Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

Things to do Before Your Twitter Account is Suspended or Banned

Two days ago,  I was shocked to learn that, after 3-4 years in good standing, my Twitter account was suspended with no warning. Typically a suspension means you’ve violated one of Twitter’s rules, but it’s also possible that Twitter will suspend you if it detects that your account may have been hacked.

In my case, I was apparently accidentally caught in a dragnet for spam accounts. Twitter support got back to me and within 24 hours, my account had been rightfully restored. The whole incident did get me thinking, though. What if things had gone a different way and Twitter had accidentally deleted my account, or ruled incorrectly that my account WAS a spam account? What recourse would I have? Not much. More importantly, without access to my Twitter account, how would my life be worse?

There were so many things I wish I’d done! So many replies I could’ve made! So many direct messages I should have sent! But seriously, when I realized that I had no control over my account’s fate, I did wish I’d done the following things before I got suspended:

Back up the list of people who you are following – If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to “start over” on twitter again, the biggest loss is of course your followers. Over the past few years, I’ve been grateful to garner some pretty amazing people on my follower list, and it’s entirely possible that, even if I were to restart my account, those people might just never get around to following me again.

However, an almost equally big loss would have been the list of people who I follow. Over time, I’ve curated this list to be a group of users who I can depend on for interesting insights, opinions, ideas, and news. Re-creating this from scratch would have been a pain. I’d recommend you either copy-and-paste your list somewhere, or create a backup account from which you can also follow these people. This way, if your account is ever compromised, you can at least receive the same updates you’re always used to.

Back up your tweets – Twitter now allows you the option to download an excel spreadsheet of every single tweet you’ve ever made from your account (it’s right there under “Settings”). For some, reading through this spreadsheet might be a cringe-inducing exercise of self-examination. But regardless of your emotional reaction, it’s nice to have a record of everything you’ve ever said or done. If you live your life in public, this can make for a surprisingly useful reference document when you’re trying to remember major milestones.

Write more often on a personal blog/website at a domain name you own – Internet god Dave Winer has been issuing this rallying cry for years, and it can basically be summed up as follows: it is important to be the master of your own domain. In a recent post, Winer writes:

[M]aybe if more people stick to the open web, and resist the pull of the silos, it will force the silos to be a little nicer to the people who create their success. Think about that when Twitter does its IPO next month. How much of your creativity did you pour into their success, and how much do you get to participate in the windfall? Not very much? Then maybe you should learn from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely love Twitter and consider it an essential part of any online portfolio. On a personal note, the service has dramatically improved my life, my career, and the way I consume information. But if the newly-public Twitter makes decisions you don’t agree with or if your account is terminated by accident, all you’ll have left is the stuff online that you own. If that’s not a site/blog at a domain name with your name attached to it, then you may want to rethink where you are investing the bulk of your time.

The Tyranny of the Ignorant Majority

Epic rant by Barry Ritzholtz on why he doesn’t want to use blog comments anymore:

A small group of trolls somehow confuse these sites for a town square. It is not. This blog is not a forum where I am obligated to give equal time to every crackpot conspiracy theorist, birther or intellectually lazy wanker out there. To be blunt, I don’t give a flying fuck at a rolling donut about these jackhole’s opinions. These folk need to rapidly disabuse themselves from believing other people’s blog’s are an open invitation for whatever ignorance or ill thought out nonsense they are peddling. Therefore, consider this a warning not to waste your time: I do not care about the output of your cognitive biases, I am disinterested in the myths you cherish, I care little for the mass media rumors that influence you, or the heuristics you believe in. I especially detest the unsupported, commonly believed narratives that you constantly use in the artificial construct you erroneously call reality.

Observations on Launching a “Successful” Podcast Kickstarter

A few days ago, Joanna Robinson and I launched a Kickstarter for 10 episodes of our Game of Thrones podcast, “A Cast of Kings,” set to coincide nicely with season 3 of the show. We were both totally floored by the response, as we saw our $3200 funding goal reached within 48 hours. Before I go any further, let me just make sure to say: Thank you. To anyone who donated, to anyone who supported us spiritually in this, and to anyone who has just listened to the show. We are so grateful that you believe our endeavors are worth paying for.

This being my first successful Kickstarter, I thought it might be useful for me to share a couple of thoughts on the process.

I did not think we did a great job at creating an exemplar Kickstarter project – I am aware of the elements that go into a stereotypically successful Kickstarter project, and I am equally aware our project did not possess them. I actually got a lengthy e-mail from a concerned listener named Adam, offering ways to help improve the Kickstarter and set it up for success (I share some of his advice below). The reason the Kickstarter deployed as it did was because I was kind of interested to see how challenging it would be to mobilize our fanbase to donate for us. While some of my thoughts were proven true, others weren’t — again, more on this below. More than anything, this Kickstarter was an experiment.

