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June 20 2013

15:00

“If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it”: Upworthy’s social success depends on gut-checking “regular people”

Back in November, the Lab’s own Adrienne LaFrance wrote a number of words about Upworthy, a social packaging and not-quite-news site that has become remarkably successful at making “meaningful content” go viral. She delved into their obsession with testing headlines, their commitment to things that matter, their aggressive pushes across social media, and their commitment to finding stories with emotional resonance.

Things have continued to go well for Upworthy — they’re up to 10 million monthly uniques from 7.5. At the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, editorial director Sara Critchfield shared what she sees as Upworthy’s secret sauce for shareability, namely, seeking out content that generates a significant emotional response from both the reader and the writer.

upworhty monthlys

A slide from Critchfield’s PDF presentation.

Critchfield emphasized that using emotional input in editorial planning isn’t about making ad hoc decisions, it’s about making space for that data in the workflow, or “making it a bullet point.”

Here’s how she explained it:

When I spoke with Critchfield after her talk, she underscored the way in which packaging content is Upworthy’s bread and butter (most likely WonderBread and Land o’ Lakes [Sorry, Don Draper]).

“If you watch people shop in a grocery store, 95% of the time they are scanning the shelves for the packaging, making the choices on that before they turn the bottle around and look at the nutrition information. People choose their media that way too. So you can have a piece of media with the exact same nutritional value in it with different packaging and the consumer is going to choose the one that appeals to them most,” she said.

But before you can package content, you have to create it — or at least, select it from out of the vastness of the Internet. The people who do that are Critchfield’s handpicked team of curators.

“Of the things we curate at Upworthy, I think our editorial staff is what we pride ourselves the most on curating. We really focus on regular people. We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgement, what matters or should matter. So we focus almost exclusively on hiring non-professionally trained writers,” she says. “To be honest, it’s sometimes difficult for folks who have professional background to come into Upworthy and have success.”

In other words, Critchfield builds the element of genuine emotional response into her team by hiring people who were never trained to worry about what’s news, and what isn’t.

“I tell my writers, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it.’,” says Critchfield. “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 vast majority of Upworthy’s traffic comes from social media sites, where Critchfield says conversation is more valuable to the reader anyway. Some of their biggest hits have been about the economy, bullying and, recently, as displayed in her talk, funding cancer research after a young musician died of pancreatic cancer.

Critchfield says she encourages her curators to have huge vision for their posts. If they don’t expect it to get millions of views, then it’s not worth posting. Adam Mordecai is a great example of that kind of intuition, she says. He’s the guy who posted “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular,” the video about cancer that ended up raising tens of thousands of dollars. (The original YouTube video got 433,000 Facebook shares; Upworthy’s got 2.5 million.)

Trained journalists are often rubbed the wrong way by the idea of writing headlines like that, or being asked to spend so much time on them. (Critchfield says instead of spending 58 minutes writing a story and 2 minutes on a headline, most journalists would be better served by spending 30 or 40 minutes on their piece and 20 to 30 on their headline. “People look at me and say that’s crazy, I don’t have time, I would never do that,” she says, “and they walk away all sad. That’s happened to me over and over again.”)

“I have a broadcast journalist who just came in and said, ‘Sara, I just can’t get over it. Every time I write ‘wanna’ in a headline, I feel like I’m going to hell,’” she says. “You have to match appropriately to the context. You’re competing — people on Facebook are at a party. They’re around friends, they’re trying to define themselves, they’re trying to look at baby pictures. You have to join the party, but be the cooler kid at that party. You’re not going to do it by speaking formally to people who are there to have fun.”

Fighting that training can be hard, which is why Critchfield has so carefully assembled team of “normal people.” “In the curation of the staff, I look for heart. What moves this person? There are people on staff — I have an improv comedian, I have a professional poker player, I have someone who works for the Harlem Children’s Zone, I have a person who used to be a software developer,” says Critchfield. “What they’re trained in isn’t as important as the compilation of a group of people with various hearts and passions.”

Or at least mostly normal people. Femi Oke was a radio producer when she decided to apply for a job at Upworthy. Oke says she was looking for a side gig that would give her experience with social media when she saw an ad for the job. “In typical Upworthy fashion,” she says, “it wasn’t a normal ad. It was a crazy ad — it was really intriguing.”

