‘Viral mills’ are content marketing at its worst

Why ‘viral mills’ like Buzzfeed & Upworthy are content marketing at its worst 

By Muhammad Saleem

Not a day goes by without another viral content mill popping up, or announcing how many millions of page views it has managed to accumulate within a short span of time. If I didn’t know any better, I would be incredibly envious of the position sites like those find themselves in. Just take a look at the growth and traffic data for these sites recently published by Business Insider.

Business Insider — as well as Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and a growing number of others –  definitely show impressive traffic numbers, but are they a good indicator of a successful business?

As far as business goals and useful metrics are concerned, boasting about absolute traffic volume is similar to Flipboard boasting about number of ‘flips’ their users have generated . Note that Flipboard celebrates usage and engagement metrics but never mentions revenue or profits, CPMs / CPCs / CTRs and ultimately lead generation and conversions for their advertisers. There is also no data on lifetime value of a user – just that they have millions of users dragging their fingers across their phone or tablet screens. How does this help an advertiser evaluate Flipboard for an ad buy?

Similarly, it’s safe to assume that the goal of publishers such as Buzzfeed or Upworthy is to be profitable businesses — driven primarily by advertising revenue (whether it is direct ad sales, a proprietary advertising platform , or sponsored content deals ). This growth cannot be predominantly be driven by first time ‘partners’ and has to rely on repeat business from advertisers who seek measurable business results from campaigns on these sites. While revenue and profitability for Buzzfeed are growing rapidly, they will – like for all virality mills – depend on how efficiently they can deliver on these advertisers’ goals and do a better job than traditional display advertising and competing ad platforms from the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

In spite of their claims of innovation in advertising, Buzzfeed’s ad platform is surprisingly similar to traditional advertising in what it accomplishes. It is only capable of targeting top of the funnel goals such as exposing your brand to audiences who aren’t currently aware of it and creating brand context for this audience (questionable), and middle of the funnel goals such as increasing engagement with your brand (suspect quality of engagement). The platform cannot currently target bottom of the funnel goals such as lead generation and sales conversion.

Virality mills are ultimately reliant on ever-increasing page views to deliver impressions to advertisers and are prey to the same pitfalls as traditional publishers seeking inorganic audience growth. Furthermore, virality mills as a business model are no different from any publisher embracing viral content marketing for audience development – write with the singular goal of widespread exposure with complete disregard for a search acquisition strategy

Just look at the language used by virality mills when talking about how efficient they are at what they do to see this in action. They mention creativity without referencing utility, volume of engagement without discussing the value of that engagement (intent), and exposure without any contextual relevancy . If you sincerely believe that a million people engaging with a post about hybrid animals is a better spend than advertising against a Jalopnik car review — I can’t help but think you have more money than sense. Moreover, if you think that advertising against the broad demographic base of a virality mill (20-30, American) is a better use of your budget versus the extremely customizable ad platforms of Facebook and Google, you’re in the wrong business entirely

Going back to the funnel and creating a context for your brand, I decided to take a look at Toyota, one of Buzzfeed’s partners (advertisers) to see how Buzzfeed was helping them accomplish their goals. What I realized very quickly is they aren’t targeting the funnel at all. The Toyota branding on the content pages links to an archive of all sponsored content from Toyota hosted on Buzzfeed, the Prius c link on the page links to the Toyota page on Facebook, and finally there are options to follow Toyota on other social channels (which considering Buzzfeed’s traffic is predominantly driven from social sites, and traffic to Buzzfeed and partner sites is heavily reliant on Facebook, is simply recursive).

Read the rest at Venture Beat


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Muhammad Saleem is a tech industry observer and digital marketing strategist based in Toronto. You can follow him at @msaleem and contact him at MuhammadSaleem.com.


Commentary: This requires a much longer post than what I’m about to say, but hope if you like the few paragraphs above, and you are interested you will read the whole thing, it is very worthwhile. He ends by saying:

Virality mills love talking about the keys to their success — premium content and an effective social media strategy — but for whom, and to what end? Great content is not which generates millions of views, but which accomplishes a goal for you. And that goal isn’t, or shouldn’t be, chasing page views at all costs.

This is literally the greatest read of the entire year. As we’ve seen the rise of low-value content and a pervasive stream throughout all the social media platforms. It is not unlike the inescapable profusion of reality TV programming these days. While considering what you spend your advertising money on is very important, a case could be made also at what price or cost to the user.

If we are chasing after this low-value, junk food, ‘snackable content’ won’t good quality stuff lose out in the end. Won’t you just be swallowed up in a swirling vortex of informational noise? Just as the advent of micro-videos of 6-15 seconds in length may distort our ability to concentrate on longer, slower material.

What price is our attention worth? Can it ever be satisfied by a quick click? Chasing page views, or hoping to get tons of traffic to your website is a worthless pursuit. In fact my new year’s resolution is to never go to BuzzFeed again, I swore off UpWorthy last year.

We’ll revisit the idea and philosophy of this piece in the coming year to really establish what ‘engagement’ looks like and what content providers, mills, viral sensations, and you need to do and what that can look like.

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