the content out there wherever people may see it or read it, whereas maybe the other viewpoint is we need as many people to come back to our website, so that we can show them ads and all this sort of stuff. What's behind the strategy of just getting content out everywhere? Maybe talk us through the feeling behind that.
Ryan: Yes, I think we go where our users are and get our content in front of them however possible, and then from that we want to get that data back, from all these different platforms, and use that to power better creation of new content. Then you have this cycle of content and data going from one place to many places. And I think one of the reasons we're also really excited by multiple platforms is we can apply the learning out of one platform to a different platform. Things we learn on our upgraded platforms like our BuzzFeed app, we can get say maybe a lot of data around engagement, we can have a better sense on a smaller scale because we own the platform, we can get all the data back from it of what's working, and then we can use that to make a better article to post to Apple News, right? We can just get a very virtuous cycle and the more places we have people interfacing with content, the better, the more data we get back.
Paul: That is so great, I actually now get that. So it's all about the data gathering in a way, from seeing what's popular and what people are reading, and then you can almost incorporate that into your team, the 50-odd people that are working with mobile apps, to make better, more awesome apps. And also talking about QuizChat, the fact that you're creating that because of the trends that you're seeing with the content that goes out everywhere.
Ryan: Yes, exactly. We can see things from all over the place and then apply those learnings elsewhere. We can see what video is working in our app and then promote it on YouTube. It's a very synergistic relationship across all these platforms. Even as an app developer, you can't just view these like wild gardens, right? You don't want people to just go in one place. You want your app to get out in multiple places and your content to go out to multiple places and then eventually funnel people back, if possible.
Paul: Ryan, I've tried not to ask you this, but it's just too tempting: the dress. You probably are so sick about talking about this dress, but this dress is a phenomenon and I know that you use it in your presentation. For anyone who's wondering, it's that dress that gold and white or black and blue. I love that presentation, you showed the server blowing up and how it went viral from a few tweets. How viral was that whole campaign with the dress?
Ryan: Yes, I think that's a great study in the power of virality, and the power of cross-platforms. I just want to say it's clearly a blue and black dress, it's definitely not white and gold.
Paul: I see both, just to sit on the fence. Come on, you were consulted.
Ryan: That's true. The consultant's standpoint is whatever your client wants to see, but I clearly see a blue dress. Many of arguments I've gotten into about it, but it really is a great case study. You can see how a Tumblr embedded in a BuzzFeed post goes to a tweet from BuzzFeed.com and from there it spirals out. Our Facebook post spikes 8 million views and then in the end when it's all said and done it's a very cascading flow of information. One tweet goes out to be posted to Facebook, goes out in the dark social, which is what we call e-mail or other forms where it's tough to track the source of... The compounding power of social media was very apparent there. In the end it, spirals out to about 60 million views from that post alone. At one time, we had 40,000 people on our apps and 600,000 people on BuzzFeed.com, at a given second. And all those 600,000 or almost 700,000 people are probably in apps themselves; over 70% of our traffic is mobile, so most of that is in somebody else's app. So apps are these very important things, it just may not be in our app where the traffic is coming through. It's coming through a variety of apps.
Paul: What's the biggest thing you've learned from that whole experience with the dress so that you could help maybe someone who is an entrepreneur, maybe working for a startup, building their own app and they want to try to learn something from this whole experience? Can it be replicated, and what can we take away and learn from it?
Ryan: Yes, the lesson here is finding that really engaging content that multiple people can either identify with or they find a challenge themselves, something they want to share with their friends. And from that, things could... There is such a low barrier to sharing something, there is so low friction that something can cascade and blow up in a matter of hours nowadays. It's the beauty of something. From an engineering side point, you should be very concerned about being able to scale your site and your traffic for when these things happen, because they absolutely can. It didn't have to be BuzzFeed, it could have been anyone who had that kind of content that gets out there and blows up in a short period of time.
Paul: Yes, and I'm guessing it has actually done very well in terms of bringing attention and talking points in terms of what you're doing.
Ryan: One other thought too is that in August it was something like that Yo app, which is a social phenomenon that people share this virality in the app and things grow out of nowhere overnight too.
