Upworthy’s Original Content Pays Off

Upworthy OriginalUpworthy lives in a “post-page view and post-impression era,” according to founder and chief executive Eli Pariser.

While many digital publishers try to rack up enough unique visitors to warrant a spot on a media plan, and advertisers pay on impressions, Upworthy is trying to look not just at reach but also engagement.

Since 2014, it’s focused on “attention minutes,” or amount of time spent engaging with content.

At the beginning of the year, it realized that in order to improve the amount of time spent with its content, Upworthy needed to excel not only in repackaging stories but also in creating original content itself.

It hired editorial director Amy O’Leary, in January 2015, to lead that shift. She re-focused the editorial team from repackaging content to producing original content. In March, O’Leary clamped down on clickbait.

Headlines that used to read, “Watch This On A Day When The Earth Feels Broken. It Proves We Can Find Beauty In Broken Things” were replaced by those that tamped down the drama, like “My dad has Parkinson's disease. Taking a trip with him one weekend taught me a lot.”

The shift to original content and more muted headlines changed the way readers interacted with the site. Visitors who engaged with content for 15 seconds or more went from 71% in March to 80% in November.

“We’ve done a lot of polishing on our headlines,” Pariser said. “The people who are hitting the page are hitting it because they want to read the story.”

Yet, unique visitor growth was less consistent, which is typical for a viral publisher like Upworthy that tends to have an uneven distribution of home runs, Pariser said. It was also moving away from viral articles.

In March, unique visitors stood at 16.7 million, the second-lowest traffic month in the past nine months. Those numbers continued to decline to the 13 million range in May and June (the same months in which attention minutes spiked upward), before picking back up again. In November, Upworthy closed out the second month in a row with 20.9 mlllion uniques.

Unique visitors and attention minutes “are on separate axes,” Pariser said. “One is breadth, one is depth.” The challenge is making both rise without sacrificing one or the other.

With a greater focus on articles that keep readers engaged longer, Upworthy hopes to continue to attract brands.

“More marketers are trying to figure out how to speak to values and a sense of purpose, especially with millennials,” Pariser said, noting that a shared sense of purpose drives consumer spending with that brand.

The same insights Upworthy uses to create original content and repackage stories on the editorial side apply to sponsored pieces, which often perform at least as well as editorial ones.

“There was a day last week where all top three native pieces on the site were sponsored,” Pariser said. “That’s great, because it’s delivering for our audience and our partners.”

Readers who engage with sponsored content change their mind about the brand. It’s conducted third-party studies that show its sponsored posts can “shift opinions for months or longer,” Pariser said. “That’s what you want as a brand. Something that’s memorable, emotional and sticks with you.”

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