Like a freshly minted grad with a liberal arts degree, ViralNova is moving to New York City and working in sponsored content.
The aggregation site, known for its clickable headlines and staggering Facebook-juiced growth, will announce Tuesday a new ad offering in which brands can work with its editorial staffers to fashion sponsored content, or ads meant to look and feel like regular articles.
ViralNova’s pitch: we know how to make posts go viral and can help your brand do likewise. Its first client, chat and mapping app Scout, ran a series of three sponsored articles late last year, and ViralNova says it is currently in talks with more brands.
The move comes as more media companies dive into sponsored content in an effort to find revenue streams beyond that of typical Web advertising. Even journalistic stalwarts like Conde Nast have pushed new sponsored content studios to try and win brand dollars.
ViralNova has more humble publishing roots. Just last year its founder Scott DeLong operated the site from Ohio with the help of a handful of freelancers. The enigmatic site became a source of digital media fascination while its traffic figures — almost entirely due to Facebook — ballooned. The company says only 50% to 60% of its traffic comes from Facebook now.
ViralNova’s posts often feature a video with little text but bombastic headlines that have become something of a Web publishing punchline. Some recent examples: At First, It Looks Like This Chick Is Doomed, But What Happens Next Is Adorable; She’s Not Even In Junior High, But Her Guitar Skills Will Melt Your Face Off; People Ignored A Freezing Child On The Street For Hours…But Then? Wow. (To be sure, ViralNova isn’t the only publisher using these kinds of tactics to lure in clicks).
The move to New York is in part meant to help find new writers for its site, according to Chief Executive Officer Sean Beckner.
“The selection from a writer standpoint is better in the New York area than anywhere else,” Mr. Beckner said. ViralNova is up to 15 writers and a total staff of 25. The company moved to a shared office space in New York this summer, but is now setting down a permanent headquarters.
Editorial staffers will be tasked with writing sponsored content, according to Mr. Beckner. That’s a rare system in more traditional corners of journalism, though it is not unprecedented. Editorial employees at DailyMail.com, for instance, write both news stories and articles sponsored by brands. And controversy swelled at Conde Nast after the company announced editors there would have to work on branded content too.
Another sticking point in the native ad world is proper labeling. Mr. Beckner said all sponsored content on ViralNova is labeled as such and clear to readers. The articles for Scout, however, are no longer marked as sponsored, but Mr. Beckner attributed it to the fact that campaign is not still running on the site and that design changes had removed the tags. He said in the future articles would always remains marked as sponsored.
The question will be whether more brands sign on. ViralNova received 37 million unique visitors in January, an 83% spike from the year prior, according to comScore, making it an attractive platform in terms of sheer size.
Ben Kunz, vice president of strategic planning at media buyer Mediassociates, said he would advise marketers to try ViralNova’s sponsored content offering but consider the results before investing further.
“I think advertisers would find this an attractive test,” he said.
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