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Virality Doesn't Always Translate to Payday

From Marilyn Hagerty to Joseph Kony, Notoriety Can Come in a Flash, But There's No Easy Way for the Sites Behind These Viral Subjects to Monetize Them

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With so much media distraction vying for consumer attention, breakout content is everyone's goal. But the truth is that the economics of virality aren't always kind to those who create it.

Take Marilyn Hagerty and the North Dakota newspaper that publishes her restaurant column, the Grand Forks Herald. You probably know by now that her polite Olive Garden review garnered well over 1 million page views after Gawker picked it up and turned the 85-year-old critic into a minor and wholly unforeseen celebrity. In addition to countless blog mentions, tweets and Facebook posts, Ms. Hagerty earned a visit to New York to appear on Anderson Cooper's "Anderson," "Piers Morgan Tonight" and other TV shows.

Yet Marilyn Mania hasn't scored a big revenue hit for the newspaper owned by Forum Communications.

Marilyn Hagerty's Olive Garden review caused a viral stir.
Marilyn Hagerty's Olive Garden review caused a viral stir.

After the dust settled, Paul Amundson, Forum's VP-interactive, said that no direct ad deals resulted from Ms. Hagerty's breakout performance, writing in an email, "The boost in traffic was essentially a boost in dollars from the ad networks." The Forum and Herald team also made other resourceful attempts to monetize, but T-shirts and e-books aren't going to make anyone rich. As of Thursday night, 62 e-books at 99 cents apiece had sold. About 150 shirts had moved, but a chunk of the $20 price tag goes to charity.

"Hits don't always lead to revenue," said Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, the much-talked-about purveyor of memes and, now, technology, politics and culture news. "It's a paradox of online publishing that the moments that generate the most excitement and traffic usually yield the lowest ad rates or go unsold."

Mr. Amundson offered a possible solution: "Having a nationwide exchange, or placement service to take advantage of these unforeseen bursts."

There is a strong sense that something is missing from the online-ad ecosystem, namely a service that allows national advertisers to take advantage of these tough-to-predict spikes in traffic and attention.

This problem is a known one. In 2009, a Wichita Eagle story about a kid who caught a mistake on a test got more than 3 million views in an afternoon for Kansas.com after being linked by Yahoo. According to an editor at the paper quoted by Nieman Journalism Lab, the extra traffic ended up netting only "a few thousand dollars." Blame remnant advertising and its often low rates.

Mr. Amundson, who has seen spikes in the past with weather-related stories, said, "It's difficult to get advertisers to commit to larger dollars "in case' you have a spike."

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