Kickstarters should have videos – Kickstarter strongly recommends each project have a video, and statistically, projects with videos are more likely to be backed. Concerned listener Adam recommended “a short 3 minute video with you on camera talking about how much this means to you. People donate to people, not to projects. If you go on there and really let people know how much it means to you, then they will be far more inclined to donate.” I think the biggest reason for no video is because I would have felt weird making one without Joanna — we live many miles apart and I’ve never met her in person. But time was also a major consideration.

Rewards should be more incrementally spaced – It’s a pretty big jump from $10 to $150. I get that. But ultimately, I didn’t really feel like I could commit enough time to promise additional rewards. I realize that some projects have “stretch goals,” but I already think doing the podcast as currently planned will be a significant commitment. Beyond additional episodes, I wasn’t really sure what else I could offer. One suggestion that did strike me as a good one, which I now wish I’d included, was the promise of reading a listener e-mail on the air.

Explain more about you and your talents  – In an ideal Kickstarter we would have done more of this. But really, I was counting on a) the proof of concept of the past 10 episodes we did, and b) the fact that people would trust us to deliver a quality product, based on those episodes. Explaining more about yourself is necessary in a situation where you are marketing the Kickstarter to complete strangers. I did not think we fell into that category, although in the end, a lot of non-Cast-of-Kings listeners did end up donating.

Outline what the costs are – My single biggest regret is not doing a better job of articulating where the money is going. In this instance, there are a few fixed costs in terms of equipment (a replacement mic for Joanna), HBO subscriptions (which I don’t currently have), the domain name for the podcast, etc. Kickstarter and Amazon payments take a significant percentage of the total amount (about 8-10% between the two of them), plus Kickstarter funds are also taxable — how much is a little complicated and still unresolved, but it’s safe to say Uncle Sam will take a huge chunk. The biggest cost, though, is time and effort. Thus, the remainder of the funds will be divided up between Joanna and myself.

There seems to be a significant misconception online that podcasts take no time or effort whatsoever. They do take time. They do take effort. They don’t just appear on the interwebs like babies in a cabbage patch. Occasionally, some people who do certain podcasts may ask for money for the time and effort that goes into making a podcast. Why anyone would object to this is something that is beyond my ability to fathom.

My personal goal was not to extract as much money as possible from a single Kickstarter – This Kickstarter was really an experiment on my part, to see if people would be willing to pay for a single, limited run podcast. Many people asked things like, “Why not promise stretch goals? Why not offer more rewards? Why not offer more episodes for more money?” etc. But the goal was not to make as much money as possible. I’m far more interested in how sustainable this model is. How many podcast Kickstarters per year can be launched this way and successfully funded? How many times can you annoy people on Twitter to donate before they stop following you? What is the right balance? These are questions I’m really interested in because they go towards answering the ultimate question: can someone make a decent living off of doing podcasts?

In the days to come, I’ll be doing some more experimentation with Kickstarter and seeing if we can get to the bottom of this question.

The true dream of TRUE crowdfunding still eludes us, or at least, me – In my original podcast episode announcing the Kickstarter, I said that if everyone listening to the podcast donated $1, we’d have more than enough  to fund the show. In my dream, everyone donating a tiny amount could create a huge impact. Things didn’t really work out that way. As you can see in the header image, the average donation was closer to $15. The vast majority of people donated $10, and there were a couple extravagant donations (including some backers that chose the $150 reward option).

I’ve heard many theories for why so few people made small donations. Peter Sciretta from /Film opined that the pain of filling out all the Kickstarter info is not worth a $1-2 donation. Matt Singer explained he thought that people didn’t think a $1-2 would truly help. The caveat here is that by reaching the goal in 2 days, we didn’t have a long enough timeline to extract too many statistically sound data about user behavior.

But if it is accurate, this does force me to to recalibrate my expectations for future Kickstarters. If the average donation is going to be $10-15, then the value that we are delivering needs to be in line with that, as does the expectation for how many people we can expect will donate.

Why You Should Save Important Topics For Your Blog, Not Twitter

Anil Dash says what I already tried to say, only much more articulately:

[S]ome ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.

And blogs afford that sort of maturation of an idea uniquely well amongst online media, due to their use of the permalink (permanent link), which gives each idea a place to live and thrive. While Facebook and Twitter nominally provide permalinks as well, the truth is that individual ideas in those flow-based media don’t have enough substance for a meaningful conversation to accrete around them.

Dash also points out the biggest problem with Twitter at this point: there are no publicly accessible archives. There’s no easy way to search your Twitter stream or the streams of others. This means you should fully expect anything you say on Twitter, no matter how important or profound, to be completely inaccessible and lost to the ages, unless you do something to preserve it. The fact that most people ignore these limitations makes it all the more tragic that great conversations and great ideas may never be read by people who just weren’t following their tweets at the time.

Advice for People Trying to Get Into Online Movie Writing

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten e-mails from a bunch of people who have asked for advice on how to get into online movie writing. Here’s an excerpt from one I received this morning:

What sort of advice do you have for a guy such as myself? I know you don’t just start out writing for a high level blog such as Slashfilm and I know a blog doesn’t start out as high as Slashfilm. So how do I get people to read what I have to say? Both regular readers and people who might be willing to take a chance and let me write for them. And while I’m already firing my barrage of questions at you, how do you come across film news? The obvious way and the way I’ve done it to this point is to be reading and listening to what everyone else is saying. That just seems like a fairly ineffective way to come up with anything new or unique to say. I guess what makes it new and unique is your own personal spin and the type of content you decide to publish.