Oke describes going through an intensive training process at a retreat in Colorado where the curators learned to “speak Upworthy.” At first, she was surprised that the majority of the staff weren’t journalists, but soon the strategy of broadening the audience through diverse hires started to make more sense. But as the site’s popularity grew, Oke says it became increasingly important for curators to embrace traditional media tasks, like fact-checking. “As people started to see them as news, they started doing things news organizations would do,” says Oke. “They have such a fantastic reputation, they don’t want to ruin it.”

Since starting at Upworthy, Oke’s been hired to host The Stream, Al-Jazeera’s social media-centric daily online TV show, a concept born out of the Arab Spring. “At the end of each show, we have a teaser for what we’re doing on the next show. It would be a really heavy, intense, stodgy but accurate breakdown of what the next day’s subject is. I walked in and said, if we can’t make it a one-liner where I’m going to watch the show tomorrow, we shouldn’t be writing that,” Oke remembers. “My producers said, ‘Oh my god, she’s crazy.’”

So for a show on the 50th anniversary of the African Union, she might say “Happy 50th birthday, African Union! Are you looking good — or do you need a makeover?”

“That’s me anyway, but Upworthy made me even more certain that that was the style of broadcast that works for all media. It’s about being inclusive, accepting, and inviting people in.”

The one thing Critchfield says brings all the curators together is their competitive spirit and obsession with metrics. All Upworthy curators have direct access to the analytics for their work, and she says they are obsessed with testing different tricks. (How many more people will click this story if there’s a curse word in the headline?) But Critchfield says no post gets published without gut-checking its author to see how committed they are to the larger cause it’s meant to represent.

“We’ve really clarified internally that we can’t separate data analytics from human editorial judgment. Working to combine those two together is sometimes difficult,” she says. “What makes a thing viral can have just as much to do with how the person writing the piece up or working with the piece feels about it as it does with big data or listening tools.”

Photo by Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Media used under a Creative Commons license.

August 02 2012

15:04

The newsonomics of syndication 3.0, from NewsCred and NewsLook to Ok.com and Upworthy

Of the many failed digital news dreams, digital syndication is one of the greatest enigmas. We’ve seen companies like Contentville, Screaming Media, and iSyndicate (Syndication 1.0) followed by companies like Mochila (Syndication 2.0), all believing the same thing: In the endless world of digital content, there must be a big business in gathering together some of the world’s best, creating a marketplace, and selling stream upon stream.

In the abstract, the idea makes lot of sense. Producers of content — AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Street, Al Jazeera, Getty Images, Global Post, and many more — want all the new revenue they can get. They want to see the content they produced used and reused, over and over again, helping offset the high cost of news creation. The enduring problem is the buy side. We’ve gone oh-so-quickly from Content is King to a content glut. In a world of endless ad inventory and plummeting ad rates, why take syndicated content just to create a greater glut of news, information, and ad spots? That dilemma still hangs in the wind, and has bedeviled news industry consortium startup NewsRight, as it tries to find a future. Yet I’ve been surprised by a new wave of news syndication that’s been developing, here and there. It’s worth paying attention to, because it tells us a lot about how the digital news world is developing.

In part, it’s about new niches being found and exploited. In part, it’s about responding to deep staff cuts at many newspapers. In part, it’s about a slow-dawning wave of new product creation, aided by the tablet. Each of the newer efforts sees the world a little differently, and that’s instructive, though technology and video (see The Onion’s “Onion Special Report: Blood-Drenched, Berserk CEO Demands More Web Videos”) play increasingly key roles. So let’s look at the newsonomics of Syndication 3.0, and a few of the newer entrepreneurs behind it.

NewsCred

As 31-year-old CEO Shafqat Islam notes cheerily, finding investors for his startup was complicated by the fact that “there are a lot of dead bodies in this space.” With 100 fairly top-drawer sources and a staff of 50 (35 of them in tech), NewsCred is the big new mover in text and still image syndication, launched earlier this year (“NewsCred wants to be the AP newswire for the 21st century”). Its 50-plus customers divide roughly equally into two groups: media and big brands.

Media, says Islam, are using NewsCred for two reasons. One is to build new products, as the New York Daily News has done with its March-launched India news site, recognizing a locally under-served audience. Skift, Rafat Ali’s new travel B2B start-up, is getting 30 to 40 percent of its content through NewsCred. The other is the emergence of the paywall: Charging for digital access, he says, has meant some news companies are wanting to bulk up, offering a better value pitch to would-be digital subscribers. The Chicago Tribune launched a biz/tech “members only” product, powered by NewsCred, at the end of June.

