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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

What Makes Content Viral? Lessons From Neetzan Zimmerman

David Tobia |
December 2, 2013 | 1:51 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Gawker Media (Wikimedia Commons)
Gawker Media (Wikimedia Commons)
No one on the Internet is read more than Neetzan Zimmerman. The 32-year-old Gawker editor puts up about 12 posts a day, focusing on viral content, and his articles generate more than 30 million page views per month, according to Farhad Manjoo’s profile in The Wall Street Journal.

Zimmerman’s massive page view numbers effectively subsidize Gawker’s other writers, who can pursue longer, in depth pieces while Zimmerman keeps the page views piling in. 

But what makes Zimmerman’s success so hard to replicate is that he doesn’t have a strict formula for what will catch on as viral. Rather he scans hundreds of sites he’s identified as breeding grounds for viral content, and can decide in just a few seconds if the post has viral potential. Then he writes up a blurb, spins up a headline and watches the story explode.

Like all digital news publications, we at Neon Tommy hope to create viral content, but have struggled to figure out how to make that happen consistently. We’ve seen impressive growth this year, with our monthly page views now topping 600,000, and unique visitors nearing 500,000. But why do Neon Tommy articles go viral? And is viral always good? Let’s look at Neon Tommy’s most viral stories of the past six months to figure out what types of stories help us become more like Zimmerman. We will set the time frame as July 1 to today, December 2. 

1.  The Permanent Fixture of the Internet

Case Study: 10 Movies On Netflix Worth Watching

Total page views: 272,433

Why it went viral:

This might be the most interesting case study in Neon Tommy history. Published on August 13, this article seemed destined to Neon Tommy’s summer abyss, as the student-run publication effectively shuts down while school is out of session. But this list of Netflix movies slowly gained Google’s respect and now finds itself ranked third for the search “10 best Netflix movies." So while this story never exploded with hundreds of views at one time, it holds a steady pace of five to 20 viewers at any time, and can get as high as 40 or 50 at a time on lonely weekend nights. This story isn’t viral in the traditional sense, but rather acts now as a permanent fixture of the Internet.

Others like this:

10 Graduation Songs Perfect For The End Of School (51,857 page views since July 1)

9 Best Romantic Comedies On Netflix (31,184)

15 Most Inspirational Songs (18,832)

Why Marijuana Shouldn’t Be Legalized (9,169 since July 1)

2. Controversy Gets The Internet Talking And Sharing

Case Study: Pedophilia Now Classified As A Sexual Orientation

Total Page Views: 51,123

Why it went viral: 

While the permanent fixtures of the Internet get nearly all of their traffic through Google searches, this article relied on social traffic. Upworthy has helped define sharable content among liberals, and now conservatives have found their own outlet to reinforce their biases through The Independent Journal Review. Together, these socially driven sites help explain how an article on Neon Tommy with nearly no organic traffic could explode socially.

Pedophilia Now Classified As A Sexual Orientation has 72 comments, more than 10,000 Facebook likes, 420 tweets and 81 Google+ shares (who in their right mind shares things on Google+?). But while Facebook likes suggest people enjoy an article, that’s actually not the case. When people share articles, they typically type a caption, and it is that take on the article that people “like,” not necessarily the article itself.

Hannah Maluyao’s account of the Psychiatric Association’s decision to differentiate pedophilia and pedophilic disorder is well reported and written, but people mostly ignored that while focusing on the controversial content. The article gained traction first on Reddit and later migrated to conservative message boards where people began to link recognizing pedophilia with accepting homosexuality - a link I find ridiculous, but one that sparked discussion and drove traffic.

In fact, while 51 thousand page views is huge for a Neon Tommy article, publishers would expect a much higher number from an article with as many Facebook likes and Tweets as this post gained. But the low ratio of likes to page views emphasizes how controversial this article was in certain circles, and why it gained such social virality.

For example, even after the story mostly died, a co-founder of the Russian Center for Monitoring Dangerous and Prohibited Content in Russia tweeted the article to his more than 200,000 followers, sparking another surge in page views, again presumably mostly among people opposed to the article’s content. 

3.  Be Timely And Helpful And Write A Good Headline

Case Study: ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale ‘Felina’: 4 Predictions

Total Page Views: 30,045

Why It Went Viral: 

Too often at Neon Tommy we regurgitate news that other outlets have already reported, or we just go to Google Trends and spit out some of the top results, hoping people will accidentally click on us. What we need to do more is write to the trend before it trends. That’s why this article did so well, as it took advantage of ‘Breaking Bad’ fans’ obsessions before mainstream sites monopolized Google.

The article does not contain many original ideas, as the writer (me), basically just rewrote rumors that had been floating around the Internet for a few weeks and added one of his (my) own. But while the rumors were old, the trend of searching the finale's title was new, and Neon Tommy found itself atop Google for much of the week. 

Comments, social shares and inbound links from Time and Buzzfeed not only helped in terms of referrals, but made Google happy. 

These explainer-type articles also help the site as a whole, and are one of the reasons successful new media companies like Buzzfeed have implemented “no haters” policies. Being a hater (which I have done my fair share of) might get immediate page views, but leaves the audience annoyed and not wanting to return. Neon Tommy’s best explainers rarely see negative comments, other than the occasional sighting from the grammar police (don't be that guy).

Others like this:

Top 5 Actors Who Have Surprisingly Never Won An Oscar (19,726 page views)

10 DIY Halloween Costumes (17,777)

Worst Rape Cases The World Has Seen (11,933)

A History Of The Thanksgiving Feast (14,207)

Past Government Shutdowns: 17 And Counting (11,067)

4. News We Actually Break

Case Study: USC Greek System On Hold After LMU Student Injured 

Total Page Views: 15,866

Why It Went Viral:

Neon Tommy was the first to report the sanctions imposed on USC’s Greek row as well as the identity of the female injured at a frat party that contributed to the ban on weekly parties. Obviously this directly impacted a large part of the USC community, who quickly spread the article around Facebook. Also, breaking a news story lends itself to inbound links, which helps the story gain credibility with Google. 

This is the most difficult type of viral story to predict, but also the most effective for both getting page views and increasing a site’s credibility.

What Neon Tommy Can Do Better:

Zimmerman doesn’t succeed in his viral conquests by putting up everything he sees on Google Trends, but rather finds stories in the corners of the Internet and makes them more visible. He also writes headlines with enough context to tell what the story is about without giving away everything.

And of course writers must balance the pursuit of clicks with the self-respect to actually produce something valuable. Page views are internet gold, but your audience can only deal with so much click-bait before they deem you a fool and leave your site forever.

Zimmerman cannot pinpoint a singular reason or formula for why posts go viral, and there isn't a strict pattern to our most successful articles either. But audiences seem to most enjoy interesting or informative pieces, written with a bit of humor, but lacking snark. People want to read things that are smart so they can share it with their friends and show they are smart. They want to read things that are funny and share it with their friends to show they have a good sense of humor. Viral content isn't really at all about you - it's about the audience. So give them what they want: Smart, funny and unobnoxious.

Reach Executive Producer David Tobia here or follow him on Twitter.

David Tobia



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