The annual SND Workshop & Exhibition is a great event for gathering inspiration and insight, from the speakers and fellow designers, but it’s also a unique opportunity to network with the talented members of our community. Those connections have brought me here to my role as SND.org editor and have introduced me to designers from around the world. So make a plan to attend #SNDSF (register here, space is limited) and meet the incredible lineup of speakers while exploring new directions in design thinking.
I am excited to introduce you to this next speaker in our ongoing preview of #SNDSF, who has been a part of my network predating my professional design job. I met Millie Tran while working in the UCLA Daily Bruin newsroom and now she is Buzzfeed’s Director of Global Adaptation. In her role at Buzzfeed, Millie is building out an ‘adaptation layer’ to share the best of BuzzFeed content around the world and using lessons she learned while launching Buzzfeed’s newsletter and mobile app.
Tell me about your current role at BuzzFeed, Director of Global Adaptation, and your previous position, Editor for Mobile News. What products and projects do you oversee?
When I started at BuzzFeed last January, I was on the launch team for the news app, which meant we were editors but we were also tasked with thinking about what a news app from BuzzFeed would look like, sound like, feel like. In addition to that, I also started the BuzzFeed News newsletter, a daily email that provides a quick and easy way for people to catch up with what’s going on around the world.
Now, I’m seemingly doing something completely different in my new role as the director of global adaptation, which I started in November. What that means is that I’m tasked with building out a system to share the best of BuzzFeed with anyone, anywhere, in whatever language, platform, or format. So, if a post is doing well in English in the U.S., should we translate it into French, Japanese? Should we adapt it into a video for Germany, Brazil?
I say ‘seemingly completely different’ when talking about the transition, but I’m actually able to use a lot of the lessons I’ve learned from being on the news app team and editing the newsletter to what I’m doing now. Instead of adapting just platforms and formats, from an email newsletter to a mobile news app, for example, I’m just now dealing with many more variables — so it’s been a lot of fun for me so far.
The mobile news team launched the BuzzFeed Newsletter, after publicly prototyping it. What lessons did you learn through the process?
I actually wrote about that exact topic in this post. Some quick background to your question: I started at BuzzFeed about mid-January last year and we launched the newsletter a little over a month later on February 23. During that time, our team experimented with snippets, blurbs, formats, different voices, you name it. And not just that, we put them out into the world and asked people what they thought about it. Putting something unfinished (and presumably far from perfect, and honestly, sometimes quite bad) out on the internet is terrifying, but it allowed us to get specific reactions on an actual thing from our potential readers — and that feedback was what made the end product that much better.
I talk about more specific lessons throughout the post, like why it’s important to identify your audience and start small with your hypotheses, but one of the biggest insights for me was how we were able to use the newsletter as a low-stakes product to test things that would eventually become features of the news app. You could almost think of the newsletter as a minimum viable product of our app that is also its own editorial product.
Can you have a ‘favorite lesson’? Because my favorite lesson learned was the difference between ‘you’re doing it wrong’ feedback and ‘it would be better this way’ feedback from our audience. Listen to the latter and you’ll find that many of those small changes, added together, make the overall experience exponentially better.
How did the successes of the newsletter influence the launch of the BuzzFeed News app? How do you adapt across platforms?
To the first part of your question — it’s about connecting what we were doing with the newsletter to the app in the first place. The reasoning was simple for us: the app and the newsletter have similar editorial goals and that is to provide a smart and fun way to keep up with what’s going on around the world. Also, email is inherently mobile, so that made it even easier.
What we were able to do in between the newsletter launch in February and the app launch in June was try new things in a low-risk way with an actual audience and get real-time feedback — then decide which of those things we wanted to adapt to the app.
I wrote in the post that ‘adapting’ was a better approach than simply transferring content from one platform to another because we weren’t copying and pasting from the email to the app. The experiences are so different between the two platforms that it’s critical to think about how each user is interacting with the product and have that inform our editorial decisions. So, you adapt across platforms by being familiar with the platform, its audience, and how that audience is using that platform.
In posts leading up to the app launch you wrote, “Think about ways to engage and inform readers without forcing them to click.” This is a bit counterintuitive to a lot of the chatter we hear around newsrooms today. Can you expand on this and share how you incorporated this idea into the BuzzFeed News app?
I actually think the tide is turning on that — I think a lot of newsrooms are realizing that while, of course, having ‘owned and operated’ property (like BuzzFeed.com, the website, for example) is essential, it’s also important to put your content where your audience is hanging out. That may be Facebook, Snapchat, or even email.
In the context of the email newsletter and the app, we wanted to use links as a service to readers who were curious, intrigued, and might want to know more. Clicking a link shouldn’t be prompted by frustration that we as editors didn’t do our job contextualizing something or wasn’t clear in explaining something else.
I also wrote in that post about prototyping the newsletter in public that “every time someone has to stop and question something or click something out of frustration, it slows them down” — and when you slow your reader down, you make the experience that much less smooth and you create friction. We wanted our readers to enjoy the ride and not rage-click/unsubscribe/delete.
Your experience ranges across both editorial publications, National Journal and Atlantic Media, and non-profits, American Press Institute and Council on Foreign Relations. How have those roles informed your work at BuzzFeed?
I’m not sure where to start because with every new role I take on and every new organization I join, it’s not always immediately obvious how my previous experience can inform my current work, if at all — but those connections eventually bubble up to the surface.
It wasn’t only that I was at really different organizations but also that I was doing really different jobs at each. I was working on the business side at Atlantic Media and National Journal, helping launch their Membership program doing marketing and design, which meant a lot of Excel and InDesign and basically trying to use my entire brain every day. Then I was doing multimedia production and editing and producing a podcast on a news team at the Council on Foreign Relations. Then I was helping restart a journalism think tank and shaping its editorial strategy and launched a newsletter about journalism and the business of journalism.
Sometimes it’s less about the skill set and more about how being in those different roles at those different organizations has shaped how I think about problems — and that’s what is most valuable to me: being able to think about solving a problem in a lot of different ways, but also having the skill set to get it done.
What do you hope to share and learn at SNDSF?
I hope I can share what I’ve learned so far and either help or inspire new ideas, but more importantly, I’m so excited to meet the fellow speakers and attendees — I’m sure there’s so much to learn from everyone there.