Timeless Content Marketing Lessons from the World’s Fastest Growing Online Publication

Have you heard of UpWorthy?

It’s the new darling of the web, and the praise is well earned. In mere months, the site has managed to surpass the early record numbers of some of the web’s most trafficked online publications.

off-to-a-good-start

Even more surprising is that they have been able to accomplish this without resorting to the dredge content of the internet, and they have totally avoided the use of memes and meaningless listicles.

The premise of the site—a belief that socially conscious content can be just as viral as cat videos—has done exceedingly well against competitors like BuzzFeed, a site that lists the article 25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions as one of their most popular pieces of content.

The earnest aspiration of the staff to deliver on serious content was supported by many, but few would have guessed how successful they would be so soon.

Recently, the team created a presentation titled What Makes that One Thing Go Viral (Just Kidding), and it is a veritable smorgasbord of insightful information that examines why certain posts on the site are able to garner millions of visitors.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at some fantastic lessons revealed, not only from that slideshow, but also from reverse-engineering some of their most consistently used tactics.

By examining how such a viral site was able to get noticed in a hyper competitive space, surely we can learn a lesson or two for our own content marketing efforts.

Let’s get started!

Context is King: The 25 Headline Rule

UpWorthy shares some seriously heavy content at times. To get an idea of what I mean, here are a few examples:

  1. Growing up rich vs. growing up poor
  2. A coffin-maker’s take on work and death
  3. A lesson on not being quick to judge others

How does content like this make waves in a place like the web, where viewers are drowning in eye-catching alternatives? The answer is headlines.

While I’m certainly not the first person to tell you that memorable headlines are one of the most important parts of any widely read article, I think you’ll be surprised to see just what an impact small headline changes can have.

The UpWorthy team is so fanatical about headlines, that editors must assemble at least 25 headlines for every new article that is published. According to CEO Eli Pariser:

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 good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something.

This sort of thinking has played out in quite a few examples, according to the staff.

In a post about intelligent monkeys, two versions were released, and a simple headline change allowed one version to garner 59x more viewers, showing a clear incentive for why headlines should be given a high priority:

clever-monkeys

The team emphasizes a rule that all copywriters need to learn — don’t be too clever, as clever writing can result in a confusing message.

This bullet point list is one that the team lives by in order to consistently come up with interesting, clickable headlines:

  • Don’t give the full story away in the headline
  • Don’t give everything away in the excerpt or image
  • Don’t be shrill; allow people to form their own opinions
  • Don’t bum people out: emotional content should be focused on excitement, surprise, and even anger, but never sadness
  • Don’t sexualize or go for “shock and awe” headlines that your mom would disapprove of (more on that later)
  • Don’t be too clever

Head over to the UpWorthy homepage and you’ll see headlines dripping with intrigue that aren’t insulting or overly mysterious. I regularly read the site for headline lessons alone.

Always Sweat the Small Stuff

When I published an article called Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to His Customers, I had a fellow content crafter ask me candidly why I framed the article in this way.

The simple answer is that if I approached the topic literally, it would have been about “internal innovation vs. customer feedback.” That’s far too boring to stand out on the web, even in the more mild B2B space. Instead, I structured the argument around a famous quote from Steve Jobs (a popular figure) to draw more interest.

For social content (aka, most B2C content), this becomes even more important. UpWorthy has highlighted how they “frame” each new article, making sure that even the smallest detail (from word choice to social media details) aligns correctly with the message and intrigue of the post in question:

frame-all-things

The note about “Your Mom” is no joke, and actually an important part of framing that UpWorthy takes very seriously.

I’ve highlighted research in the past that shows truly controversial topics are not great for generating a lot of social shares. Instead, it’s the topics of low controversy (like cats vs. dogs or which way the toilet paper should face) that get viral discussions going WITHOUT offending people.

The art of content creation for an audience instead of pageviews necessitates that you shouldn’t deeply offend people. UpWorthy keeps this in mind by utilizing the Your Mom rule, which is that no article should genuinely upset a middle-aged mom:

mom

Of course, you need to keep your ideal audience in mind, but for many brands, this seemingly silly standard is a great way to keep yourself from getting too controversial in your attempt to get your content noticed.

The team also applies this thought process to image selection for articles, which is a step they take far more seriously than most sites, given their reliance on Facebook traffic.

