Inside the Indian BuzzFeed competitor you’ve never heard of

Jayadevan PK May 24, 2016 14 min

It is well past midnight and Parveen Singhal roars on a black Royal Enfield 500cc Thunderbird through the streets of Indore. His friends and relatives try to keep pace with him on their motorbikes and a car but it is Singhal, 21, who pulls first into their destination: Sarafa, a food street by night that is open until 2am.

The motley group of young men, bubbly girls, and even Singhal’s parents who preferred to ride in a Maruti Swift car, feast on dahiwada and papdi chaat — call it North Indian fast food, if you will — from shops lining the street. It’s all washed down with banta, a flavoured soda often rich in colour.

An hour later, Singhal hits the sack exhausted, ending a long Sunday and knowing he has a long day (and week) ahead at WittyFeed, a company he co-founded with his elder brother and his friend.

What does WittyFeed do and why did I fly in to Indore write about it? WittyFeed, owned by Vatsana Technologies, is into viral content. The kind of content that is massively shareable and generates a lot of interest instantly, primarily on social media.

As marketing dollars get vacuumed into digital media and advertisers look for the largest catchment of eyeballs, viral content sites — global leaders are BuzzFeed, Upworthy and ViralNova — have tasted both popularity and prosperity. On the Internet, most publishers chase traffic aggressively. The more number of people on your site, the more money you can make.

In terms of pure traffic, WittyFeed might be India’s answer to BuzzFeed, raking in numbers that digital rivals can only dream of. In April, the site clocked over 82 million visits — nearly four times that of ScoopWhoop, a more visible Indian viral content site. Data from SimilarWeb, which measures website traffic, shows that ScoopWhoop had 22.9 million visits in April, while WittyFeed clocked 82.7 million visits. BuzzFeed, the world’s largest viral content site, of course, is far ahead — it had 259 million visits the same month.

EVERYDAY IS A WORKDAY

A typical week at WittyFeed begins on a Sunday with a huddle where team leaders update the rest of the company about the week gone by and their plans for the week ahead. “There is no point taking a holiday on a Sunday because you can’t do anything here,” says Vinay Singhal, CEO and co-founder, and Parveen’s elder brother.

At a recent team meeting, an employee pipes up, “Last week 300 stories were created and nine of them crossed one million page views.” Another presents monthly statistics: “We had 74.3 million traffic last month, it was a little less than the previous month because of the block.” The block referred to Facebook. Nearly 40% of WittyFeed’s traffic comes from the world’s largest social network, and on April 27, Facebook blocked WittyFeed. “Facebook mistook us for a spam site and blocked all our links,” says CEO Singhal, who is 26.

Today, things are back to normal at the 60-member company and traffic is picking up. Singhal reckons that the site will easily clock 90 to 100 million visitors in May. These numbers put them well past some of largest viral websites in the world like Upworthy or ScoopWhoop.

Source: ComScore
Source: ComScore

To those who doubt WittyFeed’s numbers, Singhal confidently shows off the site’s Google Analytics page which displays its traffic statistics.  In the last six months, WittyFeed has clocked nearly 1.5 billion page views and over 170 million users. Alexa, another service that ranks websites based on their popularity, counts WittyFeed among the top 200 sites in the world. That puts the Indore site ahead of Forbes.com or even WashingtonPost.com. In India, only a few websites such as Indiatimes.com, run by the Times Group, and online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart are ahead of WittyFeed in terms of traffic.

Some of these numbers may need to be taken with a pinch of salt (for instance, you can doctor Google Analytics numbers by having a bot “visit” your site frequently) but it is clear that WittyFeed’s numbers cannot be brushed aside as cooked up. Traffic tracker ComScore, which most marketers use to apportion advertising dollars, puts WittyFeed’s traffic from smartphones in India ahead of BuzzFeed India. ComScore estimates WittyFeed’s traffic originating on Indian mobile phones at 5.85 million users versus BuzzFeed’s 2.56 million in India. ComScore also doesn’t report worldwide numbers for smartphones.

The traffic reflects in Vatsana Technologies’s cash flows. The company clocked revenues of ₹26 crore in the year toMarch 31, 2015, says Singhal who started the website in September 2014 with two other co-founders — his batchmate from engineering college, Shashank Vaishnav, 25, and brother Parveen. Vatsana had revenues from other small businesses earlier. “We have a 25-30% margin on the revenues that we make,” says Singhal.

However unlikely it might seem, for the three, the mission is to overtake BuzzFeed at some point. After taking care of their expenses, they reinvest all of the money back into the business — hiring more people and improving infrastructure. Their current office is spread over about 1,800 sq ft, bursting at the seams with over 60 employees sitting in rows facing the same side. Soon, the team will move to a 10,000 sq ft office in the same half-empty mall it operates out of currently, complete with a gym, cafeteria and a work area which can seat 150 employees. Singhal says the WittyFeed team will be 100-strong by end of the year.

