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Upworthy = What Happens When a Growth Hacker Launches a Media Company

Upworthy's Secret Super Genius Flowchart of Success (TM):

flowchart will it go viral Upworthy infographic


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There is no there there with Upworthy. It's nothing but click bait and emotional manipulation. 

They justify this by claiming that 88 million monthly uniques can't be wrong:

Upworthy What Happens When a Growth Hacker Launches a Media Company GrowthHackers

The background:

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.” [2]

Yet, on the surface at least, it seems like that’s what Upworthy does. The company—founded by Eli Pariser of MoveOn, Peter Koechley of The Onion, and Chris Hughes of Facebook—uses attention-grabbing headlines to highlight meaningful videos, pictures, and stories, often making them go viral.

Upworthy launched on March 26th, 2012, and just seven months later, they were getting almost 9 million monthly uniques visitors. [7] In November of 2013, just 20 months later, Upworthy saw close to 88M unique visitors worldwide, with mobile visitors eclipsing desktop viewers for the first time.

Those 88 million put Upworthy just behind online publishing powerhouse Gawker, according to a memo from Gawker Publisher Nick Denton, [8] with it’s sights set on Buzzfeed with their 133 million monthly uniques.

Mother of God, it cannot be stopped:

Upworthy active user growth hacks chart

It cannot be reasoned with...

Upworthy is hugely dependent on luck, timing, and hits:

It’s the combination—an engaging story and a bit of relevance—that Upworthy uses to turn regular news into viral hits. For example, Upworthy reposted an ABC News video of  Mitt Romney accidentally conversing with a gay veteran. When Romney became a presidential candidate and the video was more topical, it gained an additional 1 million views, despite the fact that it was neither original to Upworthy or especially new. Instead, he says, “It seems like it’s about getting the right piece of content published within the right moment.” [7]

Ugh, I cringe at how manipulative this all is. Cringeworthy!

Upworthy says they look for content that won't make their mom cringe:

Upworthy’s strategy for content curation, as Adam Mordecai shares, begins with an internal system that tracks content submissions so that staff members don’t accidentally work on the same piece simultaneously. On top of that, each editor at Upworthy searches for content to curate via their own Facebook feeds, submissions from organizations and connections, news sites, blogs, email lists, plus Twitter, Quora, Tumblr, Vimeo, YouTube, etc. [5]

Pariser explains, “We have our team of curators spending all their time looking on the Internet for stuff. We go for visible, sharable stories and really stay away from doing more typical, text-driven articles and blogging. We lean into images and videos.” [7]

The company has one more rule of thumb for content. As they reveal on SlideShare:

“Let’s talk about your Mom, dude. Fact: no one likes to disappoint their mom. Double fact: Middle aged women are the biggest sharers on the interwebs. Ergo: If you frame your content to not make your mom shake her head, you have a better chance of winning.” [1]

What's laughable about this is that Upworthy's content makes ME cringe.

Because of its shamelessness in emotional manipulation.

As opposed to the shameful emotional manipulation attempted in the brand advertising and product sales in all other industries...

Two wrongs don't make a right.

Haha, so true, but three rights make a left...

That is a very useful insight for city driving!

Mordecai tries to disabuse the notion of a crack team of scientists with the secret recipe to virality on the web:

“We used our network and capital to build an awesome software platform optimized for sharing content, and then curated amazing content and framed it in a way to give it a better chance of going viral. We offer no silver bullets to make just anything go viral. We just happened to combine our skills, talents, technology and strategic planning with a giant pile of luck to get where we are.”  [2]

He continues to explain that a lot of their ideas fail, simply because not everything is viral. “The key,” he explains, “is to keep testing and throwing things at the wall to see what works.” [2] Many of these core concepts are reflected in official company analyses of their success. According to Upworthy’s Slideshare, “The Sweet Science of Virality,” their secret sauce includes:

  • Content — Finding and/or creating amazing content.

  • Framing — Optimizing said content to be really clicky on Facebook.

  • Tech/UX — Optimizing your site to be really good at sharing said content back to Facebook.

  • Data — Never stop testing your zany theories.

  • Luck — Catching a leprechaun and stealing his lucky charms. [1]

As Sean Ellis says, “a growth hacker’s true North is growth, and everything is viewed through a growth lens.” In Upworthy’s case, each piece of content is evaluated based on its ability to trigger multi-generation sharing, as opposed to simply resonating with their existing audience.

It does not appear that Upworthy has any goal besides growth itself.

