Doctors gave Zach Sobiech bad news just after his 17th birthday last year: His rare bone cancer had progressed so far that he had only a year to live. In December, Sobiech posted a music video of Clouds, a song he wrote and recorded about struggling with the disease. He became the subject of a short online video documentary, which garnered tens of thousands of views after being featured on FoxNews.com (FOX) and People.com (TWX). Sobiech died on May 20.
Then the editors at viral-media site Upworthy saw the documentary. They repackaged it with the headline “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” Since then more than 15 million people have watched the documentary on Upworthy, which aggregates and popularizes videos and other online content. Sobiech’s song went to No. 1 on Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes Store, and a link Upworthy put next to the video raised more than $300,000 for cancer research. “The whole Internet heard his story,” says Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley.
Upworthy didn’t produce Sobiech’s music video. It had no hand in the documentary. All it did was slap a new headline and some sharing tools on an existing piece of media, and promote it among its subscribers, who included the video in their own feeds on social media sites such as Facebook (FB) and Twitter.
The video, Upworthy’s most successful post to date, embodies the company’s goal: to promote meaningful stories by using social media to reach as many people as possible. To most, viral videos mean silly shorts about cats, but Upworthy, founded by The Onion veteran Koechley and MoveOn.org’s Eli Pariser, boasts of its higher values. “People get viral content wrong,” Pariser says. “They imagine that the reason people share stuff is to have a laugh. But a huge part of sharing is being passionate about something, about shedding light on what really matters.”
The 25-employee site garnered visits from 26 million people in May, its best month so far. At 16 months old, Upworthy is getting more visitors than Us Weekly’s site, CNBC.com (CMCSA), or Gawker, according to data from Web-ranking firm Quantcast. “They’re starting from a place of authenticity,” says Michael J. Wolf of media consultant Activate. “Upworthy is about what matters most.”
The conventional wisdom is that viral pay dirt requires volume. Whether the content is being created or repurposed, sites such as BuzzFeed and Gawker produce dozens of posts a day. Upworthy staffers, by contrast, are told to find the most compelling content available, then spend most of their time thinking about how to present it. “Our curator who gets the most traffic barely publishes six things a week,” Koechley says.
Upworthy’s presentation mostly involves headline writing and rewriting. Most headlines are revised 25 times before publication, a fine-tuning strategy inspired by Koechley’s Onion days. “The headline is our little newsboy crying out in a crowded Facebook feed,” he says. For the post on Sobiech’s video, staffer Adam Mordecai tested 79 options. The “wondtacular” headline wound up on top because words you’ve never seen before catch your eye, Koechley says. “We’d determined that, had Adam not optimized that headline, that post would have gotten maybe 1 million views—not 15 million,” he says.
Optimizing presentation is important, but it only takes a site so far. Upworthy also quickly pushes its content onto social media. The focus at the company is not to drive people to its site, but to compel them to share its stories. A visit to the home page isn’t terribly thrilling—it features a handful of video clips, plus some big windows through which users can subscribe for notifications on Facebook and Twitter. Watch a video and a pop-up appears at the end, prompting you to sign up for more. “They’re forcing the social action pretty quickly,” says Colin Nagy, executive director of media at Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency. “There’s not much to do after consuming the content.”
Nagy says repurposing content and tweaking headlines can lead to the kind of rote search engine-driven posts that mislead and ultimately turn off readers. “When you use too many deceptive practices,” Nagy says, “it starts to feel junky.” One Upworthy post carried the headline “Watch A Preacher Attack Gay Marriage And Totally Change His Mind On The Spot” without mentioning that the entire speech was a hoax by the pro-gay rights preacher, who was making fun of the other viewpoint. “We don’t always get it perfect,” Pariser says. “But there is a natural check on clicky headlines for us—the content has to be at least as good as we’re selling it to be, or it’s not going to be shared.”
Managing quality is one of the challenges Koechley and Pariser are trying to balance with revenue. Upworthy has raised more than $4 million from venture capital firm NEA and investors including Buzzfeed co-founder John Johnson, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The company is starting to experiment with sponsored stories—so-called native advertising. A post sponsored by Skype (MSFT) features a U.S. immigrant from Uganda who uses the service to stay in touch with his family in Africa. At the bottom of the page, a disclaimer states, “We were paid to promote this ad, but we only do that for things we think are actually Upworthy.”
Pariser says it’s a natural move. “We have a hunch that there’s content our audience will like, and we can play a role where that works for everyone,” he says, adding that sponsored posts have to be as good as staff choices to pass muster. Moreover, he says, people want a good, compelling story—even if it’s an ad. The better it is, the likelier it is to draw readers. “You don’t have to be a little bit duplicitous about sponsored content if it connects with the audience,” says Pariser. “You can be pretty transparent.”