Upworthy Sees Early Success With Its Socially Conscious Native Content

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Ed Urgola UpworthyEarlier this month, Upworthy – a curator of socially-conscious content – revealed native content was outperforming editorial content. The data was striking: Branded content received 3.5 times as many views, 2.9 times more “Attention Minutes” (an Upworthy-developed metric) and three times as many social shares compared to its in-house editorial content. All this for a site that launched its first formal native advertising campaign in April.

“Most reactions to that are ‘What? How? Why?’ said Ed Urgola, director of marketing and communications at Upworthy. “We kind of thought to ourselves when we saw that for the first time. First off, the selection bias is high. We’re picking the right campaigns for the right brands, giving them TLC, making sure they’re framed up properly, and with the same curators that work on editorial working with brands.”

Selection bias aside, getting native to perform well is a challenge for any site. For Upworthy, the stakes are even higher. The site does not run display advertising, so the site is monetizes its content through paid posts.

That may be one reason why Upworthy made the source code publicly available for its new metric, Attention Minutes, intended to measure total engagement instead of clicks and page views. It’s a metric designed for native, not display.

Urgola talked to AdExchanger about its early native success, how paid posts work at Upworthy, and what’s ahead.

AdExchanger: What is Upworthy’s editorial process, and how does that gel with its native offering?
ED URGOLA: We have on-staff curators, people who find great content that hasn’t found viral spread. We find it, bring it up, and think about how to get someone all the way into the content and share that content. That approach has translated directly to how we work with partners. We have the ultimate native approach, where it’s part of the ecosystem, and lives and dies by how well the audience responds to it.

How did Upworthy get into native advertising?

We started out last year with a bunch of pilot programs with nonprofits [and] foundations. That was the logical place to start. This year we’ve moved onto brands. There’s an intersection where a brand wants to talk about something they’re adjacent to, and our audience has something they want to hear. If we can connect those two points, we can really make it work - because at the end of the day the native thing only works if the audience says yes.

Can you give me some examples of brands you’ve worked with?

With Unilever, we worked to bring incredible content about the environment and sustainable living for our children. We’re working with Pantene to talk about the importance of female empowerment and body image issues. What that means for us is that we don’t say yes to every campaign or every brand, we have a really high bar for the content we will post on the site. Our partners trust us, have seen the success we’ve had, and they’re coming at it from a collaboration standpoint, not just, “Here, take this video and make it go viral."

How often do brands come to you with content vs. Upworthy curating content on behalf of a brand?

With our early partners, we’ve gotten to a place where they’re not asking us to just make a video go viral but to have a collaboration. If they have a piece of branded content, our response is, “Let’s help you with it, provide some edits and thoughts about this thing you already invested in and tweak it and make it better.” I think that will logically move to the area of co-creation with clients and getting higher up in the funnel. Mind you, we only started this at the beginning of April, so it’s early days, but we see this progression happen where we gain more trust, and get a bit higher up in the funnel.

What are Upworthy’s success metrics?

The success of our content is not about getting people to click, watch, or share, it’s about all of those things: It’s a cycle. If someone clicks but doesn’t share, it doesn’t go anywhere and the cycle is broken. What we look at is from click to share and everything in between. The in-between part we just started to measure with something called Attention Minutes, which measures the engaged active time people are spending with content.

How do Attention Minutes work exactly?

It’s part of the bigger picture. We have brands that work with us on a campaign, and say, “We’ve got 20 million people who viewed this campaign over three months.” The next question is, “Tell me about these people. Do they spend time with the content?” The middle is the missing piece.

In a world only looking at first and last action, clicks and shares, you don’t get the context of what is happening in between. We’re not the only ones in the space supporting this idea of engaged time measurement, there are third parties like Chartbeat who have been using it and some other publishers, and we released the source code for Attention Minutes to make it available to be used more widely.

Do brands have their own KPIs they want Upworthy to use?

