Confessions of a former viral publishing exec on the dark arts of follower bots

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Publishing is still in the viral era, where content is made with sharing firmly in mind. In our latest confessions piece, where we grant anonymity in exchange for honesty, a former publishing exec for a well-known viral publisher reflects on the highs, the lows and the dark arts of viral publishing, and tells us there’s still no proxy for scale.

Excerpts lightly edited for clarity.

Viral publishers aren’t relying on clickbait like they used to. What are the biggest problems in viral publishing at the moment?
Facebook has punished clickbait so efficiently, most publishers worth their salt aren’t doing it. The risks and the dark arts are around buying communities.

That’s still happening?
People are using follower bots and buying accounts. Some of the biggest viral lifestyle publishers in the U.K. are buying Facebook, Instagram, Twitter accounts and merging them together to make their pages big. I think that’s dark arts. There is a perspective that says this is tactical: use a follower bot to grow a community which will then grow reach, or buy a Facebook page and turn it into something similar. But these come from a very different philosophical argument from what publishers would have had in the past. The most tactical thing in the past for publishers was to give away a free copy of a magazine. Now people buy communities, which sits at odds with the idea that communities are meant to be people who care.

So scale is still the priority?
You cannot be taken seriously by brands or agencies unless you have scale. You need at least a million uniques a month to get you on media plans. They don’t look at quality; they look at quantity. Brands talk about the quality of the engagement, but they don’t care; they are still buying eyeballs, largely.

What needs to change?
People need to retire and die, because middle-level management gets it. It’s also possible platforms will get wise to it. My suggestion would be they currently aren’t because of process: Their left hand isn’t talking to their right. There’s no suggestion it’s a stupid thing to do, it just doesn’t sit well with what traditional publishers used to do. It doesn’t guarantee quality of audience. The reasons brands might care is because it creates questions about their quality; it sounds like they are faking it.

Several years ago, you saw the publisher transition from an edgy media startup to a big brand people care about. What were the biggest frustrations?
We scaled quickly, and the brand became very successful quickly, and with that comes a lot of problems. We hired a lot people, which meant the atmosphere changed. There were more divides between functions, people were more siloed, and there were egos in the office. That has a ripple effect: uncertainty and pessimism spread. We also brought in people from outside of content, from corporates. That meant internal people got passed over. Sometimes that happens, but it brought a lot of process and corporate thinking into things. Over time, it went from a scrappy team to a business.

Surely you can’t prevent that from happening?
We were at this Cambrian explosion where viral publishing was becoming genuinely bankable by big investors. It’s a classic struggle. You own something cool, so people want to give you money for it. In giving you money to make it bigger, it has to become uncool. Internally it couldn’t be a startup any more.

Did that make the targets more stressful?
Targets became more and more ambitious over time as outside C-suite people were brought on board. That definitely caused friction in the sales team — big jumps in what was expected from one financial year to the next. They worked incredibly hard.

What were the biggest struggles with monetization?
We had a whole team dedicated to creating content for brands closely aligned to what we offered editorially. People were excited to get our name in the room. But we had to fight quite hard for business because our entry price was so high. Brands and agencies took a lot of educating because it wasn’t a traditional media buy. People couldn’t believe we wanted to write something funny and put their name at the top. Brands were ill-prepared to stop talking about themselves. Once we had sold in, people would start meddling in the content. In some cases, the thing that would deliver the most value for both the reader and the client is hacked to death by the client.

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