Q&A: Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser on the unpredictable nature of viral

March 29, 2013

Upworthy, a site that tries to make meaningful videos, graphics and pictures go viral, recently celebrated its first anniversary by announcing that it now has 1.2 million fans on Facebook. The project is the brain child of Eli Pariser, formerly of the political publication MoveOn, and former Onion managing editor Peter Koechley. Pariser, now Upworthy’s chief executive officer, took some time to chat about what the company has learned from its first year and what’s on the horizon. An edited version of our conversation appears below:

Let’s start with a big question. What have you learned from this first year?

I think when we started we sat down with investors and partners and looked them in the eye and said people want substantive content on the Internet-- secretly we wondered if that was really true. We were not sure if that was how it was going to turn out, you know, a lot of people said that thing about how you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

But we’ve found, yes, there’s an appetite. It doesn’t have to be all celebrities and pet tricks.

What kinds of things have you seen blow up that you weren't expecting? What trends have you noticed?

It’s always surprising to us why things take off. The post about the GoldieBlox tool kit [a building toy set for girls, created by a female engineer] was such as huge hit, when other content about when girls becoming engineers wasn’t.

In general, I would say we focus on the things that are visual, meaningful and shareable — that’s our triad and I think that’s served us well.

In terms of trends, we launched ahead of the election, expecting to see a lot of political things go viral.

The things that took off were political, yes, but not Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The biggest traffic spike ahead of the election was [a video] about this newscaster that had been called fat by an obnoxious viewer — not something that’s tied to the presidential debates.

I think that people post to social media to help shape their public identity. Some of the most interesting hits have been those that let people say, “I’m a person who cares about gun violence or marriage equality or immigration” to their friends.

We aren’t looking to speak just to an audience of people tuned into politics,[but also] to people who really aren’t paying attention to these issues at all.

One of the most exciting statistics that we’ve seen is [that] Facebook will tell you how many people are friends with people who have liked your page, and with now 1.2 million Facebook followers, about 65 percent of the U.S. population has a friend who likes Upworthy.

That’s a pretty impressive metric.

Yeah, and it shows that this goes way, way outside of D.C., outside of the political process and into a broad group of folks.

What’s coming up next for you?

We’ll be branching out into and digging deeper into new topic areas — into parenting and health care. And we’re building out our technology; that’s been a key part of what’s made Upworthy work. We’re building the tools that allow editors to really figure out what’s working very quickly and to respond to that.

Like with our headline testing. The two concerns when talking to traditional folks, is that [we’ll] just end up with the lowest common demominator of content [by writing catchy headlines] and that when you test headlines you take the art out of an artistic process.But that’s not how it’s working for us. Editors start with a piece of content that they want the world to see and then take different approaches — like a comedian refining their act.

Rather than saying people aren’t interested when things don’t take off, you should take it on yourself to say, I’m not doing a great job of telling the story in a way that makes it interesting.

We were concerned about whether what we were doing was going to lead to awful, boring headlines. What happened was really interesting — it freed people up to be more creative and could take bigger risks.

If you only have one shot at writing a headline, there’s a lot of pressure.

But if you have options, you can do that different, weird, artistic version. A big piece of what we’re doing going forward is to help our whole editorial team move quickly to figure that stuff out.

The third piece is continuing to broaden our reach. We really want this to be the place where folks go. We’re excited about what’s happened so far, but it’s just a start.

Backtracking a bit, can you talk more about that process of writing and editing ?

A lot of what we do is borrowed from that editorial process. If you think about the Onion, often the headline is the main joke. In a similar way , we asked our curators not to spend that much time on whatever the text around the content is but to nail it with the equivalent of a great one-liner.

You'd think ‘The Onion’ is a fun free-for-all environment, where people are throwing paper airplanes at each other, but as Peter described it, it’s actually a grueling joke factory where volume was the way to get to the joke that was not obvious. So we write 25 headlines for every single piece on the site to get the headline that isn’t the obvious to pitch it.

And how do the final ones get picked?

We take four of those 25 and test them out and see how folks respond to it. Sometimes we inject some editorial judgement to whittle it down to the best one, at the end of the day [sometimes you have to] make a call. But it’s interesting; headlines that, to us, appear identically interesting actually have these huge differences.

And so you’re decoding why that might be for the site? Looking at how to crack what makes things popular?

We want to give these little bits of content the same tools that the world’s best marketers have in their arsenal and have news beat them on an even playing field.

What can other people learn from you?

That’s been a very exciting thing. We talk to journalists beaten down by the shift to the web and hear them say there’s just not a broad appetite for storytelling around broad issues.

That’s the exciting thing that we’re seeing here, is that there is. It’s really a question of thinking in a new way about how to tell those stories and to get them in front of people.

Upworthy is the opposite of the publish-it-and-you’re-done model. We always tell our curators it doesn’t matter if you put together the very best thing on earth, just getting in front of people and getting it distributed is just as important as telling the story in the first place.

Like a third of our organization is saying, “Okay, we just published this. How can we get this to the communities?” That’s a big piece of what we end up doing.

It’s certainly a different approach, but it seems to be working for you so far.

People are sharing. There’s another statistic to share with you — the CEO at SimpleReach (Note: Eddie Kim, whose site tracks social sharing interactions through 5,000 publishers) said that 20 percent of all of the daily shares were coming from Upworthy, which is more than any other site. I think that shows that there may be the heat -- that our content might do better than the celebrity stuff — because folks post things because they believe in and it’s so much a part of their passion.

Sign up today to receive #thecircuit, a daily roundup of the latest tech policy news from Washington and how it is shaping business, entertainment and science.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
SECTION: {section=business, subsection=technology}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business, subsection=technology}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments