14 Actionable Niche Marketing Lessons from the 100 Million Dollar Success of Viral Nova (Lesson #4 Might Surprise You)
Does this seem familiar?
“This Guy’s WifeGot Cancer, So He DidSomething Unforgettable. The Last 3 Photos Destroyed Me”
“You Won’t Believe What This Guy Gifted to His Dad on Father’s Day. Dad’s Reaction is Priceless”
“At First, I Felt Sorry for the People Living in This House. But Now I’m Jealous”
If you’ve seen countless headlines like these on your Facebook news feed over the last 2-3 years, you’re not alone – they’re everywhere.
And bloggers have been making millions of dollars from them.
Inspired by the success of publishing giants like BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Viral Nova etc., viral content blogs have grown like mushrooms all over the web.
The trend has also inspired other blogs outside the viral content niche to change their headlines and content style (with great success).
You can also learn a LOT from these websites, their content style and their content promotion strategy.
In this post, I’ll focus on Viral Nova, perhaps the most fascinating success story among the top viral content websites.
Because this one man blog was recently acquired by a leading media group for $100 million!
As a NicheHacks reader, you’ll find a ton of value in studying the success Viral Nova achieved within months, and apply it to your niche marketing strategy.
(See how to find your niche for blogging)
What You’ll Learn in This Post
- How Viral Nova made $100 million with just 3 team members.
- Following the Viral Nova model, how you can create irresistible headlines.
- Why you don’t need unique content anymore.
- How you can build a successful niche marketing blog WITHOUT any help from Google.
- The biggest hurdle in your path to niche marketing glory.
- How many smaller niche blogs have replicated the Viral Nova model to find success (and how you can do it as well)
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Viral Nova and Its Founder – An Inspiration for Niche Marketers
Before I tell you exactly how you can learn from the success of Viral Nova, you need to know a bit more about this inspirational success story and the man behind it.
Scott DeLong, the 33 year old founder of Viral Nova, started this simple blog from his bedroom in the cornfields of a small town in Ohio in 2013.
The idea behind the site was simple - Identify and copy potentially viral content from all over the web, write a compelling headline, publish it on the blog, push it forward with Facebook advertisements and hope that it goes viral.
This simple business model worked so well that Viral Nova reached almost 100 million monthly visitors within months, with over 2 million Facebook fans, and easily makes six figures every month from advertisements and sponsors (in December 2013 alone, DeLong made more than $400,000).
In its first year, Viral Nova attracted almost 90% of its traffic from Facebook. It still stands at over 50% right now.
But here’s the inspirational part.
DeLong achieved all this with just 2 freelance writers.
Yes, zero fulltime employees.
Just to give you an idea, BuzzFeed has more than 800 employees, a fulltime office space, and a proper corporate structure.
Viral Nova has around 20 fulltime employees and an office space now, but that only happened after it was acquired for $100 million by a media company Zealot Networks.
But from 0 to $100 million, Viral Nova was run only by its owner and a couple of freelancers.
And that’s what makes it the perfect business model for you.
Does the Viral Nova Formula Still Work?
As of today, Viral Nova does not attract the same amount of traffic as it did in its early days. Some estimates say they’ve lost almost 70% of their traffic from the peak days of 70 to 100 million visitors per month.
That’s primarily down to the algorithm changes Facebook has been making over the last 2 years. And it has affected almost all the viral news blogs.
But these are still mighty impressive traffic numbers.
According to SimilarWeb, Viral Nova is still getting 6-10 million visitors every month, with occasional spikes as well.
And the majority of their traffic is still coming from social media, especially Facebook.
Just imagine the possibilities if you could replicate even 10% of the success that Viral Nova has been able to achieve.
Why do I say that?
Because many of the regular NicheHacks readers, whichprobably includes you as well, are either newbies who haven’t started niche marketing at all, or still trying to make their mark in this industry.
So without further ado, here are some of the key lessons you can learn from Viral Nova.
1.You CAN Build a Million Dollar Company from Your Bedroom
Even just before it was acquired, Viral Nova was being run by Scott DeLong from his bedroom in a remote area of Ohio.
He started all this by himself, and scaled it up with time.
