Digital Conference

Upworthy to Run Native Ads That Try to Make You Feel Good

Viral Site Eyes Revenue, Signs Unilever as Sponsor

By Published on .

Unilever's Project Sunlight aims to help more children live longer.
Unilever's Project Sunlight aims to help more children live longer.

After two years of building a formidable traffic machine, Upworthy is now trying to turn its visitors into actual revenue, positioning itself as the home for brands with a meaningful story to tell.

The site has inked a deal with Unilever to help the company promote its Project Sunlight, what Unilever calls a long-term initiative "to motivate people to live sustainably by inspiring them to create a brighter future for children." The promotions will include both native ads from Unilever as well as a special section curated by Upworthy editors that Unilever will underwrite. The content will highlight "children and adults working to make the world better and more sustainable."

Upworthy is a site that curates and repackages content with headlines built to share, aiming for meaningful stories instead of posts about side boobs and personality quizzes, it says. Traffic has grown sharply in the last year, to 12.3 million unique visitors on mobile and desktop devices in the U.S. this February, up 279% over the month a year earlier, according to ComScore.

Until now, however, it has only dipped its toe into advertising -- with its "Ads We Like" program, for example, where brands such as Skype and Unilever's Dove have paid for the site to promote advertising videos.

The deal with Unilever is part of a new advertising program, Upworthy Collaborations, meant to help brands and organizations "connect the best of what they stand for with what our community cares about," Upworthy said in a blog post scheduled to go live Tuesday.

"You won't see expandable banner ads, homepage takeovers or garish advertorial content," the blog post goes on to say. "You will see tasteful sponsorshops, clearly disclosed promotional content, and excellent curation around topics that both the brand and Upworthy believe in deeply."

Upworthy co-founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley will join Unilever Marketing VP Kathy O'Brien to introduce the strategy at the Ad Age Digital Conference Tuesday.

"Upworthy can be a home for corporate social responsibility and brand advertising," Mr. Koechley said. "What we look for is the overlap between a company's brand values and the important topics we're trying to draw attention to. There are hundreds of great companies and brands that have a lot in their core brand identity that overlap with us."

Those include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the AFL-CIO, which have paid to underwrite special sections on Upworthy curated by the site's editors. Several posts in the AFL-CIO section on work and the economy recently drew attention for taking aim at McDonald's labor practices.

These sections are a core feature of Upworthy Collaborations. Upworthy said it retains full editorial control of the curation and presentation of the content. The other feature involves promoted posts, in which advertisers create the content and then pay Upworthy to distribute them. Upworthy is working with Unilever agency partner Mindshare on the Project Sunlight posts.

Upworthy declined to discuss the terms of the deal with Unilever, but described it as a "flat-fee relationship," which may change in the future with other marketing partners.

Marc Mathieu, senior VP-global marketing at Unilever, said the company's decision to work with Upworthy was about more than its enormous audience. The site's positive tone and ability to start conversations on social media were also an important factor. "For us, it's more than advertising," he said, describing Upworthy's editorial approach as "meaningful content curation."

"It's not just about making Unilever look good, but making people want to engage," he added.

Project Sunlight is part of Unilever's broader sustainable living push, but the company has encountered criticism for its harvesting of palm oil, a key ingredient in products like soup and lipstick, as well as the way it markets products like Axe Body Spray, which critics have said objectifies women.

"We wouldn't expect to agree with everything any enormous company does," Messrs. Pariser and Koechley said in a follow-up email. "On the whole, we think Unilever's showing a concerted commitment to sustainability."

"We obviously prefer the way they've marketed Dove to the way they've marketed Axe," they added. "That's why we've happily worked to highlight Dove videos and not Axe ads. Companies with a large number of brands are going to have some that we support and others that we simply don't."

They also said the site's editors are free to curate content that's critical of their actions in the non-sponsored sections.

When asked whether he's worried that social media users could hijack the conversation around Project Sunlight and turn it negative, Mr. Mathieu said he is personally engaged with the campaign and has given Messrs. Pariser and Koechley "direct-line access if something is not in this meaningful, authentic space."

"They can call me any time if they feel like it's going in the wrong direction," he added.

Most Popular