What does it value most: making money, pushing a political agenda, or just see how far they can take it?

They seem like they're only in it for growth for the sake of growth.

I consider it evil to force a user to sign up before they can see what you clickbaited them with.

Upworthy does not consider it evil. They think it's "user flow optimization":

But both engagement and relevance assume one thing: audience. Luigi Montanez, Founding Engineer at Upworthy, explains, “While we’re known [for] our viral content, we’ve focused just as much on building an audience that loves to click on our stuff and share it to their social networks.” [4] Since their launch, Upworthy has worked to build a strong audience, focusing initially on Facebook and email and with less attention paid to outlets like Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Pariser says:

“Facebook is a huge piece of the puzzle for us. Honestly, I think part of [our success] is we take Facebook much more seriously than many of the other social networks. I love Twitter … but it’s a small fraction of our traffic compared to Facebook. The time and attention most sites spend on [perfecting] their homepages is probably what we spend on Facebook. If you look at our homepage, it’s pretty mediocre.” [7]

Going viral once is one thing, but how do you build a media brand on the backs of fleeting content that spark momentary interest and disappear just as quickly? Upworthy realized this issue from the beginning and set out to tackle it head on by optimizing the product experience to drive audience retention. From email, to Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and more, Upworthy makes it easy to subscribe and stay connected to the site, even after the quick viral hit wears off.

Montanez weighs in on the early strategy: On launch day, Upworthy set a goal of 1,000 Facebook followers, which the small staff was able to meet with their personal networks. “To grow beyond that initial seed,” Montanez says, “we needed to automate subscriber acquisition. That meant asking people who landed on our site.” [4]

Through extensive A/B testing, they’ve optimized their subscription flow so that when visitors land on the site for the first time, they’re asked to subscribe via email before viewing the content they’ve come to see.

Additionally, there’s a delayed slider at the bottom asking visitors to like Upworthy on Facebook, and another subscription prompt that comes up after the content has been shared. [4] The entire process, from first visit to subscription to sharing, is streamlined to make it as easy as possible for users to become part of the Upworthy community.

According to their own numbers, within a year of launch they had accumulated 15,000 Tumblr followers, 70,000 Twitter followers, 500,000 email subscribers, and 1,150,000 Facebook fans. [1]

Let's be blunt: The lion's share of Upworthy manipulation happens as a result of Facebook.

Everything else is largely a rounding error.

Upworthy is PROUD of its ability to manipulate "using emotion as data":

One of the biggest keys to pulling off their rapid growth has been, to use Upworthy Editorial Director Sarah Critchfield’s words, “using emotion as data.” By and large, Critchfield explains, emotion and logic have been wrongfully pitted against one another. Thus, at this summer’s Personal Democracy Forum, Critchfield explained that “Emotion is the ultimate x factor—the factor that you can’t control and the factor that you can’t afford to ignore.” [3]

As part of its company philosophy, Upworthy chooses to embrace this x factor, and curators leverage their emotions to help them spot the stories people will care about. In her talk, Critchfield urged attendees to:

“Make the decision to consciously embrace your own ‘data chip.’ If you do this, it could get messy. This is your warning. You run the risk of looking soft or feminine, you run the risk of finding yourself late at night sobbing on your twitter feed, you may run the risk of having to admit that your huge super-viral success wasn’t because you were super smart, but in fact that there were some factors involved that you just didn’t understand everything about. It might be messy, and it might be hard to control, but I promise you won’t be sorry.” [3]

As Critchfield explains, one of Upworthy’s biggest stories happened earlier this year when Adam Mordecai shared a video called This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular, featuring 17 year old musician and cancer patient Zach Sobiech. The video had already received around 500,000 views via Fox News and, but as we’ve already discussed, being the first to post content doesn’t necessarily matter.

After being posted to Upworthy, the video went truly viral, resulting in 15 million pageviews and 300,000 new subscribers for Upworthy. Not only that, but viewers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to cancer research, and Zach posthumously became the first independent artist ever to reach #1 on iTunes.

When asked, “How did you find the video?” Mordecai responded:

“I had written up Zach’s previous video and it got a whopping 10k views. A fan wrote me to let me know that Zach has passed, so I Googled more videos of his and fell upon the documentary. Then I hit play. Then I started crying and didn’t stop until after it was over, and started writing headlines and having flashbacks to my dad dying from pancreatic cancer and what one goes through when that happens. I wasn’t sure if I was biased but the whole thing seemed timely and wonderful.” [3]

Using tragedy for clickbait seems particularly low.

