Skip to main content

On March 26, 2012, a new media startup called Upworthy launched.

Upworthy is a 14-person site that tries to make meaningful information and pictures go viral.

Today, it is the fastest growing media company in the world. Upworthy finished October with 8.7 million monthly uniques, up from 6 million the month prior. In August, it hit four million uniques, up from 2.5 million in July. Its fast growth was rewarded with $4 million from investors.

There are lots of media companies out there, but none have grown that quickly.

Are Upworthy’s growth and business model sustainable? We’re not sure, but either way the stats are impressive. We asked CEO and co-founder Eli Pariser what Upworthy has been doing to smash traffic records every month.

Don’t write about politics.

Don't write about politics.


Upworthy’s internal monthly uniques since launch.

Before he started Upworthy, Pariser worked for a digital, political publication, MoveOn. He and his co-founder, The Onion’s former Managing Editor, Peter Koechley, thought the upcoming election would drive traffic to Upworthy.

But people weren’t sharing much of Upworthy’s political content, so the pair ditched that angle and broadened the site’s coverage.

“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,'” Pariser says. “The election was our whole argument for starting Upworthy this year. But 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.”

It can be tough for startups to let go of initial ideas and pivot to what’s working. But as soon as Pariser let go of the politics angle, traffic soared.

Find story ideas on social media feeds, not other websites.

Find story ideas on social media feeds, not other websites.

Upworthy’s curators don’t start their days surfing other websites for news. They surf social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook instead.

Sometimes it’s easier to highlight a conversation than to start a new one.

“We have our team of curators spending all their time looking on the Internet for stuff,” says Pariser. “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.”

Focus on Facebook, not Twitter

Focus on Facebook, not Twitter


Upworthy’s Facebook growth since launch.

Upworthy has found that Twitter is small traffic potatoes compared to Facebook. At the end of the day, Facebook is where the most people spend the vast majority of their time online.

“Facebook is a huge piece of the puzzle for us,” says Pariser. “Our Facebook community has grown from zero in March to over 600,000 likes.”

Pariser says Upworthy hasn’t done anything particularly brilliant to juice Facebook for traffic. It just spent a lot of time and energy cracking the social network.

“Honestly, I think part of [our success with it] is we take Facebook much more seriously than many of the other social networks,” he says. “I love Twitter, and Twitter is a fun place to hang out with smart people, 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.”

Write 25 headlines for every article

Write 25 headlines for every article

Upworthy has a team of curators that find the news and rewrite it for Upworthy. There isn’t much original content on the site.

But for every article Upworthy rewrites, Pariser makes his authors create 25 headlines before hitting publish. The curator selects his or her four favorites, and Upworthy’s managing editor makes the final headline decision.

“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.” says Pariser.

“Yah, it’s a huge time suck. But when we were starting out, we had a very analytics and testing-oriented approach. We were trying to think, ‘What are the things you can do to produce 6-10X the number of people who come look at something? A good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something.”

It’s ok to trick someone into reading an article IF you know they’ll love the content.

Startups like Upworthy are criticized for creating sensational journalism. But Pariser argues he’s just trying to get important stories read.

“People tend to think the problem with public interest journalism is, who’s going to shed light on the important problems? But the problem is really how you get people to see the important content,” Pariser says.

“Generally, people aren’t making important content to get the most monetization out of it. They’re writing it because they care, but that [boring content with boring headlines] doesn’t really have a home online. 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.”

Pariser referenced one of Upworthy’s most successful articles to date, “The Real Reason They Still Play ‘Mrs. Robinson’ On The Radio.”

“It’s one of my favorite bank shot headlines we’ve done, and it was about a chart that showed media consolidation,” says Pariser. “It’s hard to get people worked up about media consolidation, but there was one part of the chart that said 80% of stations’ playlists match all across the country and that Mrs. Robinson has played 6 million times. We took what was fun about the chart and stirred curiosity.”

Use A/B testing and analytics to juice content.

Use A/B testing and analytics to juice content.

SMercury98 via Flickr

No Upworthy headline is final until social media followers have spoken.

Upworthy A/B tests multiple headlines per article, then looks at clicks per share (how many people click on a link once it’s been tweeted or liked), and shares per view (how many people share an Upworthy article on social media once they’ve read it).

Then Upworthy uses the data to optimize its content.

Think about advertising differently.

Think about advertising differently.

You won’t find any banner ads on Upworthy, but you may be asked to sign up for something.

Upworthy is taking ta slightly different approach to advertising. It wants to engage users with sponsored sign up programs, not spam pages with irrelevant ads.

“We’re doing sponsored opportunities to sign up — essentially lead gen for causes,” Pariser says. “Folks who visit our content pages get an opportunity to sign up to join, say, the Sierra Club. You have to imagine that advertisers will want to get much more interactive,” says Pariser. “The funny thing about display — and a lot of online advertising — is it’s still basically the same kind of thing as running an ad in the newspaper. We focus on engagement and work with groups that want to get folks engaged in their campaigns; we place their messages at the right place, at the right time.”

Don’t worry about keeping readers on your site.

Don't worry about keeping readers on your site.

For a site with 7 million monthly uniques, Upworthy’s pageviews aren’t particularly impressive. Neither are its direct visits.

In September, Upworthy had 6 million unique visitors and 8.5 million pageviews, less than 2 pages viewed per person. But Pariser isn’t worried about that.

“We’re not trying to keep people on the site very much,” he says. “We want them to view the content, share it, subscribe to it, and go on their way. We figure we’ll be able to reach back out to them again.”

Being first doesn’t matter

When Upworthy launched, it tried to jump on the news. Pariser has since learned that being first isn’t what’s most important.

“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,” he says. “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.”

Pariser referenced a video his team posted of Mitt Romney accidentally conversing with a gay veteran before he was a presidential candidate. In September, when more people cared about Mitt Romney, it racked up another 1,000,000 views. Upworthy didn’t find the video; ABC News posted it first.

“It seems like it’s about getting the right piece of content published within the right moment,” he says.

Mobile is important, but it isn’t everything

Upworthy has a mobile product that drives 30% of its traffic, but first and foremost it’s a web publication.

That said, Pariser says his team spends a “fair amount of time” thinking up ways to make the mobile site better.

Only write something 1,000,000 people would be happy to learn about

Only write something 1,000,000 people would be happy to learn about

Associated Press

Upworthy strives to publish interesting, worthwhile stories. So, while cat videos are often shared on social media outlets, you won’t see any of those stories on Upworthy.

“You feel good when you actually learn something,” Pariser says. “The thing that keeps us from really going off the rails is we have to make a case that if 1,000,000 saw one of our articles, the world would be a better place. That’s what we’re really focused on — and it’s what’s working. Upworthy is anything that sheds light on something that matters in a visual way.”

Vía Business Insider