In a recent study by NewsWhip, Upworthy was ranked as one of the top social publishers of 2013. The site has had more than 4 million tweets, likes, shares and other interactions over various social media.
Upworthy says its success in catchy headlines is not due to pure wittiness, but a grueling multi-step process. The writers make at least 25 possible headlines for each post, and then go through a series of A/B tests to make sure they work.
In an interview with Forbes, Upworthy’s co-founder Peter Koechly said headlines are “the easiest way to dramatically increase the virality of what you do and I guarantee you’re not spending enough time on it.”
Koechly said that in order to attract a large audience, headlines should pique the reader’s curiosity and get them engaged emotionally. An overstated “MOST WHATEVER EVER” title can go a long way.
But after the headlines get readers to a page, the content has to deliver in order for the piece to go viral.
“‘Clickbait’ — overselling content with outrageous headlines in order to get people onto a website — is a totally viable (if totally annoying) way to get a bunch of initial views. But it doesn’t create viral content,” said Upworthy. “By far the most important factor in getting people to share a post is the actual quality of the content in the eyes of the community. To share, they have to love what they see.”
But for Upworthy, the snappy titles and shares serve a greater purpose. The viral pieces are intended to lure readers in, where they will move on to more hard-hitting pieces. The site is really looking to draw “massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter, like health care costs and marriage equality and global health.”
Still, Upworthy is far from the only site to use this model. One Wall Street Journal article examines Neetzan Zimmerman, the top viral contributor for Gawker. Zimmerman brings millions of views a month to the site, which allows more freedom for the other writers.
“Mr. Zimmerman’s dominance is part of Gawker’s plan,” The Wall Street Journal writes. “By earning so much traffic on his own, he effectively subsidizes the rest of the staff, liberating them to pursue deeper, longer, more experimental pieces. This isn’t a new model in journalism — bundling the cheap, revenue-generating content with expensive, high-minded content is how newspapers made money for decades — but it has now become the touchstone model of the web, in use at Gawker, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post and dozens of smaller sites.”
So far, this model has been working for Upworthy as well, and they say 87 million people visited their site last year to read articles on hard-hitting news.
The importance of the headline seems to go beyond being a catchy way to start off a story — it is revolutionising the way online news media structure their sites.