From Social To Paid, Viralnova’s Clickbait Journey

Viralnova 2Viralnova has been hated and admired for the path it took to find an audience.

It rose to the top of the Facebook news feed in 2013 with I-can’t-not-click articles like “If You Own A Microwave, Then You Absolutely Must See This Video.” And its success showed mainstream publishers the importance of social content discovery.

“The social audience is massive, so you can get incredible scale quickly. If it is viral, you get explosive growth,” said CEO Sean Beckner, who joined the company last March.

Today, the numbers tell a different story. Facebook’s constantly changing algorithms haven’t been kind to articles like “16 Horrifying Things That People Discovered Inside Their Own Bodies.” Other publishers jumped in the game with similar headlines, creating more competition.

In February 2014, Facebook changed its algorithm, and posts that showed poor post-click engagement fell out of the news feed. Viralnova’s monthly traffic declined from 20.3 million uniques to 8.7 million, according to comScore data. By June, it had declined even further, to 4.3 million.

But then it climbed in September to 36.7 million uniques. Two months later, traffic fell again, to 16.8 million. Because Viralnova’s content hinges on unpredictable virality, huge peaks and valleys in traffic are the norm. In the 15 months comScore tracked Viralnova, traffic ranged from 4.3 million uniques (June 2014) to 37.1 million (January 2015).

With social a capricious driver of traffic volume, Viralnova came up with other ideas. It hired 15 editorial employees, tasked with producing stronger content in order to drive engagement and accommodate Facebook’s news feed. It also spent on the technology side, creating algorithms to add predictability to the unpredictability of viral content.

And one year ago, Viralnova expanded beyond Facebook, using Outbrain and Taboola to recommend its stories on other sites and take the edge off its wild traffic spikes.

According to data from Alexa in mid-April, Facebook accounted for 27.7% of upstream site visits, while 5.6% of its traffic arrives from Taboola and 3.5% from Outbrain.

Buying traffic on Facebook, Outbrain or Taboola may head off the unpredictability of viral, but it puts the publisher into a new, competitive market where it must bid against other advertisers.

Alexa also showed 3.6% of the site’s audience visit jmpdirect01 immediately before Viralnova. According to DoubleVerify and WhiteOps, jmpdirect01 is a toolbar extension that serves ads during browsing sessions.

They can also redirect a user to a website, often after a user is inactive for a few seconds. It’s likely that these are real users, just ones served with content links to Viralnova unwittingly.

“The nature of this industry is that there’s a lot of intermediation,” said Aaron Doades, VP of digital quality solutions at DoubleVerify. That means a publisher’s traffic partners often source their traffic from shadier sources, allowing non-human traffic or toolbar ads to creep in.

Beckner, of Viralnova, acknowledged amplifying traffic through Facebook, Outbrain and Taboola, a practice that started a year ago, but said he had no idea what jmpdirect01 was.

A week after the conversation, Viralnova said it realized the traffic was “problematic,” Beckner said. “We have spoken to our various partners to flag the site and, per Alexa, thankfully it seems the site has disappeared.”

Such traffic can indeed be difficult to suss out. Viralnova’s Google Analytics showed zero traffic coming from jmpdirect01, and analyzing the traffic wasn’t a priority given its focus on “product development,” Beckner said. “[We] had to spend a bit of time digging to find out what that site was.”

Publishers like Viralnova, who buy traffic to raise – or maintain – their rankings, don’t sit well with publishers trying to build engagement organically.

“If paid media is driving the rankings, it’s not an accurate measure of consumer engagement or the publisher’s brand equity,” said Jonathon Padron, business operations manager for and a former analyst at comScore. “It’s like buying 200 GRPs on television for paid programming of your documentary, then claiming it’s the most watched documentary of the year.”

For advertisers, paid traffic means it’s not necessarily receiving the brand-engaged audience it signed up for.

While Viralnova earns the majority of its revenue through programmatic means, it’s aiming to move into one space dominated by publishers with brand equity: sponsored content.

In March, Viralnova announced a foray into native advertising, citing success with a pilot test with the brand Scout. But two months later, it has no new campaigns to announce, though Beckner said they are in the works.

“We are now helping multiple brands to help them get their messages out to our vast audience,” Beckner said. “We’re now developing similar plans … for several new partners.”

But will Viralnova be able to deliver on Beckner’s initiative “to be a destination for big brands” if paid clicks from ad toolbars drive engagement?

Maybe Viralnova just represents the new digital order. When it launched, it spawned dozens of viral imitators. And those who scorned Viralnova have ended up adopting some of its tactics. “A lot of people have tried to copy Viralnova,” Beckner said.

Though publishers talk about striving for organic engagement, many of those same publishers buy traffic to make sure campaigns fulfill or to amplify a native advertising campaign.

“Paid is something that everyone has in their arsenals,” Beckner said.

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