A Lesson from Neetzan Zimmerman in Going Viral

Virality is the holy grail of content marketing. In fact, it’s the holy grail of online content, full stop. But producing stories and going viral is a precarious business, as evidenced by Farhad Manjoo’s fascinating profile of Gawker writer Neetzan Zimmerman in The Wall Street Journal this week.

Zimmerman’s stories routinely get 30 million page views a month. He has an internal human-interest algorithm and an eye for sharability—he just seems to know what people will click on. While the whole piece is worth reading, the most interesting nugget for marketers and public relations professionals comes at the very end. “Over the last few years viral news has been co-opted by advertisers, pranksters, political operatives and others looking to sell something,” writes Manjoo. “When he can, Mr. Zimmerman tries to note when a story looks fishy and might harbor some ulterior motive. But telling the truth kills virality.” That is, a stunt that gets called out for being a stunt won’t travel and will not be going viral.

We’re living in the age of the virality industrial complex, and one thing is clear: fun, captivating and engaging content has the very real ability to take on a life of its own. Rather than adhering to a boring message or trying to manipulate an algorithm, advertisers should think more like Zimmerman and recognize what makes people click and share things—and then make that. After all, a little click bait is never a bad thing. A good cat video is a good cat video, no matter who paid for it.