What Makes Upworthy Wildly Successful

Nov 28, 2013
Originally published on November 28, 2013 12:34 pm

Upworthy aggregates news stories and writes catchy — some say ‘cheesy’ — headlines for them. And then it makes those stories go viral.

The popular social media site started in 2012 and in October attracted 50 million unique visitors.

Now, Upworthy is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to produce original content focusing on global health and poverty.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti with details.


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MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW.

Upworthy is on a roll. The liberal social media site aggregates news stories many of which go viral. And last month, Upworthy had more than 50 million unique visitors. It's also raised $8 million this year alone.

Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic joins us. And, Derek, so what's making Upworthy so popular?

DEREK THOMPSON: That's a good question. So here's how it works, essentially. The - you have a staff that scours the Web for interesting, progressive material, whether it's videos or images. They A/B test the headlines for a small testing audience. The headline that wins is then pushed out onto the enormous, sort of, social networks. And Upworthy administers on Facebook and through other means. And it's just a monster. They do unbelievable traffic. 50 million uniques in October, 25 million uniques in the first week of November. They're already bigger as an audience in time.com. It's a pretty astonishing model, considering it's essentially curation and headline writing.

HOST: Wow. So it's pulling in the eyeballs, but is it pulling the money? How does it raise money?

THOMPSON: Well, you know, they've used a, sort of, sponsored posts. They - they've tried to, you know, make a advertisement for Skype go viral. And Microsoft gave them some money for that. But really, interestingly, what they've done recently is they've hooked up with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And the Gates Foundation is giving them a little bit of money to create a new vertical based around global poverty and health issues.

You have a quick popularizer of earnest issues in Upworthy, meeting(ph) a great advocacy group and charity for earnest issues in the Gates' foundation. And they're meeting in the middle and creating a business out of this.

HOST: OK. So Upworthy, however, given sort of its progressive tilt, as you were talking, obviously, has its share of critics as well. I mean, there are some people who say that those headlines that you were saying, that they're cheesy and more than a little sensational.

I mean, here's a couple of examples. Who doesn't like to watch half-naked girls dancing? These guys, after they see why it's happening. And that's the headline that links to a video about human trafficking.

And another one: Dustin Hoffman breaks down crying, explaining something that every woman sadly already experienced. What the actor talks about is experienced playing a homely woman in "Tootsie." So how does the site defend itself, if at all, against that kind of criticism?

THOMPSON: There should have an amygdala tickling genius here. But it's also movie-trailer mawkishness. I mean, it's really rather overly sentimental and over the top. You know, well, Eli Pariser, their co-founder and CEO, says is essentially this: There's really no special virtue in letting great content go undiscovered. And if the secret to unlocking an enormous audience for an important piece of information is being a little movie-trailer mawkish, then who are we to criticize?

You know, I do think that when you see these headlines just stacked one on top of the other, they're a little bit embarrassing. But at the same time, you know, these are marketers. And the fact that they've reached 50 million uniques in October, that's good marketing.

HOST: Are there other websites that are looking at the success of Upworthy and saying, hey, maybe we've got sort of a new revenue model going here.

THOMPSON: Both in editorial and the revenue model. I think you look at The Washington Post and they have a project now called No More, which I think is trying to viralize, if that's even a word, progressive, smart content that makes us smarter. At the same time, you know, the history of progressive sites becoming empires did not start with Upworthy, you know? The Huffington Post announced itself very clearly as a left-of-center site, and then AOL bought them for hundreds of millions of dollars. And it think goes to show that there is a business in being transparent about your politics online if you attract a massive, massive audience.

HOST: Well, Derek Thompson is The Atlantic's business editor. Derek, thank you so much and happy Thanksgiving.

THOMPSON: Happy Thanksgiving to you.

HOST: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.