The brand use of news content has a bigger potential. Check out several case histories, showing the use Pepsi, Orange Telecom, and Lenovo has made of NewsCred-distributed entertainment and tech content. Brands are publishers and want an easy, one-source way to populate their sites. Islam says his seven sales people are working as consultants of a sort, especially with such brands. Figuring out how to create content experiences for brands-turned-publishers is one part of the syndication puzzle.

Lessons Learned:

  • In a sense, this is syndication meets marketing services: As news companies both produce content and try to act as regional ad agencies, the synergies between the two are becoming more evident.
  • Timing is everything: We’ve seen a maturation in curation technologies, as metatagging gets easier and cheaper, allowing niched feeds. Then, an increased emphasis on niche product creation is combining with brand need for news content, creating new potential markets.

NewsLook

With 70-plus top video news sources and 35 clients, the three-year-old NewsLook also hopes to build on the archeology of syndication ruin. Like NewsCred, it positions itself as a technology and curation company, adding value to a mass of content. For CEO Fred Silverman, the technology means, importantly, better integration of text and video content.

“We see an awful lot of guys with a video page, or a video way down at the bottom — it’s not integrated. Our push with the publishers we work with is to fluidly integrate it into a news page. You are eleven times more likely to watch that video if it is integrated into a story.” That seems like common sense — put the words and pictures together — but Silverman’s experience resonates way too deeply if you journey through news websites. For his part, he’s been working on improving both NewsLook’s own video metatagging and the ability to match that with text. Now he’s got to convince more customers to make the integration.

Using a license model — “we’re not really an ad company” — NewsLook has found its customers in three segments. He sells to content aggregators like LexisNexis and Cengage, and he sells to news companies. It’s the third area, though, vertical sites, that represent the biggest growth opportunity, especially in the tech area. NewsLook, with its video emphasis, is now partnering with text-centric NewsCred, looking for joint opportunities.

Lessons Learned:

  • Think niche. Think video. Both have audiences that may be paying ones; video ad rates are still holding up far better than text.

Deseret News Service and Ok.com

Clark Gilbert caused quite a stir when he took the reins at Utah’s largest newspaper company two years ago (“Out of the Western Sky, It’s a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical”). Combining Harvard Business smarts, wide media knowledge, and traditional religious values, Gilbert promised to reshape the LDS-owned media Utah media properties in a way no one else could. Now, midway through that Utah transformation, he’s also moving on a wider world of syndication.

Ok.com has launched. It’s a movie guide like no other. Less Rotten Tomatoes and more wholesome salad, it is a “family media guide.” It’s social (Facebook login) with user-generated comments and ratings, and it offers many of the features (trailers, photos, theater times, online ticketing) that you’d expect. It’s also just the beginning. Ok.com will add TV listings, books, music, and other media to its site. Just syndicated, it so far has signed up a half-dozen customers.

“We want to own the family brand,” Gilbert says, citing his own commissioned research to indicate that it could be a large market. His segmentation of faith-based readers finds not only great dissatisfaction with the perceived amorality of Hollywood, but also questioning of the values of mainstream media.

To address the latter market: the new Deseret News Service, a “values-oriented syndication service.” That service, available for both print and digital, now reaches five markets, with a couple of dozen more on the horizon.

Business models, like cars.com, Gilbert notes, include both straightforward license fees and revenue share models, with Deseret selling advertising.

Gilbert, ever the modeler, believes Deseret is creating one for the industry.

“If you look at the product strategy, we started with the newspaper. We knew we couldn’t be good at everything…..For the Deseret News, that meant our six areas of emphasis [Family, Financial Responsibility, Values in Media, Education, Faith, and Care for the Poor]. For other newspapers, that can be something else. For Washington Post, it is politics. For Sarasota, it is retirement. What I’ve seen in the failure of the newspaper industry is that we’ve lost half our resources, but we’re going to cover it all rather than having the rigor to say, ‘What are we the best at?’

“The web rewards deep expertise. You have a lot of newspapers with high cost structures, producing average commodity news. [We looked] at what can can be the best in the country at. That led to a national edition in print and now syndication.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Combine your values — editorial, religious, or whatever — with the best web tools of the day to satisfy currently unsatisfied audiences. Then scale.

