Four years ago, Chris Kolmar and Nick Johnson were working in the Bay Area for Movoto, an online real estate brokerage that matches buyers with agents. Kolmar, a twenty-nine-year-old computer geek with a brain for algorithms, was Movoto's director of marketing. Johnson, thirty-nine, an affable former sports reporter, handled media outreach. Their directive was to drive traffic to the Movoto website so that people could connect with agents, buy houses, and score Movoto finder's fees.
Search-engine optimization was key. Movoto needed to appear prominently when people searched for "realtor Detroit" or "houses for sale Tucson."
But the web was also in the midst of a sea change. Facebook had become the Internet's home page. Sites like BuzzFeed were breaking traffic records—and raking in truckloads of cash—by specializing in the kind of viral ephemera that Facebook users share widely.
What if, Kolmar wondered, Movoto applied BuzzFeed's strategy to Movoto? Businesses creating original content as a way of marketing themselves wasn't a new concept, of course. But the Facebook paradigm held vast potential. A post could reach millions in a single day.
If Kolmar could produce content and get it to go viral, that would translate into big traffic for Movoto's site—and, in theory, big bucks for Movoto.
"The challenge was how to make real estate interesting," Kolmar says. "And we didn't have a team of journalists who could compete with the big media outlets on real estate news. So we started writing these blog posts about things that we knew there was an audience for: what the fictional value of Batman's house might be, or how much Harry Potter's castle would cost."
It soon occurred to Kolmar that posts about neighborhoods, cities, and states were a natural fit. So Movoto started cranking out titles like "These Are The 10 Best Places To Live In Alabama." The methodology—tossing census information, crime rates, tax rates, weather conditions, and a few other factors into an algorithm and writing up whatever it spit out—wouldn't pass muster at a research lab, but that wasn't the point.
"We figured out pretty quickly that if you tell the people in a city that their city is a top-ten best place to live for something, they'll click on you," Kolmar said. "And often, if you send that link to a media outlet in that city, they'll do a story on it."
Kolmar and Johnson had stumbled upon a dark truth about media in the Internet age: Establishment news outlets—TV stations, radio stations, even newspapers—were as desperate for traffic as Movoto was. In this beleaguered media environment, a half-baked Movoto "study" often rose to the level of news. If something smelled vaguely viral, journalists would happily gobble it up. Few editors or reporters seemed to care about the methodology behind Movoto's findings, or even that Movoto was a for-profit enterprise.
Traffic to the Movoto blog skyrocketed, from two thousand visitors per month in 2011 to eighteen million in 2014. But there was a problem.
"The traffic was all crap," Kolmar said. "The people weren't buying houses."
Kolmar and Johnson had become wizards at getting eyeballs, but their audience was mostly clickbait rubberneckers. And though creating all that content was cheap, it wasn't free. Movoto wasn't seeing a substantial re- turn on its investment.
In October 2014, Movoto was purchased by a large Japanese corporation and soon cut the cord on Kolmar and Johnson's viral-content strategy.
Kolmar relocated to Durham, where his wife is a pediatrics resident at Duke Hospital. Johnson and his fiancée later followed them to the Triangle. They wanted to continue working together, building on the knowledge of regional virality they'd acquired at Movoto but in an environment free of the burden of having to sell something.
In other words, a clickbait site.