Why You Watch Cats And Epic Fails 13 Million Times A Day – with Ben Huh

by Tim Jahn on March 8, 2011

Ben Huh is the founder of the Cheezburger Network, home to popular blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger, Fail Blog, The Daily What, and dozens more. Ben’s network of addicting content generates 13 million page views a day, and keeps people coming back day after day after day.

I invited Ben here to share some insight on how he and his team create the type of content that attracts such traffic, and techniques you can use to create content that keeps people coming back for more.

Transcript

Tim Jahn: So, the Cheezburger Network, you guys host insanely popular sites like, “I Can Has Cheezburger”, “The Daily What”, and I didn’t even realize, you guys have “Failblog”. I am a big fan of “Failblog”.

Ben Huh: Awesome. That’s good to hear.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, that’s a daily visit over here. “I Can Has Cheezburger”, alone, the last I read, it gets over 8.5 million page views a day or something crazy like that?

Ben Huh: Yeah, I think the overall status, but yeah.

Tim Jahn: What?

Ben Huh: Yeah, I think the overall network, I think we do 13 million pages a day.

Tim Jahn: Thirteen million pages a day, that’s crazy. Why are so many people visiting your network of sites?

Ben Huh: Yeah, I think people want to have that daily mental vacation and we offer that on our sites. Just a five-minute getaway into someplace that’s really happy.

Tim Jahn: That’s a really great way to put it. A five-minute getaway that makes you happy. Where do you — how do you find that five-minute getaway that makes people happy? Like, when you launch a new blog, what do you look for in the idea?

Ben Huh: You know, we’re actually looking for a couple things. One, is there a steady source of content that our users are submitting to us that we’re not leveraging correctly? And then, second, is there a zeitgeist, meaning do — can we reflect something that is happening in society that would make people say that’s an interesting name or brand or concept?

Tim Jahn: Okay, so part of your job, in a sense, is staying on top of everything that’s going on in popular culture?

Ben Huh: Yeah, we actually don’t like popular culture the way it stands. We actually prefer to stay on top of Internet culture. There’s an entirely new culture forming through the use of the Internet as a method of expression, and that’s where we really hang out.

Tim Jahn: Gotcha. So, your sites are — I mean, you know, you look at those stats and it’s insanely popular and once you visit the sites, like, you know, “Failblog”, I mean, it takes one visit to understand why I would wanna come back again. On a site like “Failblog”, you know, a site like “Lolcats”, how many ideas do you go through when you’re launching a new blog? How many ideas do you go through before you find one that sticks, and more importantly, one that’s a money maker?

Ben Huh: So, for us, we actually have a rolling idea list that our staff compiles of roughly 200, 250 ideas, and we use it as kind of a database that we can draw from and say, “Hey, what did we think about in the past? What was it like a few months ago?” And, you know, we actually have made the process of launching a website so simple that it doesn’t matter if the site succeeds or not. We can just keep trying and learn from our mistakes.

Tim Jahn: So, how many would you say you launch — how many failed launches are there for every successful kind of hit?

Ben Huh: So, our failure rate, in which we actually take down a site and try something new or just close it down, is about 20 percent.

Tim Jahn: Oh, okay.

Ben Huh: Yeah, so the game for us isn’t about making the fewer number of sites fail. It’s actually about getting the most bang for the sites that we are operating. So, imagine that there’s only so many homes that you can, you know — so many slots you can actually put websites in. What we’re trying to do is maximize the return on each slot.

Tim Jahn: Oh, I see. So you don’t care how bad some of them fail, you care how many — how well some of them succeed, really?

Ben Huh: That’s correct. Yep.

Tim Jahn: Okay. I know, going back to the idea of, it’s the five-minute getaway, to me, every person, you know, might have a different idea of what a five-minute getaway is. How do you determine, for your average visitor, when you’re coming up with an idea for a site, how do you determine what, exactly, would be a five-minute getaway for them every day? What exactly?

Ben Huh: Well, we actually rely — because, primarily on user submissions and user votes determine what should be featured on our home pages, they really give us an idea of what they want in advance, so really, our staff here are very attuned with what our users are asking for, so it’s become kind of this sixth sense. If I post this, will the users like it, and I have a pretty good idea as to what’s gonna happen.

Tim Jahn: What separates the blogs — so, I mean, you guys are a network of blogs, so I mean, in a sense, your product is the blogs. What separates the blogs that make boatloads of money and boatloads of popularity from the ones that don’t, from those 20 percent that are failing? What separates the two?

Ben Huh: It takes a lot of time for a brand to be established, so “Failblog” is now — so, it takes a long time for advertisers to recognize when a website is going to be around for a long time, so for example, “Failblog” is three years old, “I Can Has Cheezburger” is more than four years old, so it takes time to be consistently good for advertisers to say, “I’m willing to put my money behind it.”

Tim Jahn: Okay, so three and four years old. How long after “I Can Has Cheezburger” launched or, you know, since it really started, how long until it became popular?

