What Does This Guy Know About Virality That No One Else Does?

How did Neetzan Zimmerman single-handedly drive 17 million unique visitors for Gawker in a month? 

Neetzan Zimmerman, the man single-handedly responsible for 17 million unique visitors in a single month (!) at Gawker, and before that, founder of The Daily What, is fascinating to me. I wanted to find out who, what and how he does it. Here’s what I learned.

Neetzan Zimmerman, Image: Quora

In the summer of 2008, Neetzan Zimmerman started The Daily What—a Tumblr meant to serve as, in Zimmerman’s words, “a compendium of the most ‘newsworthy’ items of the day, as determined by the Internet.” [4] He explains, “I became increasingly intrigued by what I like to call ‘the Internet as Value Barometer’— deciding not only what there was to know, but what was worth knowing.” [4]

To find content for The Daily What, Zimmerman reverse engineered that concept—the Internet as Value Barometer—eventually developing a formula for anticipating which stories are set to become viral. This system, which we’ll dissect in just a bit, proved to be incredibly reliable.

Both Edith Zimmerman (unrelated), founding editor of The Hairpin, and A.J. Daulerio, editor of Gawker, were surprised to learn that a single person was responsible for The Daily What’s content. As Edith Zimmerman explains, “I figured it was a system of people that were writing this blog because it was so good and so relentless. It just never stopped.” [1]

In just two years, Zimmerman was able to build up a sizeable readership for The Daily What, and in 2010 he sold the site to Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network for “a comfortable five figures.” [1]

Editor of the Internet @ Gawker

“To acknowledge this trend of internet-strip mining,” Gawker’s A.J. Daulerio explained in 2012, “we hired Neetzan Zimmerman to essentially ‘cover’ The Internet for Gawker.” [4] According to Daulerio:

“His coverage isn’t done conventionally, nor is he gravitating to posts he particularly likes: he’s tracking what the Internet’s hive mind will react to by his own system, which is to me more of a sabermetrician’s approach to viral content.” [4]

This move turned out to have been a very smart one for Gawker. Using the system he developed for culling the web’s best content for The Daily What, Zimmerman quickly surpassed the site’s other contributors in both volume—on average, Zimmerman contributes around 15 posts per day—and traffic—in November 2013, Zimmerman’s posts attracted 17.3 million unique visitors.

To put that second number into perspective, in November 2013 around 20 other people were writing for Gawker in addition to Zimmerman, and the site as a whole attracted just under 25 million, meaning that in the month of November, Zimmerman himself was responsible for more traffic than all the other writers at Gawker combined. [1]

Zimmerman’s traffic at Gawker compared to other writers. Image: Capital New York.

And the month of November wasn’t an anomaly. In fact, those numbers are the reason Zimmerman was hired at Gawker in the first place. His presence ensured such a reliable amount of traffic that the site’s other writers had the freedom to cover quirkier, off-the-beaten-path, niche-specific subjects.

This theme was echoed in the memo sent by current editor John Cook upon Zimmerman’s announcement that he was leaving Gawker:

“Neetzan has been tireless, obsessive, and successful beyond measure in his search for stories that people will share and click on and read and rack up precious, life-giving uniques. He has produced some amazing stories of his own, and more importantly made it possible for the rest of you to produce the excellent work you’ve done. And most importantly, he’s done it, in his way, in a manner that aligns with this site’s values. Neetzan is a true believer in Gawker’s editorial mission, and I know that he’s been proud to play a role in subsidizing our ability to do the big stories we’ve accomplished during his time here.” [5]

Despite talk in December of 2013 that Gawker was planning to give Zimmerman his own “corner” [1], Zimmerman announced in early January that he was moving on to the non-competing social network startup Whisper, where he will work “to boost the visibility and promote the sharing of content generated by Whisper’s user base.” Cook continues, emphasizing Zimmerman’s unparalleled ability:

“Anyway, we’re fucked, start traffic-whoring. BUT SERIOUSLY FOLKS: Neetzan will be a loss, but one of the reasons, beyond his talent, that he’s been the guy pulling in the big numbers here is that he has been the guy tasked with pulling in the big numbers here.” [5]

The fact that one man was behind those big numbers is remarkable, yet the question remains—what makes Neetzan Zimmerman so viral?

A Relentless Routine

Every morning around 7:30, Zimmerman begins his day by checking the iPad 2 on his bedside. After scanning Twitter for any big news that might have broken the night before, he moves on to his RSS readers, where he quickly assesses the 700 or so posts that have accumulated while he slept. [1]

For each story, he considers the subject and major themes, as well as the social media response. He explains, “Within 15 seconds, I know whether an item is going to work. It’s a biological algorithm. I’ve put myself into the system—I’ve sort of become the system—so that when I see something I’m instantly thinking of how well it’s going to do.” [2]

In fact, the process must happen quickly, because Zimmerman follows something like 1,000 sites—each of which he’s systematically determined as likely to post viral content. [2] This list, however, is always under evaluation to ensure that content remains interesting and relevant, as new sources are frequently added and dead sources are often deleted. [4]

A Deep Understanding of Emotion

Despite his relentless work ethic and systematic approach to content, Zimmerman doesn’t like to be called a machine. [2] In fact, in considering which stories people are most likely to care about, one factor that plays a critical role is their emotional impact.

