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Here’s why the New York Times should have acquired ViralNova

You may not be familiar with the name ViralNova, but odds are you’ve probably clicked on one of the posts the “viral content” publisher is best-known for—although you might not want to admit it. You see them on Facebook or at the bottom of many serious news sites, with headlines like “13 Amazing Tricks Celebrities Use to Stay Sexy,” or “This Hamster Just Threw The Greatest 4th Of July Party.” Sometimes you can’t help but click on them, and then (if you’re like me) you almost instantly feel ashamed.

There are two interesting things about ViralNova: One is that until recently it was run by a single person, founder Scott Delong, who created it and operated it from his house in rural Ohio, pulling in as many as 70 million unique visitors a month. And the second is that the company was just acquired for an estimated $100 million.

There are a number of caveats on both of those numbers, of course. While ViralNova may at one time have had 70 million unique visitors, and possibly many more (it claims to have reached an audience of as much as 100 million), that number has likely fallen as a result of changes to the Facebook algorithm that hit many viral publishers, including Upworthy. The $100 million purchase price, meanwhile, is likely based on earn-outs and other provisions put on the deal by acquirer Zealot Networks.

Regardless of the specific numbers, however, I think there’s a case to be made that a media company like the New York Times should have acquired ViralNova. Why? For the same reason the Daily Mail acquired Elite Daily, another viral content publisher, for about $50 million earlier this year—because doing so is one way to figure out how to adapt to the way that news and information works now.

This idea would no doubt bring gasps of dismay in most traditional newsrooms. The Daily Mail may be one of the world’s largest digital publishers, but its content is seen by many as shallow, inaccurate tripe. And yet the Mail looks like Shakespeare compared to Elite Daily and ViralNova and other similar sites like—which also happens to be run by a young founder, Emerson Spartz.

The content that these viral engines produce is widely reviled as cheap titillation and even outright garbage—anything to grab Facebook juice and promote clicks. So why should the New York Times or anyone else be interested in buying them?

The point wouldn’t be to generate the same kind of content that ViralNova does, or use it as a revenue-generating machine to subsidize the serious journalism, but to try and figure out how to make more serious content operate in a similar way—to take advantage of the kinds of emotional triggers that ViralNova and others use. This is exactly what BuzzFeed does so well, not just with its posts but with its native advertising, and it’s what Amy O’Leary of Upworthy talked about when I spoke with her about the site’s recent pivot. Here’s what she said:

“The question is, how do we use the same kinds of techniques that drove a story like The Dress for stories that matter? That’s a really interesting problem. If we can’t figure out how to get people interested in and talking about these important issues using these kinds of techniques then I feel like civilization will have failed.”

Think of it this way: the New York Times is busy trying to figure out how to expand its audience and bring in new revenue, and one of the ways it is trying to do that is by handing over its content to Facebook via the new Instant Article feature. As I’ve described a number of times before, this is a Faustian bargain in which Facebook could wind up benefiting far more than the New York Times does, as Michael Wolff also noted in a recent piece for MIT’s Technology Review. But the Times believes it is worth it.

So assuming that’s the case, why not also try to figure out how content of all kinds works now, not just on Facebook but Twitter and Pinterest and Instagram and Snapchat? It’s not about “gaming the algorithm” on a specific site like Facebook, but about understanding content and the way we interact with it on an emotional and psychological level — something BuzzFeed and Huffington Post founder Jonah Peretti would already have a PhD in if it was a traditional academic discipline.

Whatever you think of ViralNova or its content, the fact that a person with no real media training of any kind could build a website that can pull in 70 to 100 million people and generate revenue of $35 million a year from his house in rural Ohio says something fascinating about what the media world has become, or is becoming. The New York Times and others need to figure out how that happened, and what it means. At the very least, they should be trying to hire Scott Delong — or trying to find the next one.

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