Upworthy's Head of Data Talks about Going Viral

July 30, 2014

Written by NewsWhip

We talked to Daniel Mintz from Upworthy about creating a platform for successful social distribution. 

Just over two years old, Upworthy has grown to become one of the most recognisable brands on Facebook.

With a relatively low monthly output of articles, they land high up in our monthly Facebook rankings, often well ahead of established media brands such as USA Today, NPR, ESPN and the BBC.


Upworthy is now routinely responsible for some of the most-shared content on Facebook every month, while their style of social distribution can be seen in numerous clones.

There’s more to the site’s success than simply picking the best of 25 potential headlines for each story. A deep focus on analytics, coupled with a heavy focus on what their audience cares about, is vital to the social success of the site.

We recently spoke to Upworthy’s head of data and analytics, Daniel Mintz, about social media, going viral, and the future of content distribution.

Don’t Treat All Channels The Same

To maximise sharing impact across networks, Daniel says that listening to feedback from the Upworthy content team is vital.

“We found that the packaging that works well on Facebook doesn’t always work as well on Twitter. Twitter users are much less amenable to curiosity type stuff than Facebook users.”

“The observations of our audience development team are very important for us,” he explains. “If they’re pushing something out on Twitter, they might say ‘this didn’t do as well as we thought it would’, or ‘this did really well on Facebook, but when we pushed it out on Twitter it was kind of a dud, so maybe we should try rebranding it’. The thing about Twitter is you can push the same thing out four times because it’s such a firehose, and there’s no real penalty for pushing something out repeatedly, and that’s often a good strategy.”

There’s a Huge Audience on Facebook, but Don’t Neglect Other Channels

Upworthy made its name, and reached its audience, through Facebook.

“The last time I checked, something like 78% of US Facebook users have at least one friend who likes Upworthy,” says Daniel.

“I think we will likely continue to evolve in terms of other distribution paths. When we started, social was clearly the place that offered most leverage. It’s the best place to reach massive numbers of people quickly. If you have a TV channel, great, that’s an easy way to reach millions of people. We don’t have a TV channel, so Facebook was obviously the best way to get to people.

“Reddit clearly has a strong community. Pinterest has a strong community among people who do certain kinds of activities. But in terms of sharing news, and news-like articles, the reality is that Facebook dominates. So we went to where the people were. We said, ‘people are on Facebook, so we’ll focus on Facebook’. That doesn’t mean we’ve totally shunned the other networks, we certainly haven’t, but it does mean that we pay a lot more attention to Facebook than we do to the other networks.”

Repackage Old Content – Not Everyone Saw It

It’s something that legacy media outfits like the New York Times even think about – what’s the best way to get social attention out of the huge trove of stories that lie in the archives?

Daniel says that with some careful planning, publishers can capitalise on popular stories’ potential again and again.

“There’s an incorrect instinct to assume ‘everybody’s seen this, this was huge’. But the internet is a huge, huge place, and if a million people have seen something, or five million people have seen something, that’s still a tiny, tiny fraction of the possible audience.”

“If you have a great piece of content, and you frame it well, the reality is it can go much bigger. Even if you pushed something out three months ago, or six months ago, and lots of people saw it, lots and lots of people didn’t see it.”

The Three Steps to Virality

When it comes to creating a viral hit, Daniel says there’s three steps to think about from the publisher’s point of view.

“Fundamentally, the biggest thing is, ‘how good is your content?’ There is no headline or image in the world that is good enough to get someone to share something that’s crappy. That’s the reality. (People say) ‘Upworthy got so big because of clickbait headlines’. That misses a big part of the equation.

When we talk about virality, virality is three things. Someone’s on a piece of content. How likely are they to share it? If they share that content, how many people are likely to see that content? That varies hugely, depending on what network you’re on. Then there’s clickability, which is, of the percentage of people who do see the post, how many are likely to click on it?

If you have something that is immensely clickable, but not shareable and doesn’t spread, you don’t have something viral. The best way to get people to share something is to have content that people want to share.

Think of the terrible ‘Lose Body Fat’ ads. They are engineered to be hugely clickable. But nobody goes to those sites and shares them. That’s not something people do, because it’s terrible content once you get there, I assume, I’ve never clicked on them! The fact that they were able to engineer something so highly clickable doesn’t make it viral. That’s why they have to rely on ads, rather than the power of social networks, to spread their content.

The only way to get something viral is by touching all three parts of that equation.”

Using Viral Hits As Ads for Other Content

“There are two things that happen when you have real viral hits. One is that it drives people to other content on your site, so you can recirculate other stories. The other thing it does is that it allows you to say to them ‘did you love that? Then subscribe!’, and that’s really how we built our subscriber base, not by paying people to subscribe or running ads, it’s by bringing people to the site, showing them content that they love, and asking them if they’d like more of that. Not surprisingly, if they love the content, they’re happy to get more of it.”

Going Forward with Social Distribution

“The current trend is clear, and that trend is toward social distribution, and away from destination sites. If you’re building a new site, or trying to renovate an old site, if your assumption is ‘if we just make a good enough site, people will type our URL into the browser bar,’ I think that’s probably a bad place to start.”

“People more and more are expecting media that is important to come and find them.”

We have featured some of Daniel’s advice in our new guide to turning readers into social subscribers.

To find the world’s most trending stories in real time, try Spike today. It’s already used by successful viral publishers to find the big stories of the day, while they’re still small. 

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