Wittyfeed Vision Board

“Numbers wise, BuzzFeed is the god of the industry,” says Singhal. With mostly user generated content, It will be an uphill battle for WittyFeed to match up to the content quality of BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed has a certain tonality and quality associated with it which is the best in the industry,” said Sandeep Amar, the CEO of India.com, a leading news portal. BuzzFeed, which started as a viral content site focused on just attracting eyeballs has, in recent years, tried to raise the quality of its content and even has put together an investigative journalism team.

WittyFeed has ambitions of launching sponsored stories and branded content, much like how BuzzFeed makes money. It is slowly trying to improve the quality of its content, as well. “We don’t want to stay a viral content site. We want to become a holistic media company like Vice. They are a different class altogether,” says Singhal. “That is the company we look up to and want to be like in three to five years.” Vice is among the world’s largest new media companies focussed on millennials and is known for its edgy, high quality content. WittyFeed recently hired Alok Vani, a media professional with over 15 years of experience at media houses such as CNBC and India TV, to help craft its content strategy.

A VILLAGE-TO-TOWN STORY

Praveen (L) & Vinay (R) Singhal.
WittyFeed founders Parveen (L) and Vinay Singhal.

The Singhal boys success reflects on their family. They have moved from their Haryana village, Noonsar, to a new house in Palasia, an affluent locality in Indore. (Noonsar lies about 170 km west of New Delhi.)

After finishing Class 10 in 2006, Vinay went to Kota, Rajasthan to study further. He took up biology because he wanted to become a doctor. “I was like everyone is becoming a doctor, I’ll also do that,” he says, oblivious that he might be loud in the Cafe Coffee Day we are at. He comes across the archetypal young marwari businessman — his father used to run a general store in their village — and his risk-taking nature extends to the things that he has committed to.

Sometime last year, he married the woman he loved — his schoolmate from Noonsar. Most urban Indian wouldn’t bat an eyelid at this, but in traditional families, marrying a woman from another caste would have meant being ostracised — and sometimes even killed to “protect” the family honour. After carefully planning for almost six months, the two got married. “Why should I not do something I want to because some ass***e in society doesn’t want me to?” asks Singhal.

Most of his worldview was formed after he left his village. “Those were the two years I was exposed to the outside world for the first time,” he says. Singhal soon realised that he was passionate about computers. He found inspiration in tech luminaries like Bill Gates. “I was so naive that I thought I’ll make a better OS (operating system) and become richer than him,” he says.

Soon he dropped his plans to become a doctor and studied to become an engineer. Singhal met his co-founder, Vaishnav, in the Tamil Nadu- based Sri Ramaswamy Memorial University, better known as SRM University, where he studied computer science. His younger brother, Parveen, was still in school at the time. The four years of engineering education in Tamil Nadu was when Singhal caught up with the rest of the world. “I watched 150 hollywood movies on my laptop in one year,” he says, chuckling. It helped him get better at English and understand the outer world better.

In his first year at SRM, Singhal set up a website called BadlegaBharat.com (translates to India will change) with six college mates. But they needed money. “Even to do patriotic activities you need money.” The group decided to design and set up websites to make money and came up with the name Vatsana by putting the first letter of everyone in the group together (Vatsana also means trust in Thai).

As work picked up, Singhal discovered that coding was not his cup of tea. He was better at business. For two years they made and sold websites, mostly for relatives, friends and seniors from college. In the meantime, the group fell apart due to various reasons. “We had our differences,” Singhal says. Parveen, meanwhile, fresh out of school,had joined SRM to do a bachelors in Information Systems Management. “He introduced social media to the company,” recalls the CEO brother. Parveen is now responsible for content and traffic at WittyFeed.

In 2012, Vatsana launched a Facebook page called “Amazing things in the world”, which is where the WittyFeed trio tasted blood. “It was targeted to bring positivity to the newsfeed,” says Singhal, who graduated from SRM with 7.5 points. In six months, the page had one million fans without spending a single penny on advertising. Today, it has 4.2 million Likes. The page is an endless stream of amazing photographs and videos from around the world, like baby elephants taking a mud bath at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka. “We used to reply to nearly 200 messages every day,” says Singhal.

Soon, the three came up with the idea of creating a platform where everyone could create their own stories. TheStupidStation.com was created and traffic was driven to the site from their Facebook page. “When our classmates had taken up a package of ₹3 lakh for a year, we were making  ₹8-10 lakh every month,” Singhal recalls. The traffic was driven to the site mostly from Facebook.

In April 2014, they moved to Indore from Chennai because it was Vaishnav’s hometown and it cheaper to run a startup out of. “We come here, work hard for a few years and we’ll be probably kings of the city,” he says of the thinking behind the move to Indore. It was hard to brand TheStupidStation as a serious media player so they abandoned the site and launched another site called evrystry.com. That didn’t stick either. Then came the idea of WittyFeed, a name that would “roll off the tongue,” and was easy to remember.

