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ViralNova sold for $100 million even though Vice calls it the "Content Farm That's Killing the Internet"

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The dream of the highbrow internet is dead.

This week, the viral aggregator ViralNova was acquired for $100 million dollars by Zealot Networks.

Meanwhile, the Pitchfork spin-off film criticism site The Dissolve ceased operations with an internet_meaningful blogpost entitled “The End.”

The divergence between the missions and lifecycles of these two media projects that both launched in 2013 leave me wondering, “WTF is value?” It is certainly not creating #niche content for ‘intelligent audiences.’

Over the past two years, we’ve learned that there isn’t any actual monetizable ‘cultural value’ in building a content farm with an authoritative voice or domination of a niche area. Instead, it is more important to chase quantifiable human metrics by shoving lowbrow content in front of Facebook users. This is exactly what ViralNova has done better than most content farms--it figured out the current system and #growth_hacked the hell out of it. ViralNova out-media-companied The Dissolve.

You’ve got to give the people what they want. And by ‘people’, I mean seemingly abstract traffic data that adds value to your media company.

ViralNova achieved $100 million in value not just because of its deep well of forgettable content--it’s also a ‘technology company’ with its own content management system and the analytic tools to find out what is going viral. They have innovative technology that allows them to A/B test their Facebook headlines. It has a staff of 24, and it is likely a few content farmers’ jobs to sift through memes of the day from other sources (and identical sites), shoving them in front of millions of likers.

It’s not that complicated--it’s only the algorithm of scalable media.

No one should kid themselves with romantic notions of internet media. It’s not about engaging media, words, or the voice of passionate content creators. This era of media is about the endless opportunity to demonstrate a trajectory of growth. Something that only a literal viral supernova of a website can do. A murderer’s row of loquacious internet writers chillin’ on their niche section of Twitter all day can not create content that scales to the mass of traffic data that matters. Like every other industry, creating value in the new media paradigm isn’t a mystery--it’s the business of creating growth and building the tools to track and illustrate your growth better than anyone else. 

The infiniteness of the internet is yours to capitalize on, and that’s what ViralSupernova’s founder Scott DeLong did with the help of only two freelance writers. The small team grew the site to the size of Buzzfeed with just three content farmers. I’m not even mad. That’s impressive (and sorta sad) [via content enslaving yourself]. But I guess that’s the definition of internet sweat equity.

Vice is not even mad. But geez this sucks. 

Alyson Shontell explains how ViralNova became huge.

DeLong, who launched the website in mid-2013, put a few Google ads on each page. Within eight months, his lean shop was generating six figures per month and millions of dollars annually.

ViralNova capitalized on social-friendly stories with catchy headlines that would explode on Facebook. Some examples include: 

It was one of a few digital-media startups to grow on the backbone of Facebook. EliteDaily, Mic, Upworthy, and Distractify all launched around the same time and grew to tens of millions of monthly readers by having their articles spread far and wide on Facebook.

In the past year though, Facebook has cracked down on viral sites and changed its NewsFeed algorithm to show fewer of their stories. The changes have killed off some of ViralNova's competitors, and it caused DeLong's business to suffer too. In 2014, he tweeted that running a business on Facebook was "like opening a McDonald's on an active volcano."

Still, ViralNova's outcome may end up being the most successful of the bunch. EliteDaily was recently acquired by DailyMail for about $50 million; Mic has gone on to raise tens of millions in funding, and Twitter offered to buy it. Upworthy and Distractify have largely fallen off the map.

He almost quit.

ViralNova didn't always look like the frontrunner. At one point, DeLong thought seriously about throwing in the towel.

The 32-year-old Ohio native had built websites before and sold them, but he had never been a full-fledged CEO. His first successful online business was a website for Halo 2 enthusiasts that generated $500 a month from Google ads. DeLong launched it in his early 20s, shortly after he graduated from Kent State University.

"That opened my eyes," recalled DeLong. "I thought, if I can make $500 a month, I can make $5,000 a month. There’s no limit; the internet is huge. That was my epiphany."

DeLong's next website was bigger and more successful. He launched GodVine, a website with uplifting stories that resonated with Facebook's female-heavy demographic. It became a top-1,500 website on traffic-ranking site Alexa, and DeLong sold GodVine for a "life-changing" sum to Salem Communications.

Read more:

Why did Zealot buy ViralNova? Because growth tools for Facebook distribution.

According to reports, Zealot acquired ViralNova’s important tools for the purpose of scaling their own video content in the food/lifestyle/travel segment and music/entertainment.’ In the past year, Zealot has #acquired multiple content farms, ad agencies, and other miscellaneous webby companies. I’m not sure if there is any point in this entire narrative of acquisitions or if any of their properties are ‘special’/authoritative. Above all values, Zealot continuing to grow at all costs, which also means acquiring smaller companies that are growing at all costs. They probably have a plan that is in line with the ability to monetize ‘the content that matters’ on the internet than just ‘writing with passion’ about something that not enough people care about.

Don’t tell that to the highbrow internet. They are busy caring about their niche stuff, believing that somehow online media can still ‘take their niche interests to the mainstream.’ Unfortunately, the mainstream is just interested in what’s eternally trending. and the most engaged audiences on the internet are those who are interested in eternally trending generalist content. Everyone else is too complicated to reach and you can’t even rely on them to use the most scalable medium of Facebook in a functional way.

The core idea behind content farms like ViralNova is that there is an infinite amount of internet. Every human on the planet can be reached with strategically generated content that is usually just a re-headlined Youtube video. The site launched in 2013 and is on track to generate $35 million this year. This has all been done with a staff that has grown to 24, which is a pretty ridiculously profitable ‘small business.’ Imagine how many thinkpieces you could have paid writers $100 for on a #highbrow content farm.

The $100 million acquisition proves that there is no more bar for ‘quality content.’ Quality content is only a fraction of the equation for illustrating #value in a media brand. Projecting the idea of having ‘quality content’ might even be more important than spending money on the production of quality content. It’s just bad business.

Anyone who can figure out how to get 100 million Facebook users to pay attention can make money:

Everyone else... Good luck!

Also, ViralNova and EliteDaily are proof that Twitter doesn't matter. Neither has a Twitter audience.