What can content marketers learn from Upworthy?

Posted by: CMA

One of the biggest content success stories of recent years has been the website Upworthy. Created in 2012 by a pair of seasoned online media professionals the site grew so quickly that by the end of 2013 it was pulling in almost 90 million users per month.

In summer 2013 US blog Fast Company proclaimed that Upworthy was the fastest growing media company of all time.

That astronomical growth has largely been fuelled by delivering enticing content that has been widely shared on social networks, especially Facebook. There are however several significant differences between Upworthy and its rival viral-driven site BuzzFeed. Upworthy’s stated mission is to ‘host the intersection of the awesome, the meaningful and the visual.’

In contrast recent BuzzFeed’s success seems to have down to its highly addictive personalised quizzes like this.

In practice this means content that is uplifting, inspirational and in some instances challenging. For example one of Upworthy’s most successful posts so far was a video that featured the last days of Zach Sobiech, a teenage musician who died of cancer.

Why then has Upworthy been so successful? According to Adam Mordecai, Upworthy’s Editor-at-Large, ‘Anyone who says they can make anything go viral is probably a snake oil salesman or really naive.’

For Upworthy then attaining viral status for a post is not just about having editors who seem to understand what type of posts will emotionally connect with its readers. The site also employs a series of data-driven techniques to perfect that content too. The level of research it puts into each post to ensure its shareability sets Upworthy apart from almost all other online content sites.

The strategy of relying on social networks (its traffic from non-Facebook platforms though is minimal) to drive traffic is however not without its flaws. Earlier this year Business Insider and others reported that the site had lost almost half of its readers in December and January and claimed that the seismic fall was largely due to Facebook tweaking its algorithm so that it showed less Upworthy stories in its news feeds.

Nevertheless, even if its unique monthly visitor number shrinks below 40 million Upworthy is likely to remain very influential for the next few years.

What then can content marketers and brands learn from Upworthy? Here are five things to bear in mind.

  1. Attention minutes might just be the ultimate content metric
    Exactly how do brands judge whether their online content is successful? By page impressions? Unique visitors? Upworthy recently introduced a new spin on content metrics which may prove very useful to purveyors of branded content.

    It is championing a concept called Attention Minutes which it explains in this way. ‘Firstly Total Attention on Site (per hour, day, week, month) - which tells us (in terms of total uniques or total pageviews) how good of a job Upworthy is doing overall at drawing attention to important topics. Secondly Total Attention per Piece, which is a combination of how many people watch something on Upworthy and how much of it they actually consume.’

    In a piece for Contently Jordan Teicher argues ‘embracing this kind of approach is especially important for brand publishers, who don’t run ad-supported businesses (the primary reason to measure page views in the first place).Measuring mouse movement, scroll depth, and, in some cases, heat maps that track eye movement are much more effective ways to evaluate engagement.

  2. Not all viral content is trivial
    Prior to the arrival of Upworthy, and to lesser degree the Mirror Group’s UsVsth3m in the UK, content that went viral was often written off by serious media as being trivial. Indeed many critics of BuzzFeed argued that the site built what was largely a worthless audience by harnessing pictures videos of animals etc. What Upworthy underlines is that not all viral content has to be trivial. For example this story about a Uganda women is typical of the kind of content it delivers on a daily basis. In an odd way it has influenced BuzzFeed which has invested recently in longform journalism, while adding more serious stories.

    Brands might be able to create viral content on serious issues providing the stories they create can connect with people. For example personal stories of how individuals are being empowered by brands to change lives have the potential to be very popular.

  3. Quality not quantity is a golden rule for content
    In spite of its stellar growth Upworthy typically posts a much smaller number of stories than news sites like The Mail Online or The Huffington Post. The growth has been powered by the quality of the posts it creates.

    Again for brands this underlines that they don’t need to create large amounts of content to attract an audience, rather just focus on making that content highly readable and shareable. The days of pushing out large numbers of posts and relying on Facebook to attract large numbers of readers appear to have gone forever.

  4. Headlines and packaging matter
    Although its style has been widely lampooned by rival media, Upworthy’s long, emotionally charged, often question driven headlines have proved to be irresistible and arguably the prime reason for the site’s growth.

    Part of the reason for their success may be because the company rigorously tests headlines. For many stories it creates two separate headlines and compares their performance in different US conurbations over a period of an hour or so finding out which one attracts the most shares. This then becomes the headline that the site sticks with.

    Content marketers might not be involved in this type of A/B testing just yet, but it is a tactic that they might consider in the future. The lesson here though is to focus as much as on a headline as on a story. Content marketers can throw away stories by making the heads too cryptic, or at the other end of the spectrum stuffing them with so many key words that they become incomprehensible. Creating two headlines for each story is a practice that brands would do well to copy.

  5. Be flexible - Upworthy’s owners might have hit on a winning content formula, but they have also demonstrated an impressive degree of flexibility. So, for example, when their Facebook related traffic dropped the company then made a prominent push to get its readers to sign up for its daily email.

    Upworthy have also sought to lessen their reliance on social networks by adopting an aggressive and very successful mobile strategy.
Posted in CMA blog
19thMar 2014

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