When content management became too hectic, he hired a couple of freelancers who helped him find potentially viral content from all over the web and repurpose it for his blog.
Staying LEAN is one of the secrets behind the profitability of Viral Nova.
BuzzFeed, a biggest viral news website, has more than 800 employees, an office building and a corporate structure.
Viral Nova had none of that, which means they had no additional fulltime costs to bear resulting in more profitability.
Whenever something needed to be done, Scott would hire freelancers from places like Elance, Freelancer, 99Designs etc.
For example, here’s a contest that Viral Nova ran on 99Designs when they were looking for a facelift.
There’s a huge lesson in this if you’re starting an online business.
Stay away from unnecessary administrative expenses as much as possible.
At the end of the day it’s your profitability that matters, not your overall revenue.
I really liked what Scott had to say about staying LEAN, and I think he’s 100% correct.
“It seems that ego tends to drive a lot of entrepreneurs. They want an office, they want employees, they want to feel like they're the real deal. But this is the Internet. There are thousands of high-quality freelancers around the world willing to work with you, and an office is absolutely not necessary in today's age. So I guess as far as "skimping" goes, I cut out all the unnecessary things that I consider ego-driven and focused on only spending money when it's absolutely necessary. When the site grows, you need more servers and more bandwidth. When one writer can't keep up with the amount of work, you contract another one to help with the load.”
2. Headline is the Most Crucial Part of Your Content (Click Bait Still Works)
Research shows that if 8 out of 10 people read a headline on the web, only 2 of them would actually click on it.
That’s how important headlines are.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest reasons for the success of Viral Nova is their headline style. It’s the headlines that really create the viral effect on places like Facebook and Reddit.
Have a look at some of these posts.
Scott and his team clearly mastered the art of creating enticing and emotionally driven headlines that just cannot be ignored.
Almost all these headlines break the recommended headline rules.
For example, you’ll hardly find any headline on Viral Nova that’s less than 60 characters long, which is the recommended length by internet marketing experts.
Instead, most of these headlines are close to or over 100 characters.
In effect, they are not just headlines. They’re complete statements that trigger emotions to attract clicks.
Contently studied more than 2000 headlines from Viral Nova, BuzzFeed and a few other viral websites, and these are the most frequently used words they found.
Do you notice the trend?
Each headline makes you think that you’re missing out on something. That’s the secret behind these viral headlines.
Most of them are clickbait but they work, and the common internet user loves to click them.
There’s just one thing that you need to be careful about.
Viral websites are not necessarily concerned about their credibility and image. But as a niche marketer, credibility should be at the top of your priority list.
Use clickbait headlines with care.
Don’t create a headline that you can’t deliver on. The headline of your post is a promise that you make to your readers. Your content needs to deliver on it.
But take inspiration from these headlines.
Talk to your readers and play with their emotions. Use powerful words, make bold claims and tell them what they’re missing out on.
This is something that Neil Patel also strongly recommends.
Spend as much time crafting and testing your headlines as you spend on creating the actual content of your post.
3. With Research You Can Find a TON of Interesting Content
When Viral Nova started out, BuzzFeed was already a niche leader. Scott could’ve easily thrown in the towel and assumed that all the good stuff has already been covered by BuzzFeed.
But he didn’t.
He dug deep and found rare gems on the web that no one else had discovered before.
Social networks like Reddit and StumbleUpon proved to be content goldmines for Viral Nova in its early days.
And here’s the lesson for you.
There’s an unlimited supply of interesting and share worthy content on the web. You just need to look for it hard enough.
And this stands true for almost every niche.
For example, Movoto completely turned around its business and lead generation strategy by starting a Viral Nova style blog. Look how they’ve used the same style to create interesting content for the real estate niche.
The information isn’t new, but they’ve researched it well and presented it in a completely new way.
When starting out in a competitive niche, you don’t always have to come up with something completely new. There’s a ton of information out there that no one has ever presented in a reader friendly manner.
Go take advantage.
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4. You Can Repurpose Duplicate Content and Still Make it Big
Almost 95% of all content on Viral Nova is copied from other websites. Similarly, only around 25-30% content on BuzzFeed is unique. The rest is simply copied from other places.
