Upworthy, Joining a Refrain, Says Paid Posts Get More Views Than Editorial

Viral Site Also Names Media Exec Kim Kelleher to Board

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Upworthy says posts from advertisers get more attention than editorial posts.
Upworthy says posts from advertisers get more attention than editorial posts.

Three months ago the first major brand advertising campaign appeared on Upworthy, a mix of paid and curated posts promoting Unilever's Project Sunlight initiative. Now Upworthy is saying content from advertisers -- in the form of what it calls "promoted posts" -- regularly outperforms typical editorial posts on the site.

Upworthy is a site that curates and repackages content with headlines built to share, much like BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post in some ways. But it aims, it says, for meaningful stories instead of posts about side boobs and personality quizzes. Advertising on the site is meant to reflect this approach, and the site's leaders say they carefully select brands.

"We don't want to say we're only going to work with perfect companies," said James Marcus, chief revenue officer at Upworthy. "We're looking for forward movement. That might be an announcement about a raise in minimum wage or an empowering message about women."

For its promoted posts, as Upworthy calls the ads it sells, brands provide content -- usually in the form of video -- which Upworthy editors then package with the kind of grabby headlines for which the site is known. The posts are labeled as ads, with a link to a lengthy explanation about the site's approach to paid content.

A promoted post from Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl, for instance, featured a video from the brand under the headline "Ellen, Katy Perry, And A Hockey Player Walk Into An Ad And Shatter A Ridiculous Argument."

Posts such as this one get three and a half more overall views than non-promoted content, according to Upworthy's own analysis of its content, which it plans to share in a blog post Thursday.

These posts also earn three times as many social shares and nearly three times as many "attention minutes," a metric Upworthy is pushing as a gauge of how long audience members spend actively engaged on the page. To determine attention minutes, Upworthy looks at key signals such as mouse movements and whether a video is actually playing in an open browser tab.

Sponsored content beating editorial content is a common refrain from publishers. Forbes has for years said that articles from its native-ad platform BrandVoice regularly land next to editorial stories in its list of most-popular web stories. And this year, Meredith Kopit Levien, exec-VP advertising at The New York Times, said some of the Times' "paid posts" -- its term for native ads -- get as much audience as some editorial articles. (Ms. Kopit Levien is the former chief revenue officer at Forbes.)

Of course there's a caveat to these declarations: Native ads typically receive more promotion from publishers. They might stay on a homepage longer than editorial stories, show up regularly in a "suggested articles" feed or become the subject of a promoted tweet or Facebook post.

In Upworthy's case, promoted posts surface regularly below or alongside other articles. The site refers to this as a "strategic bundle" for an advertiser. "Selection is huge," said Ed Urgola, Upworthy's head of marketing. Upworthy works closely with brands to develop a campaign that includes promoted posts and sponsored posts, which consist of content that Upworthy editors find and package but carries a brand logo, according to Mr. Urgola.

"We sit down and talk to a brand about what their core value is," Mr. Marcus said. "We're looking for that overlap with our audience. We find that and then work backwards. It might be a 12 month engagement with a lot of touch points or something bite-sized."

So far, Upworthy has worked with 12 brands and 13 nonprofit organizations, according to Mr. Marcus.

The site also plans to name publishing executive Kim Kelleher to its board on Thursday. Mr. Kelleher is the former president of Say Media and previously served as publisher of magazines such as Time and Self. She joins Upworthy's co-founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley as well as Facebook co-founder and New Republic owner Chris Hughes and Spark Capital's Andrew Parker.

"Kim's experience is perfect for us," said Mr. Urgola.

Unique visitors to Upworthy on desktop and mobile devices reached 10.4 million in May, a 33% increase from the prior year, according to ComScore.