The Rise and Fall of the Upworthy Viral Content Machine

Before the days of the Internet, “virality” wasn’t such a good thing.

But now, it seems everyone is clamoring for their content to go viral online… And lately, some websites have found that Facebook’s pushback against their viral business models is proving deadly.

With the rise of social media’s popularity, we’ve also seen a rise in viral content: videos, images, blog posts, and other content that gets shared from friend to friend until it seems the whole world has seen it… much like the black plague spread in Medieval times.

And with the rise of viral content, many websites built their business models on the huge amounts of traffic they got from all those likes and shares, earning all their revenue from ad impressions.

Those viral content business got very good at their jobs, learning all the tricks to get the most “Likes” on Facebook. They perfected the now-cliche click-bait headlines by appealing to our natural curiosity, and watched their traffic—and revenue—skyrocket into the millions.

But Facebook caught onto their tricks, and recently started cracking down on click bait. While Facebook says they’re trying to improve user experience by filtering out spammy posts, their new policies also allow them to cash in on the viral trend by forcing pages to pay to promote posts or buy ads in order to promote their content.

While viral content aggregators may publicly declare they aren’t worried by Facebook’s new spam-detection algorithm, most of them have seen their heydey in traffic and the stock market come and go.

Still, some of those click-bait companies were able to stave off irrelevance, adapting their tactics to bypass Facebook’s vaccine against virality. Some are still growing, climbing in traffic and stock despite the crack-down and decline of the click-bait content model.

Who are the companies to fall, and who will still prosper in the game of viral content? Check out the data below—and find out what single strategy has kept these companies afloat and prospering.

Rise and Fall  of Viral Content

The Rise and Fall of the Upworthy Viral Content Machine

Get your content to go viral, and you’re suddenly rich, right? Though many people dream of virality and instant riches, it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Now, with the way Facebook’s algorithm has changed, the viral content business model is suffering.

The Rise: Clickable Titles and Viral Traffic

  • If you had fans, all it took to generate traffic from Facebook was a “click-worthy” title.
    • Facebook did not have such strict limits on which fans could see posts from pages, so simply having “likes’ meant exposure.
      • Though only a percentage of fans saw content, more fans used to equal more exposure.
      • “Click farms” enable anyone, anywhere, to buy fans, likes, and followers, in attempt to boost visibility, clicks, and ultimately, income more quickly.
        • It’s estimated that sales of fake:
          • Facebook accounts/clicks bring in $200 million a year
          • Twitter followers have brought in anywhere from $40 million to $360 million to date.
  • Clickbait titles are written to entice those who see them to click on them.
    • “They Might Look Like Mere Shadows On The Wall. But The Secret Behind Them Is Simply Amazing.”
    • “Some Of These ‘Then And Now’ Celebrity Photos Will Blow Your Mind. I Can’t Believe Them.”

The Fall: Facebook’s Had Enough

  • At the end of 2013, Facebook made a major news feed algorithm change, which some speculate was aimed at businesses who rely on viral traffic from Facebook to survive.
    • The change meant:
      • Users were seeing much less content from business pages in their news feeds, meaning those followers, bought or organically earned, were much less valuable.
      • Facebook’s advertising model changed, giving page owners the ability to pay to promote content.
        • Some suggest the primary reason for the algorithm change was to put that money in Facebook’s pocket.
          • Page owners can now pay to promote posts to expand their reach and exposure.
          • Page owners can also run a Facebook ad campaign to boost exposure.
        • Facebook says the change was made in an effort to “improve user experience.”

Key Players: Businesses Relying on Viral Success for Income

  • UpWorthy.com: Viral Content for a Cause

    • In November 2013, UpWorthy reached some 90 million visitors.
    • In December 2013, following the Facebook algorithm change, UpWorthy’s traffic dropped 25%, reaching only 67 million people the entire month.
    • In March-April 2014, they reached only 42 million people.
  • ViralNova.com: Viral Content Aggregator

    • In November 2013, ViralNova reached nearly 70 million visitors.
    • In December 2013, there was only a slight decline.
    • In March 2014, ViralNova reaches only slightly over 3 million people.
    • Site owner Scott DeLong says he makes a six figure income every month from the website.
      • He may sell it, citing he’s tired of running it himself.
      • Others speculate it has something to do with the Facebook algorithm changes, and his reliance on going viral to make money.
  • BuzzFeed.com: Quiz and Lifestyle Humor

    • In November 2013, BuzzFeed reached some 147 million visitors.
    • In December 2013, BuzzFeed reached about the same.
    • In March 2014, BuzzFeed reached 162 million people.
  • Distractify.com: Viral Content Aggregator

    • Launched in November 2013, the website reached only 35 million visitors that month.
    • In December 2013, the website reached about 46 million visitors.
    • In March 2014, the website reached only 7 million visitors.

Learning From Past Mistakes

  • These businesses all relied on Facebook for traction. When algorithms changed:
    • Zynga®: Fewer game related posts showed in people’s feeds, causing them to lose virality.

      • Though still around, they’ve suffered a financial hit they’ll likely never fully recover from.
        • March 2012: Highest historical share price: $14.69/share
        • November 2012: Lowest historical share price: $2.30/share
        • April 2014: $~3.88/share
    • BranchOut: Climbed from 400,000 active monthly users in December 2011, to 8 million in March 2012; lost 66% of those users by June 2012.

      • Stopped getting Facebook traction and discovered there was no business.
      • Has pivoted to create workplace chat app available for iPhone® and Android
    • Viddy: Once valued at $370 million, the company suffered a dramatic decrease in traffic, from 30 million uniques per month to 4 to 5 million.

      • CEO Brett O’Brien stepped down.

The Future

  • Clones of websites like UpWorthy will keep growing, creating more competition.
    • We can already see a surge in these types of websites:
      • FaithIt.com: Faith based viral content aggregator
      • Bizopy.com: Viral content aggregator for business and entreprenuers.
      • Washington Post’s Know More: Viral content aggregator
  • People recommended content is here to stay, but it will get harder to carve position in the market.

The moral of this story: If you build your business based on the content marketing model, it is critical to diversify. Since changes can occur at any time, what works today may not work over the long haul.

Sources

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