Ben Huh: Well, it was actually very popular from almost when it launched and we don’t exactly know how that occurred, but thanks to the weirdness and wonderfulness of the Internet, the word got out, and it was a personal site for a two people in Hawaii and it just kind of grew from there. So, it was very popular when I purchased it.

Now, on the other hand, “Failblog” was a relatively small site when we bought it and we went in and revamped the way “Failblog” ran and how, what type of content we wanted to feature and so on. But yeah, so there are times when — we’re getting better at launching websites that can grow traffic over the long term.

Tim Jahn: That actually brings up a good point when you say you don’t know, necessarily, sometimes what makes it so popular. Is there any science or research, in your eyes, behind what works and what doesn’t or is it just entirely locking, you know, the right timing?

Ben Huh: I think it’s really about testing. I think people get lucky when they get smarter about what chances and risks they take and, for us, it’s really hard to determine what the world likes. And what we try to do is figure out, how do we test quickly, how do we learn from our mistakes, so that the next time we do a test, it has a higher likelihood of success.

Tim Jahn: That’s a great point and I’m such a fan of that model of just test, test, test, until you figure out what works. But, when it comes to testing out new ideas for, you know, your new blogs, how many — I wanna phrase the question right. How much testing do you need to do before you know that something is gonna work or isn’t gonna work? I mean, if it fails the first three times, then all of a sudden starts working, I mean, should you wait and keep trying or, after it fails those first three times, all right, you know, put that to rest?

Ben Huh: We know — after about six months, we kinda know whether it’s gonna be a long-term success or not and, the thing about testing is that you never stop testing. I mean, we keep tweaking it and tweaking it until it starts to grow and grow and grow, or we keep looking for the weak points and try to fix them.

So, there’s no, like, hard and fast rule about testing. It’s just, we’re really, really driven by the motivation to make something succeed, so we’ll continue to try out new ideas. Sometimes it makes the community go a little crazy because they’re like, “Stop doing this. Stop changing stuff around,” but that’s our job. We want to bring more people into this community.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned you guys have a rolling list of ideas. How often do you kind of visit that list and choose an idea? Is it just an ongoing thing, every week you guys take a look at it, or is it just kind of when you have an opening in the schedule?

Ben Huh: I think it’s just whenever we’re trying to think of a new idea, we’ll look at the list. I mean, it’s very organic. There’s no schedule on which we revisit the list. In fact, some things have been on there for like two years. But it’s something that, if you don’t write it down, you won’t remember, and if you write it down, it’ll serve as a nice point of reference and, you know, it’s just a part of a kind of curiosity kind of curious mind that we do this.

Tim Jahn: I like that. Part of a curious mind. I guess you have to be a very curious mind to have stuff like you have. You know, one interesting part about your sites is, and I don’t in any way mean this in a bad way, but they’re not necessarily the most professionally-designed sites when you think of the Internet these days. They’re very organic, like you said. They’re very simple — not even simple, they’re just very there, you know what I mean?

Ben Huh: Yeah, actually, we’re gonna address that. The sites design is about three years old and, you know, we’re no longer in love with a blog format, you know, and then, to be honest, these sites run on blog software, but they’re not really blogs. We don’t really talk about what we had for breakfast, so we really want to go in and change our user experience so that people get more out of it and the things are easier to find, that things are easier to consume.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, that was actually my question is, how does that affect, kind of, the popularity of the blog, itself? Is it — you know, the way your blogs are now, like I said, they’re not necessarily the most professionally-designed, but they’re insanely popular, so do you think it would increase popularity if you changed the design to maybe be more usable, like you said, or would it — does it have nothing to do with the design?

Ben Huh: I think poor design is not an impediment for success. In other words, Facebook used to look like my left foot when it first started and it was perfectly successful, and we certainly don’t look like anything we want it to be, but I know that good design can aid the success of a property.

Tim Jahn: Okay, I really like that. It can’t impede it, but it would definitely aid it. What — you guys have so many different kinds of ideas, from the — I’m sorry, I always go back to “Failblog” since it’s my absolute favorite, but I’m not much of a cat person, “Lolcats” doesn’t do it for me, and you have that daily blog too. When you’re thinking of these ideas, how long, would you say, it takes to — you said it takes six, within six months, you know that something’s gonna be popular, and that’s based on your previous experience, right?

You guys have a system in place, or over time, you’ve become so good at what you do that six months, make it or break it, you know. What was it like when you first started off before you made that system? Was it just, you know, you would wait, maybe, a year, you’d wait, maybe, two months, or, I mean, when you didn’t really have that bar to measure by, how did you determine — I’m thinking of someone that isn’t as experienced as you yet and they don’t have that bar yet. How do they determine —

Ben Huh: It was basically, since we’re user content-driven, where users submit their content, if there weren’t sufficient submissions to make it a quality site, that’s when we stopped. It’s not a hard and fast rule, it’s a combination of how passionate people are and how creative you’re allowing them to be. And if we’re not doing our job, then people stop being creative and people stop coming so, it was pretty organic.

Tim Jahn: Okay. So, I mean, it’s just, you can base this entirely on the users, at first, and then —

Ben Huh: Yeah, and then another thing is, let’s say with the capacity to run five websites and we have the fifth one and it’s not doing so well and we want to try a new idea, we’ll cut the fifth one.

