Up until today, no one knew for sure who was behind ViralNova, the home for sharable, clickable, viral content that takes stories circulating the news and churns them into a simple format that reaches the emotional threshold of its readers. When it launched in May of this year, according to Alexa, it was the 443,652nd most popular website in the world.
Now it’s ranked 1,685th.
The headline model for the site is laughably smart. First, take a news story, add the phrase “you won’t believe” or “this ____ made me cry, but” and then the kicker sentence: “what happens next will blow your mind” or “then this happened.” There’s your recipe for viral success.
But this kind of headline is not new.
This ad — They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano — But When I Started To Play! — was created in 1926, and went on to become one of the most popular and successful ads in history. It turns out it’s the inspiration of the guy who is behind ViralNova, too.
Its format has been adopted many times over the last 87 years, and now it’s finding new life in sites where the objective is to deliver content that tugs at the heartstrings.
Scott DeLong, who was revealed by The Wire this morning as the man responsible for the site, told Business Insider he stares at the poster everyday.
DeLong is 31 years old and lives in Ohio. He works on his own, spending each day scouring sites to find stories that could be ViralNova-fied.
We gave him this story from ABC News today: Man Cited For Tossing Cash At The Mall Of America. Almost immediately, he emailed us back with his ViralNova headline:
This Guy Got In Trouble For What He Did At The Mall. But Everyone There Loved It.
“You put me on the spot!” he wrote us when he sent back this headline. “I spend 20-30 minutes a day coming up with headline variations until I settle on one. I probably wouldn’t keep this one.”
In the last few weeks, DeLong has fielded dozens of emails from countless reporters trying to figure out who he is and what he does. His answers to Business Insider were relatively simple: He’s a web developer. He started ViralNova as a side project to make some extra money. Being removed from the media scene, he says he doesn’t really understand why everyone is so interested in what he’s doing.
So why are we? He’s doing something many sites strive to do everyday with a large staff and lots of funding: create stories that people want to share with their friends, over and over again.
DeLong says he has ”They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano but When I Started to Play!” framed above his desk.
“I think it’s the most perfect headline ever written, and those same psychological reasons for that working is why ViralNova is, so far, working today,” DeLong told Business Insider.
The man behind the original ad is John Caples, and he died in Manhattan in 1990. Much of his obituary in the New York Times focuses on the piano advertisement, which he wrote for the U.S. School of Music.
The ad had been an instant success.
For the last 87 years, scores of imitations used ”They laughed when . . . ” as a lead-in; sites like ViralNova and UpWorthy are no exceptions. A book of the same name was published in 1959, to teach people the history of advertising, decades before viral content would become a leading player in digital journalism and advertising.
What Caples understood first was that creating the piano ad was not simply about selling piano lessons to those who did not know how to play. Rather, he captured his audience with the promise of emotional benefit; the boy in the ad feels emotion after successfully playing the piano when no one believed in him, and those reading the ad are encouraged to be proud of him and want to replicate that same emotion for themselves (“maybe I can learn how to play the piano, and that can be me!”)
Stories aren’t ads, but headlines can be; someone is writing them to sell a click.
DeLong understands that what he’s selling through the site’s stories is human emotion and an innate curious ity to find out more, which after 87 years, has proved to be fool-proof.
“The ad doesn’t just say “Learn How To Play the Piano” or “How To Learn Piano In 30 Days.” That’s inherent in the headline. So it goes one step further and strikes into the human emotion that we’re all selfish jerks who want to impress people…we want to shock and surprise them,” DeLong explained. “We want to feel on top of the world, and this ad promises your moment of glory all in just a few relevant words. That’s why it works.”