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
"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
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." The
unpredictability of the social web isn't just a problem for local
or regional outfits. On this topic, Mr. Peretti didn't sound all
that different from his counterpart at the Grand Folks Herald.
"Brands want to be close to the action, but spikes are difficult to
predict and sell to advertisers in advance," he said. "I would love
to find an adventurous brand willing to buy a "viral roadblock' on
everything that goes viral on BuzzFeed each month," Mr. Peretti
said. "It would be great for the brand, but they would have to be
willing to give up control of exactly when their ads run and
exactly what type of story they sponsor."
A very different challenge comes with managing the immense flows
of traffic that come from a runaway hit, as in the case of
Invisible Children's "Kony 2012," the controversial video that has
racked up more than 100 million views and become the most viral of
The campaign calling for the arrest of Joseph Kony, a war
criminal and kidnapper, hit its traffic goals for the year in a
single day, dominated chatter on the internet for a few news
cycles, and was a hit from both an awareness and audience point of
view. But there were tough moments along the way, especially in
hosting all those visitors and managing the various systems, from
back-end databases to the donation and sharing services that made
it all come together.
"Usually in the nonprofit space, it's about storytelling and
visuals and making sure the donation platforms work," said Javan
Van Gronigen, founder of Fifty and Fifty, a creative studio for
nonprofits. The studio worked on the campaign with fellow San Diego
"This was a totally different kind of beast."
Interest in "Kony 2012" surged for several reasons: very smart
social-influence strategy that made sharing easy and encouraged the
lobbying of "culturemakers" such as Mark Zuckerberg and Angelina
Jolie; loud criticism it received from parties who believed it
oversimplified events in Uganda; and because the film was both
beautifully executed and a personal exploration of an issue off the
radar to many. (This personal quality became something of a
liability as well, as founder Jason Russell, who stars in "Kony
2012," was detained by the San Diego police force after bizarre
public behavior the week after the video caught on.)
"Kony 2012" was initially posted to Vimeo and then YouTube,
where traffic picked up and sent millions to the site built by
Invisible Children and its partners. Its host, Rackspace, shut it
down, thinking it was a denial-of -service attack. And Facebook,
which has its own usage limits, choked off the sharing for a
"We had a lot of people looking at this from different angles
thinking something was wrong," said Mr. Van Gronigen. "We had to
rebuild everything within two days."
He added: "It's not anything we did wrong, but it wasn't ready
for that traffic."