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How to Emulate Upworthy, and Why You Probably Shouldn't

Date published: April 07, 2014
Last updated: April 7, 2014

To many marketers, Upworthy is "that site that publishes those headlines." And although it's true that the folks at Upworthy have developed a headline philosophy that leaves many salivating, some marketers concentrate so much on those headlines that they overlook what really makes Upworthy successful.

Hint: It isn't the headlines.

The Upworthy philosophy

Upworthy's mission statement, from the very start, had nothing to do with headline writing. When Peter Koechley, former managing editor of The Onion, and Eli Pariser, former executive director of, came together to create Upworthy, they had loftier goals in mind. In his introduction to the site, Koechley writes,

Hi, we're Upworthy, a new social media outfit with a mission: to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.

The keywords here are important and fun, and they relate to the content, not the headlines. Upworthy isn't in the business of promoting thin content that no one cares about, or about gaining clicks for the purpose of selling ads at the other end of the link.

Koechley says it better than I can:

[W]e believe the things that matter in the world don't have to be boring and guilt-inducing. And the addictive stuff we love doesn't have to be completely substanceless.

From philosophy to practice

For years, marketers focused (and still do) on trying to make their content go viral. Upworthy refocused, asking instead, "What content deserves to go viral?" The question is easy enough to answer — meaningful content that can help make the world a better place — but finding that content is no mean feat.

The Internet is awash with schemes to make your waist smaller, pills to make other body parts larger, lolcats, Ryan Goslings, and what statisticians refer to as "utter crap." Upworthy makes a concerted effort not to contribute to that crapflow, spending more time than you'd probably expect to find just those important stories that people will want to share:

Our top curators comb through hundreds of videos and graphics a week, looking for the 5-7 that they're confident are super-shareable. That's not a typo: We pay people full-time to curate 5-7 things a week.

They don't just find stories and rebroadcast them, either. Upworthy states plainly that they're "curators, not journalists," but every story that Upworthy publishes undergoes a rigorous fact-checking process that could put many so-called news sites to shame.

Sure, they occasionally make a mistake — that's true of any website. But when they make a correction, it doesn't get buried at the bottom of an interior page.

So what do you call it when you take time to find interesting, shareable stories that matter to people and then double-check the facts of the story to make sure you aren't spreading misinformation?

I call it high-quality content.

Sharing is caring

At the heart of Upworthy — behind the outrageous headlines that tickle our curiosity — is quality content. And it's that quality content, not the headlines, that earns Upworthy its success. Sure, the headlines are noteworthy, but if the headlines were the only story — if there was no substance to back them up — they wouldn't be shared as widely as they are.

And oh boy, are they shared.

According to the February statistics from NewsWhip, based on total Facebook interactions, Upworthy was ranked number 10 on the list of top Facebook publishers, far behind #1 Buzzfeed and #2 The Huffington Post. But a closer look at the numbers reveals something noteworthy: Buzzfeed published more than 10 times and HuffPo published over 66 times the number of stories that Upworthy published. If you look at the average number of shares that an individual story garnered from Facebook (see the chart below), Upworthy comes out way ahead.


Although Upworthy doesn't publish nearly as many stories as the top Facebook publishers, each story enjoys a greater reach.

(Hot on Upworthy's heels is Viral Nova, a more recent content curation site attempting to emulate Upworthy's successful headline style and apparently having some success at it.)

Imitation is the sincerest form of facepalming

If you're confident you've got high-quality content and you're just champing at the bit to use Upworthy's headline style to start growing your following by leaps and bounds, heed these warnings:

Upworthy headlines violate almost every guideline for optimized page titles: Upworthy couldn't care less about SEO. Why? Because they are built for social. Upworthy headlines are designed to exploit human curiosity; web-crawling robots have no curiosity. In order to emulate Upworthy's headline style, you must be willing to ignore everything you know about optimizing titles for search.

Upworthy headlines don't work everywhere: Upworthy is huge on Facebook, but they don't make such a splash on other social sites. There's something about Facebook's setup and users that makes it the perfect petri dish for growing Upworthy shares. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Reddit, not so much.

Upworthy-style headlines won't work for every story: There's a certain playfulness and irreverence behind these headlines. As CNN found out the hard way, some stories require more delicacy.

And here's the most important part:

The story, not the headline, is the most important thing: Upworthy headlines are a gimmick, a means to an end. Yes, they get a lot of attention, but behind each headline is a piece of verified, high-quality content that, even without the headline, is worth sharing. There's no bait-and-switch here.

Upworthy doesn't use its headlines to trick people into clicking through to weak content, privacy walls or product pages. If you find yourself using your headlines to trick people onto your site — regardless of whether those headlines are modeled after Upworthy's — you've already started disappointing and alienating the very people you are trying to attract.

And in spite of all the "utter crap" to be found on the Internet, people still recognize dishonest marketing practices when they see them. And they talk.

My gratitude to Niko Dugan (of Champaign, Illinois' The News-Gazette) and Todd Kistler (of The Sacramento Bee), whose presentation at this year's annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society got me to look past the headlines at what is really good about Upworthy.

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