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April 13, 2016, 10:57 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A year into its new original content strategy, Upworthy is focusing on do-good videos instead of clickbait

Upworthy is sorry for all the clickbait, but it’s not sorry for what it’s learned about how to get people to read, watch, and share its output.

2015 was the year that Upworthy not only gave up on clickbait, but apologized for helping it spread.

“We sort of unleashed a monster. Sorry for that,” Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley said last March, referring to the site’s pioneering use of you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-next headlines, which dominated people’s Facebook feeds circa 2014.

Upworthy has come a long way since then. Trading clickbait headlines and curation for original articles and video, the site is using the skills, data, and insights it gained in its early days to drive its current strategy. The idea: To use the tools of viral publishing to help spread its do-good mission-focused original content.

“We’re unique in that we know how to get people to share stories about subjects that don’t typically get shared,” said Amy O’Leary, Upworthy’s editorial director, who joined a year ago to kick off the company’s original content efforts. “You can use all those techniques to tell pure viral stories, or you can use them to tell the stories that matter.” Upworthy, she said, is doing the latter.

Upworthy’s latest original content effort is “Another Person’s Shoes,” a documentary series that gives viewers a deep look into the lives of underrepresented people. In its first episode, the series focuses on Wings of Hope, a nonprofit that offers free flights to patients who need transportation to health facilities across the U.S. Another one of Upworthy’s new original series, “Testimony,” is also created around the idea of connecting viewers with others, and will launch in the next month. “Humanity for the Win,” its first original series, launched in 2015.

While Upworthy produces 400 to 500 original articles a month, its original content strategy chiefly revolves around video. In January, in what CEO Eli Pariser called an “investment layoff,” the company laid off 16 of its 97 employees to refocus its resources on video, where it saw more potential for growth. Since Upworthy’s head of video Croi McNamara, a former executive producer at Discovery Digital Studios, joined last fall, Upworthy has doubled its video team to 10 people.

Lately, that strategic shift toward video has become more common. Mashable last week laid off 30 employees — executive editor Jim Roberts is among those leaving the company — as a part of its strategic shift away from reporting on hard news toward creating video about “digital culture.” Other publishers have ramped up their investment in video production.

The impetus for the shift, beyond the higher ad rates attached to video, is Facebook. The platform has put a premium on video in the News Feed, sparking a gold rush among publishers looking to get in the Facebook algorithm’s good graces. (Not surprisingly, Upworthy also has plans to create programming on Facebook Live, according to co-founder Koechley.)

But while many publishers, including Upworthy, owe their growth to their ability to create content optimized for social traffic, that skill has become both an asset and a liability. Facebook’s algorithm can give publishers traffic, but it can also take it away. Upworthy has mostly suffered the latter: Upworthy.com got 8.5 million unique visitors in February, which was down over 50 percent from the same time a year ago, according to comScore.

At the same time, the site has seen plenty of success with finding audiences on Facebook itself, particularly when it comes to video. The site got 256 million video views in March, up from just 5 million a year ago, almost exclusively from Facebook. The first episode of “Another Person’s Shoes,” mentioned above, has been viewed nearly two million times on Facebook since it was posted last week. About 35,000 people have liked the video and 1,800 have left comments, as of Wednesday. Compare that to YouTube, where the video has about 5,000 views and has been liked just 44 times.

Upworthy is also increasingly turning to video to tell stories on behalf of brands. Upworthy makes its money by offering brands the expertise and distribution it uses for its own content. Last October, it worked with Unilever on a campaign aimed at raising awareness for global warming. For television network The CW, Upworthy created a video that both talked about a new way to detect pancreatic cancer and plugged the network’s new superhero show “Legends of Tomorrow.”

Upworthy’s hope is that staying true to its mission of drawing attention to topics and stories that matter will help keep it differentiated as the web is inundated with video from more and more publishers.

“A lot of publishers try be everything to everyone,” O’Leary said. “We’re really good at staying focused on our mission and telling the kinds of stories that we can uniquely tell.”

POSTED     April 13, 2016, 10:57 a.m.
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