Over the last week, both Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic commented on the explosive growth of Upworthy over the last few months. Most people in cultural industries work under the maxim that “All hits are flukes,” and it is almost impossible to predict viral hits in advance. However, Upworthy outlined a strategy to try and ensure virality in recent blog post, while also showing 87 million unique viewers visited their site in November. (They don’t offer any comparisons, but Meyer makes the safe assumption that it’s “a lot more” viewers than the New York Times.)
Whenever people discuss Upworthy’s content, they jump to the site’s distinctive headlines. To sample from today’s headlines:
Critics like Meyer point to the headlines as clickbait, striking an ideal emotional tone to maximize readers’ responses. More than other media organizations, Upworthy emphasizes an emotional connection with readers, as they explain in their recent memo: “for us, headlines are an important means to an even more important end: drawing massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter like health care costs and marriage equality and global health. And good news: It’s working. Last month, 87 million people visited Upworthy for videos about racial profiling, gender bias, reproductive rights.” (Emphasis in original)
At the same time, Klein points to the minuscule volume of content Upworthy publishes in a month as a possible reason for success. Their 250 postings in November, according to NewsWhip.com, is a fraction of what we see on the Huffington Post (over 18,000), Buzzfeed (over 3,000) or Gawker (1,000 posts). At the same time, the average number of Facebook likes per Upworthy post dwarfs any competitor:
Upworthy itself acknowledges that clickbait is a viable strategy to get page views, but their staff tries to distinguish themselves by saying it is the “actual quality of the content” that drives people to click the “Share” button on Facebook. What constitutes “quality” content is open to wide interpretation, and media organizations often try to explain their success through providing “quality content.” However, Upworthy’s low volume of content suggests an emphasis on maximizing the value of individual postings instead of maximizing the volume of postings and hoping a certain percentage become hits:
“Our top curators comb through hundreds of videos and graphics a week, looking for the 5-7 that they’re confident are super-shareable. That’s not a typo: We pay people full-time to curate 5-7 things a week.”
Klein buys in to this logic, suggesting that posting a large volume of content may go beyond diminishing returns and actually be counter-productive. After all, if you could identify which stories will spread widely and which do not, it makes economic sense to ignore stories that will not spread widely. Scholars of cultural industries should recognize this problem. In movies, music, books, television and other cultural industries, only 10 to 20 percent of all works turn a profit. If all movie tickets have a similar cost, why pay for a terrible movie when you could watch a great one instead? News and information online have similar issues. If every story and posting is a click away, why not spend your time on the best content? After all, it’s impossible to read everything on the Internet.
The problem with most “just invest in the most shareable content” strategies in cultural industries is that people have free will, so it is impossible to fully predict what will be a hit. Hollywood is full of big budget movies that studios were convinced would make millions of dollars, only to fall flat. In my days as a reporter, I was always surprised when readers flocked to stories I wasn’t particularly fond of, but ignored what I thought was my best work. Upworthy’s low volume, high sharing strategy seems to violate the economic rules of cultural industries. How do they do it?
Both Klein and Meyer point to Facebook’s algorithms for putting media organization’s content on a user’s Facebook news feed, but this only tells part of the story. Yes, Upworthy’s low volume of posts helps them promote every posting on Facebook without being penalized. Yes, changes in Facebook’s algorithms could help more professionalized media organizations. However, NewsWhip’s metrics suggest another distinctive part of Upworthy’s strategy: their social media presence is almost exclusively Facebook, with little traffic coming from other social media:
While Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are widely repeated on both Facebook and Twitter, Upworthy is rarely mentioned on Twitter, suggesting a broader lesson about how Upworthy fits a distinctive niche in the chronology of how news spreads today. Every media organization acts as a gatekeeper, listening to a wide range of sources seeking media attention and deciding who is worthy of coverage. Upworthy acts more like a “surrogate consumer” (Hirsch 1972), sifting through hundreds of potential stories like radio stations sift through hundreds of potential songs. Given the pace at which modern media organizations post, Upworthy would be one of the last movers. This explains why Upworthy gets so little traffic via Twitter, since Twitter users tend to be earlier adopters and sharers of news.
I propose that Upworthy’s headlines, emphasis on a small number of postings and reliance on Facebook sharing are all part of a broad strategy to target a niche audience that wants to feel informed – particularly with regards to a subset of progressive social issues – even though this target niche is not the first to find and repost news. Clickbait headlines that try to convey a more inspirational and positive form of group solidarity separate Upworthy from competitors like Gawker and partisan blogs, which may be particularly attracting to audiences that want to avoid the negativity of new media content but do not want to feel left out. Facebook is an ideal social networking site to find this audience, since it is not the site of choice for breaking news and up-to-the-minute interaction. Upworthy’s less timely postings should matter less. All of these pieces fit together, making Upworthy increasingly popular among it’s target audience niche. However, their approach is dependent on other media organizations and quickly turns off readers outside the target audience, suggesting a limit to how much other media organizations could benefit in the long term from copying Upworthy’s approach.