Aiming to be as noticeable and clickable as possible, the team goes for shock and awe without pushing the boundaries that might offend people:

do-no-take-the-share

UpWorthy also sweats the small stuff when it comes to conversion rate optimization. It has been highlighted how the team is obsessed with utilizing tests to monitor user behavior in order to optimize individual pieces of content.

UpWorthy A/B tests multiple headlines per article, [and] then looks at clicks per share and shares per view… [T]hen UpWorthy uses the data to optimize its content.

Similar to the way the Buffer team tests their headlines, the UpWorthy staff actually tests a few of their best headlines from the 25 Headlines Policy for each article to see how they perform.

top-tweet-1

top-tweet-2

The team also is adamant about running conversion rate optimization tests for nearly every single aspect of their site. For instance, while many shun the use of pop-ups on content pages, UpWorthy literally tested their audience. They found that pop-ups didn’t cause an outrage, and, in fact, increased sharing (and later sign-ups) by some dramatic percentages:

never-hurts

The team also does “ghetto testing” via social shares through the use of Bitly and Facebook demographics. It’s rare to see any site pour this amount of effort into each and every post:

we-cant-afford

The goal, as you’ll soon see, is that UpWorthy cares more about maximizing the potential impact of great content than about churning out post after post with little understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Attract Readers, Not Pageviews

Although UpWorthy has been compared to sites like BuzzFeed for its sensational headlines and its bite-sized bits of content that attract millions of views, the ethos that guides the team is not focused on generating random pageviews.

In a recent interview, Pariser notes that pageviews are a secondary concern to building UpWorthy’s communication channels with readers:

We want [readers] 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.

As a social site, it’s no surprise that the team heavily relies on Facebook, but what you might find interesting is that they recognize the power of email marketing and place their newsletter as a top priority.

things-that-matter

Although the term “pageview” is used to gauge the performance of individual posts, the user experience is geared toward quality visitors and getting them to stick around if they are a fit.

UpWorthy uses pop-ups, but look at the initial message they broadcast (it’s customized depending on the topic):

its-nice

Why would they use this precious opportunity to ask a Yes or No question like this?

It’s actually a great idea, because it aligns with the proven psychological principle of commitment and consistency, first put forward by Robert Cialdini:

If people commit to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image.

When UpWorthy gets you to agree with their initial question, they’ve gotten you to remind yourself of your values and what you stand for.

Guess what happens when you click “I Agree”:

we-think-so-too

Notice how your confirmation evokes a sense of belonging to the UpWorthy community. “We think so, too” says the headline, and the call to action is an email signup asking you to support their mission to spread meaningful content to the world.

Pageview farms don’t have this intent of keeping like-minded people around. UpWorthy’s strategy of qualifying visitors and focusing on community building over meaningless drive-by traffic is a key part of their success.

In another unusual strategy for a site focused on viral content, UpWorthy staff say that breaking a story does not matter very much to them:

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.

While most of their competitors now saturate the web with an overabundance of rehashed content and superficial list posts, UpWorthy takes an approach that most busy bloggers can certainly appreciate. They focus on publishing content that keeps the bar high but that also can be enjoyed by millions of people. Pariser himself has said that:

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.

Only publish when you can be awesome, as a community is built around quality and shared values, not on how many times you appear in their feed.

What Do You Think?

Have you heard of the site before? What do you think about their tactics for growing an audience in a viciously competitive space?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment!

About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the Freshdesk alternative for small businesses that love taking care of customers. Get more tips for creating customer loyalty by subscribing to our blog.

  1. Thanks for sharing. Bloggers and marketers should concentrate on writing great content and the rest will follow. When readers find great, quality and useful content on a blog, they are most likely to come back for more. Write for humans first, and of course it’s always the headlines that attract readers.

  2. Wow, Gregory what an awesome post. Can’t wait to start using popups to ask yes or no questions before prompting our customers with an email signup page.

    Already signed up as an email subscriber on UpWorthy and look forward to continued reading of their content.

  3. Hi Gregory,

    I discovered Upworthy two days ago on Open Forum.com; they were featured in a blog post about copywriting. I haven’t had a chance to check out the website.

    I think that the people at Upworthy are smart for testing headlines and content. While you may not create 25 headlines for your blog posts, it makes sense to create at least 5 and/or 10 headlines. Why? Because of the following, “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 good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something.”

    Thanks for this insightful post.

  4. Well written, awesome stuff here. So much to learn from! Thank you, I’m a new UpWorthy fan for sure and impressed by their audience development approach.

