How can we take the structural tools that make funny cat videos go viral, and use them to make important stories go viral too? That was the question that began to bubble in Eli Pariser’s mind shortly after he left MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group, where he was executive director from 2004 to 2008. “In a near future world where people mostly get their news and information through social media,” Pariser recalls, “I didn’t feel confident that content that really mattered would make it through and reach a big audience. A big enough audience, let’s say, that could actually inform how an average person might vote.”
So Pariser got together with Peter Koechley, the former managing editor of The Onion, who he had worked with on a MoveOn project. Together they created Upworthy, a web platform designed to spread content that matters. It was a noble cause that had been attempted by many before them, but Pariser, who now serves as Upworthy’s CEO, and Koechley had a unique approach: Curate compelling content that already exists, and package it in a way that makes people instantly want to share. The time seemed right. “People have always wanted to share information, but social media a couple years ago was purely for sharing LOLs and impersonal moments,” Koechley says. “As it’s matured and become more deeply embedded in people’s lives it’s become more substantial.”
Those familiar with The Onion no doubt know its attention-grabbing headlines. What they may not know is that at The Onion, it is regular practice for a writer to generate 23 headlines for a given story, before finding a winner. Headline writing goes through a similar process at Upworthy, and headlines are essential to content’s viral viability. At Upworthy, the team has tried to boil virality down to this quasi-scientific equation: “Virality = strength of the applicability of content and packaging x shareability of original content x size of distribution + luck.” While they can’t control luck, the Upworthy team monitors posts after they go live to see how they are tracking, sometimes altering headlines for posts that aren’t taking off. “It’s the fault of people who do care about issues for not making them interesting,” Koechley says. “Politics and social issues are boring and onerous. It’s our mission to take those issues and make them so funny, compelling, or interesting that you can’t look away.”
And the formula has been working. Upworthy’s growth has been robust. Posts on Upworthy–or “nuggets” as they call them–have been averaging 1 million pageviews since August. One video that launched over the summer featuring a former Irish prime minster ranting against the Tea Party garnered 1.8 million pageviews. In October, a piece with a news anchor responding on camera to a viewer who wrote in to bully her for being overweight received 4 million views in its first two weeks.
Upworthy does have revenue, and its business model centers around partnering with socially minded organizations to help them attract new members. So an Upworthy post about an environmental issue might display a button to take action which redirects a user to the Sierra Club–an Upworthy partner. If that user follows through and becomes a member of the Sierra Club, Upworthy gets a referral fee. Early on, a search for funders who supported the social mission and technology potential of the company drew the attention of Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who became an investor. “Upworthy clearly has a belief that meaningful content should be able to move just as easily around the Internet as cat videos can,” says Hughes. “I’m an enthusiastic believer in that point and this seemed to be not only a great idea but the perfect time to be launching a company oriented around that belief.” Their growth has been faster than sites like Huffington Post or BuzzFeed in their comparable periods. Last month the company announced a new $4 million round of funding led by NEA.
Pariser and Koechley praise the Upworthy team of designers, developers, and writers who have been able to make their rollout so successful. “They have the perfect combination of the desire to win the Internet and actual deep earnest desire to make the world a better place,” boasts Koechley. Part of the team’s success is also attributable to the virtual, collaborative, office-less culture in which the staff of 13 works. They are spread across the country and many have only met in person once. They work with open lines of Google hangouts and Gchat to enable constant communication. The virtual setup also helps keep office politics to a minimum and allows staff to work from anywhere in the world.
Upworthy tries to mirror its users in its employees. Their goal is not to create content for the political elite. Instead they try to make good things accessible and jargonless in the way The Onion or The Daily Show do so well. But Pariser demurs on whether or not this is a new model for journalism. “The reason big companies have distribution arms, is because distribution is constantly changing. We are constantly tweaking the way we push out and package information. It’s not something everyone can do…I love the New York Times, but the point of what they do is to write the best journalism and to put it up there.”
[Image: Flickr user Namtaf]