Being a viral genius is going viral

December 2, 2013

Farhad Manjoo's profile of Gawker's Neetzan Zimmerman is getting a lot of well-deserved attention and, if my Twitter feed is any indication, scaring the daylights out of more traditional reporters.

Zimmerman is basically Gawker's chief finder of viral content. Think "Mom Fined $140 Every Day Until She Circumcises Her Child" or "Rebecca Black Forces Herself to Watch Rebecca Black's 'Friday.'" Zimmerman's blog posts rack up more than 30 million page views a month -- which is sometimes more than everyone else at Gawker combined. "Zimmerman may be the most popular blogger working on the Web today," marvels Manjoo.

Gawker's monthly page views. Zimmerman dominates.
Gawker's monthly page views. Zimmerman dominates.

The rest of the piece presents Zimmerman's philosophies of virality. "For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man," he says. "This is the stuff that people really care about, not the stuff that they're pretending to care about at cocktail parties."

It'd be wrong, however, to emerge with a great-man theory of social-media success. Zimmerman's numbers are awe-inspiring for anyone who writes on the Web as we knew it a few years ago. But they're not unheard-of on the social Web, where Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Viral Nova and other sites that are optimized to launch content across Facebook are pulling in numbers that top media sites can't match, or even comprehend. On Monday, Buzzfeed announced that it got more than 130 million unique visitors in November. That's about five times the number of people who visit the New York Times in a month.

We've seen this in a much smaller way. In October, Wonkblog launched Know More, a socially native site devoted to spreading wonky content in a way that leads readers back to deeper, slower content that isn't as naturally viral. The site is an experiment, and a young one. But in its third week of existence, it was the top blog on The Washington Post's Web site, easily beating Wonkblog. If you charted traffic across individuals, Dylan Matthews, Know More's editor, wouldn't quite have Zimmerman's dominance, but the pattern would be similar.

There are a couple of lessons here for more traditional media outlets, which at this point, even include Web-native sites like Wonkblog that are oriented toward articles. And since this is an article about getting traffic on the Internet, let's make it a listicle:

1) The traffic potential of the social Web is far beyond what most media sites recognize. We all might think we understand Facebook and Twitter's power to drive traffic. But it turns out that when you actually create content specifically meant for those networks -- particularly Facebook -- they drive vastly more traffic than ever seemed possible.

2) Writing (or, to be more new media about it, "creating content") for social media is an actual skill that people can learn. For a time, there was a high-minded line that unlike search engines, social media couldn't be gamed, as real people had to really want to share the content. Well, it turns out real people are more likely to share some content than others, and you can learn how to reliably provide them with that content. It's not mechanical, but it is reproducible.

3) It's important to avoid getting overly impressed by these page view numbers. There's a reason that founder Nick Denton hasn't asked every writer at Gawker to mimic Zimmerman's output. Advertising CPMs are plummeting because there's so much more supply on which to advertise on. Moreover, advertisers who want page views on social networks can get them by advertising directly on Facebook or Twitter, and those channels are much better at targeting ads than any media company.

The result is that brand matters quite a bit, as does the underlying type of content. That's one reason both Gawker and Buzzfeed are expanding aggressively into longform articles. Sacrificing your brand for more social page views often isn't a good business play.

4) Publishers need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to package non-social content to give it the best chance on the social Web. This is the one that I'm a bit obsessed with. Newspapers and magazines put tremendous effort into producing hard-hitting reports and beautiful long reads and then basically just hope that they take off socially. The tools they use are, for the most part, the same tools they've always used: Headlines and press releases, and nowadays they'll push articles through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.

But they're not routinely creating visual -- much less video -- promotions for their best content, even though that kind of content does much better socially. It's rare for anyone from the PR teams to be identifying key social accounts in the communities that might be interested in a given story and pushing to them directly. Nothing about the articles themselves has been reinvented or revamped to take advantage of the social web. It would sure be a convenient coincidence if the form journalists used on newsprint also happened to be the best way to reach readers on Facebook. Sadly, it doesn't appear to be true.

It's easy to imagine a future where newspapers have PR departments that produce various social promos for their top articles each day. Know More is, in part, an experiment in that direction, but it's a young one. The success of viral geniuses like Zimmerman shouldn't be dispiriting to more traditional outlets, though. Rather, it's evidence that social media is something that actually can be figured out -- and, given the traffic at play, there's a tremendous reward for those who figure it out.

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Sarah Kliff | December 2, 2013