DAN Interviews

"Content is not great unless it's viral..."

31 Jul 2017

... says Vinay Singhal, founder of WittyFeed, one of India's largest content platforms. What exactly is it? And why hasn't the market noticed it yet?

Social media giant Facebook's sheer size - two billion active users currently - has enabled some quick-thinking, tech-oriented content startups to use the network smartly, and grow rapidly in a short span of time. On the flipside, one remains at the mercy of Facebook's ever-changing algorithms. Balancing itself precariously in this position, is WittyFeed, a dot com that grew to become one of India's largest websites in just over two years since its launch in 2014.

What Is WittyFeed?

WittyFeed is a content company that its founders brand as a 'platform for content creators, distributors and consumers.' Essentially, data-led 'buzzy' content, mostly in the form of 'listicles', 'charticles' and image-heavy stories, is curated/created by an in-house team and 'seeded' or 'boosted' via a network of over 15,000 paid influencers who've signed up on a separate site called Viral9.com. These influencers are mostly individuals or communities with a significant number of followers on their social media pages.

The company's young founders (average age: 25 years) began their entrepreneurial journey in 2010, while still in engineering college in Chennai. Vinay Singhal (27), his brother Parveen Singhal (23) and friend Shashank Vaishnav (27), had five failed digital ventures - under parent company Vatsana Technologies - which they had created with four other friends. In 2014, they shifted to Vaishnav's hometown Indore, giving entrepreneurship one last attempt. They launched Wittyfeed.com, and decided to give it six months to click. It did.

The company that started with 15 employees, and barely any money, now employs 120 people. "Revenue-wise we have booked around Rs. 30 crore in March 2017, and are hoping to touch Rs. 50 crore in the current fiscal," claims Vinay Singhal, the company's CEO.

What Made It Click?

Vinay Singhal

Singhal attributes it to two things. "Our biggest cost was distribution - our influencers. We realised we had to build loyalty, create value for them by guiding them on engagement, managing their communities better, and subsequently reducing the price we pay to them," he says.

He adds, "Secondly, in the long run, when you build a company on programmatics (that is, one that focuses on revenue from digital ad exchanges like Google and other ad exchange partners), optimisation takes time. It took those six months to optimise our display ad avenues. We worked out the influencer costs-plus-optimisation math, and broke even soon after."

In just over two years, WittyFeed has managed to shine amidst formidable competition. comScore's India market data for May this year shows Wittyfeed.com at 75.2 million page views, Scoopwhoop.com at 53.5 million and Buzzfeed.com at 15.8 million. Unique users for these sites are at 8.87 million, 8.65 million and 4.05 million, respectively. (Source: comScore MMX-Multi-Platform - Desktop and Mobile, May2017, India).

45 per cent of Wittyfeed.com's traffic comes from India, and the rest from the US, UK, Canada and other regions. (Source: SimilarWeb)."Vis-a-vis our India share, we are the largest player in the country," claims Singhal.

Incidentally, Google Analytics data shows that while WittyFeed had 89 million visits in April this year, its June numbers are down to 41 million. Singhal attributes this dip to the segregation of the site into two separate websites - wittyfeed.com for India, and wittyfeed.me for international users. He also cites recent changes in Facebook's Newsfeed algorithm as another factor, and adds that they are recovering slowly.

How do they secure themselves against this high dependency on Facebook? Singhal admits that almost 90 per cent of WittyFeed's traffic comes via Facebook. "In social publishing, across players, content is spoon-fed to the user, based on what they like and follow. We have improvised and figured out the best ways to get the most out of FB, so instead of dependency, I'd like to call that the 'reality of this segment'," he explains. He does add that it's not a great state to be in, and that the company is focused on building more revenue sources.

Creating Contagious Content

There seems to be a lot of work - and data - behind the content. "We have a tool that tells us which keyword can go viral, on which day of the week. For example, a story on pregnancy will go viral on a Friday if you publish it on Wednesday. That's an insight from a tool that uses data from the net as well as past WittyFeed data. It will even give us the ideal length of the title and the body, and identify the writers who wrote the best story on a given keyword," explains Singhal.

He adds, "If there is breaking news for instance, we won't cover the core news, but (publish) something related to it instead. Say there's a blast. We will wait for an hour or two and collect some stories from the blast site - like survivor stories, hero stories or ten images that will invoke some emotion. Our influencer pages too are very insightful."

One key method, he reveals, is to pick one keyword and draw left and right (content) lines, that can branch out to generate 20-25 potentially viral ideas. "I believe content is not great unless it's viral... that's our mandate to our team," asserts Singhal, admitting that minimally-controlled user-generated 'spammy' content and fake news, do degrade the value of the word 'viral'.

Also, online video is still the buzz, and WittyFeed is keen to ride it. Then team has set up a studio in Indore to this end. Singhal says, "We have built video properties like Foodmate, and also have videos across content genres. Currently, we produce 20-25 videos weekly, and that will only increase. Our focus is on more on faceless videos as that will have global appeal."

View From The Outside

Gurjot Shah Singh, media head, Dentsu Webchutney, a digital agency, says that among content aggregators, WittyFeed has been growing exponentially because of a customer-insight based outlook. "Brands have shifted their marketing strategies from a product to a story-based approach. Engagement, relatability and shareability are key, and Wittyfeed has kept that focus using a judicious mix of text, visuals and graphics, that is, the charticle format," he says.

Why hasn't the market noticed them yet? While many haven't heard of them, others are unsure of their business model. Singhal feels it's all about positioning. He admits, "We missed out on the whole 'perception game'. We thought we'd just do our work and recognition would follow, not realising we had to communicate. We were sitting in a tier II city focused on programmatic tools. We don't have an agency background. Other players have built their brands from a client perspective. For us word is spreading only now."

How Will WittyFeed Woo Brands?

According to Singhal, while most companies are driven by "gut feel," the investments they make on digital publishers ought to be "trackable and transparent."

WittyFeed does rely heavily on click-bait headlines, and, sometimes, on 'racy' content. Doesn't that deter advertisers? "We are working hard on our content processes," says Singhal, admitting that because some of the content is not filtered properly, it could border on 'edgy'. "Eight months ago, we understood we need to be more responsible about how and what we write. We are focused on improving quality, and it is all work-in-progress," he says.

The company has recently set up a brand sales team in Delhi, Mumbai and the US. Singhal says, "It is only now that we've started cracking deals. We have done small campaigns for almost 60 brands, and they are coming back with bigger projects."

Looking Beyond Facebook

Singhal tells us the company is currently beta testing a product on its influencer platform, wherein every mobile app can become a potential app/platform for WittyFeed. "Even if we crack just 100 apps with an average size of five lakh downloads - that's not a huge number - we will be able to double our traffic," claims Singhal.

He reasons that most apps are going 'the content way' to keep the user engaged. "Take for instance a shopping app," he explains, "We will pay them to place our organic content in a separate section within the app. We'll build the technology ourselves and completely white-label the solution for them. So while the end consumption of the story takes place on WittyFeed, everything else happens on that shopping app."

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