Written by: Morgan Brown
Upworthy — What Happens When a Growth Hacker Launches a Media Company
If you’ve spent any time on Facebook in the last year, it’s likely you’ve seen more than one story from Upworthy, the viral hit-driven new media company that packages content designed to spread like wildfire across the social web. The company clocked an impressive 88 million uniques in November 2013, placing it just behind the Gawker Media Network in terms of size, and has spawned a whole host of copycats looking to drive viral traffic to stories that make us laugh, cry and cheer.
But how did they do it? In part one of this analysis we break down how Upworthy grew from a political news engine into one of the world’s fastest growing media companies. In part two, we take a look at the risks to their model and dissect whether Upworthy will suffer the fate of other viral sensations driven off the back of Facebook, or if they’ve got an engine of sustainable growth that will make them the new model for successful media companies.
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.” 
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.  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,  with its sights set on Buzzfeed with their 133 million monthly uniques.
Last year Upworthy received $8 million in Series A funding in September of this year, and then an additional $4 million from NEA. All this makes them, without a doubt, the fastest growing media company in the world. So how did they do it?
Knowing When to Pivot
Though there is some political content on Upworthy, that’s only a portion of the site’s content. But that’s not what the founders originally had in mind. Pariser explains, “We thought, ‘Ok, it’s an election year, people are going to be really interested in politics and the campaign, and we’ll get a leg up that way.’ The election was our whole argument for starting Upworthy [in 2012].”  Despite Pariser and Koechley’s assumptions, as it turned out, people weren’t really engaging with Upworthy’s political content.
Pariser continues, “It turned out to be a total non-driver of growth. Of all our top pieces, only a couple deal with politics or the election.”  So they pivoted away from their original goal of making Upworthy a political publication and broadened the site’s coverage. If not for this early, critical pivot, we might not be talking about Upworthy today.
Citing another instance in which their initial assumptions were wrong, Pariser explains:
“We had a hypothesis that the thing that was really going to work was being quick, but that turned out to totally not to be the case. We’ve seen no advantage to jumping on something first. Actually, a lot of our biggest hits have been things that were already circulating around. Topicality matters but newness doesn’t.” 
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.” 
Delivering Content People Want
Still, a streamlined conversion process is nothing without an engaged and motivated audience who is hungry for the content. Upworthy has found a repeatable and scalable way to drive traffic. They use interesting, surprising, emotional, and compelling content, and lots of it, to bring in new users. Here’s how.
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. 
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.” 
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.” 
By keeping their audience and purpose in mind, Upworthy is able to curate content that has a much higher likelihood of becoming viral.
While Mordecai cites their very low success rate in making things go massively viral as proof that virality is unpredictable, this flow chart  produced by the company displays a level of growth-oriented thinking that isn’t common among other media outlets.
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.” 
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.”  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. 
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.
This focus on the audience beyond their audience provides a lense for determining which pieces of content make the cut, and therefore acts as a powerful growth lever for the company.
Turning Viral Views into Lasting Fans
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.”  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.” 
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.” 
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.  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. 
By Montanez’s count, it took Upworthy 331 days to get their first million Facebook fans, 105 days to get their second, and just 92 to get their third.  In September of this year, Upworthy reached the 3 million Facebook fan mark. At the time of this article’s writing (just three months later), they’re close to 4.9 million.
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.” 
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.” 
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 People.com, 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.” 
Critchfield cites this as an example of using emotion as data. Although there were no logical indicators that the video would be a success (Zach’s story had already been shared via Fox News, People, and Upworthy with limited reach), the emotional data argued to the contrary.
But emotion is just one set of data that Upworthy uses. 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, Bit.ly, and the clock.
Here’s how they do it:
First, they pick two promising headlines for the same content and create a bit.ly 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 bit.ly 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 bit.ly and compare stats.
The title with the most clicks is the winner.  And they don’t just test clicks—they also compare shares per view to see which headlines results in the most reshares.  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.”  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 Everything
It’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.” 
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.” 
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.
Will it Last?
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, 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.
In part two we look at the risks to their model, and try to understand whether they’re built to last, or just a viral flash in the pan.
What Else Drives Upworthy’s Growth?
What did we miss? What else has been critical in making Upworthy the fastest growing media company in the world? Let us know your take in the comments.
This case study is one of ten in Growth Engines: Case Studies of How Today's Most Successful Startups Unlock Extraordinary Growth. Get the ebook on Amazon right now for just $2.99.