Why is Imgur one of the most popular websites on the Internet? Is it the connection with the so-called “Internet’s front page” Reddit? Its community? The addictive nature of browsing through the photos uploaded and upvoted by Imgur users? Maybe it’s all of the above, as it turns out.
The brother and sister team behind Imgur, Alan and Sarah Schaaf, took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this morning to talk about Imgur’s growth from its early days as one of the best bootstrapped startups to a company that has since raised a $40 million Series A round from Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit to turn its online community into a serious revenue-generating business.
Though the website today may not have the brand-name recognition of other social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others, it sees a massive amount of traffic and user engagement.
TechCrunch editor Josh Constine even teased that Imgur should donate some money to a charity focused on helping with Internet addiction, thanks to the role that Imgur plays in keeping people sucked into their computer screens and phones.
In that joke was an element of truth, however – Imgur says it now has 150 million unique visitors monthly, and some 20 percent of its users are spending over 10 hours per week on the site.
The company is also up to 65 employees and still growing, Alan said.
While some may think of Imgur as just a place to browse through humorous or interesting images from all over the web, the founding team thinks of the site a little differently.
What makes Imgur so compelling goes beyond the content it hosts – it’s the nature of the site itself. Unlike today’s other social media properties, Imgur is a place that’s not tailored around your friends or followers, but is instead a shared experience among its users. Here, people find their own niche communities and other liked-minded folks.
Another thing that Imgur does, explains Alan, is that it lets introverts become extroverts. “They don’t have to worry about curating their own personal brand,” he says of this crowd. Instead, people can go on Imgur and be themselves while connecting with others like themselves.
“Over the years, the Internet has been going down the path of becoming a more personalized experience,” Alan continues. It’s the same people around us every day, like a mirror of our life, but online, he says.
“We want to let people break outside their friends list.”
People don’t only form friendships on Imgur, but sometimes even relationships. Sarah spoke of some Imgurians (as they call themselves) finding love after first meeting on the site.
But as the company grows, cute stories about its community members won’t be enough. Imgur will have to work harder at maintaining its site’s culture even as it fills with new users, and monetizes through ads as it’s doing now with sponsored posts.
Along the way, the focus on growth and revenue can derail a site – just ask Imgur’s sister site Reddit, which nearly imploded after a series of missteps by management which angered its community.
Alan wouldn’t comment in detail on the Reddit situation, but it’s clear that he and Sarah are thoughtfully considering how to keep Imgur’s community intact as the site scales. For starters, the company doesn’t ship any significant changes to Imgur without first beta testing with its members, or even inviting people into their offices to give feedback. In addition, the team says that transparent communication with users is key.
“When anything goes out on Imgur, the community has already had their hands in that,” says Sarah.
And when it comes to working with advertisers, the company has developed a “playbook” detailing what makes great sponsored content, which is offered to brands who want to engage with its online community.
That has led some of its advertisers – like eBay and Old Spice, most recently – to actually get compliments from Imgur’s users in the comments. One user even said “I’ve never loved marketing so much,” said Sarah. Another joked that “eBay will always be ‘ebae’,” she added.
Aimed at a younger generation who is often said to be advertising-adverse, this sort of social media success is still something of a feat for brands.
Alan wouldn’t give away the secrets as to the playbook’s specifics, but did say that for a sponsored post to work, it has to provide value to users. That could mean being informative, giving something away, or just being funny, he says.
Ads have to be successful for the users first, he says. “If they’re successful for the users, then they could be successful for the advertisers,” Alan noted.