Viral strategy behind WaPo’s Know More blog won’t blow your mind; read this anyway

A two-month-old viral blog by The Washington Post (y’know, the venerable 136-year-old newspaper and venerable 17-year-old website) seems to have tapped into the shareable content trend of the moment.

And even if viral content’s a bubble bound to burst — thanks to Facebook interrupting its business model via algorithm changes or otherwise — the Post hardly has much to lose if Know More, a Wonkblog spinoff, doesn’t work out.

But if BuzzFeed and Upworthy manage to maintain full steam ahead, so too should Know More, which has adopted many of the two viral sites’ strategies, including engaging images, click-bait headlines (not necessarily pejorative), and a social media presence summed up in three words: Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.

“The most obvious similarity there is in targeting Facebook rather than Twitter,” said Dylan Matthews, the main reporter behind the blog, via phone. “If you look at any site that does well socially, there’s just a handful that get their traffic from Twitter. Journalists sometimes forget this because we tend to really like Twitter.”

(Ezra Klein explored journalists’ obsession with Twitter recently on Wonkblog.)

Indeed, Know More has a modest Twitter following — about 1,800 at @knowmorewp and 150 at @GnomeOar. On Facebook, it’s nearing 6,100 likes, far fewer than Klein’s 192,500 followers and the Post’s nearly 1.2 million likes. Matthews runs the Facebook page himself but leaves the Twitter feeds to update automatically.

Of course, Know More doesn’t operate independently from the Post; it draws lots of content directly from Wonkblog and other Post blogs. Meanwhile, the institutional social media accounts bring some valuable exposure, and the institution itself provides some instant credibility — credibility that BuzzFeed and Upworthy often unfairly lack, Matthews said. (He and Klein praised the sites over at Nieman Lab for understanding what readers want.)

Yet the site is also forging an identity distinct from the Post, evident from how the image-heavy grid look departs from the design of other Post blogs, which look more like the main site.

“There are certainly Post readers who go to washingtonpost.com and expect the physical newspaper as a website,” Matthews said. “Know More is very different from that, so I think there’s an appropriate separation.”

Matthews said he hasn’t yet cracked the code for what content will go viral — we can’t all be Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman, after all — but even the least successful posts provide loyal readers with some cool lessons about poverty rates or climate change, with referrals to outside sources, often experts in their fields.

A WaPo memo obtained in November by BuzzFeed, naturally, indicated Know More was the news organization’s most-read blog for the third week of October. Among the blog’s bigger early viral successes, which can account for a major share of an entire day’s traffic, according to Matthews:

“I haven’t studied Upworthy and BuzzFeed’s numbers with the talmudic precision I probably should,” Matthews said. “But the thing that’s been surprising us is how much a single thing can do.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dylan Matthews’ name.

Related: Is viral content the next bubble? | Is Facebook’s latest News Feed algorithm really intended to save us from ourselves?

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