How a 1926 Print Ad Inspired One of Today’s Fastest Growing Websites

'Most perfect headline ever' drives ViralNova's approach

If you needed proof that there's really nothing new under the sun, look no further than the explosively popular site ViralNova, which credits its addictive, highly clickable content to a famous long-form print ad from 1926.

The original ad, widely collected, praised and parodied through the years, begins, "They laughed when I sat down at the piano — But when I started to play!" It was penned by John Caples for the U.S. School of Music and is often noted as one of the most effective ad headlines of all time.

Scott DeLong, who launched ViralNova in May, has a framed copy of the ad over his desk to help inspire him to create the most engaging headlines possible each day. "It's the most perfect headline ever written," he recently told Business Insider, "and those same psychological reasons for that working is why ViralNova is, so far, working today."

He's successfully adapted its urgently emotional style, topping aggregated news items from around the Web with madcap mini-masterpieces like, "They Were Married for 65 Years. Their Final Moment Left Me In A Puddle Of Tears," "I Can't Decide If This Is Adorable Or Very, Very Wrong. And I'm Not Talking About The Baby's Safety" and "Please, Ban These People From Ever Posting Online Again. You Have To See This … OMG." (And those are just from one day.)

ViralNova is in the vanguard of sites that rely on creating such headlines to attract clicks and social sharing. Other notables include Upworthy, which says editors must write 25 headlines for each story before they get it right.

This trend raises the bar for sites looking to get their content noticed and adds a new layer of creativity, though journalistic purists and old-school newshounds might scoff along the lines of an especially memorable ViralNova topper: "And This Is Why Our Entire Society Is Doomed. Sigh."

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.