Paul: Yes, I mean I feel very honoured with this show, because I've been doing it now for several years, and within the space - it's a bit like London buses - within the space of less than a week or so I'm getting to talk about the Yo app with the person who has campaigned for that, and now the dress; so it's like two pluses at once. You know, I'd love to know what you're seeing; you talked about all this data and...
Ryan: ... Sorry, that's my dog... Wants attention.
Paul: Play with your dog, that's fine. If it was a cat it would probably end up being more viral.
Ryan: It probably would have hopped on my keyboard and knocked off the call.
Paul: It's a shame we can't try to incorporate your dog into a podcast somehow to make it more viral.
Ryan: It's just pretty cute...
Paul: One of the questions someone has asked in the apps to try, the listener is wondering what trends you're seeing in tech that could help makers of products and services in apps? Maybe a trend that you think we probably haven't come across yet.
Ryan: I think some of the biggest trends are right in front of our faces. I think the people at Google and Apple are very smart and talented, and sometimes it's interesting to see where they're investing their time, their resources and their money and where they see things going. And it's into wearables, into the watches, right? You have Android Gear and you have the Apple Watch; and it's in the TVs, too. I find this exciting, there's like an untapped landscape there - how do we create great, engaging kinds of apps and content there, for these two nascent platforms? TV itself isn't nascent, but the idea that we are using this large screen with a different kind of remote to do things beyond video is new, and I think that's an interesting area. And the other really exciting thing too is VR. I think a lot of publishers, ourselves included, are getting really into VR and some really cool things are going to be happening there in the coming years.
Paul: Yes, I'm all into that. In fact, when I met you at the conference I put on Oculus Rift for the first time and that blew me away. Have you put one of those on yet?
Ryan: Yes, I think I wore one at [unintelligible 00:24:24]. I played with a lot of them with Google Cardboard, too. I think we're at a tipping point there, as that starts to be adopted by your average consumer. There are guys like you and me who are really into tech and will jump to this stuff, but when your average person comes into contact with that, that's when it'll hit that tipping point and it will really start to take off.
Paul: Terrific. Well this has been a wonderful job, and the last thing I need to ask you Ryan, this is a show about apps after all, and one of my favourite things is to discover new apps from our guests. Do you have maybe one or two app recommendations for us, that you think would be good discoveries?
Ryan: Recently I've really gotten back into using Swarm, from FourSquare. I've also been using FourSquare a lot, for finding recommendations of things and restaurants. When I was in London last week I was using FourSquare to find where to go.
Paul: Can I reveal a trend to you?
Ryan: Yes, yes you can.
Paul: It's pretty strange... Swarm has never been mentioned on my show, but every time I get a journalist on, or someone in the tech press - so we had someone from TechCrunch, we had someone from The Next Web - everyone is using Swarm in the tech circles. So maybe it's making a massive comeback and that should be the app for 2016.
Ryan: There are a lot of really smart people at FourSquare, and I think they had a tough decision they made with their splitting up the FourSquare app. I think it's really [unintelligible 00:26:11]
Paul: Well, it's very coincidental that you happened to mention Swarm and it was mentioned by the others that maybe compete in your space. So hey, there you go. There's a trend.
Ryan: It's always interesting... One last comment, one thing I always have to remind myself is the world isn't always me and the people in tech, right? There's probably a group of users out there that don't use these things. It's always interesting to see how they use apps and what they find interesting.
Paul: Yes... Isn't it frustrating when you go out and you look at someone with an iPhone and they've just got the standard apps, there are no downloaded apps. They're not using their phone correctly.
Ryan: I know. Well, it's like, "You're missing out on half the experience. There are a lot of great things out there."
Paul: Yes. Ryan, this has been such a great chat. I'm so glad you and your dog could join in. As I said, there will be show notes at Episode 388 with Ryan Johnson, just go and check that out. In the meantime, how can people get in touch with you? What's the best way of reaching out?
Ryan: Yes, I love to talk to people, I love to talk shop. They can just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm also on Twitter, which is @_ryanjohnson_ That's what happens when you make a bad Twitter handle choice.
Paul: Yes, I've got plenty of underscores in mine.
Ryan: Either way, I can be gotten a hold of there.
Paul: Right. Wonderful, Ryan, this has been so great. Thank you so much for joining us.