I arrived at Upworthy in
February 2015 and since then, a lot of people have been asking what we’re up to. We’ve made a lot of changes already and I’m proud of how far we’ve come together as a team in just a short time. I wrote this to share our vision for Upworthy’s next phase of growth with the wider world. We’re pretty excited about what’s ahead and are looking forward to talking about it with our peers, our team, and most of all, our community of readers who value the place Upworthy has in their day. — Amy O’Leary Editorial Director July 2015
UPWORTHY SPRUNG TO LIFE BY
BRINGING MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF ATTENTION TO STORIES THAT REALLY MATTER. 18 million people saw Zach Wahls’ passionate defense of his mothers’ relationship (“Two lesbians raised a baby and this is what they got”) and helped move the debate on marriage equality forward. That success was the genesis for Upworthy and all that was to follow. As a company, Upworthy kept discovering and sharing stories that would make a real difference. During the “ice bucket challenge” craze, 17 million people saw Anthony Carbajal’s honest and heartbreaking plea for understanding the disease both he and his mother will die from.
And it worked. Upworthy was
crazy successful, the fastest growing media company of all time. Upworthy was so successful, in fact, you probably couldn’t escape it in your Facebook feed at one time (cue the haters…). But that work brought stories on equality, justice, and diversity to hundreds of millions of people in just three years. So Upworthy became incredibly good at this thing called “curation.” (Some people were all like, “Where’s the museum? What even is that?”) But it meant that the team had these super sharp skills and tools for hunting down the most impactful stories on the Internet and bringing them to huge new audiences.
Oof. A lot of people
think of Upworthy and think: “Ugh. I hate those annoying ‘clickbait’ headlines.” Yeah, we know. We don’t like them either. What started out as a kind of fun, off-the-wall experiment to reinvent headlines (to bring attention to important stories) mushroomed and multiplied and sort of broke the Internet. When they started to ﬂood the Internet, nobody liked what happened next, including us. And we’re sorry.
“WE SORT OF UNLEASHED A
MONSTER. SORRY FOR THAT. SORRY WE KIND OF BROKE THE INTERNET LAST YEAR. I'M EXCITED GOING FORWARD TO SAY GOODBYE TO CLICKBAIT." — PETER KOECHLEY, UPWORTHY CO-FOUNDER AT THE GUARDIAN’S CHANGING MEDIA SUMMIT, MARCH 2015 SO, WE APOLOGIZED.
Storytelling? Wait, that’s not a
hot, new distribution model. Where are the “newsonomics”? Where are the future- o f - m e d i a b u z z w o r d s ? W h a t o f “platlishing”? I worked at a newspaper before I came to Upworthy and I’ve been thinking about the big changes in media for some time. Newspapers, for example, evolved over hundreds of years. And they had a format that worked. That “inverted pyramid” style we were all taught in school was a 19th-century invention that was ﬁtting form in the telegraph age. What is the way we tell stories today? While there are all kinds of fancy “atomization” apps and reverse- engineered listicles ﬂooding the landscape, nobody has really ﬁgured out what formats for storytelling will become dominant in the world we all actually live in today. You know, this world:
(What’s so crazy-exciting about being
at Upworthy right now is that we get to work on this question — and do it in the service of stories that actually matter.) Nobody has really mastered the way stories are told on a phone, the device most of us read on today.
EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING THERE ARE SO
MANY THINGS THAT WE KNOW ABOUT CHARACTER EMOTION SURPRISE MEANINGSTRUCTURE Story nerds dig this stuff. We understand the toolkit to build a story that you absolutely can’t put down. From structure to emotional payoffs to telling details to surprise, the art and craft of empathetic storytelling has a deep roster of techniques that have yet to be smartly adapted to a digital age.
AUDIENCE MEDIUM ACTIONSFRAMING HABITS Every
day Upworthy is learning more about human actions surrounding digital stories and how stories travel in digital space. By measuring interaction with digital stories, we are uncovering surprising insights into what had long been an intuitive art. We are analyzing the audience, medium, framing, actions, and habits surrounding a story. If you care about stories, looking under the hood at this stuff is a dream come true. THE DATA BEHIND STORIES WE’RE ALSO LEARNING GROUNDBREAKING NEW THINGS ABOUT
FRAMING Mason Wartman abandoned a
life on Wall Street to start a pizza shop in Philadelphia, where customers can get a slice but also pay an extra dollar to buy a Post-it note and put it on the wall. Anyone who is hungry can use those Post-it notes and redeem it for a meal. The Upworthy story featured Mason and his customers as part of our original video series, “Humanity FTW.” The video’s massive success helped Mason expand to serve even more of his neighbors in need. 29 MILLION VIEWS, A WIN FOR EMPATHY CHARACTER MEDIUMMEANING Original video at Upworthy? We do that. While Mason’s story had been told several places, Upworthy’s expertise in framing the story for maximum social distribution (with care and sensitivity for the voices in the story) led to massive views, and a real-world impact for the people Mason serves every day.