He explains, “For me to be plugged into this stuff is like being plugged into the foundation of man. This is the stuff that people really care about, not the stuff that they’re pretending to care about at cocktail parties.” [2]

As Zimmerman explains it, his goal is to take online culture—which he likens to a jungle—“and make it accessible to people coming in from outside.” [3] In a way that computers simply can’t (yet), Zimmerman uses the intuitive understanding he’s cultivated over the past several years to consistently recognize which stories people are going to care about.

He explains, “Anything that captures the imagination of a large enough crowd clearly deserves attention, and I don’t judge.” [3] This willingness to sublimate his own interests and tastes in order to tap into the larger web of human emotion has been critical to Zimmerman’s ability to uncover content primed for virality—it’s not that he’s good at making stories go viral; rather, he’s great at recognizing which stories people are going to want to share and reshare.

A Methodical Approach to Online Trends

But how did he get that way? In part, Zimmerman credits intuition, but that’s not the whole story. In fact, his approach is a very systematic and methodical one. He explains, “I’m following the big story arcs online, like in a soap opera … Like within a trend of cats, different cats will have moments where they’re popular: Grumpy Cat is not popular now, but maybe it’s Lil Bub.”

Paying attention to these big story arcs allows him to keep a running list of which ideas and themes are currently trendy and which one’s aren’t. He explains, “It might be that right now, people don’t care about stories about cats that much, and instead, sloths are more popular. So I’ll have a rule—cats are out, sloths are in, focus on sloths because that’s going to be your meal ticket.” [2]

In 2014, Gawker published “This is How You Make Something Go Viral: An Impractical Guide.” Penned by Zimmerman, the five-step guide details his approach to finding content for The Daily What.

We’ve already covered Step One: Background, which involves the concept of “The Internet as a Value Barometer.” In this step, Zimmerman started by asking himself whether what gets shared is what matters, or, to put it another way, whether the wisdom of the crowd can be used to determine what warrants attention and what can be willfully ignored.

In order to properly answer that question, Zimmerman came up with a structured approach to finding the internet’s MVC (or Most Valuable Content).

This led to Step Two: Experimentation. In this phase, Zimmerman separated the “listeners” from the “storytellers”—or the websites from which the most popular stories were actually coming (Fark, Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, MetaFilter, b3ta, and Oh No They Didn’t) and the websites that were picking up and sharing those stories (Boing Boing, Gawker Media, BuzzFeed, Neatorama, Laughing Squid, and Urlesque).

Zimmerman points out that this was 2008, so these sites might no longer fit neatly into the categories he originally placed them in. Still, this exercise helped him to determine where the MVC was coming from and also to observe how it was passed from one site to another in, as Zimmerman terms it, “an effort to pinpoint the exact moment at which it could be defined as having ‘gone viral.’” [4]

An RSS reader allowed him to organize these sites based on site type and order of influence, which, as he explains, offered “a streamlined, bottom-up view of content progression: From the lower tiers to the top, where the viral magic happens.” [4]

This system helped him to recognize the critical stage in which content went “from radar blip to full-scale red alert,” resulting in some of The Daily What’s most popular content—including Sad Keanu, Nyan Cat, Double Dream Hands, and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” [4]

Because of the nature of the internet, Step Three: Maintenance is imperative. At least once a week, Zimmerman reexamines his sites, adding in any newcomers and making sure established sources are still posting relevant content. He explains, “My rule is simple: If a site hasn’t produced at least one item of value during the week, it drops down a tier. If it bottoms out and still hasn’t proven useful, it’s gone.” [4]

Zimmerman explains that by the time you’ve reached Step Four: Predictability:

“You should be well on your way to gaining a firm grasp on the inner workings of the Internet. So much so, that you don’t even need to wait for content to be deemed valuable by a top tier site in order to know it will eventually end up with that designation.” [4]

This is likely what he means when he talks about intuition. The knowledge acquired in moving through the first three steps allows one to become sufficiently “plugged in,” as Zimmerman puts it, recognizing virality even without understanding it. [2] It’s pattern recognition combined with learned probabilities based on an item’s attributes.

This leads to Step Five: Results. Zimmerman claims the answer to his original question—whether stories that don’t get shared don’t matter—is no. Unpopular content can of course have merit. Nevertheless, Zimmerman claims that “if the purpose of the Internet is to engender exchange, then anything not being shared must therefore, in this context, be worthless.” [4]

Zimmerman also makes it clear that attempting to understand why some things become viral and others don’t isn’t worth the time. He explains, “Being able to determine what will be discussed next is, therefore, far more valuable. Advancing the conversation will always be looked upon more favorably than trying, and likely failing, to start it.” [4]

This principle is, by and large, the key to Zimmerman’s success. He isn’t attempting to start the conversation. Rather, he’s helping to further it by using his understanding of what motivates people to find the content that’s primed for virality and then helping to bring it to the surface.

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