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STORIES FOR A BETTER WORLD.
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. A s a c o m p a n y, U p w o r t h y k e p t 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.
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. 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.
AND THEN (LIKE IN ANY GOOD STORY) SOMETHING CHANGED.
BUT FIRST, A WORD.
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, o ff - t h e - w a l l e x p e r i m e n t t o 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.
SO, WE APOLOGIZED. “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
BUT IT’S NOT THE BIGGEST CHANGE WE’RE MAKING.
WE ARE MOVING FROM CURATION TO STORY CREATION
WE ARE DEPLOYING SERIOUSLY DEEP DATA TO SUPPORT STORYTELLING IN BRAND NEW WAYS.
AND WE ARE BUILDING A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF UPWORTHY STORYTELLING
Storytelling? Wait, that’s not a hot, new distribution model. Where are the “newsonomics”? Where are the futureof-media buzzwords? What of “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 “at o m i z at i o n ” a p p s a n d re v e r s e e n g i n e e re d l i s t i c l e s ﬂ o o d i n g t h e 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:
Nobody has really mastered the way stories are told on a phone, the device most of us read on today. (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.)
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING THAT’S UNIQUE?
THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS THAT WE KNOW ABOUT EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING CHARACTER EMOTION SURPRISE STRUCTURE MEANING 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.
WE’RE ALSO LEARNING GROUNDBREAKING NEW THINGS ABOUT THE DATA BEHIND STORIES AUDIENCE MEDIUM FRAMING ACTIONS 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.
BUT HERE’S MY PROBLEM: EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING THESE TWO DISCIPLINES ARE USUALLY KEPT FAR APART. DEEP DATA
SO AT EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING WE ARE ASKING: WHAT IF THEY MET? DEEP DATA
WHAT RELATIONSHIPS WOULD WE FIND? EMOTIONS HABITS “How do particular emotions stir habit formation?”
WHAT INTERACTIONS WOULD WE DISCOVER? MEANING ACTIONS “What actions lead people to ﬁnd deeper meaning in a story?”
WHAT ASSOCIATIONS WOULD BE REVEALED? STRUCTURE MEDIUM “What structures improve a story’s resonance on each platform?”
WE BELIEVE THAT BURIED INSIDE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STORIES AND DATA, THERE IS THE POWER TO CHANGE THE WORLD.
AND THAT’S WHAT WE’RE UP TO.
IT’S A BIG SHIFT. WE’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT. AND WE ALREADY HAVE SOME INITIAL EXPERIMENTS UNDERWAY.
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. 29 MILLION VIEWS, A WIN FOR EMPATHY 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. CHARACTER FRAMING MEANING MEDIUM 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 Five incredibly delicious chain restaurants you should never, ever eat at — and one you should but can’t. STRUCTURE AUDIENCE SURPRISE 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.
This simple and brilliant video showed twosomes of all kinds dancing, hugging, and highﬁving behind a screen that revealed only their skeletons. 46 MILLION VIEWS FOR LOVE & DIVERSITY EMOTION ACTIONS 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. SURPRISE FRAMING 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.
FUTURE-OF-NEWS TYPES AND DIGITAL MEDIA THINKERS WILL PROBABLY SHRUG. BUT WE BELIEVE THAT, IN THE END, QUALITY EMPATHETIC STORYTELLING 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.
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. Early 2014 Less Love Today 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.
HOW IS “STORYTELLING” A STRATEGY, EXACTLY?
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 DISTRIBUTION Platforms are increasingly surfacing facts, trends, and stories, algorithmically. Platforms have largely won the battle for distribution. Of course, some will try to continue to “game” platforms and their algorithms for near-term viral gains, but at Upworthy, we know that that’s a short-term play, at best. So where will Upworthy compete? MONETIZATION Platforms are making early moves to be the source for content monetization.
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 “nonviral.”
WE ARE IN A STREET FIGHT FOR HUMAN ATTENTION.
AND IS GOING TO FIGHT ON THE SIDE OF THE STORIES THAT MATTER MOST.
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.