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At the onset of the last monsoon, Vinay Singhal, one of the co-founders of content site WittyFeed, was putting in place a strategy to make it the largest viral content site in the world.

The timing could not have been better. BuzzFeed, the largest viral content player, was missing all its revenue targets with readership growth coming to almost a standstill and employees being laid off.

Singhal, in the four years of running WittyFeed operations, had added eight more internet-based content brands in India, the US and the Philippines. WittyFeed saw it as the right opportunity to capture the global markets.   

In India, the digital publisher was already making great strides and was miles ahead than the likes of ScoopWhoop and FilterCopy and was even giving established Indian media outlets a run for their money.

The Indore-based start-up, started in 2014 by two brothers and their college friend, saw a peak of 40 million monthly visitors late last year.

The company was growing at 30% annually in terms of traffic and revenue.  After clocking Rs 40-crore revenue in FY18, the company was looking to cement its base to monetise the content better. Brands such as Panasonic, Tinder, Jio, Exide and Coke were lining up to advertise through WittyFeed content.

While all was going as per the plan, WittyFeed was about to face the biggest-ever jolt of its four-year-long journey.

In December last year, the publisher found that its Facebook page, which had 4.2 million followers, was taken down by the social media giant. WittyFeed immediately saw its unique monthly visitors come crashing down from a peak of 40 million per month to a million per month and revenue almost halved.   

What went wrong with Facebook

In more than four years of its existence, WittyFeed had mastered the art of making content viral. The publisher worked with 65,000 influencers globally. The network of influencers used to share the publisher’s content of Facebook, making it viral across the globe.

In a conversation with BuzzInContent.com, Singhal said that the biggest lapse in company’s strategy was that it was overly reliant on Facebook for readership. “Almost 95% of WittyFeed’s total readership used to come from Facebook,” he said.

Vinay Singhal

Talking about the reason why Facebook decided to pull the plug on WittyFeed, Singhal said that two or three of the influencers who used to work with us used Bitcoin wallet to make payments for Facebook ads. “Till today we have no idea exactly what wrong did they do. But what Facebook communicated to us was that two-three of your influencers have done something wrong and Facebook wanted us to share personal information of these influencers.”

Singhal was more than willing to cooperate if only Facebook was to approach through legal channels.

“What if those influencers question us for sharing their personal information, we will be in a soup. We took the legal ground. However, Facebook decided to pull the plug and removed our page. We could not have done something wrong just because Facebook decided to remove our page,” he added. 

That was the day Singhal realised how volatile his business model was.

“The kind of dependency we had on Facebook was humongous and if they decided to pull the plug, we wouldn’t exist. That is what made us think about the future of the company and how we look at the world and how we want to build this company,” he said.

The only saving grace for the publisher was that other than WittyFeed, it also had seven more brands. “So the revenues did not dry up fully and the readership of other platforms was intact,” he added.

Singhal says while the WittyFeed readership was decimated because of the tussle, the clients (advertisers) still had the company’s back. “All of them understand that we have our own loyal base and all of them were willing to buy media on WittyFeed despite our Facebook page not being there.”

The realisation that gave birth to ‘CatchUp’

Singhal said building a company which was dependent on any third-party platform wasn’t a feasible idea. “They are killing the organic reach and making everything paid. And that’s the reason that distribution platforms such as Dailyhunt and Inshorts are becoming more preferable for publishers in India,” he said. 

WittyFeed already had global examples in front as it saw Little Things collapse and BuzzFeed merge with White Media after its visitor base fell from 450 million to 100 million just because a social media platform decided to change its policies.

Singhal realised it was the right moment for WittyFeed to take a step back and introspect if they were headed in the right direction.

After getting other co-founders and investors on board, Singhal decided to rebuild the company. “It is better to rebuild the company today where we have enough money in the bank and more importantly control over it so that we can choose to do things our way.”

“We are seeing Indian publishers such as Times Internet and Bhaskar also building their own platforms. Google and Facebook believe that they have created huge platforms and publishers will have to follow every rule they come up with. These social media giants will have to do course correction once their revenue takes a beating. Their model isn’t favourable for publishers and these platforms will soon realise how important publishers are for providing quality content,” Singhal said.

The quest of WittyFeed to control their own destiny gave birth to ‘CatchUp’, the content distribution app of the company, which is similar to Dailyhunt and inshorts. 

“All new-age digital brands such as ScoopWhoop, Being Indian, RVCJ and FilterCopy survive solely through Facebook. We learned it the hard way but the good thing is that we have learned it and now building a totally independent platform.”

The ‘CatchUp’ strategy

With CatchUp, WittyFeed is moving away from being just a publishing house and going for a full-fledged platform play.

