If you click on 'creepy' lists, Clayton company may be responsible
Dylan Kickham spends a lot of time figuring out ways to get your attention.
Like other staffers at Clayton-based Gateway Blend, he goes to work each day, dreaming of the next big hit. Of going viral.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of their work.
Just recently, one of his co-workers came up with “20 creepy pictures of celebs next to younger versions of themselves.” That one grabbed 13 million page views.
And then there was “22 completely normal moments in Russia,” which attracted some 10 million views.
Today, Kickham is working on a new idea. Or rather an idea that’s shown some promise in the past. It’s a slideshow based on abandoned cars. It was inspired by a similar article by a co-worker who was, in turn, inspired by something similar elsewhere.
Perched in front of his laptop, he’s scrolling through thousands of online pictures showing cars in various stages of decomposition.
“This is the bulk of my job, just sort of looking through Google images,” said Kickham, 24.
Gateway Blend operates eight websites — its most popular are Brainjet.com and Suggest.com — focused on packaging and sharing online content. In a nutshell, staffers try to figure out what people are interested in seeing, and then build slideshows and short articles to satisfy those interests.
It’s “snackable” content — in the words of Gabe Douek, a St. Louis native and chief executive.
Until late last year, Gateway was part of Answers.com, a St. Louis-based heavyweight in the realm of question and answer websites. Gateway was spun off after Answers was acquired in October by U.K.-based private equity firm Apax Partners in a deal reportedly valued at $900 million.
Following the split, Gateway has moved quickly to establish itself in the world of shared content providers.
Already the company is making plans to double its space in the Clayton office tower, where it occupies a third of the 12th floor. It has 42 employees — a mix of software engineers, marketers and writers — and an eye toward growing the number of websites in its portfolio. The company expects to pull in $60 million in revenue this year.
Douek’s goal is to turn Gateway into a dominant player in the world of shared content, a niche that’s grown up around the way we interact online.
A decade ago, Internet users were more focused on Google and other search engines, giving rise to companies such as Answers.com, which built their content around popular searches. People are still asking questions today, but increasingly, they turn to their social networking friends for answers and entertainment.
Gateway’s various sites — along with larger competitors viralnova.com, elitedaily.com and upworthy.com — use those interactions to draw traffic.
“It’s become one of the more pervasive trends in digital over the past two years,” said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights for Internet traffic monitor comScore.
Yet despite the traffic these sites generate (they can pull in 20 million or more unique visitors each month, according to comScore’s data), it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of them.
One of the challenges facing the business model is that users generally find their way to these websites by way of referral — and then move on.
“They can generate large audiences, but these aren’t audiences that stick around on the site,” Lipsman said.
It creates a constant need to churn out new slideshows, videos and articles aimed at capturing the attention of Internet denizens. But it’s not enough to get someone to click a link taking them to Minq.com, Odometer.com or Swifty.com. They need the exponential growth that only happens when users suggest the articles to friends through their social networks, particularly Facebook, with its 1.2 billion users.
“It’s not hard to produce good content,” Douek said. “It’s hard to produce content that gets shared by millions of people.”
BUZZWORDS AND MORE
The quest for virality starts on Tuesday mornings when staffers gather around a conference table arrayed with MacBooks.
The room is dominated by 20-somethings clad in jeans, hoodies and T-shirts. They are, in many ways, the very demographic Gateway is chasing.
Leading a recent meeting is Chad Garrison, who recently left his job as editor of the Riverfront Times to become Gateway’s director of content.
His staff is broken into three squads, each with a writer, marketer and intern. During the week, each group will focus its attention on two of the company’s eight websites, producing at least eight articles.
Included in the morning’s discussion is news that the company’s food-centric site, Oola.com, recently won a Webby Award, pitted against the New York Times and National Geographic.
“Let’s pay special attention to that this week,” Garrison says, as they talk about ways to spread the word through their own networks of friends — the winner will be decided by popular vote.
The short meeting also includes a bit of brainstorming and a postmortem on articles that did well the previous week, as well some that didn’t.
Garrison is particularly interested in analyzing why a seemingly timely feature “21 fascinating ‘Mad Men’ facts to prepare you for the final episodes” failed to gain traction.
“That was a good post,” Garrison said. “The problem was we launched it on Friday.”
As in two days before the premiere of the second half of the hit show’s final season. A better strategy, he suggests, would have been to publish the article earlier.
It’s a swing and miss illustrating the challenge faced by Garrison and his staffers. They know what people are interested in and what they’re talking about. They see it on sites such as Reddit and Buzzsumo, which offer real-time snapshots of what’s trending on social networks.
“That’s where analytics come in,” said Scott Steinberg, a St. Louis-based technology consultant with TechSavvy. “You can see what people are searching for, and you work backwards. It’s almost like the story has pre-written itself.”
And yet there are no guarantees that any article will touch a collective public nerve. Particularly not when there are droves competing for the Internet spotlight.
“It’s still a challenge to figure it out,” said Kickham, who’s been with Gateway for a little over a year.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some tricks to the trade.
Part of the job is finding buzzwords and other devices that can snag the attention of Web surfers.
It’s long been known, for example, that lists are hard to resist. Someone claims to have photos of the 19 scariest places on Earth, and you almost have to take a peek.
But there’s more.
Things in parentheses work (like, really well). As do buzzwords such as “hacks” and “ever.”
“‘Creepy’ is big right now,” said Kickham, who joined Gateway shortly after graduating from Notre Dame.
For the St. Louis native, this is a far cry from the future he once envisioned. There was a time when he dreamed of working for a magazine such as Rolling Stone. This job — with its need for a quick production pace — is about as far from magazine writing as you can get.
Not that he cares.
“The main thing I wanted to do with magazines was to write about pop culture,” he said. “So I still get to do that.”