But they still get millions of visitors every month.
What does that tell you?
You don’t need to create unique content all the time if you’re not overly dependent on Google for your traffic.
You can simply copy great content from other places, add your own flavor to it, and promote it via paid advertisements to your target audience.
Need example? Here are two completely identical pieces of content covered by a million blogs.
But who gets the biggest traffic chunk? Viral Nova and BuzzFeed
What does this tell you?
You can copy content from ANYWHERE as long as you repurpose it and add your own flavor to it.
5. Your Blog Design and Typography Really Counts
Have a look at the Viral Nova homepage again.
There’s nothing but large images with post headlines (and a small opt in box at the top right)
Np sidebars, no advertisements, no distractions.
They have intentionally highlighted their most important content and removed anything that would distract readers from their main content.
Their post headlines and images drive clicks. And that’s what they’ve highlighted.
You might not be running a blog like Viral Nova, but you can learn from this and ensure that your blog design promotes your best content, minimizes distractions and is free of clutter
For example, I’ve seen hundreds of blogs that use sidebars on both sides of the content. It might work for some people, but research indicates that a sidebar on the left side reduces content readability by 15-20%.
So if you’re placing a sidebar on your blog, always keep it on the right and make sure that 60%-65% of your screen space is taken up by the main content.
Another thing to note with Viral Nova design is the fonts they use. Headlines are their biggest traffic drivers. So, naturally, they use large font sizes for headlines.
But this is a common theme among all top blogs.
Here’s a smart research by KISSMetrics on blog typography.
Almost 50% of the top 50 blogs use the fonts Georgia and Arial for headlines, and Verdana, Lucida Grande and Arial for the body text.
Why? Because they’re easy on the eye and have been tested to keep the readers on page for longer periods of time.
And one last thing about the website design – make sure it’s responsive (mobile friendly).
6. If You Want People To Share Your Content, Ask Them Loud and Clear
I don’t know why people still do it, but I regularly come across really great blogs, with awesome content, that have no social sharing widgets!
How can you even do that in this day and age?
If you want your content to be shared, the first step is to simplify the process of sharing for your readers.
Don’t just place small and easy to ignore sharing buttons at the end of your posts and assume that people are going to share them anyway.
You need to remind them again and again.
Look at the Viral Nova design and see how they’ve made the social sharing widget prominent and in the reader’s face.
Can you really miss them?
No! Because they’re at the end of the post as well.
If you don’t like using widgets at the start and at the end of the post, you could take the other route and apply a floating widget (it also works pretty well)
In fact, when Neil Patel applied a floating social sharing widget on his blog, it increased social traffic by almost 28%
7. Facebook Paid Traffic is Still a Game Changer
You know why Viral Nova shamelessly copied content from other websites and still got to a million visitors per month?
Because Scott didn’t care what Google thinks about his site. His traffic comes from Facebook.
In fact, Facebook is the reason why Viral Nova became a hit.
When Viral Nova first started, almost 90% of its visitors came from Facebook. Instead of waiting to rank in Google search, Scott created viral headlines and pushed his content forward with Facebook ads.
Back in 2013, Facebook was already giving Viral Nova plenty of natural exposure. But using paid ads just added fuel to their reach.
The recent changes in Facebook fan page algorithms have reduced the natural reach of Viral Nova posts, but they generated the initial momentum that they needed to build a viable business, and can take it forward from here using paid traffic.
What’s the lesson for you here?
Facebook paid traffic is still a goldmine. Your target audience is already there.
If you have the right content on your website, and a landing page that is optimized for conversions, you can target your exact audience with pinpoint accuracy using Facebook ads.
The ROI on these ads is much higher than Google Adwords because of advanced audience targeting.
For example, when Viral Nova promoted their content in the early days, they would simply target the followers of their competitors (BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Distractify etc.)
This is on top of the natural exposure that their posts got from Facebook.
The snowball effect created from these ads fueled the Viral Nova Facebook page and made them a viral content sensation.
As Ryan Deiss of Digital Marketer often says, traffic is not a problem anymore.