Emotion is just one set of data that Upworthy uses.

They don't mind tricking people into clicking on links:

Upworthy understands what it takes to go viral, and then goes out to test and find the best combination of elements to drive that virality. Their primary signals are both shares per view and clicks per share. 

In “The Sweet Science of Virality,” they share their quick and easy A/B test for headlines. All that’s necessary is Facebook,, and the clock.

Here’s how they do it:

First, they pick two promising headlines for the same content and create a url for each—one with url?r=A and one with B. Next, they find two cities with similar demographics and populations amongst their Facebook fans and share one with each city. They set a timer and wait for the clicks to roll in. When the time is up, they add a “+” to the end of the and compare stats.

The title with the most clicks is the winner. [1] And they don’t just test clicks—they also compare shares per view to see which headlines results in the most reshares. [7] They readily admit that they’ll probably never land on the recipe for the perfect headline, but these tests and iterations contribute to a growing body of knowledge regarding what compels users to click on and share content.

Though headlines are certainly important, they aren’t the only thing Upworthy tests. Mordecai explains, “Most of our growth was organic, combined with smart testing of user experience. And we will have to constantly adapt in the future as social media platforms change and shrink and grow.” [2] And as we’ve already discussed in reference to their subscription flow, they test and retest everything—from UX elements like CTA button placement to the most effective time for showing “Like” and “Share” prompts to kinds of images that get the most clicks, and more.

Tricking People (For Their Own Good) — OR — Virality Over EverythingIt’s clear Upworthy has aligned every aspect of their product and content around growth. And the company isn’t shy in admitting it. Headlines in particular get a lot of attention from Upworthy. Not only do they A/B test a couple of promising headlines for the same article, but curators actually begin by writing 25 headlines for each piece. Out of these 25, the curator chooses a handful of favorites, and then the managing editor chooses the best out of those.

Pariser explains, “The ethos behind the 25 headlines is, you can have the best piece of content and make the best point ever. But if no one looks at it, the article is a waste. A headline is all about getting the article in front of people.” He continues, “A good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something.” [7]

Anyone who’s clicked on an Upworthy link knows their headlines can be sensationalist, intentionally vague, and sometimes downright misleading. Pariser doesn’t deny that Upworthy’s headlines can be tricky. Still, he says, “We don’t mind tricking people into seeing content they’ll love. If they don’t love it, they’re not going to share it. Virality is a balance of how good the packaging is and how good the content is.” [7]

This is likely why, when people talk about Upworthy, it’s their headlines that get the bulk of the attention. Though they by and large publish content that isn’t original to them, they package that content in a way that gets people to pay attention.

Upworthy "is it viral?" in a nutshell:

what the hell is virality? meme chart upworthy

Is Upworthy more than one-trick pony? 

Cracking the viral code of Facebook isn’t new—many companies have found temporary success by hacking the Edge Rank algorithm to drive massive visibility and traffic. But rarely has it resulted in lasting success. Companies like Viddy, Zynga, Slide, RockYou, Branchout, and others prove time and again that Facebook can be a fickle business partner when it comes to driving traffic.

Beyond the over-reliance on Facebook, Upworthy faces an onslaught of competition from copycats, the pressure to adjust from a primarily desktop business to a mobile-friendly model, and the urgency to figure out the viral factor for international audiences as they look to keep the hockey stick growth curve headed in the right direction.

The point about Facebook is a good one.

No one who uses Facebook to grow has that go on for long.

Would it change your assessment if you knew why they started? They saw people just focusing on growth/clickbait. The founders (I forgot how many, at lest a couple) had just come off the Obama campaign, where they used their web savvy focus on testing and numbers to win an election. They asked, as many did, how can I use this info to make the world better, and decided they would focus on getting the word out on progressive topics. Straight politics didn't really take, but values-based content did. Their content (that I've seen) is pretty exclusively focused on diversity, tolerance, equality and fairness. Have you ever seen a video from them that espouses second amendment rights or is about the dangers of voter fraud? No, and you're not going to. 

Unsurprisingly an article on a growth-hackers site focuses on the aspects of the company that are about ... growth hacking. Not their core values, what they are trying to accomplish or what matters to them. And annoyingly, the author kept saying they had a secret recipe when the founders kept saying there is no secret recipe. What if the secret recipe was great content at the right time, with the right infrastructure.... oh no, you mean we have to have great content, and we can't just link-bait anything! Do NOT judge this company by one very focused article. 

Disclosure: I'm friends with one of the founders. 

