There's a reason it's called clickbait. Try as you might, some headlines are hard to resist. (Just ask BuzzFeed readers.) Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley started Upworthy in 2012 to take clickbait and use it to get people talking about topics that really matter.
An unlikely pair, Pariser was formerly executive editor of the political-action website Move- On.org, and Koechley was formerly managing editor of The Onion. That blend of advocacy and humor can be seen in Upworthy headlines such as "One Simple Itty Bitty Teeny Thing We Can Do to Change the World."
The company's 40 employees in 17 cities troll the Web daily for all things Upworthy: moving quotes, startling statistics, brazen ads, and viral videos. "We saw this big shift happen in how people consume media online," says Pariser, who's based in New York City. "A lot of what they see comes through Facebook and Twitter. We were concerned about whether the stuff that really matters was going to fare well."
Upworthy's keen sense of storytelling and attention-grabbing headlines have not gone unnoticed by media industry insiders. Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Newsonomics, refers to Upworthy's style as "not a new skill but a tabloid skill." He adds, "What they're doing parallels what's going on with content marketing, which is a huge trend right now."
The site does do its own blend of content marketing, connecting readers to causes for a referral fee. Upworthy also recently partnered with ProPublica, Human Rights Watch, and Climate Nexus to deepen its coverage. Eventually Doctor sees the site parlaying its marketing mastery into commercial storytelling, although Pariser and Koechley demur at the suggestion.
For now, they say they're stressing quality over quantity, tracking "attention minutes," or time spent on the site, to measure impact. "We want to be in the places and in the formats where people are," says Pariser. "If Apple TV takes off, we'll need to figure out the right way to work in that ecosystem."
The site has more than 7 million subscribers on Facebook, email, and Twitter, and reaches more than 50 million people a month. Can't you feel the world getting better?