8. Don’t Forget Other Social Networks (Specially Pinterest and Reddit)
Viral Nova owes a lot to Facebook for its success. Right now, almost 45% of its total traffic comes from social networks, and 90% of it comes from Facebook.
But there are other social networks as well. And Viral Nova uses them intelligently to diversify its traffic.
Despite the diversification, you can clearly see that Viral Nova is heavily dependent on Facebook. Their second biggest traffic source, Pinterest, send them just around 7% of the traffic generated from social media.
And Twitter is not even there in the top traffic sources.
Did this over reliance on Facebook hurt Viral Nova?
Yes, pretty badly
When Facebook tweaked its algorithms to wipe out clickbait content, Viral Nova was hit hard.
Within months, their traffic was down from 100 million/month to around 20 million/month (that’s still a lot – NewYork times gets around 10 million per month).
The obvious lesson here is diversification.
When you have one major source of traffic, use it to develop other sources as well. Don’t be over reliant on one traffic source. Otherwise you’re an algorithm update away from disaster.
Viral Nova survived this change because of its size. You might not be as lucky.
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9. Don’t Build Your Business Empire on Rented Space – Build Your Email List
Do I really need to say this?
Looking at many of the newbie blogs these days, I think yes!
When you’re overly dependent on Google, Facebook or any other third party platform, you’re building your business empire on rented land.
With one small change, they can bring your business down.
That’s your only real business asset.
Even Viral Nova realize that. Look at their home page.
Viral Nova gets just around 0.29% of its monthly traffic from email subscribers. So on an average monthly traffic of 10 million, Viral Nova gets around 300,000 visits from email subscribers.
That’s obviously a very small portion of their traffic. But it’s on the rise.
And an opt-in box at the top of their website clearly shows they’re pushing hard for more subscribers.
Mind you, they didn’t have an opt-in box at the top when the site was first launched.
So even if you’re getting lots of visitors from Google or any of the social networks, don’t underestimate the value of email subscribers.
10. There’s Science Behind Viral Content That You Can Follow
When you look at websites like Viral Nova and BuzzFeed, you can easily assume that their content goes viral because of the size of their audiences.
But that’s only partially true.
In the case of Viral Nova, it started from scratch and had zero audience.
If you look at their content closely, there’s a bit of science and psychology involved in making their content viral.
A study conducted by Buffer revealed that viral content triggered one or more of the following emotions.
But one thing that was common among all forms of viral content, was the element of surprise.
Viral content surprises readers and makes them take notice.
Source: Buffer Blog
This study is further backed by the observations of Mark Hughes, former VP Marketing of Half.com, in his book Buzz Marketing.
Mark argues that any form of viral content belong to one or more of the following types.
- It is unusual
- It’s a taboo
- It’s outrageous
- It’s hilarious
- It’s remarkable
- It’s a secret
With this in mind, have a look at the content on Viral Nova again. You’d realize that almost all of their content falls in one or more of these categories.
In effect, that’s a checklist for creating viral content.
See what I’m saying?
Only two things matter when creating viral content.
- Your content itself is shareworthy
- You’re pushing it on the right platforms to reach the right audience
This stands valid for any niche and every niche.
Remember, not everything on Viral Nova goes viral.
But the content that does, brings in enough visitors to the website and expose it to a larger audience.
11. It Takes Hard Work and Discipline To Succeed Online – No Shortcuts
Viral Nova might appear to be one of those typical “get rich quickly” stories that you see all over the web.
But it isn’t.
In fact, Scott admitted on Twitter that 16 hours of daily workload was getting a bit too much for him to handle.
What I’m trying to tell you here is that niche marketing or any other sustainable online business requires consistent and disciplined effort.
Nothing happens overnight, and there’s hardly any business that can start giving you six figures from the first day.
12. Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel – Learn From Your Competitors
Read these words by Scott DeLong again and again.
He said this in response to an interview question about the things that are holding young internet entrepreneurs back.
“I think a lot of them are trying to re-invent the wheel. They’re trying to do too much too soon. All of my successes thus far have come from web properties I can run myself or with just a couple of freelancers to help out. You don’t need to make the next Facebook or Amazon… pick something you have a passion and talent for and own it.”