  5. This is the first time I’ve come across the site, Upworthy.

    There’s nothing fancy about the home page but the articles have a a nice layout. What really caught my eye was the amount of share buttons on the page, i.e. one set above the video, another below the video and while hovering over the video a third set of buttons occur.

    I must try this out on my site as well and see if there is any increase in conversion.

    Great article Greg!

  6. Great post, just what I needed. Attracting readers/customers starts with interest, whether that starts with an image and copy on a banner ad or a headline in your email inbox. Headline, sub head, first paragraph etc… Then desired action

  7. Truly great, detailed and actionable post. Some surprising information for marketers. Way to go Upworthy!

  8. Venkatesh Iyer Aug 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Fantastic post. The biggest gain from it is the introduction to Upworthy, a site I wasn’t aware of. I am extremely grateful for the intro. I have already added Upworthy to my Feedly.

  9. Some great lessons to be learned here!

    Thanks for sharing and drawing this to my attention.

    Now back to checking out Upworthy… :)

  10. Fabulous and well detailed article. Nothing like having an awesome headline that increases conversion rates

  11. The first post I came across on Upworthy hooked me in as a regular visitor. Their output is first-class. Thanks for taking the time to do a write up on the marketing techniques they use to get the most out their content.

  12. Amazing post! That is a genius idea how they use pop-ups to earn commitment and consistency. Any idea what app or plugin they use? I am going to shift my goal of gaining pageviews to gaining readers.

    I saw a few people post about UpWorthy but now I am definitely going to check it out!

  13. Its annoying how clients insist on having their logos published regularly (and I’m talking about 2x a day).

    They fail to see how doing so is down-right boring and it looks like an “in-your-face” type of thing advertising.

    I almost always find myself using some Zig Ziglar lines to persuade them(which works almost 100% by the way).

    Amazing post! Thanks for sharing!

  14. I think the pop up strategy is just ….awesome

    Something worth testing

    Thank you for this nugget …and for the entire article :)

  15. This is a fantastic post. I am always experimenting with the effectiveness of my posts, and this gives me lot of ideas of what to try next.

  16. 2 things I can take from this and use immediately:

    Never over-do your images
    It’s not the popup, it’s the placement of it

    Crucial stuff here. Upworthy? One of the greatest sites to grace our web. Great write up!

  17. This is excellent! Amazing (and refreshing) to see that so much thought goes into their content and that they aren’t just regurgitating the same old crap.

  18. This is a great post and Upworthy definitely have the right idea with their content. Well, that speaks for itself really! I think their success is not only based on the content they post but the fact they are willing to try out new things!

  19. Amazing post, inspiring and so useful – one of the key lessons is that every word, every call to a action needs to be worked deeply. And as founder of Wisepops.com I love the use of pop-ups here – the title “it never hurts to ask” could just be my baseline! Thks again

  20. Great information; it is all bout the first impression when it comes to text…great analysis there…learned alot…keep it up

  21. I love the use of pop-ups here – the title “it never hurts to ask” could just be my baseline! Thks again . I am always experimenting with the effectiveness of my posts, and this gives me lot of ideas of what to try next.

  22. Great! Content is still king, how to present the content is even more important. Testing, testing, testing!

  23. Awesome post. You have me thinking of adding pop-ups back to some of my sites now!

  24. I love how they talk about how building readership is more important that building traffic. Totally agree!

  25. Great article and tips about UpWorthy. Going to head over to the site and see all live. I agree on Quality matters and not quantity. But I’ve personally experienced that quantity with average quality out performs super quality when it comes to attracting Google traffic.

  26. Really nice and usefull article. I do write copies very often but it´s hard to explain the reasons why they work so well. Thanks!

  27. Some great insight, thanks for the post. Since you wrote this post Upworthy is just getting bigger and bigger. I would put I love F**kin Science in a somewhat similar category. While Upworthy sounds like a place I would love to work, I think one thing they need to be careful of is “Headline fatigue.” Imitators already abound and the gloss of “see what happens next…” type headlines may impact their growth negatively as their methodology becomes more ubiquitous.

  28. I love the way of writing by tethe author iam a regular reader of QQuick Sprout and crazy egg.

  29. This is goldmine of information. I am still amazed the Facebook can be used so effectively. I wonder if the new changes at Facebook still allow for this type of steep growth?

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