"More often than I'd like, I'm called an 'outsider' in this industry..." That's the line Vinay Singhal, co-founder and CEO of WittyFeed, began his talk with, at the recently concluded Digipub World, a convention for web publishers. The event was hosted by afaqs! in Gurgaon.
WittyFeed, one of India's largest content platforms, was born out of Vinay's desire to make some sort of dent on the world. "And content was the best way to do that," he realised early on.
"It all started with something very unconventional - engineers trying to create a content company," he said, referring to himself and his co-founders Parveen Singhal (Vinay's brother) and Shashank Vaishnav.
"Our story unfolded in two parts - the first one is a 'global story'. The second one is an 'India story'," he said.
The Global Story...
"It all started with a Facebook page called 'Amazing things in the world' - a community of six million people now," Vinay began. The year was 2012; he was still an engineering student.
"We started it with the basic aim of making people smile. There was a lot of negative, depressing content - politics, etc. - on Facebook, so we thought we'd give people something inspiring and motivating... something to feel happy about," he said, "That was our first introduction to the world of content and social media. It went viral. In six months we had a million organic fans, from all over the world, including the US, UK, as well as India... that's when we realised the power of content and social media..."
That's when Vinay and team asked themselves: What did we do right? The answer is: "We cared about the audience. We were consistent about what we posted on the page, we took it seriously and we responded to every single person who messaged us - that started a lot of conversations. And that's when we realised that we didn't go viral on Facebook; we went viral offline."
That's great, but what does a college student do with a million Facebook fans? "Make some money," said Vinay, going on to tell the audience about the next step. He set up a website and leveraged all this Facebook buzz to drive traffic to it. Being engineers, this was the easy part.
Then, "the bug of being an entrepreneur bit us..." The question now facing them was: What's the problem we are trying to solve with this? Also - What is the scale of this business? What about sustainability? Basically, they had to think about where they were headed. "We had about 1,00,000 people coming our website every day, and were making about Rs.25 lakh a month... what next?" he said.
The problem was simple: They had a Facebook page that they wanted to use to make money. He added, "It's about creating, and then monetising, a community. There is no easy way available. You have to set up a website, create content, get the right infrastructure and technology to be able to handle the traffic that comes to you. You have to work with the Googles and Facebooks of the world, put up their ads, make sure they don't block you, ban you..."
This understanding led toViral9, an 'influencer platform', through which online influencers help send traffic to WittyFeed, for a fee. "The game of content is won by those who understand and control distribution. Look at conventional media - print, radio, TV - the successful ones are those with maximum circulation," he stated.
Viral9 pretty much paved the way for WittyFeed, a dot com that boasts 100 million "uniques" a month, today (according to Vinay). About 60 per cent of this traffic is not from India.
Vinay and team earned Rs.30 crore in revenue last year and "not a single rupee was from brands." WittyFeed comprises 110 employees; most of them are based in Indore.
The India Story...
To Vinay, all of this - including making that whopping revenue - was the easy part. The hard bit was 'the India story'. They started to lose money in India, because programmatic was not working here the way it worked for his team globally ("89 per cent of all inventory is being bought through programmatic in the US, but only 11 per cent in India"). They then tried "selling directly to brands."
In the process, Vinay picked up three lessons: First, in this country, perception is greater than numbers; build your brand, don't chase numbers. "Numbers should matter, but they don't, as yet," he shrugged. Second, when it comes to content marketing, "brands don't really care about your content; they'll tell you what content to create and as publishers, you have to adjust."
Third, there is an India - "a big one" - beyond Delhi and Mumbai; "brands in this country need to understand this. Our Hindi website numbers are much larger than our English website numbers, but we haven't sold a single article on our Hindi website, yet. Brands and agencies feel 'Hindi-wali audience 'anpad' hai," Vinay said.