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The Secret Tool That Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and Everyone Else Is Using To Win Facebook

If not the world, as originally intended, CrowdTangle has at least changed your Facebook feed.

[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Shahan]

When CrowdTangle’s founders started it in 2011, they saw it as a tool for changing the world. Originally the app, which won funding from the Knight Foundation, organized activism on Facebook by merging pages, events, and groups into one central place. In some cases, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, it worked great. In most cases, it didn’t.

That version of CrowdTangle no longer exists. But from it has emerged something that has definitely changed your Facebook feed, if not the world.

It turned out that the most useful feature was a small part of the dashboard: the tool that showed which posts on their causes' various pages were performing best.

This may seem like basic info, but the algorithms Facebook uses to surface posts in news feeds are mysterious and constantly evolving, creating a frustrating guessing game for news outlets and organizations that are using the network for distribution.

CrowdTangle didn’t bother trying to figure out the magic formula for getting something seen on the site; it just showed what was working across their type of content and allowed them to imitate it. And it worked.

So the company’s founders, Brandon Silverman and Matt Garmur, built another version of the product that they testing with media organizations. It provides a dashboard that keeps track of how posts on your own pages, your competitors’ pages, or any other group of pages that you want to create are performing relative to average engagement for that page. "It’s like Facebook trending topics, but on crack," Silverman says.

CrowdTangle also tracks keywords, so that you can see the best performing stories under a category like "CEOs" or "iPhone 6" and it tracks URLs, so you can check out where your links (or a competitor’s links) are performing best. It will email alerts, for instance, when your story goes viral, and email digests for top performing stories in the pages in which you’re interested. The result is that any organization can easily know what people are clicking, commenting on, and liking the most on Facebook—not just their corner of Facebook, but within any category of Facebook.

The company raised $2.2 million last year from Lerer Ventures, Betaworks, Knight Enterprise Fund, New Media Ventures, AdvancIt Capital, the Box Group. It became an official Facebook partner in July, and it launched similar capabilities for Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube in November. It’s done all of this without making a peep publicly.

Photo: Flickr user Thomas Shahan

Upworthy was the first company to try it out in early 2013. In the first month, its curators shared 12 items they found using the tool on the Upworthy Facebook page. Those posts had more than three times as many average unique viewers as other content that Upworthy shared, together driving more than 1.1 million people to the site. Upworthy decided to keep its subscription.

Mic signed on shortly after that, in July 2013. Jake Horowitz, the company’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, said in an email that his team has used it mostly to monitor stories and trends. They used it to find this story about a woman who prevented a school shooting near Atlanta. The post reached 900,000 readers, which Horowitz says was "vastly greater than the audience of an average post at that time." During the midterm elections the team used the tool to discover compelling ballot initiatives in places where reporters aren’t typically looking for stories.

A few teams at BuzzFeed started using it that winter to see which outlets picked up their stories and identify trending content, like this video about a woman who, before she passed away, gave her friend a letter to mail to her husband after he had fallen in love again.

By the time I met with Silverman in January, he introduced the product by telling me that,"We’ve been secretly powering the social of every media company." And indeed, as he rattles off his client list, it represents a good chunk of the large outlets I might name offhand. Here are a handful wiling to go on the record: BuzzFeed, Vox, the Huffington Post, CNN, NBC, USA Today, ESPN, MTV, National Geographic, and yes, Fast Company. Media companies make up about 50% of users. Brands like L’Oreal Paris and Steve Madden make up another 25% and cause-oriented organizations like Greenpeace and UNICEF make up another 25%.

Knowing that so many large media outlets have access to data that shows them which stories from their competitors are performing well on Facebook makes the John Oliver Facebook effect—where the rush to be the first to post the latest clip from Last Week Tonight has incited a satirical scoreboard—look like more than over-zealous campaigning. Outlets can see what works, and when they do, it’s natural to mimic it.

Are we done with new ideas? Maybe, but Silverman doesn’t see his tool enforcing that, pointing out that its designed to be "customizable." As long as publishers and brand continue to rely on social media traffic, CrowdTangle will be around to help figure out where the clicks come from.

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