When Creativity Goes Viral: Q& A with The Hard Times Founder Matt Saincome
Have you ever had a client who said, ‘we should make a viral video!’? Making content is easy. Getting content to go viral is hard. There are no guarantees that something will go viral but SG sat down with Matt Saincome this week to find out what types of stories catch an editor’s eye, tips on how to write content that goes viral, and what you need to do to create an engaged community around your brand. Our interview with Matt is the first in SutherlandGold’s “Ask an Editor” series where we ask leaders in the publishing industry the questions that matter to you the most.
Matt Saincome is the former editor of SF Weekly and punk rock veteran who was looking to start a satire website based around underground music and its fans — all told from an insider’s perspective. He and his friends started the site The Hard Times with little to no capital, and soon his posts were going viral. Saincome has built a satire empire in just two years, landing him features in Forbes and LA Weekly, and partnerships with top-tier news outlets and advertising sponsors.
So how did Saincome build a loyal following of a million unique readers a month, create content with more than 30K shares, and establish a sustainable business model?
Building a brand from nothing
SG: How did you successfully build your company from the ground up and what were your early days like?
Matt: When you launch your site, that’s when you are going to get the most amount of traffic and when everyone checks it out. You can never remake your first impression, so you have to do something that defines you. There’s a line from the TV show, The Wire that I love: if you’re going to try to shoot the king — don’t miss. If you’re going to try to make a mark on the media landscape you have to make sure your first shot is a good one.
I started my company step-by-step, and I built the company with goals in mind. Step one: dream up the idea. Two: research your competition and plan the areas you are going to grow. Three: enact that plan.
I wrote a lot of the first posts that went up on the site in total darkness, without any input from others, and so I could have total creative control over the direction we went in. And those six posts were the posts from which we built on all of our brand values.
Finding your audience
SG: Part of the success behind The Hard Times and your offshoots, Hard Style and Hard Drive, is that you discovered that there weren’t satire sites with an audience of males ages 18–35. How did you research your angle both for the sites and stories?
Matt: I researched pretty heavily to make sure that we weren’t going to have too much stiff competition.That’s one thing that I always think about, I envision these sort of issues and then I go out there and say, “Okay who else is doing this?” I did a couple weeks’ worth of research, just trying to talk to people in that community.
But the one thing that I realized is although we all think of ourselves as unique people, the fact is we’re not that unique. So if there’s some niche out there that’s unfilled and you wish that it was filled, it’s very likely that there’s a large amount of people who also think just like you. So with The Hard Times, I thought, “Hey why does a satire site not exist for people like me?” And I think a lot of guys before me naively thought, “Oh well maybe because I’m just unique.” But I’m not unique, there’s millions and millions of punks and underground music people all around the world.
There is no formula for going viral
SG: A lot of your content gets at least 5,000 Facebook shares. Your content lends itself to virality, so how much of this is SEO versus editorial guiding your strategy?
Matt: I believe very strongly in the phrase, “Content is king.” We don’t spend any serious time on SEO. Like if we write an article about Trump, the SEO is just Trump. It’s one keyword. But we don’t really push that too hard, what we’ve done is built an audience who relates to our voice, our perspectives, and our lifestyles. And then we let them spread our message.
So without The Hard Times fans sharing our articles, we could not compete on the level we compete today. We focus on community building. If you check out VICE articles, you’ll notice that their community absolutely hates the publication, which is very bizarre. And then you read their comments on Facebook and it’s all these people saying, “You guys are so annoying! You idiots!” But when you go on a Hard Times article you’ll see people saying, “This is the greatest thing on the internet.” “This is why I wake up in the morning.” People are really, really passionate about The Hard Times. And I think that’s because we listen to them, they feel a personal connection.
So I like to say it’s almost like The Hard Times brand and our little green boot [logo], is their friend. We try not to let them down. Whereas VICE is more about SEO, pushing ideas down people’s throats, and publishing a hundred things a day and just mathematically thinking it’s going to work out and get a certain amount of clicks. Our publishing model is more like: our audience is very deeply connected with each piece that we publish. So when we publish a piece and they enjoy it, it’s all up to them whether it becomes a “thing” on the internet. There’s no way for us to control it [going viral]. So we just do our best editorial wise, and they take care of everything else.
You win by establishing yourself as the smartest person in the room
SG: So it’s not about volume? It’s about quality. But I also feel like you’re saying, you’re never going to publish on the scale of VICE. You’re not going to publish 20 articles a day.
Matt: We do about a post a day for consistency, I think consistency is very important. But I would 100 percent say quality over quantity is extremely important.
I think some sites don’t understand this, but you’re not just building an audience or building a social media following, you’re building a brand. And your brand needs to be the funny guy. Or the smartest guy in the room. So if you publish five posts a day instead of one, but two or three of them are really bad bombs, in my personal opinion I think that really hurts your brand. Because then people start saying stuff like, “Oh they’re hit or miss.” And you don’t want people to say that about your website. You want them to say, “They’re f***ing funny.” “Gold.” Whatever people say on the internet. So I think part of the reason why we do a lot better than a lot of other sites out there is our quality control.
Want to appeal to millennials — hire one!
SG: There are a lot of think pieces about millennials that reveal how many are really missing the mark on what millennials care about. What advice would you give people trying to reach a millennial audience and hoping to connect successfully?
Matt: You know, I think you have to understand their interests and understand their point of view and not just be a cheap mimic of it. Because you see — I saw an ad the other day. It was in San Francisco and it just said, “Mobile Marketing.” And then the next line was, “Lit as,” and then it had a fire emoji. And I was like oh my god, that’s just some startup who’s trying to take internet slang and act like they know how to use it.
If you’re a company that is trying to connect with millennial audiences, I’d take a look around your office and how many millennials you have. If you want more millennials in your readership, increase the number of millennials in your company.
Final lessons in storytelling
SG: Even though The Hard Times is entirely run by millennials, your reach is far larger than that. You appeal to to punks, geeks, genX, comedy nerds, and counter-culture audiences. So what have you learned about audiences and storytelling since you started your site?
Matt: The thing I’ve learned about audiences in general is that they’re super, super limited in their ability to interact with complex ideas. They just “like” things that they’ve seen over and over and over again. We know how the people who follow us think, and we’ll try to feed those groups to keep them satisfied.
You sort of balance it all out and think about who are the different people who read your website and if they could handle it. A lot of satire publications have one audience in mind. But The Hard Times, I like it because it’s more of like a coalition of groups and they’re pretty diverse. And not all of them really get along. I personally think that comedy has a lot do with truth. And I think truth often finds itself in different groups. No one group particularly owns the truth all the time. So I like to think we constantly go out there and try to find the truth.