THE VIRAL CODE: CRACKED

What’s working really well for WittyFeed is the traffic that comes from Facebook. Its stories, mostly about celebrities, shocking facts, grotesque videos or pictures get shared quite a bit. For instance, a story headlined: “He walks into women’s locker room and gets the shock of his life,” has over 300,000 views. Another one: “Prevent unwanted pregnancy using these shocking methods and no condoms at all” has 200,000 views on the site. A creepy video of a man pulling out an ingrown hair out of his beard has hundreds of thousands of views. To be fair, BuzzFeed also does this kind of content.

This, however, is probably not enough to get the kind of numbers WittyFeed claims.

The site has figured out a nifty hack to drive traffic. At first, they drove traffic to WittyFeed from their own “Amazing things in the world” Facebook Page. But then they figured that other Pages with a large following could help them drive a lot more traffic. So they set up a site called Viral9 on which people with a large social media presence, or influencers, can sign up. Influencers can then pick up links to WittyFeed content and share it on their Facebook pages. WittyFeed pays the influencers a cut, depending on how much traffic they generate.

This was a breakthrough for WittyFeed. Nearly 6,000 influencers including the likes of Womansera, a fortnightly women’s interest magazine and Women’s Rights News have signed up to share WittyFeed’s content. An influencer gets $7 for generating 1,000 views from countries like the US, UK, Canada or Australia. Outside these countries, they get $2 per 1,000 views.

But signing up influencers to share content meant that WittyFeed needed more content in the first place. Which is why WittyFeed created a platform for authors to create content with ease. An in-house editorial team approves the content and pushes it on to WittyFeed. Authors are paid according to the performance of their stories. Nearly 200 such authors create 80% of WittyFeed’s content. Vaishnav, the co-founder and CTO of WittyFeed, built the platform with less than a dozen engineers and lots of help from startup folks he met in Chennai. “People like Harishankaran of HackerRank and Vivek Durai from Chennai’s startup ecosystem have really helped us,” said Vaishnav. HackerRank, is backed by top investors like Vinod Khosla and Silicon Valley-based incubator Y Combinator. Durai runs Termsheet.io, a platform which helps early stage startups raise funds.

The team also has figured out other ways to make content viral. By reading up closely on BuzzFeed’s strategy as well as applying their own hacks, they have managed to piece together almost a formulaic approach to viral content. “Celebrity content is mostly viral. Then relatable content is viral (for instance a story on what your eye color says about your personality),” says Singhal.

“Virality ka jo scene hai, has three factors…firstly, it should be clickable. Secondly it should be shareable and the third is seeding of content,” explains Singhal. Clickability comes from making people curious with just a smart headline and a good thumbnail. Then comes the content itself. “The sole purpose of the article is to generate an emotion..any emotion. When that happens, you will share it.”

But for these two things to happen, you need to push the content first in front of people. “If you seed the content to the right kind of audience in the right size, it will go through the clickability and sharabilty cycle and become viral,” says Singhal with the conviction of an expert. Virality is also science, adds Vaishnav. BuzzFeed has understood this well and calls it the Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion, he points out.

Shashank Vaishnav, CTO, Wittyfeed.
Shashank Vaishnav, CTO, WittyFeed.

Still, some industry executives are baffled by the numbers shared by WittyFeed. “I’ve never heard of them before,” says a New Delhi media executive, requesting anonymity because he works for one of India’s highest traffic news sites. After visiting WittyFeed, he points out that the site makes users click multiple times to finish reading a story breaking the user experience badly. “We don’t want to do that. But first we need to get our content quality and branding up,” says Singhal.

“They seem to have cracked the problem from both sides very well. Their cost of acquiring content is low because of the user-generated model and their distribution strategy is also very interesting,” says Sreejith Sivanandan, former Senior Director and Asia Head  of Publisher Services at AOL. That said, he adds, big-spending brands and advertisers tend to shy away from sites that have too much user-generated content and low editorial authority. Advertisements on WittyFeed  include those from  SpiceJet, Firstcry and Google — mostly served by ad networks run by Google and Rocket Fuel.

The Monday after the Sarafa outing, Parveen walks into office late in the morning. Vaishnav has just woken up from a nap on the sofa after coding through the night with his team to fix some bugs on a new version of WittyFeed. Back in his cabin, which is shared by Shashank, Vani and Vinay, Parveen plans his next piece of viral content for the week: a video for mother’s day that is just around the corner. It’s a simple collation of videos of a bunch of a people saying “mother fuc**r” or similar abuses in different languages. And, ends with a question “How does it feel when someone says this to your mother?” The English is not quite Wren & Martin, but —  predictably — the video has nearly 175,000 views on Facebook.

Maybe BuzzFeed had better watch out. Maybe.

Note: This article has been edited to correct typos. A picture depicting WittyFeed’s Google Analytics statistics has been replaced by a table from ComScore showing their statistics.