Earlier this year, an Indore-based seemingly nondescript website claimed to have become the world’s second-largest and India’s largest viral content company, amassing numbers that left popular social media platforms far behind.
A few months later, one of its videos compiling popular Bollywood songs from the 90s generated over 8 million views in two days, more than a lakh shares, a lakh-and-a-half likes and over 15,000 comments.
Welcome to WittyFeed, where traffic records are broken and created like nobody's business.
No wonder, then, website traffic monitoring firm Alexa ranks this BuzzFeed lookalike as the 31st most visited site in the country. To put that into perspective, its closest competitor in viral content, ScoopWhoop, is ranked a lowly 446. In February, WittyFeed hit its highest-ever India ranking of 20.
And how long has it taken WittyFeed to scale these heights? Merely three years.
With publishers of generic content dime a dozen, how has WittyFeed created an impact this fast? Is this traction leading to some tangible monetisation for the startup?
What makes it tick?
Surprisingly, WittyFeed has an extremely simple proposition. It curates and produces listicles, charticles, visual-led content and videos on subjects ranging from general entertainment, sports, lifestyle and health to fashion, travel, relationships and films, among others. In short, there is nothing unique about its content.
Yet its posts cut through competition and are lapped up by millions, thanks to its unique distribution and promotion model. WittyFeed employs close to 15,000 paid influencers who are part of another pay-per-click network, viral9.com, which helps bloggers monetise on social media. These influencers pass on WittyFeed's content to their community of followers who share it further, making the content go viral.
WittyFeed currently pays $8-10 for 1,000 clicks to its influencers in the US and Rs 100 to those in India.
And how does WittyFeed make money? It monetises eyeballs through the tried-and-tested method of advertising. It has worked with 35-40 brands so far for branded content and advertising.
Fruits of labour
The content WittyFeed produces may be generic but a lot of hard work goes into it at every step, whether it's picking topics with virality potential or giving them a social media push. The team, for instance, employs a tool that throws up keywords that are likely to go viral. Such is the level of detail and precision that different keywords are chosen for different days of the week and slots during the day.
The in-house analytics team guides writers on the the right copy length, the title and the composition of words. Most of the learning, based on past experiences, is documented.
This blend of technology, analytics and intuition is what keeps WittyFeed ahead of the pack.
While the startup currently produces four to five videos a day, it is keen on developing its video capabilities. Says co-founder and chief executive Vinay Singhal: “Videos are extremely important. It leads to faster consumption and more engagement. Bandwidth is no longer a problem.”
The beginning: Trial and error
Brothers Vinay and Parveen Singhal met their future business partner, Shashank Vaishnav, while studying computer science engineering in Chennai's SRM University in 2010. While on campus, they developed a mobile platform, FollowMe247, that enabled communication between teachers and students. The tool became an instant hit on the campus, and it was eventually subscribed to by several other colleges.
However, given its limited monetisation potential, the trio decided to shelve FollowMe247 and focus their energies on exploring more sound business ideas.
Incidentally, during his early days in college, Vaishnav had launched a Facebook page called 'Amazing Things In The World’, wherein he posted pictures and content that stood out. The page found traction among users, and the three launched a new Facebook page, StupidStation, in early 2013. This is when the seeds of WittyFeed were sown.
After graduation, the trio decided to move back to their hometown, Indore, but the entrepreneurship bug had bit them rather deep. They again set up Evrystry.com, another viral content portal. However, it couldn’t sustain either and eventually rolled into what would come to be known as WittyFeed.
Cut to the present, the once-fledgling WittyFeed has more than 100 employees. Vinay claims the site has 100 million monthly visitors.
Traction and finances
Before advertisements started to trickle in, WittyFeed's founders paid Facebook influencers and communities from the money they had borrowed from family and friends.
But things are different now. Thanks to its stratospheric traffic numbers, a slew of brands from media firms to educational institutions to dating apps like Tinder are paying WittyFeed for sponsored content.
Says Daulat Singh Chauhan, managing director of Gwalior-based MBA college ITM (which is an advertiser on WittyFeed): “They [WittyFeed] cater to our target market, the youth. We calculate our return of investment on the reach of these stories [branded content] and the leads we get. In that sense, they are cost-effective, too.”
The company behind WittyFeed, Vatsana Technologies Pvt. Ltd, is profitable, too. According to VCCEdge, the data arm of News Corp VCCircle, the company clocked a profit after tax of Rs 93 lakh for FY16, a huge improvement over the Rs 90 lakh loss in the previous fiscal. Total income was Rs 25.9 crore in FY16, up from Rs 2.6 crore in FY15.
Vinay claims the net margins are around 15-20%.
Funded entirely by the Singhal brothers and Vaishnav, the bootstrapped startup has not gone behind venture capital so far. But Vinay is planning to raise a Series A round of $5 million this year, at a valuation of $30 million.
Rewarding as it might be, the online world presents many a challenge for entrepreneurs.
In August last year, Facebook introduced its anti-clickbait algorithm to crack down on publishers that withhold, exaggerate or distort information. The move, Facebook said, was aimed at showing people stories that are most relevant to them, and discouraging sensationalism.
Since Facebook is where WittyFeed's bread is buttered, this must have been a huge blow. But Vinay says it was a blessing in disguise.
“Facebook cracked down on a lot of companies who were spreading fake news and clickbait articles. We were happy that this policy came out. These smaller players who were doing bad content have been wiped out,” he says.
WittyFeed, which now calls itself a content marketing company, wants to focus on brand marketing by teaming up with corporates.
From experimenting with Facebook pages to helming one of India's fastest-growing viral websites, WittyFeed's founders have come a long way indeed. But they don't want to take their foot off the pedal.
For, in this world, you are either viral (read: relevant) or dead. There is no room for complacency.