Upworthy Transitioning From Content Curation to Creation

Socially-Minded Master of Clickbait Headlines Says It's Switching Gears

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Upworthy says it is moving away from a reliance on curated content and clickbait packaging and toward original content creation.

On Wednesday, the company publicized a new plan to capitalize on storytelling and data instead of its previous staple: inspirational material aggregated from elsewhere online under headlines making big promises.

"This is really a natural part of our evolution," said Eli Pariser, CEO and co-founder of Upworthy. "But I think as we've grown, we've come to understand our audience better, we've come to understand that there are some stories that we think are important to tell from a mission perspective that no one is telling."

Upworthy has drawn big online audiences and achieved good traction in social media with headlines such as "I Got A Bus Earlier, And A Woman Was Being Tortured Right Next To Me" and "A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart A Question He Doesn't Usually Get And Is Given A Beautiful Answer."

But its socially-minded content was usually generated elsewhere on the web. Now the aim is to engage readers more deeply and influence the online conversation more deliberately with more original editorial and video content.

Upworthy announced its intention with a slideshow from Editorial Director Amy O'Leary, who joined Upworthy in February after eight years at The New York Time and previous stints at public radio programs like This American Life.

The change didn't come without challenges. Ms. O'Leary said in an email that the company had to replace some of its staffers because they "were not well positioned for this new direction." While the decision was difficult, she said "it was an important marker of our commitment to original storytelling."

Upworthy has also seen its once white-hot growth cool. It attracted more than 13 million unique U.S. desktop and mobile visitors in May 2015, up from about 10 million a year earlier but still the lowest level since July 2014, according to ComScore.

The company averages 20 million unique U.S. visitors per month, according to Quantcast figures, Ms. O'Leary said. Its peak traffic came in November 2013, however, when it drew 55 million, per Quantcast.

While the numbers have been bigger in the past, Ms. O'Leary said an average of 20 million remains impressive, particularly when it comes to coverage of important issues.

Mr. Pariser said the new editorial strategy will help promote revenue growth, citing the company's ability to connect brands with the consumer values.

The shift toward original content is modeled on Netflix, which has found success with original series like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," Mr. Pariser said.

The change has been ongoing. Mr. Pariser and Ms. O'Leary each cited an original piece by Upworthy staffer Eric March titled "5 incredibly delicious chain restaurants you should never, ever eat at and 1 you should but can't" that was published last month. Mr. Pariser said the article and accompanying original video about a Philadelphia pizza parlor with a pay-it-forward twist have gained a great deal of credibility for the site's abilities.

Mr. Pariser said the idea of original content is something Upworthy had envisioned for quite some time now, adding that the clickbait-headline model "was never the core of what we do." In March, Peter Koechley, Upworthy's other co-founder, came out and apologized for the use of clickbait at The Guardian's Changing Media Summit, saying the site had "unleashed a monster."

The new model revolves around the combination of a data-driven approach to Upworthy's empathetic storytelling, according to executives. While many organizations have began using analytics more to better dissect readership, Ms. O'Leary said Upworthy differs because of its mission to bring underserved stories to the public eye.

"It's a matter of really listening," Mr. Pariser said. "I think being able to tell that story in a way that was funny and interesting and engaging held people's attention all the way through, was the key to getting millions of people to view it."

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