'This Haunts Me at Night': The Man Behind ViralNova on the Viral Bubble

In his first in-depth interview, the creator of controversial viral content site ViralNova, first identified by The Wire, discusses his creation, his thoughts on online media and what's next.

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To the average online journalist, few words are as irksome as the clinical and ill-defined "content." Everything on the internet is content, which means a reblogged chart about millenials with a clickbaity title is lumped into the same category as a yearlong investigation into New York City homelessness. As social feeds like Twitter and Facebook become a significant source of referral traffic for online publishers,  content creators like The New York Times compete with content aggregators like Upworthy for the same likes and retweets, hoping an article makes its way into a person's linear timeline. And so far in the war for an appearance on your timeline, the content aggregators might be winning: in November, a high-water mark for many web sites, BuzzFeed boasted 130 million monthly unique visitors. and Upworthy said it received 87 million unique visitors — numbers that far outstrip any traditional media outlet. 

Scott DeLong

But there are signs that those figures aren't so unusual among non-traditional media outlets. One of one of the many sites nipping at Upworthy's heels is ViralNova. When the Wire first exclusively revealed that ViralNova was the creation of Ohio web entrepreneur Scott DeLong,  we pointed to signs that the audience of his one-man web site was nearing those better known viral brands. (He's also since brought on two freelancers: "The freelancers do grunt work one is in Pakistan and one in the U.S." DeLong shared his traffic data with us: ViralNova did 70 million uniques in November, then 66 million in December. (Those figures come from Google Analytics, the same service that BuzzFeed cited for its November number.) It's staggering, impressive growth. Here's a Google Analytics screenshot DeLong sent us showing the rise of visitors from almost zero to over 100 million over the last seven months of 2013.

It's little surprise that DeLong, who most recently sold GodVine, a Christian video site, to conservative and Christian media company Salem Communications for $4.2 million, is looking to cash in on that kind of growth. Business Insider recently obtained an email pitch offering ViralNova up for sale. Claiming monthly six-figure revenues (all from Google Adsense ads), he's looking for a seven-figure deal.  But that ViralNova's stratospheric rise also smacks of a bubble in viral content. When we posed that question to DeLong, he replied, "This haunts me at night. The short answer is, I don't know."

The success far exceed's DeLong's initial expectations, and dependent largely on referrals from Facebook, he's not sure how long it will last. "I created ViralNova as a side project to attempt to make some extra money while traveling," DeLong told The Wire over email (before, it should be added he later acknowledged exploring selling ViralNova).  "I thought if I could get 50,000 visits a day, I would have a nice supplemental income without over-working myself."

DeLong, who's been starting and selling websites for years, says he's seen Facebook change traffic patterns overnight. "I remember in late May of 2012 traffic to site I was operating was cut in half over night because they tweaked their algorithm," he said. Between the precariousness of Facebook as a platform and the increased market saturation for viral content sites, DeLong thinks "it's very difficult to predict the future." While DeLong shied away from saying viral content is a FarmVille-esque bubble, he feels there is "only a matter of time before new companies to the game simply can't do it anymore."

Ruminating further on his success using Facebook as a platform, DeLong admits that he doesn't believe ViralNova will "grow bigger than the 100 million visits it got in November," but he will attempt to do so. One potential obstacle to further growth DeLong cited is Facebook's recent decision to "cut back organic reach for Pages," meaning fewer items naturally appear in a user's newsfeed, in order to place a greater emphasis on what Facebook calls high-quality content. This change caused a temporary decline in ViralNova's traffic, DeLong said, but traffic has since climbed to a "pretty solid" level. "I really don't think that 'high quality' adjustment they made is going to affect anyone who gets shared a lot (ViralNova, Buzzfeed, etc) as far as the feed goes," he said. "I would worry more about Facebook being a public company that needs to turn a higher profit all the time and how that will affect ALL businesses on [the site] in the future."

Having enlisted a broker, Derek Giordano, to explore a sale, DeLong told us on Tuesday, "This is all a 'feeling out' phase that Derek knows a lot more than me." Previously DeLong told The Wire: "I'll never ignore an acquisition offer, but I think ViralNova is far too young at this point to even think about it. One year out [from now], I would like to have all of the growth kinks worked out, have a much larger and established base, and just continue to optimize and innovate the machine that makes this work. For now, I'm just enjoying the ride and trying to sustain it. It won't be easy."

Despite the constant comparisons to Upworthy, DeLong claimed that he never heard of the left-leaning viral site until after he launched ViralNova. And he had no expectations of ever being able to rival the formidable listicle machine BuzzFeed, who he thought had "too much power behind them." But eight short months after launching ViralNova, DeLong's one-person site possess a challenge to BuzzFeed 300-plus employee powerhouse. DeLong declined to share specifics how much the site has generated via Adsense, but it seems reasonable to guess ViralNova could make a year one profit in the millions.

As ViralNova as ascended through the ranks of internet popularity, it inevitably became a target for intense criticism, which DeLong said he was aloof to "for the longest time because [he] never [goes] to Twitter." He continued, "It wasn't until a post on The Guardian that I found by googling "Viral Nova" that made me realize what was going on. When you work out of your house in rural Ohio, it's hard to understand how big something really has become."

DeLong believes the scorn the site receives "stems from jealousy because, let's face it, anyone in the business wants a lot of traffic." He also thinks the ire ViralNova's attention-getting headlines get is misplaced, and said the philosophy behind the ViralNova's attention-getting headlines is nothing new, likening the headlines to the sort of teasers one sees in an advertisement for a nightly news broadcast. But unlike the hysteric warnings of local news, DeLong feels the titles of ViralNova actually deliver, and points to "the fact that [the site's content is] getting shared [on social media] at a huge rate." He added that people's engagement with ViralNova extends beyond social media, and he has "had hundreds of thank you emails from people who have enjoyed [ViralNova's content] and had their day brightened by it."

DeLong also firmly rejected the notion that the rise of viral content could endanger the viability of more substantive journalism online. "It's paranoia," he said. "There have been photos with emotionally-driven stories attached to them going viral on Facebook for years (and in emails before that). Would traditional journalists consider those a threat? Not at all. With a site like ViralNova, there's one extra step in the process — the [Facebook] user has to click the link and read it rather than just read it directly on Facebook, share it, and move on. BuzzFeed, Upworthy, ViralNova and the dozens of clones popping up every day aren't a threat at all. They're completely different." 

He continued:

I think the real problem could come in if those more traditional journalists start trying to do the same thing and forget who they are. What people fail to see is that Viral Nova and BuzzFeed are not taking traffic away from The New York Times (for example). No one is choosing to read a story about a chipmunk rescue INSTEAD OF a very well-written insightful look at the Middle East. The Internet is big enough for everyone to not only exist, but thrive. ViralNova is more along the lines of entertainment, and users know that. No one is un-liking a news site because they've got ViraNova now.  There's a clear difference that it seems only industry insiders are missing.

Given his uncertain outlook on the site, Delong said he has no plans in the foreseeable future to hire any further staff. "Facebook could roll out a change that drops referral traffic just as fast as it increased it," he said, "I've seen [fluctuations in referral traffic] before on past projects." Although ViralNova was initially intended as a side project, it quickly came into its own when DeLong doubled down on the site. "Once I started working around the clock to fine-tune the viral process — combined with Facebook's love — it just started taking off and I have refused to let up," DeLong said. "So far, it's working. I'm not sure what the future holds."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.