It's a classic question. Once you know about Cialdini-techniques, what do you do? I think most of BJ Fogg's career is a study in seeing persuasion and trying to figure out if it can be harnessed for "good." The problem being that good is contextual, and what good for one may be evil for another (see our fabulously divided congress). There is a there there, and it is a company with a strong agenda to promote the values of the left. Agree with it or not, they are doing a good job and reminding people that love that comes with tolerance and compassion is deeply emotionally satisfying. We'll see if that turns into votes. 

For example, this is a great example of how the trick you into watching a video about how the fashion industry pollutes, a topic most of you would never look into, most likely (I wouldn't and I'm a hippie liberal)

The deck is really awesome 

Christina, "to promote values on the left", how is that done in terms of cash flow?  Do the VC's have the same motivation?

Isn't the real problem that you ultimately have to sell advertising? 

If you do not create content that is marketable you will become a marketeer.  

? I've never seen an add on upworthy. Here's a bit on their business model Looks like it's lead gen for nonprofits, which is nuts. 

Also, awesome privacy policy.

I understand that, but not making money can be a business model but then there has to be huge cash flow.   

I just don't see the end game. 

Lead gen for nonprofits makes business sense. There's a lot of money to be made there.

More so if they can also help with political fundraising and fundraising for other causes.

I do love Christina's question: "Once you know about Cialdini influence techniques, what do you do?"

That's a really good point -- they use the techniques to spread tolerance and compassion.

I don't like being manipulated but I can appreciate how good they are at it,

Upworthy gets funding and hires staff.  Here is part of description for sales position.  So it seems their product is the distribution of viral marketing.  Again, they are selling the distribution of advertising regardless of how they phrase it.  It does seem they wanted to prove their product and then the question is who are their clients.  I am not sure that a company's sole mission is to push advertising (regardless of clients) should be classified as a media company. 

FTC you listening ?  The sponsored content native ad battles are just starting.  

"We want to connect our large audience of young thought leaders to companies that have an important message to share in a way that serves our audience, delivers for our clients, and helps scale Upworthy's revenue. We're looking for a high-energy, mission-friendly, goal-oriented, charismatic sales lead to take that on."

Mark I'm not sure why you persist in thinking of them in traditional models. They are more like a nonprofit than a buzzfeed (they are a born, fwiw). You can argue they are a propaganda machine aimed at brainwashing people or believe in equality rights, compassion and tolerance, and they make money (not their goal, more a need to hit their goal) by turning that created passion into donations for formal nonprofits that match their values. 

We can talk about ends and means, as Adam does, but we cannot think about their model the way we would a gawker, because their success criteria is completely differnt. 

I don't know, however they are looking at traditional funding sources according to reports.  No non profit I have worked for gets Venture Capital funding.

Yes, as I said Bcorp. They are like 

I think the whole philanthropic investment capital idea is Orwellian. 

As I said I am a socialist, market based activities for a positive change in social welfare is something I am highly skeptical of. 

We will have to revisit in a few years and see how it plays out. 

My argument is Compassion is not and cannot have a political agenda. 

A vigorous anti abortion rights group is doing it out of compassion for the voiceless. 

A vigorous promoter of reproductive rights is doing it out of compassion for parents and families. 

Both groups percieve their efforts benefit others. Many leaders of both are still trying to maximize salaries if not profit. 

Nonprofits and B corps have to make enough to be sustainable.

Unlike for-profit corporations, they do not need to maximize income for shareholder benefit.

They are allowed to make less money and spend more time on non-moneymaking endeavors.

Upworthy clearly has a lot of talent.

To Mark's point, their power is expanding and it can be used to promote political agendas.

I think that is a very important conversation to have. A terrifying number of nonprofits are ineffective and corrupt. I was reading up on this as I consider end of year giving, and it bums me out. The B-corp is an attempt to use capitalism in the services of social good, in order to address inefficiencies in nonprofits, but as you say, there is a question of feasibility. With Upworthy and, we have highly visible expiraments in social entraprenuership. We'll see what happens next. 

I can't say I can make a call in either case. 

Long article.

Additional teaser.  On the 10th my wife is issuing a report on research concerning privitization of international government functions

Will post link

Thanks Mark.

And Christina you're right it's worth watching these B Corp's and the many others that have emerged -- from crowdfunding services like to job creating entities like Samasource.

We live in interesting times and it's important to question the accumulation of power and money. 

FTW. That did not take long as UPWORTHY is rolling out Kellogg's Special K ad campaign in the form of

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