How to build a viral publishing clone in just six months

Publishing used to be a grind, slowly and incrementally building audience month after month, year after year. Not so in the age of Facebook shares. Beyond the buzzy titans of social sharing like BuzzFeed and Upworthy are a squadron of, ahem, tribute sites that are putting up eye-popping audience numbers in an astonishingly short period of time.

The formula: Slap together a basic website and fill it with content that people can’t help but click and share on Facebook — and overnight you may find yourself with tens of millions of visitors.

That’s PlayBuzz’s story. The site, which feels at first like a poor man’s BuzzFeed, has mastered some of the Web’s most shareable content forms, particularly lists (“20 Reasons Your Eyebrows Are Your New Best Friends“) and quizzes (“Which Member of the Royal Family Are You?“). According to Quantcast, it has attracted upwards of 65.5 million worldwide unique visitors in June. (That makes it the 28th largest Internet site in the world, per Quantcast.) That’s six times where its traffic was in the month before. ComScore’s data on the site only goes back a month but says PlayBuzz, which launched in January, got 4.9 million uniques in the U.S. in May. As a sign of PlayBuzz’s viral pull, it has racked over 436,000 Facebook likes.

Anyone who has taken a BuzzFeed quiz will feel at home on PlayBuzz. The content is not going to be up for a Pulitzer anytime soon — and that’s by design, according to Shaul Olmert, CEO of PlayBuzz, a former Nickelodeon executive (and son of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert).

“It’s content for the 140-character generation,” he said. “These are people who no longer read long articles and aren’t necessarily patient enough to sit through long videos. They’re looking to consume content that’s interactive and accessible.”

Beyond just its content, PlayBuzz also owes its growth to its user-generated content model, which lets anyone create quizzes and lists to share with others. Olmert said that the site’s goal is to be a creation tool-driven “YouTube for playful content,” the latter of which he uses to describe the sort of light, shareable fare that dominates the Web these days.

playbuzz

The approach is reflected in the makeup of the site’s output. Of the 150 to 250 posts added to the site each day, 90 percent come from users (“Who Would You Be On The Love Boat?” to use one recent contributed example). The rest come from the site’s five staff writers and pool of roughly 25 freelancers. The site is, in that sense, in the tradition of Forbes and Huffington Post, sites that are creating their own editorial content while opening themselves up as platforms. 

“We’re a two-headed beast when it comes to content,” said Olmert. “This is where publishing is going.”

And that is the nightmare for many publishers. In just six months, a relative unknown with five full-time staff writers has amassed an online audience that’s twice the size of the New York Times, per Quantcast. Larger publishers, despite their much more robust editorial arms, have found it challenging to match that kind of growth.

PlayBuzz’s approach also expands its revenue potential. Playing platform opens the site up to brands, which can, in theory, use its tools to create their own branded quizzes and lists (just as they do with BuzzFeed). The site hasn’t made the brand plunge just yet, however.

But the very social trends that have fueled PlayBuzz’s rapid growth could also drag traffic downwards. More than half of the site’s traffic comes from Facebook, for example, leaving PlayBuzz very much at the mercy of Facebook’s whims. A look at what happened to PlayBuzz’s fellow viral sites shows what’s at stake. Publishers that had optimized their content to be shared on Facebook got slammed when Facebook tweaked its algorithm to decrease their reach.

While Olmert acknowledged the risk in pinning so much of PlayBuzz’s success on Facebook, he said that, whether the algorithm changes or not, PlayBuzz will find its audience. “In the long run, what counts is that the kind of content that we have is the kind of content people want; it may be harder to get those people, but it always finds them.”