How Zikoko became Nigeria's most viral publisher

The BuzzFeed-like site started with listicles and then expanded into more serious, sexuality-focused content.

Daniel Orubo had no intention of becoming a media personality when he graduated with an engineering degree in 2013, but his funny tweets just happened to catch the eye of a Nigerian publishing executive who planned to launch a BuzzFeed-like website called Zikoko.

Daniel started out as a senior writer, crafting humorous listicles like the “16 Signs You Are Just Like Your Nigerian Mother,” but over the next half decade he helped transform Zikoko into a cultural force that’s willing to discuss hot-button issues around sexuality — the kind of issues that are typically considered taboo in conservative Nigeria.

Daniel is now the editor-in-chief of Zikoko, and we recently sat down to discuss how the website found its audience and why it expanded beyond funny memes so it could tackle controversial topics.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

iTunesStitcher/  OvercastSpotifyGoogleYouTubeAudible

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Daniel joined Zikoko

Daniel had just graduated with a degree in engineering when the founder of a media company called Big Cabal reached out to him. The founder had come across some of Daniel’s funny  tweets. “I had no intention of working in journalism. With my Twitter account, I was definitely trying to be funny. I was young. I wanted retweets.  I would crack jokes about lifestyle and dating and the Nigerian reality.” The founder of Big Cabal Media, Tomiwa Aladekomo, already ran one of the most well-respected tech sites in Nigeria. “He wanted to launch something else, something younger, something more fun, fresher. So that's kind of how Zikoko came to be.”

Daniel and his colleagues were pretty much given free rein to experiment with different types of content. “I remember the first listicle we did that actually went viral. There are lots of random church posters around Lagos that are really weird. They almost feel satirical. So I did a post where I compiled like 35 of them, like the weirdest posters that you wouldn't believe are real. And it did like a hundred thousand views in a week.  We kind of just built it from there. A lot of people discovered the site really quickly. People would tell me, ‘I read Zikoko on my way back from work while I'm on the bus. I read everything you guys put out.’ It all happened really quickly.” 

Most of Zikoko’s traffic came from Facebook. “And the readers weren’t just in Nigeria, but it was also the Nigerian diaspora as well. Lots of people in the UK told us that reading the site reminded them of home.” This was a time when Facebook was still sending lots of organic traffic to publishers. “We weren't even really promoting the content that aggressively, but people were finding it and reading it.”

Zikoko’s next phase

Daniel actually ended up leaving the company to write for another media site. “After a year of doing listicles and quizzes, I kind of got bored. My editor in chief at the time wanted us to expand and do more long form articles, and I agreed, but I guess what we were doing at the time was working, and people didn't want to switch it up too much. I was like, fair enough, but I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can sit down every single day and be funny on command. So I decided to leave for a French company that had moved to Nigeria.”

Daniel stayed at the site for about three years, but then he was lured back to Zikoko. “I noticed that Zikoko had started implementing all the things that we talked about when I was still there. I was seeing more long form pieces, more creative videos. And that's why I felt comfortable joining again.” 

Daniel came on as a senior editor and immediately began pushing for more content experimentation. “My managing editor came up with a new series about sex and sexuality, and that became a very big hit.” Daniel’s team will settle on a sexuality theme and then make a public call for submissions, offering anonymity to anyone who answers. “We’ll conduct a one-on-one interview that lasts for about three hours, and we distill it into a 2,000-word article, just kind of curating the person's sex life from their first sexual experience to where they are right now. It's a diverse series. We've talked to non binary and trans people. And I think that's what people were really connected with in the series — that it wasn't about sex, but more about how people engage with sex and sexuality.”

In the last few years, Twitter surpassed Facebook in sending Zikoko traffic. “With Facebook, it just feels like when we post something that would have gone viral, like, maybe three years ago, we now get nothing.” In addition to doubling down on Twitter, his team is also trying to grow its audiences through newsletters and Whatsapp. 

Most of Zikoko’s content is text-based and published to its website, but Daniel wants to invest more in video. “We're still trying to figure that out. We have a plan to do more shows. We want our videos to be a reflection of how our editorial looks — our editorial is very light and snappy, and we've kind of figured that out and we're just trying to figure out videos. We have a bunch of series that we're working on and  even have documentaries that we're working on.”

How the company generates revenue

Most of Zikoko’s revenue comes from advertising. “So from like branded quizzes, Instagram posts, branded listicles, even newsletter sponsorships.” The company hopes to soon diversify. “We don't want most of our revenue to come from advertising. We want to invest in selling merch, because we have a very dedicated fan base. We put out a tweet a few weeks ago that was like, ‘If we made Zikoko shirts, would you buy it?’ And our followers were like, ‘of course.’” He also wants to sell premium access to documentaries. “We want to sell videos in advance. We’re working on a blind date series, and I want to push it to people and encourage them to simply buy the entire season.”

Daniel’s excited about the potential for more revenue because it would allow him to invest in more ambitious storytelling. “It would mean expanding the way we tell stories. Right now our editorial is really strong, but we have so many stories we've done where people have said, ‘if this was like a short film, I would watch it. If this was a series, we would watch it.’  I would love to see the energy behind our editorial spread across video and podcasts. We’re even having a conversation about maybe printing a book of the best local stories and just pushing that out to our readers.”

Do you like this newsletter?

Then you should subscribe here:

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.