The AllMedia Platform

Critical Media CEO Sean Morgan may be the last man standing whose career has spanned syndication from 1.0 through 3.0. A founder of Screaming Media, circa 1995, his Critical Media company has been building syndication and other products (media monitor Critical Mention, video capture and creation platform Syndicaster, news video licensor Clip Syndicate) since 2002. Now, his company has produced AllMedia. Its primary function: a platform allowing clients “to collect and curate user-generated video content from their online communities.” It’s another component of its analytics-based enterprise business.

Morgan’s play here is wider than syndication, but syndication plays a key role. Critical Media’s technologies offer publishers (and others) value. In return, Critical gets the right to license news video assets, and it has amassed three million of them, and 100,000 are being added monthly; 350 (200 newspaper; 150 broadcast) local media companies are participating in Critical products. Clip Syndicate, its news video product, isn’t yet well promoted, but when it is, it could be powerful. It already enables “grab a channel” functionality for licensees. Clip Syndicate operates on a 50/50 revenue share model, with Morgan saying he is getting $21.40 CPM rates. The goal: monetize the “the biggest news video archive.”

Lessons Learned:

  • Syndication may be a long-term proposition, taking years of building infrastructure, or partnering with those who do.
  • It’s not the content — it’s the metadata about the content that unlocks its value, allowing niching and enabling product creators and editors to find what they need.

California Watch

Now incorporating content from its Bay Citizen merger, California Watch continues to expand out its syndication business. Executive director Robert Rosenthal estimates the news startup will take in about $750,000 this year in licensing money, funding about 10 percent of its budget (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”). California Watch offers yearly, monthly, and à la carte sales.

Its model really is the old-fashioned media wire, vastly updated with multimedia at the core and a strong enterprise journalism emphasis. With 16 significant media partners throughout California, just adding NBC Bay Area and including big TV stations and newspapers, it has been able to double some of the prices it charges over time. Further, it’s on the verge of syndicating to a major national/global news player. “Don’t silo potential audience by geography. A good story from a neighborhood in San Francisco may be the top story on the Internet one day,” Rosenthal says.

Like a traditional wire, its value is in more than its stories. It also acts as a news budget or tipsheet for subscribing news editors. With one of the largest news contingents in the state capital, Sacramento, for instance, it helps drive coverage overall.

Lessons Learned:

  • Collaboration with customers creates utility as well as content itself — and cements financial relationships.
  • Syndicated content, here, works on the older concept of scale: Do it once and distribute to many, without the burden of legacy costs and constraints.

Upworthy

Upworthy is like Hollywood Squares for progressives. No Whoopi Goldberg, but nine rectangles of meaningful video, well described by the Times’ David Carr.

Launched in March. It’s an on-ramp for Facebook, feeding the kinds of videos it prizes into the social sphere with headlining that would make a tabloid editor proud. Founder Eli Pariser (of Moveon.org and author of The Filter Bubble) says he borrowed headlining techniques from Slate, which he says writes “the best headlines on the web,” without slavishly pointing at Google search engine optimization. (Examples: “Donald Trump Has Pissed Off Scotland” and “How a 6-Year-Old With Ignorant Parents Just Became the Best Republican Presidential Candidate“).

Its declaration defines its would-be audience: “At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful, but everything on Upworthy.com has a little of both. Sensational and substantial. Entertaining and enlightening. Shocking and significant. That’s what you can expect here: No empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.”

Upworthy is really syndication simplified. It uses the social sphere to see content re-used. Its currency isn’t licensing fees; no money changes hands in its viral promotion of content. Currently, its single revenue source is referral fees it gets from progressive organizations that pay it on a cost-per-acquisition basis for traffic.

Lessons Learned:

  • People — many, many people — will do the syndication for you if you learn the tricks and trades of headlining, SEO, and the social rumble. While Upworthy’s referral-fee business model may have limited extension, its use of social to extend syndication (perhaps with sponsorships) can be used by others.

Consider Syndication 3.0 a puzzle, with more of the parts found but the full picture still incomplete. Technology, as in all things digital, plays a midwife role, but understanding customer use — and helping would-be customers imagine use — is fundamental. Let’s face it: Costly content creation must be paid for somehow, as ad revenues falter and reader revenues build slowly. Making more use of the content that has been created makes basic sense, and the basics of that business are being built out anew.

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