The Master Of The Viral Web

Neetzan Zimmerman, formerly of The Daily What, dwarfs the traffic of all other Gawker bloggers:

Zimmerman

Farhad Manjoo profiles the aficionado:

Mr. Zimmerman is a 32-year-old editor at the news-and-entertainment site Gawker, where he’s responsible for posting “viral” content—videos, photos, crazy local news stories—that readers can’t resist sharing with everyone they know. “Mom Fined $140 Every Day Until She Circumcises Her Child” or “Black Man Arrested Dozens of Times for ‘Trespassing’ While At Work.” With his posts generating more than 30 million page views a month, Mr. Zimmerman may be the most popular blogger working on the Web today.

Indeed, Mr. Zimmerman earns traffic so reliably that it’s tempting to dismiss him as an automaton who simply posts every sensational news story that comes along, or as a mere “aggregator” who doesn’t contribute anything original to journalism. But that take misses Mr. Zimmerman’s skill. He posts only about a dozen items a day. Almost every one becomes a big traffic hit—an astonishing rate of success. I’ve worked on the Web for years, and I still have trouble predicting which of my stories will be hits and which will appeal only to my mom. Mr. Zimmerman has somehow cracked the code.

His secret, he says, is a deep connection to his audience’s evolving, irreducibly human, primal sensibilities. Usually within a few seconds of seeing an item, Mr. Zimmerman can sense whether it’s destined to become a viral story. “I guess you could call it intuition,” he says.

Ezra draws lessons from Zimmerman’s success. Among them:

The traffic potential of the social Web is far beyond what most media sites recognize. We all might think we understand Facebook and Twitter’s power to drive traffic. But it turns out that when you actually create content specifically meant for those networks –particularly Facebook – they drive vastly more traffic than ever seemed possible.

Another:

Publishers need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to package non-social content to give it the best chance on the social Web. This is the one that I’m a bit obsessed with. Newspapers and magazines put tremendous effort into producing hard-hitting reports and beautiful long reads and then basically just hope that they take off socially. The tools they use are, for the most part, the same tools they’ve always used: Headlines and press releases, and nowadays they’ll push articles through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.

But they’re not routinely creating visual — much less video — promotions for their best content, even though that kind of content does much better socially.

But Facebook looks like it is going to make Zimmerman’s job harder:

Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.

Ezra considers the implications of this development.