Upworthy, a viral media site, is less than a year old but already has more than 9 million monthly viewers. That outpaces the early days of other viral sites like BuzzFeed and Business Insider, and makes Upworthy the fastest-growing media company on the internet. It’s also one of the most unusual.
If you’re not familiar, Upworthy adds splashy headlines to photos and videos it culls from across the internet, and encourages viewers to share them on Facebook and other social media sites. This is akin to what sites like BuzzFeed do but with two major differences: Upworthy doesn’t have advertising and it focuses exclusively on political and social issues like gender equality and climate change.
So far, the site has made a splash with fare like “If this video makes you uncomfortable, then you make me uncomfortable” (advocating for gay marriage) and “Bully Calls News Anchor Fat, News Anchor Destroys Him On Live TV.” Upworthy also stands out for its editorial process: curators prepare 25 versions of each headline and engages in extensive A/B testing to find out which version is most likely to go viral.
“When we look at the media landscape, we see there being more of a demand problem than a supply problem — how do you get people to care about important stuff amidst the avalanche of content we all face each day?” said co-founder Peter Koechley.
So far, Upworthy is off to a roaring start and not just thanks to its millions of visitors. The press has praised Upworthy for using viral tricks to promote content unrelated to cats, while high-profile media figures like BuzzFeed co-founder John Johnson and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes have put their own money into it. The site has also received $4 million from venture capital firm NEA.
All of this has made Upworthy a darling of the startup scene. But what is the company’s business model? As noted, Upworthy has no advertising income, nor does it plan to have any. Meanwhile, the company is in the midst of a mini-hiring spree, while also maintaining a high-gloss website and social media operation.
Upworthy says it earns money by connecting “readers with non-profits and other organizations who are looking to grow their memberships via the sign-up boxes” on its site. In other words, the company is collecting email addresses and social media profiles for “lead generation.”
The company adds it will not work with just any organization — only those that “create positive social change.” In response to an email query, Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley declined to provide financial figures but did say the site has been taking in revenue since its third month of operation.
It seems far-fetched, however, to build a major media venture on the backs of the Sierra Club, the American Worker or other social-change groups. Unless, that is, Upworthy’s primary goal is instead to build a political operation aimed at gathering voter data and boost the Democratic party in upcoming elections.
Recall how the Obama administration won the 2012 race by using big data to identify and energize individual voters. The Democratic Party’s campaign, which relied heavily on Facebook connections and custom email messages, ran circles around Mitt Romney’s TV-based campaign. Now, with the help of Upworthy, the Democrats could be in a position to do it all over again — the site could not only help identify passionate supporters of liberal issues, but also be a laboratory to experiment with headlines and marketing messages like the ones used in an election.
Some members of the Upworthy team certainly have the pedigree for it. Koechley’s co-founder is Eli Pariser, the former head of Moveon.org, a liberal activist group closely tied to Democratic presidential campaigns. Meanwhile, Upworthy staff also include Zane Shelby and Ryan Resell, who worked on analytics and tech for the Obama campaign. And, according to Wired, Koechley is closely connected to Obama’s chief digital strategist, who gained fame for focus-tested emails like “I will be outspent” and “Do this for Michelle.”
Koechley told me: “We don’t view ourselves as a political organization, although some of us do have backgrounds in politics,” he said. “Some of the most popular stuff on Upworthy is about the wonders of science, building women’s self esteem, or feel-good stories about overcoming adversity.” He also pointed to the site’s own description of itself as a “mission-driven media company.”
There is no reason to doubt Koechley and Upworthy’s sincerity about using viral media to advance social change. And it’s hard not to support much of what they’re doing; I don’t like homophobia or bullying either. But it’s also pretty easy to look at the company and see the seeds of something far more potent than just another viral media site.
Correction: This story was updated at 12:08pm to say that BuzzFeed co-founder John Johnson is an investor in Upworthy; an earlier version listed BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti.
(Image by SoulCurry via Shutterstock)