I thought it might be useful to write up a brief manifesto that I could share with people when they approach me with this question in the future. So, here’s some advice for people trying to get into online movie blogging, and make money while doing it:

[Note that, by necessity, the following only constitutes my advice, culled from my very limited experience. I have been in “the business” for a fraction of the time that some of my colleagues have been in the business, and they are probably far better equipped to answer these questions than I.]

Get started immediately – It goes without saying, but it helps to have a solid body of work to be able to show people if/when you apply for a job. Start a blog, write reviews for a local paper, write for free for a website. It helps to get your foot in the door.

To succeed, you don’t have to be the best, but you have to at least be very good – The internet allows anyone with an opinion to publish it and make it available for a potential audience of billions. I already understood this when I started writing online, but it wasn’t until I started working for /Film and people frequently shared their blog posts with me that I grasped the magnitude of this. To quote Tyler Durden, you are not a unique snowflake. There are literally millions of other people just like you, who have a movie blog and write regularly about their opinions on films.

This doesn’t mean you have to be an extraordinary writer to land a gig, although that certainly helps. But you have to at least be very good or somehow different. Maybe your work offers a unique spin on things, or you have some sort of industry expertise that others don’t have. If at least one of these things isn’t true, and your writing isn’t above average, I say work on making your writing above average.

Pretty much everything you might have to say about a film has probably been said, and said better. So, why try? I honestly don’t know. You have to answer that question for yourself. And if you don’t have a solid answer, you probably shouldn’t be doing this.

Be willing to do grunt work at the outset – At both the film websites I’ve written for (CHUD and /Film), I began by doing as much work as humanly possible, even when I was writing or reviewing film/news that I wasn’t particularly interested in. But, as with any job, if you prove you are reliable and hardworking, you may be rewarded with superior assignments later on. Note that this often means you will work for free at the beginning, or in exchange for things such as set visits or DVDs.

You will most likely not make a good living off of it – Make no mistake: even if you succeed, the life ahead may not be one that you are accustomed to. Most full-time movie bloggers don’t have health insurance and barely get paid above a living wage. The days when you could make $2/word off of a film review are totally over, and they are never coming back. There are, of course, numerous rewards to writing online. But to paraphrase The Architect from Matrix Reloaded, there have to be levels of existence you are willing to accept.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the world of online movie websites is in flux. Brands are changing and it’s likely that in five years, many of the “successful” websites that exist today will no longer be profitable. Many webmasters of today can’t even agree on fundamental issues of what are acceptable methods of making money for these websites – issues which the much-more-profitable and much-more-widely-read tech blogging world already resolved years ago. Pave the road to your financial future carefully.

Get connected – Participate in the online conversation with people in your field, via Twitter and comments and online forums all other forms of glorious internet media. Do you know how I got connected with Peter at /Film? By following him on Twitter, and engaging with him. DO NOT SPAM. Relevant comments, interesting insights, etc. These are the things you should be sharing. Many people often get hired by actual publications because they have been active, intelligent, gracious commenters. I cannot emphasize this last point enough. [Corollary: Try not to be a dick to people who you might apply for a job from later.]

There are very few paid positions and lots of interested candidates – Let me be brutally honest here for a moment. I’m an extraordinarily lucky individual. I get to write and speak about movies to an engaged and (in my opinion) large audience, and get paid a modest sum while doing so.

But if were to be realistic, I would have to say that I’ve won the lottery of online film gigs. For every podcast like the /Filmcast, there are literally hundreds of other comparable podcasts that languish, unheard and unpaid. For every movie writer that gets hired by /Film, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of writers that toil in obscurity, their freely available words read only by a small group of friends and colleagues. To paraphrase Vincenzo Natali, I say all this not to say there’s anything great about me, but to impart how F*CKING LUCKY I feel I am to be doing what I’m doing.

I think the lottery comparison is apt. Very few people who want to do what I do will get a chance to get paid to do what I do. Do you have the unflinching drive and will to succeed? Do you have something to say that no one else has said? Is your writing of excellent quality? Then you have a shot.

But is it a shot I’d wager several years of my life on? No.

All of the above advice may be completely invalid – Because you might be a 24-year old movie blogger who liked The A-Team and Roger Ebert may pluck you out of obscurity to give you a spot on the flagship film review television show in the U.S.


Clarification – My last point above, made slightly tongue-in-cheek, was only meant to say that sometimes, good things still do happen to people that are talented and work hard. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ignatiy’s capacity as a film critic. But most of us (including myself) will probably never reach his level of ability, let alone opportunity.

If you’ve read this far, you might also be interested in my advice for when you’re applying for an online writing job and my guide to starting a podcast.