Brands have varying KPIs. Some brands want eyeballs around a simple message, some want engagement with a complicated message, or to light up social for a period of time. There’s always a specific advertiser KPI, but we also track this extensively and share the highlights, and the story of the reader journey, like the engagement ladder: How many people clicked the post? How many watched it? How many took the next step to share it?

You follow that trail and tell a more complete story, and they can pick and choose what’s most meaningful for them or their campaign. Advertisers are also looking at this from a total brand lift perspective. Brand marketers have seen double-digit lifts in sentiment.

Are you measuring this internally or through a third party?
We’re mainly measuring this through internal systems, and clients will have tracking codes for their purposes. But we’re also doing our own thing, particularly through Attention Minutes. Not a lot of folks are tracking that on the publisher side or through ad servers. There’s also a great third party we point to a lot called Newswhip, for social publishers, which looks at how many social actions there are in a month, per post. We on a per-post basis are delivering good numbers, in terms of how many people like, comment, share, and social metrics like that.

Is native content created just for Upworthy?
In some cases, they’ve already released it and they’re just using our platform as a launchpad to reframe it. Sometimes we’re aligning launches, and previewing content for the first time. As we move toward the route of helping to edit their content, and co-create, then it’s a thing we create together. There are examples of clients where we’ve done rounds of edits before the video even gets released. Again, it will be released through us, but it’s viewed across all their social channels as well. When we do co-creation, it benefits their social channels and other areas they might place that content.

How do you sell your native advertising packages?

What we don’t want to do is publish a brand video and call it a day. We’re telling clients that it’s not just about one piece of content. We have a thing called a “strategic bundle.” If a brand has one piece of content they created around sustainability, for example, there is so much other content we can put around that, so it’s sponsored content around a theme. There can be community engagement elements, like our UpChats, and email components. It’s all sold as part of a bigger package.

If you’ve got a brand working on a very specific issue, and does a strategic bundle with us, over time you get better at the words that connect with people, and the images that draw them into post, and the kind of content that they’ll respond to.

Do brands specify any viewing requirements in their contracts?
Brands may have minimum views, but the metrics go beyond the campaign. You don’t shut it off in a conventional sense. It continues to deliver. We have campaigns that deliver 30-40% after campaign in terms of shares and comments. That’s a different dynamic that’s awesome for brands.

Uprworthy’s statement about paid content says: “We'll stay away from projects that are more hype than substance.” Are you turning away brands that don’t fit with Upworthy’s message?

We’re not approaching from a holier-than-thou perspective. We’re not looking for perfect brands with perfect records, who have never been through challenges or struggles. That’s not realistic. What we’re looking for is actually forward movement, and picking the right campaign for brands that are moving in the right direction.

One very simple bar for us is we don’t do greenwashing, which is the idea that you would throw packaging on a product to say that it’s green, and really there’s not anything green about what you’re doing. We have a process where we evaluate a partner, find out if they’re doing what they’re saying, if our audience perceives them warmly, and if the brand is open to partnering in the right direction.

Most brands are responding to that. For us, it editorially doesn’t work if the brand isn’t acting as they’re speaking, because our community members share content because it’s something they care about. It’s not about rejecting brands, but finding the type of things that would be a fit.

How do you reconcile with readers who might see a conflict with Upworthy’s native advertising offering?
There is a huge amount of transparency on the site. That is table stakes at this point, in terms of how to do native well. If you look at the disclaimer, we are transparent about how we pick partners.

We have a sensitive audience that’s going to notice if you seem disingenuous or taking money for money’s sake, but they are also aware that brands are big global actors. There is attention being paid to them when we work with them. What does Pantene have to say? What does Unilever have to say? There is definite interest around global actors on a global stage.

What are your thoughts about the development of standardized performance metrics for native advertising?
As an ex-agency guy myself, my disposition is very much about how to make things become more evenly keeled, and how we can come together on standards. It’s really challenging for folks to look at these different proprietary things that might be called the same thing but actually are different. That’s part of the reason why we’ve been collaborating on things like attention minutes to make it more standardized. Right now, we really haven’t seen anyone compare us to other native campaigns that they’re working on.

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