Viral From Scratch
Derek Flanzraich cooks up 10 million uniques a month...
At first Google, Derek Flanzraich looks like a health guru. He is not. He is a content guru who’s platform happens to be health.
Flanzraich grew Greatist from a tiny blog into a mini media empire by applying the Millennial voice to the health sphere. Its articles are grounded, reasonable, and warm; less absurdly aspirational than the body-centric health magazines of the past. For Greatist, a healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body.
Of course, its voice is not the only reason that Greatist gets 10 million uniques a month. Flanzraich’s genius is in finessing his audience. In an glutted environment where articles titled “Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved” and “Yahoo’s Worst Problem? It’s a Media Company” are going viral, Flanzraich figured out a way to make his brand soar, and from scratch.
You can read Flanzraich’s step-by-step description of his strategy here, but it’s uniqueness can be expressed via a single concept, an Internet Age adaptation of the Pareto Principle. 20% of your visitors drive 80% of your traffic. Everything that Flanzraich has done, from hiring a growth director who’s entire job is “making friends,” to personally emailing 100 influencers, to building “weenies” (Disney-style major attractions that help fill in the smaller ones), revolves around attention not just to detail, but to the right details.
Still, one of the most important details, perhaps the one that makes Greatist great, is its perfectly honed voice. We spoke with Derek about the state of the health content industry, the misery of six pack abs, and how he nails that Millennial voice so well...
How would you describe Greatist's voice, and how did you to craft it? It reminds me of a lot successful Millennial media companies in that, it's hard to describe, but maybe it's slightly feminine?
I’d probably just say it’s real. It’s like a friend who knows just a little bit more than you about something. Accessible, open-minded, non-judgmental, fun, empowering, and unafraid to be ballsy and tackle real issues. It’s about being healthy, but having a healthy attitude.
I think it’s interesting you say the voice sounds feminine, not necessarily because I agree, but maybe because something that tries to remain gender neutral tends to come off more feminine? Maybe the reason it feels that way is because we’re a little more vulnerable, honest, emotional.
Vulnerable, yes. That’s a good way to put it.
Yeah, don’t really tend to subscribe to male-oriented media brands. We published an article on Greatist recently about how male fitness brands are behind the curve. All they talk about is “Pick up chicks,” “get ripped." It’s like—wake up. I got 6-pack abs in 6 weeks. If you dig it up there’s an article I did on how I did it, but also how I felt about it.
You’re providing a fresher take. I’d like to read that article, the guy who got abs and is telling you emotionally how it felt.
I mean, if you wanna read some depressing shit that’s the series to read.
Why was getting 6-pack abs depressing?
I mean, it’s fucking depressing, me getting six-pack abs and hating every second of it. This thing that I’ve spent entire life reading about as the pinnacle of physical success. I was motivated by how angry I was that that was on the cover of every magazine. So I did it, in part to challenge myself and see what it was like. My relationship changed with food, for six months I counted every little food and needed food to look a certain way. I was hangry the entire time, like, I’ve never been more angry in my life. Everyone hated me, they hated working with me. There’s nothing wrong with 6-pack abs, but they’re not right for me to maintain them. Like, I couldn’t eat guacamole anymore and that’s important to me. I fuckin’ love guac and chips. I can’t keep that and maintain 6-pack abs.
Yeah I see what you mean now about healthy with a healthy attitude.
I mean, what is “health”? Health is about being happy. That’s all that really matters. Yeah, s’mores are delicious, but 50 s’mores? No one really wants that. Maybe like—49, right? This idea of short-term sacrifice and torture to look a certain way—I think that’s dying because it doesn’t work.
What do you think about body positivity for heavy and sometimes even obese people that’s been happening in the media recently? Is that healthy or unhealthy?
I have strong feelings about it, and we talk about it a lot at Greatist. There’s a difference between being against body shaming—which I do believe is completely evil and inappropriate at all times, and people who are obese and need help. There are times when people should be celebrated, but oftentimes that stuff is just about getting clicks, and not actually about empowering people to be better in their own way. I think there’s a difference between body shaming and a doctor talking to people and saying that they’re unhealthy.
My instantaneous reaction to those advertisements and articles is “am I taking crazy pills?”
It’s also possible that it’s an over-correction to the market. Growing up I remember seeing models on the covers of health magazines, knowing they were emaciated and hating every minute of it, doing insane things to look the way they look. And people now are starting to find out about it, which is fucking cool in my opinion, but there’s like this massive over-correction.
"WE SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE BETTER THAN ANYONE ON THE PLANET."
I think we are in a time of over-correction in a lot of different ways.
Ain’t that the truth. I also think that we’re in a world where there are people who’ve lost; like, society has moved forward and there’re people who’ve been left behind. I think those people are fucking mad, and they’re going to take it out in any way that they can.
Do you sympathize or empathize with those people left behind? Who might read your headlines and say “that’s not my voice?”
I believe that broad-based brands are over, examples being Men’s Health and Women’s Health. We have never had more noise on the internet. There’s never been more content. So, if building a media brand, your job is building the interactions and engaging with the brand—who they are and want to be. Very specific audiences can have major impacts if they believe in your brand. That relationship now has to be about not only your interests, but your viewpoints on life.
But isn’t that terrifying? A world where everyone exists in their own little news echo chamber and everyone agrees with them, and they never have to exposed to anything else?
Yes, obviously from a societal worry of mine. I agree, that is the concern. But it’s not that simple. That would be extreme. I’m talking about speaking your audience’s language. The only way I know how to build a business is by doing what I think is best for our audience.
Listicles: why do they work so well, and are you sick of them?
They work well because of FOMO: people think there’s a number on that list maybe they haven’t heard before, so they have to click. At Greatist we do do listicles, but we think of them as resources—comprehensive, bookmarkable resources for people. So, when we’re writing chicken recipes, we’re writing about every single one you need to know about. We get a lot of traction making resources for people to use. Otherwise, you’re just manipulating people.
How are you guys monetized?
The primary way we get revenue is through high-level brand partnership. Brands like FitBit, Kind Healthy Snacks, Crave Jerky, Applegate Farms. We’re creating content to interact with Millennials who care about their health. We speak their language better than anyone on the planet.
How many uniques do you need a month in order to be a viable business?
It totally depends on the type of site you want, but for us, who always wanted to be really big, we needed 3 million visits a month before people would take us seriously. And then 5 million a month for people to give more money; and then it was 10 million before we could really start supporting ourselves. That was mostly because Facebook came and people started to abuse it. The number kept going up and we kept moving on to the next challenge. Trying to monetize the site, I learned by fucking things up first. It wasn’t until a year ago or so that we started not being terrible at it. It’s all learning where to hustle and hack, and where to ask for help. A big part of that was like—time does matter, packaging and phrasing does matter, experienced people matter. You know, just the little things.