2 MILLION PEOPLE READING
ABOUT WORKERS’ WAGES AUDIENCE MEDIUM Upworthy does longform? Yep. In this 5,000-word original deep dive into the pleasures (and ethical problems) in fast food, Upworthy writer Eric March used a set of strategic techniques (humor, surprise, and structure) to engage over 2 million people on subjects of wage fairness and justice. SURPRISESTRUCTURE Five incredibly delicious chain restaurants you should never, ever eat at — and one you should but can’t.
Getting a story to more
people than the entire population of Canada? Yeah, Upworthy still does that, too. True to our roots as curators, Upworthy licenses the most exceptional stories on the Internet, as we present the best of the meaningful Internet in super-shareable stories every day. 46 MILLION VIEWS FOR LOVE & DIVERSITY ACTIONSEMOTION SURPRISE FRAMING This simple and brilliant video showed twosomes of all kinds dancing, hugging, and high- ﬁving behind a screen that revealed only their skeletons. When the couples emerged, they showed the beauty and diversity of love in all its forms — as duos of mixed age, race, gender, and religion showed that love is a truly universal emotion.
QUALITY EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING FUTURE-OF-NEWS TYPES
AND DIGITAL MEDIA THINKERS WILL PROBABLY SHRUG. BUT WE BELIEVE THAT, IN THE END, SUPPORTED BY A SOPHISTICATED DATA INFRASTRUCTURE, MERGED WITH A MISSION TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE, IS A WINNING FORMULA FOR THE KIND OF STORIES PEOPLE LOVE.
Early 2014 Today Can you
measure a good story by the numbers? If you’d asked me a couple of years, ago, I would have said, “hell no.” Storytelling was an art and data would just poison real storytellers, forcing them to create lowest-common-denominator junk, right? But I would have been wrong. You can learn serious things about storytelling from the right data. If you’re measuring the right things, your data should feel like a (slightly-blurred for the public) glorious spreadsheet of applause. All that green at the bottom shows that changes we’re making are working; it means our audience is on their feet, clapping louder than ever before. Less Love More Love Actual internal Upworthy spreadsheet!
And we’re big. With 20
million monthly readers, Upworthy’s audience is larger than the populations of Chile, New York or Florida — or ﬁve years of attendance at Yankee Stadium. That is pretty incredible when you consider that this audience is reading about challenging topics like wage fairness, consent, diversity and equality. *Yankees tickets not to scale. *
The media industry is an
exciting and volatile one right now. Many of the things that went into being a media company of the past are now being swallowed by large platform players (Hi, Facebook! Hello, Google! Howdy, [insert hot social media platform here…]). DISCOVERY MONETIZATIONDISTRIBUTION Platforms are increasingly surfacing facts, trends, and stories, algorithmically. Platforms have largely won the battle for distribution. Platforms are making early moves to be the source for content monetization. Of course, some will try to continue to “game” platforms and their algorithms for near-term v i r a l g a i n s , b u t a t Upworthy, we know that that’s a short-term play, at best. So where will Upworthy compete?
MISSION-DRIVEN DATA-INFORMED STORYTELLING We believe
that high-quality, mission-driven, data-informed storytelling that works with platforms, not against them, is a truly exciting and defensible new frontier. And we have the data infrastructure to do this in a serious new way.
Upworthy has always had what
we’ve called, “the Little Mermaid strategy.” We want to be where the people are. By living in the places people naturally spend time online (and curating thousands of stories), we’ve been able to measure what resonates — even on hard topics like wage fairness, reproductive rights, or racism. And so in the same way Netﬂix has leveraged its vast data trove to create new shows that people love, like “House of Cards” or “Orange Is the New Black” … Upworthy is creating the kind of stories we know work with large audiences (like that delicious fast food piece). This is true even when the core messages are challenging or seemingly “non- viral.”
And I’m proud to be
leading that ﬁght. Thanks for taking some time to learn about Upworthy and our vision. I’m happy to keep the conversation going. Hit me up with questions or thoughts at @amyoleary on Twitter.