This is exactly what he did with Viral Nova.
Remember, Viral Nova wasn’t the first viral news blog. It simply took the content other major players in the industry were publishing, and repurposed it.
Viral Nova headlines and marketing strategy proved to be much more effective than its competitors, especially in the early days.
But it did not do anything new.
When you’re entering a niche, don’t try to do everything from scratch. Study your biggest competitors, see what’s working for them and copy the same success formula.
There’s enough space on the internet to accommodate multiple blogs of the same style.
13. You Don’t Always Need Mentors to Succeed – Just Take Action
For me, this is one the biggest gains from this case study.
Remember the snapshot I shared from NicheHacks Facebook group? Here it is again
Almost 30% of the people who’ve been in the IM industry for more than 6 months, haven’t started anything of their own.
Why? Because they’re waiting for someone who can teach them the secret path to success. They keep on buying courses after courses without taking any action.
Well, here’s what Scott had to say when asked if he had any mentors.
“I didn’t have any direct mentors holding my hand along the way. I don’t think that’s as important as just always keeping an open mind, talking to as many people in the industry as possible, and striving to be the best. You definitely need to learn from others to succeed but an actual mentor? No, not really. Some of the best ideas you’ll ever have, however, will be sparked by a random conversation. So always keep your mind open and talk to other successful people every chance you get.”
Having mentors is fine, absolutely fine.
But not taking action at all and waiting for someone to hold your hand isn’t going to get you anywhere.
It’s OK to fail.
Start taking action, time is running out.
14. Keep Testing, Tracking and Improving
Viral Nova has evolved over the last 2 years. Everything from their website design to headlines and content style has seen major transformations on the way.
Why? Because they keep testing new ideas, new styles and new approaches.
Don’t be afraid to do that on your blog as well.
Scott didn’t perfect the art of headline writing on the day he started Viral Nova.
It took careful testing and tracking.
Even here on NicheHacks, you see regular changes to the different elements of the design, placement of the opt-ins and content style.
The more you experiment the more you discover.
Niche Specific Blogs That Found Success With the Viral Nova Formula
I spent a lot of time digging through Viral Nova to come up with this list.
But I know what you’re thinking.
You want niche specific examples, right?
Here you go.
All of these blogs follow one or more of the lessons I’ve just listed. They all seem inspired by Viral Nova.
And they’re finding success.
CoinDesk is the largest blog solely focused on BitCoin and everything related to it. It’s a very specific niche.
In their initial days, CoinDesk regularly applied Viral Nova style headlines to create viral content.
Any car enthusiasts out there?
You must’ve heard about CarThrottle.com, one of the largest communities of car lovers on the web.
Ever since Viral Nova became an nternet sensation, the giys at CarThrottle have been creating headlines, memes and content that follows Viral Nova in every sense.
And they the success they’ve achieved is insane.
Just like Viral Nova, CarThrottle was started by one man. Now it has a fulltime team, and it gets regular sponsorship deals from some the biggest car manufacturers in the world.
Their Facebook page is also one of the most vibrant in this niche.
Spaces is an ecommerce landing page app that offers ways for small businesses and entrepreneurs to sell products online. Users can create responsive landing pages with a fully integrated payment processor for free.
Spaces have been able to generate a sizeable brand following just on the basis of their blog content, which regularly uses Viral Nova style headlines and blog posts.
I’ve seen a few fitness geeks on the NicheHacks Facebook group, so I’m sure some of you might be familiar with DoYouEven.com, and their Facebook pages GymMemes and DoYouEven.com
It’s another great example of a niche specific blog that has implemented the Viral Nova content style perfectly.
Their memes get thousands of shares and their content never goes unnoticed in the health and fitness niche.
The content generated from these pages and blog content fuels the DoYouEven.com shop and generates thousands of dollars in sales every month.
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Are You Ready To Be a Viral Sensation in Your Niche?
So, are you getting any content ideas for your niche?
Should I expect a few changes to your content strategy after this post?
You’ve made it this far, so I’m assuming you’ve learned something valuable from this post and by having a good look at Viral Nova.
Let’s start testing some of these lessons and see how it effects your blog’s performance.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.