Upworthy Growth Hacking – Launch and Case Study Marketing Techniques
In June 2013, Fast Company called Upworthy, “The fastest growing media site of all time.” Since Upworthy was only founded in March 2012, that is a powerful statement reflective of the rapid growth of the new media outlet that focuses solely on curating and sharing viral content.
In November 2013, Upworthy had 88 million unique hits in a single month, placing it just behind the older and better known Gawker Media Network. Explaining the growth strategies behind Upworthy’s early success is no easy task since by its nature the site depends on the elusive quality of “going viral.”
Growth Hacking Art or Science?
It is often said that growth hacking is much more an art than a science, which is quite clear in the Upworthy story. Early in its evolution, the site focused on election-year hype to gain traction, but was soon forced to pivot away from politics to sustain its momentum.
The problem was clear and inevitable. Once the election was over, so was the interest. Since no growth hack or traffic mechanism is ever permanent, this was an expected phenomenon. The election gained traffic for Upworthy, so the issue then became keeping and growing that base.
Now, the team of curators at Upworthy has a more set “formula” with which to work, even if that process is difficult to define outside of the team. They concentrate on visually driven material that is interesting, surprising, emotional, or compelling — or better yet, a combination of all of the above.
This is often a matter of “feel” rather than a metric-driven selection process. The Upworthy team knows that middle-aged woman are the group most likely to share content online, so they work in the principle that all content should NOT make your Mom shake her head.
Seven months after launch, Upworthy already had 9 million unique hits per month.
Site designers concentrated on framing the content to make it more “clicky” for Facebook and other social media sharing, which is helpful, but the curators are perfectly frank when they admit that much of their success is based on luck.
Each piece of content chosen it evaluated for its ability to generate multiple levels of sharing. Facebook integration has been vital to Upworthy’s reach, so much so that critics have suggested that if Facebook shuts Upworthy out in the future (after the fashion of Google’s Panda and Penguin updates) the action could spell disaster for the viral service.
This is not to suggest, however, that Upworthy hasn’t built in its own call to action elements. When visitors land on the site from whatever source, they are asked to become subscribers before they can view the content.
Mobile users also represent a critical channel of distribution. In July 2013, mobile traffic accounted for about 40% of Upworthy’s unique visits. Four months later that level was up to 57%.
Continued refinement of the mobile reader will undoubtedly be central to Upworthy’s growth strategy. Currently, about 63% of the traffic is U.S. based, and Upworthy is working on adapting their understanding of viral dynamics for other cultures and languages — no small proposition.
Whether Upworthy will prove to be a flash in the pan remains to be seen, but in the short term, they are a definite example of growth hacking as a unique mixture of market understanding and sheer luck.