Tim Jahn: Okay that makes perfect sense. I lost my train of thought — when you — I’m looking at your stats here, you know, billions of page views a year. What would you say, for someone who is — obviously everyone wants their product to be popular, everyone wants what they’re selling to be popular. But, just in general, working in the Internet, you have a product. What would be your one piece of advice for a creative entrepreneur out there who wants their product to be popular and wants their visitors, their consumers coming back on a regular basis?

Ben Huh: Consistency. Be good every single day, beats the hell out of being great once in a while and being crappy most of the time.

Tim Jahn: That, right there, belongs on a plaque.

Ben Huh: I don’t know how else to describe it to you, but being consistently good gets people to trust you and they will come back because they know they can get good from you every single day.

Tim Jahn: I like that. Speaking of consistently good, this actually brings up a question I had in mind. Have you noticed, through all your years of data here that you have now, when it comes to virality and popular Internet content, have you noticed any ups and downs in terms of timeline? Like, for example, I mean, is Christmas, you guys get like 20 percent of the traffic you normally do, or is it just kind of —

Ben Huh: Oh, yeah, there’s definite seasonality to the Internet. You know, Spring and Fall tends to be the more popular seasons, I guess, if you can call it that, because summers, people go on vacation and during the holidays, people kind of go, you know also travel, so when people are traveling, it’s bad. When people are at work, it’s better. So, that’s probably the best way to describe it.

Tim Jahn: Okay. Like you said, you’re focused on staying consistent, you know, doing really well consistently, regardless of whether the audience is low or high because they can always expect to come back and find good quality content.

Ben Huh: That’s right.

Tim Jahn: And how do you guys determine good quality content? Is that just based on what, I mean, what gets voted up and what gets voted down? You just 100% —

Ben Huh: It’s a combination of that plus our content team’s judgment as to what should be featured, so you know, we’ll try to, you know, make sure that anything that’s related to a Monday will be shown on a Monday, anything that’s related to a Friday will be shown for Friday holiday — you know, we’ll try to time it so that it makes more sense, it’s more zeitgeist-y, to be honest but really, primarily it’s sort of by user feedback.

Tim Jahn: Okay, I like that. So, in a sense, it’s a little bit of managed content, and then it’s a little bit of based on what the users like.

Ben Huh: Correct.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, to me, that seems like almost the, not only the safest way to go, but the, I don’t know, the best way to go, because then, you’re gonna have good content that the users like, but at the same time, you’re not gonna ruin your brand, because I just feel like a lot of brands, these days, can get ruined based on user-generated content, so I like that.

Ben Huh: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t quite know how to use user-generated content just yet. I think they don’t devote sufficient time and resources to understand what it really means to use user-generated content.

Tim Jahn: What do you mean by that in terms of understanding what it means to use it?

Ben Huh: Well, a lot of people think it’s a cheap way to create content, right? They’re like, “Oh, they’re like free workers and they’ll create content and then we’ll use it and then now, we’ll have cheap content that users produce,” and I really dislike that approach.

Yes, if you do it right, you know, you have lots of people creating free content for you, but we actually spend more money on curating user-generated content than we do on creating our own. Think about that, right? Managing the supply of user-generated content, to us, is more expensive than creating a lot of our own content.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, when you put it that way, it’s almost like, wait a second. Why is that, though? I’m curious, why would user-generated content cost you more than internal, you know company-based content?

Ben Huh: Because we’re spending a lot of energy actually working with the community, trying to build tools, trying to make things easier for them and trying to filter and trying to leverage their opinion. It’s a lot of hand-holding, it’s a lot of community building.

Tim Jahn: Okay, I think there is the key. It’s a lot of community building. Because, I mean, yeah, in a sense, if you have, you know, a content department with 40 people developing content, versus these communities of millions of people developing content, I could see where the support would have to scale out.

Ben Huh: Yeah, absolutely. And, then we try to provide, you know, customer service responses as if, you know, we were an e-commerce company, for example.

Tim Jahn: What kind of customer service responses do you get in terms of, is it people saying the site’s down or that certain links aren’t working or —

Ben Huh: Or, there’ll be a bug in the builder or they’ll — gosh, I mean, there’s a million different reasons why you’d email us. Hey, you know, I find this offensive, or I don’t get this joke, what does it mean? You know, there are some random questions that come up, as well, and we try to answer them as quickly as we can.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned, like, someone might email you saying something’s offensive. Has there ever been a time where something was kind of — maybe a bad call was made and you guys kind of missed the target, there, in terms of people report it as being offensive, or people weren’t in love with it? Was there ever, like, kind of a lash back like that or are you guys pretty —

Ben Huh: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we’ve gone through phases where we’ve made poor judgments and we’ve apologized for it, or there are some cases where we thought we might have not made the best judgment, but then the community stuck by us and said, “You know, there are some people who find this offensive, but I disagree, and I’m willing to support you guys for it.” I mean, it’s a very interesting phenomenon.

(photo credit)

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