The rise of ViralNova is the stuff of Internet folklore. The site came out of nowhere in 2013. Thanks to a steady stream of of clicky stories that evoke emotion, ViralNova amassed an audience of 70 million monthly unique visitors within months, placing it among the largest sites on the Web. Reports that the site was run by one person in rural Ohio made ViralNova all the more intriguing. The Atlantic called it “BuzzFeed in a box.”
In December 2013, that person was identified as Scott DeLong, a web entrepreneur. A month later, DeLong announced he was exploring a sale of ViralNova. Then he went quiet, while ViralNova continued pushing clicky stories like "They Call The Girl Behind This Notecard A Monster. But Personally, I Think She's Beautiful." across the social Web. Dozens of copycat sites—Distractify, LiftBump, ViralNovelty and ViralForest—sprung up.
Now, a year later, DeLong is telling a different story. ViralNova is no longer for sale. Rather, he has hired a CEO, Sean Beckner, to grow the site into a real business. DeLong has moved ViralNova’s headquarters from the cornfields of Ohio to Manhattan. He’s hired some 24 employees, most of which produce ViralNova’s viral content. This week, the company launches a sponsored content ad product that replicates the business model of its viral predecessor, BuzzFeed.
Now, 100 million unique monthly visitors ViralNova's audience is in the same ballpark as BuzzFeed's audience of 200 million. (To compare, NYTimes.com, the leading newspaper website in the U.S., attracts 28 million monthly visitors.) But the scale of each company’s operations is light years apart. ViralNova has 24 employees. BuzzFeed more than 875. BuzzFeed topped $100 million in advertising revenue last year. ViralNova, using only ad networks, sold something north of $10 million. ViralNova has decided against raising outside capital. BuzzFeed has raised $96 million at a valuation of $850 million.
ViralNova has kept its operations lean on purpose, DeLong says. To keep growing, ViralNova is evolving beyond the curiosity gap clickbait on which it made its name and into something I call “Internet mining.” In other words, ViralNova’s writers dig around on social sites like Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, Imgur, and Twitter to find interesting work from unknown artists, musicians, and personalities. The writers then, shockingly, ask permission before publishing an artist’s work. “We’re evolving from a trending story place to a place you can go to discover new content,” DeLong says.
Sometimes getting discovered by ViralNova can change an artist's life, as it did with Andres Amador. The artist, who specializes in manipulating sand on the beaches of Northern California, had a few thousand Facebook fans before ViralNova found his work. That article, “A Man Takes A Single Rake to The Beach. And When You Zoom Out And See It... Mind BLOWN.,” became ViralNova’s biggest article to date, with more than 15 million views. Now Amador has more than 200,000 Facebook fans and more work than he can take on. “He said he was ready to give up on his work. But this changed everything,” DeLong says, speaking, without irony, in the style of his own site's headlines. Exposing interesting artists is what DeLong is most proud of now.
Still, on any given day, ViralNova’s homepage is littered with the sort of headline you’d expect from a viral content site. “The World's Largest Organism Is Living In This Forest, But It's Not What You Think.” Or, “What This Mommy Blogger Did To Her Ailing Son Is Beyond Terrible." Or perhaps, "16 Cats That Mastered The Art Of Being Sassy Towards Their Canine Counterparts." But DeLong acknowledges the need to stay ahead of evolving Web content trends. He saw what happened to Upworthy, a viral content site with a similar curiosity gap headline style. Upworthy grew incredibly fast, fueled by traffic from Facebook (fb). But then Facebook tweaked its algorithm to de-emphasize so-called clickbait, and Upworthy’s traffic suffered.
“Facebook has been sort of a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword type of platform,” DeLong says. He believes many of the copycat viral sites died as a result of Facebook’s move because they were “completely unoriginal” and the category became over saturated. ViralNova gets its traffic from a more diverse set of social platforms now, including Pinterest.
Moving to New York was DeLong’s way of getting serious about ViralNova. “We’re one of the largest websites in the world," he says, "and we want to grow it into an awesome media company."
Update: This story has been updated to note that BuzzFeed now has 200 million unique visitors, not 150 million.