What lessons can we learn from Upworthy’s viral successes?

Upworthy has become an extremely popular website dedicated to curating engaging content that has the ability to go viral. The difference between the viral content on Upworthy and other websites is that they post important, thought provoking content as opposed to cat videos or selfies. The user actually gets value from Upworthy content, the more time you spend on the website the more rewarding it is. Have you ever watched a cute cat videos and walked away thinking “I feel really informed after watching that and I will remember what that cat taught me forever”? Therefore I think it’s safe to say Upworthy offers a lot more than most viral content based sites.

Traditionally, people would’ve said that only short 30 second videos can go viral. After all, the thinking went people have short attention spans and if you don’t grab them right away, you never will. Upworthy disproves this theory by getting 10 to 20 minute videos to go viral.

Nobody believed that the idea of promoting content such as environmental awareness or any other serious topics would be successful. Now, Upworthy is the 59th ranked website in the US. Remarkably, it managed to achieve this within two years of launching. It’s pretty obvious that we need to take it seriously if it has an opinion on viral content!

In my professional capacity, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a few of the tech videos from the NAR conference in New Orleans last year November. One of the standouts was Sarah Critchfield, a founder and editorial director of Upworthy.com.

In the presentation, Critchfield discusses what makes content viral, social media packaging and one of the most important online marketing formulas: Clickability x Shareability x Distribution. She presents it to a room filled with real estate agents that are less informed about the idea of online marketing. She relates all of her content to real life examples and uses smart analogies to make it easier to grasp.

The most prized possession on the internet

The internet is a highly competitive market due to the massive amount of content to go through. So skim reading and fast forwarding has become second nature for the consumer. The question on everyone’s mind is naturally “how do we get this attention?”

A good place to start is understanding the psychology behind why a person clicks on an article headline. According to Critchfield, it’s similar to what happens when they select a product off the shelf.

“It’s not about the content, it’s about how people relate to the content,” she says.

It’s also worth remembering however that Google is still the gatekeeper of the internet and it decides what websites are promoted up the SERPS. Ranking highly in Google’s search engine rankings will net you more attention for anyone browsing the web.

But how does one obtain these rankings? This is where the Clickability x Shareability x Distribution formula comes in. SEO is still the number one driver of visitors to a website so we need to remember that although social media drives traffic, it has a shortened lifespan. However, a well ranked article in Google will continue to drive traffic for months to come. Clickability and shareability help improve user behavior, which is becoming an increasingly important factor for Google.

The Grocery store principal

The formula is, again, analogous to the journey a customer takes when they walk through a grocery store.


Young woman shopping for juice in supermarket

This is where the customer takes what appeals to them, making the decision based on the outside appearance rather than what’s inside.


a cute baby girl laughing during meal time

The customer has bought the cereal and is proceeding to eat it. If the cereal is not up to their expectations there is a small chance they will tell their friends about it and if they do, it won’t be anything positive. If the cereal is good, there is a much higher chance that they will share a positive review with their friends and encourage them to buy it.


Rows of a plurality of trolleys

Is the product sold in a small corner grocery store or in a hypermarket? This is what distribution focuses on. If the product is in a larger grocery store it may have more competition but more people are aware of the product. Great for branding and eyes on product. The same principal applies to online marketing. Do you have a large email list, many Facebook subscribers, are you exposing your product or service to more and more people? So you need to know your audience for perfect distribution.

Now that you understand the formula, how should you go about applying it online?


Clickability is about the marketing of the content, not the content itself. Social Media needs a “Curiosity Gap”. Don’t give too much detail away in the heading otherwise there will be no reason to click. If you do, you would’ve told them the gist of the story in one line. But don’t be too vague either. Here are a few examples:

Too vague and I don’t want to click:

Mitt Romney Says Something

Too specific, I don’t need to click:

Mitt Romney says, “I want to lower taxes for the middle class”

Hit the sweet spot, and I HAVE to click:

You WILL not believe what Mitt Romney wants to do to you

Factors to clickability include:

  • An engaging featured image
  • A headline that’s intriguing
  • An excerpt that is relevant to the headline

    As Critchfield points out, “People want to know what their friends think, not what the distributor thinks”.


    This refers to the products quality as mentioned in the analogy previously. Will people recommend it or share it with their friends? That is what shareability focuses on. Bad shareable content would be things like vague listicles or gimmicks (i.e cute cat videos). Great content connects with the client, answers their questions and makes people aware of their fears. Sarah states that shareability is the most expensive and hardest factor to fool around with in the formula.

    Good content aims to magnetise attention to something interesting, but it also motivates friends to take action, shows a persons personal values based on what they share, informs people about something important and gives friends something to feel good about.

    People respond most to anger and happiness and least to sadness and relaxation.

    thing about it: when you’re happy with a piece of content, you want to show all your friend and when content makes you angry, you want to let people know why you’re angry.

    What is the most viral content on the internet?

    The weather. Yes the weather. The one thing everyone in the world wants to know about. It’s right above our heads so why wouldn’t it be the most popular? It’s distributed all over the world and it affects each one of directly.

    What makes content viral?

    One would most commonly think that it would be high production value, short or funny and engaging. This is not true. You need to create content for your readers friends. After all, those are the people you’re aiming to reach. How content becomes viral is still a mystery, it’s either so obscure that people have to share it, or it’s brilliantly thought out and unique.

    Focusing on one part of the formula at a time is completely fine as well. However making use of all three is the sweet spot and will increase the overall success of your message.

    TV versus internet

    TV holds the highest distribution channel in the world. The internet comes second. Distributing through TV is extremely expensive, whereas distribution through the internet is very cost efficient. It all comes down to budget. If budget wasn’t an option, TV is still the place to be. However, economic constraints make us think twice about where we allocate our budget.


    If you sent out one email to a person on your email listing and they read it, this is considered a high value impression.

    Any attention gained from a Facebook post is lower as it is on a public network and is less personal.

    Twitter is the lowest value impression. Someone reads over your Tweet and scrolls on by. A tweet literally lasts for a few seconds. Unless you have a massive following and people are eager to see what you post everyday, the impression will be of low quality.

    TV has the highest impression as it reaches almost everyone and has near no competition. Most of the consumers are watching TV and rely on it for content.

    What Upworthy has done really well is understand the psychology and science behind the driver for a piece of content to be clicked on and shared. It’s not afraid to test different headlines for one piece of content. In some cases, it’s tested up to 16 different variations of a heading. Test, test and test again is its philosophy. Because viral content has so many variables for its success, there’s never really one blue print. However, if you understand the mechanics and the underlying reasons why things go viral, you will more often than not be successful.

    I believe this simple formula of “Clickability X Shareability X Distribution” is becoming the golden thread to Content Marketing and SEO. If you can grasp this, you will be successful.

Neil Pursey


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