20 Headlines Competed to Draw Your Eyeballs. Here’s Why This One Won.

The "meaningful content" platform Upworthy is one of the fastest-growing online media outlets in history based on traffic alone, and the company's success was driven by the kind of cause-focused marketing techniques that many associations strive for. The secret? Start with the headline.

The A/B testing model is old-school. How about A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H/I/J/K/L/M/N/O/P testing?

One startup is doing just that, and the results thus far are downright breathtaking.

The story of Upworthy, a little startup that’s getting massive online traffic, is the story of a company that’s taken the lessons of the social web and turned it into epic levels of success right off the bat. In May, the site (partly on the success of a single video) had 30 million unique visitors for the month. (For comparison’s sake, viral pacesetter BuzzFeed, which had a five-year head start, boasts a far larger staff, and publishes hundreds of pieces of content each day, reaches as many as 50 million visitors a month.)

The interesting thing about Upworthy’s model is that the company is a for-profit startup, but it’s ultimately focused on the same things as many nonprofits are. And  it’s drawing attention to important political and social issues utilizing the same techniques many other sites use to draw attention to whatever Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are doing at this very moment. (I checked, by the way—something about getting married in Egypt?)

Your association may not be focused on getting 30 million hits in a month (if you are, send a couple hundred thousand hits to this article; consider it a test of your viral strategy), but you can certainly learn something from the company’s cause-focused approach.

1. Find the perfect story

Upworthy’s focus on a curation-based model gives it a lot of leverage that a larger company might not have. One secret? The company encourages aggressive self-editing. While it certainly could publish more often, the platform focuses instead on publishing just a handful of stories and aggressively pushing them on social media.

Speaking to Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield says this is by design: Instead of trying to write as much content as possible, the company creates content that the writers are personally invested in seeing succeed due to the causes they represent. That’s content that will go the distance.

“I tell my writers, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it,’ ” she told Neiman Lab. “We don’t really force people, we don’t let an editorial calendar dictate what we do. There will be big current events, and if someone on staff feels really passionate about it, then we cover it. And if there aren’t, then we don’t.”

The lesson? When trying to tell a story, passion matters.

2. Focus on the Headline

One of the most interesting things about Upworthy’s approach is the effort they’ve put into writing the perfect headline. Too often in web marketing, the focus is on the content.

Upworthy writes as many as 25 headlines for a single piece of content and watches which ones are the most successful—a smart, data-driven strategy.

The ultra-viral piece of content that pushed Upworthy into the stratosphere in May is a great example of how this works. The story of  Zach Sobiech, a teen musician with terminal cancer who had a chance to record in a professional studio just before he died, drew millions of hits and Facebook shares, helping the charity started in his name to raise significant amounts of money—and even helping to put Sobiech’s song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The headline on the piece? “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” You don’t get to a headline like that on the first, second, or even fifth tries.

3. Adapt to a Modern Audience

Upworthy isn’t focused so much on the SEO-based audience of some of its competitors. Like BuzzFeed, the company relies on social media first, drawing strength from its massive community on Facebook, where it currently has more than 2.2 million likes and consistently high levels of engagement.

Rather than focusing on what has worked in the past, Upworthy tries to match the audience they see online. Its curators don’t necessarily have backgrounds in journalism, but they do have a deep understanding of the web. The result is extremely conversational. The storytelling doesn’t have the same voice you might find in a newspaper or magazine, but it works perfectly on Facebook or Tumblr.

Mark Athitakis’ cover story in this month’s Associations Now does a great job of showing how one organization, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, has taken a top-down approach to strong messaging and branding and has reaped the benefits. Upworthy’s model is that approach in overdrive, using technology to propel it. In the end, though, it’s the words that matter most.

Just for kicks, I wrote 20 headlines for this story, just to see which one stuck. It wasn’t easy, but what struck me was that, as I wrote, my headlines became more pointed, more direct, and more enticing.

It might’ve even worked, because you just read to the end.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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