“The idea is that we are going to build a media platform which is not going to be dependent on Facebook. We see a much bigger value in building a media platform than just being a media company going forward,” said Singhal.

The app was launched three weeks ago. However, WittyFeed still hasn’t made it public and is testing it with a user base of 1,000 people. “The response has been phenomenal. CatchUp is not available on the desktop. It is a mobile-only platform with app and mobile web which is catchup.world.”

“We have replicated the whole experience of app on mobile web. There will be certain limitations on the mobile web and which is when we will ask users to download the app for full access. The audience migration to the app will be very rapid once we open it to public,” he added.

He said that the WittyFeed client base has been very supportive of the company’s plan to launch its own distribution platform, which is likely to be a disruptor in the digital content creation and distribution industry. “Clients are aware of our audiences, scale and the scalability potential. They understand there’s an overall issue with the industry and we as a digital content company are well placed to resolve it.”  

Singhal said that the advertisers understand that WittyFeed can do without Facebook. “We will prove that in the next few months. We have managed to be in the game in last six months without Facebook.”

Talking about mending the relationship with Facebook, Singhal said that the company was still using Facebook to advertise ‘CatchUp’ and to distribute the content of eight of its brands other than WittyFeed. “It is not like that we don’t have a working relationship with Facebook anymore. We have a very healthy relationship with them going forward and we understand there was misunderstanding and miscommunication with Facebook on a certain issue on WittyFeed brand.”

“We have nine operating brands today — four in India, four in the US and one in the Philippines. The issue we had with Facebook was limited to WittyFeed while eight other brands are running perfectly fine on Facebook and they are growing,” he added.

When asked if it wasn’t an irony, that the company was still using Facebook for ads despite the social media giant pulling the plug on WittyFeed, Singhal said, “As a business you always have to piggyback on some existing networks before you end up creating your own network. The truth of the matter is that today Facebook as a platform is the largest platform in terms of reach. So, you have to use them to acquire audience.”

“Facebook is not the only platform that we are going to use but there will be many. Also, it is not that they are our enemy. We are a huge advertiser for them,” Singhal said. 

Other than running ads on social media platforms, WittyFeed will be popularising the brand on ground as well. “We are building a comprehensive offline campaign in collaboration with our college partners. We had more than 500 colleges across the country with whom WittyFeed partnered for their events, including annual fest. We have built a very comprehensive plan to use all those inventories and promote the app directly to the right TG,” Singhal said.

WittyFeed believes that the hiccup caused because of the tussle with Facebook will soon be history and the company will recover fully in FY20. “Our US business is expected to grow and we are hopeful that it will recover some of the losses in India business. Whatever the losses or impact might have been because of the issues with Facebook, we will negate and recover those in FY20,” Singhal said.

“We are very bullish about CatchUp and we know how this is going to turn out in the next couple of quarters,” he added.

The content and monetisation plan for the platform

‘CatchUp’ is being positioned as an app to catch up on what’s happening around across the platforms. “It will solve the problem of the clutter of user-generated content as we will create the best of the content,” Singhal said.

“We are going to curate publishers to create content for the platform. We will act like a platform for publishers. We will allow users to create content on the top of the PGC that has been created. We will set the content using PGC and then allow users to create content instead of leaving them open-ended. That basically ensures the control on the quality of the content on the platform.”

CatchUp will also showcase what is trending on social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube so that readers can catch up all the trending content at one place.

Singhal said that another interesting thing that CatchUp would have is video content in micro format. “The Chinese players, including TikTok, have shown that micro-content has a lot of consumption. We, however, will focus on the quality of content in this case.”

The Indore-based company already has an increased focus on videos with wittyfeed.tv.

Talking about the company’s monetisation plan, Singhal said, “For now advertising is the only possibility we are looking at but we have not rejected any other opportunity, including subscription. One positioning we are looking at for CatchUp is OTT for micro-consumption.”

He said such an opportunity can also enable it to make CatchUp a subscription-based platform. “If we can build CatchUp in that direction then it might make sense for us in future to charge a small subscription fee. Because, ours is a mass platform and we do not have to charge a bomb and we can charge Rs 99 for a year.”

Singhal said that content marketing by brands through the IP-based content of WittyFeed and allied brands was another exciting monetisation opportunity. In terms of videos, he said AFP was another model the company was looking at.

He said that the company could also get into a revenue sharing model with other publishers.

“The possibilities are rising for brands as we grow. We have kept this in mind while designing the platform itself. We have looked at the problems advertisers face in terms of engagement, reach and pricing. We are going to enable these publishers to be able to monetise on our platform with a revenue sharing model,” he said.

Content@BuzzInContent.com