What’s Up with Upworthy?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

This is the homepage of Upworthy. Who ever goes there?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine in the past year, you’ve been bombarded with Upworthy headlines:

“The most inspiring story you’ll read ever!”

“You won’t believe what this person did to confront some racist/horrible deed.”

“This latest corporate greed act will make you so angry.”

Those are not actual Upworthy headlines, but they are basically the same formula you see in the stories that populate in your feed.

What’s impressive about the site is its rapid growth (thanks to traffic from Facebook) in such a short period of time. At the end of last year, its traffic was up there with Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post.

Why is this content so popular? And more importantly, how did it get so popular on Facebook?

1. Staff write up to 25 headlines per story (Source: Kiss Metrics and Business Insider) and may release two versions and then change the headline based on which one gets better pageviews early on. With that amount of user testing on a headline, you’re bound to gain a ton of traffic.

2. They curate from social media, not from existing websites (Source: Business Insider), which means they are pulling from conversations and stories that are already what people are talking about.

3. The photo that goes with the article matters (Source: Kiss Metrics). We all see memes in our feed, amazing photos from friends, etc. and we all ‘like’ our friends photos more often than we like their posts. The better the photo with that crazy headline, the more people are going to share it.

So now that we’ve established that Upworthy is putting a lot of effort (probably more than most traditional news sites out there) into making sure you click on that content, here’s a primer on what’s been happening since they cracked the Facebook sharing code.

Spoiler alert: Everyone copied them, their traffic dropped and Facebook changed its news feed algorithm.

Towards the end of last year, traffic started dropped for brand pages across Facebook. When I was still working for Patch at the end of last year, we saw the same thing, as did other brands in AOL.

The same thing happened to Upworthy, with the unique visitor number to the site dropping by almost half from November to January (reports from Newsy and Business Insider).

According to a release from Facebook, the changes to the algorithm are meant to show more “high quality content” in the news feed, which again according to Facebook is:

“-is the content genuinely interesting to you or is trying to game the news feed distribution?”

“-would you complain about seeing this content in your news feed?”

Those are just some of the points emphasized in Facebook’s criteria, but when you look at those reasons, you could easily apply that to Upworthy.

As an aside it’s important to note that Business Insider shares some data showing that sites similar to Upworthy (complete clones like Distractify or Buzzfeed) did not see as precipitous of a drop in their traffic.

So what do news sites take away from this rise and fall of traffic, all at the mercy of Facebook?

Anyone who publishes on the web that traffic from links shared on Facebook is a huge boon to pageviews  (referral traffic to media sites from Facebook grew 170 percent year to year). At Patch, we saw a ton of traffic from posts shared on the Faceook pages for each local site.

But depending on what type of content is being shared on Facebook in the same time, how it’s being presented and who is clicking on it are all factors that determine how many clicks a story will get.

It’s a game that’s constantly changing, and as the Atlantic said, Upworthy is playing the same clickbait game as other news media outlets (namely the Huffington Post) have been playing for years.

So if you’re sick of seeing Upworthy  headlines in your news feed, take heart that they may be diminishing, but be wary of the next upstart who figures out the algorithm and then tries to beat it.

One final link for you, from the New Yorker, with the title: “The Six Things that Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate You.”

What a clever headline.

The Lost Art of Comments in Local News

I took a trip down memory lane this  morning as I was browsing through old posts on Catonsville Patch to add to my Pressfolio.

I spent two years living and breathing all things Catonsville before I took a more regional strategic role at Patch. What I probably miss most about the job was engaging with readers in the comments. Any of the hundreds of local Patch editors (most of whom have been laid off in the past six months) will tell you how lively and maddening the comments section on a story could be.

We’ve seen those crazy threads before on a national news story about a controversial topic (gay marriage, the debt crisis, or some other polarizing issue), or even stalked an out-of-control comment thread on a Facebook page.

Comments online are a blessing and a curse. But in local community news I think they are more of a blessing, as there is a good chance at least some of the people leaving comments actually know each other.

At Patch editors were encouraged to comment on stories, especially when readers asked questions or to provide updates to a story. We found generally this best practice yielded more comments, although sometimes it would invite personal attacks on editors.

Why should editors and reporters dive into comment threads?

A few case studies:

In Catonsville, the community had a quirky tradition of leaving out chairs to save space for the annual Fourth of July parade up to two weeks ahead of time. As innocent as the tradition was, there were many people who found the practice selfish, while others championed the act.

I cover the topic extensively with an article when the first chairs were out, photo galleries of the chairs and other interesting aspects of this tradition.

Here’s an example of a post I did that was meant to drive discussion, and boy did it ever.  Every time I wrote about the issue readers would leave dozens of comments, so it could be overwhelming at times to dive in.

Here’s the approach I took:

1. If it’s getting too negative, try to steer the conversation in a positive way by sharing relevant information that spurs people to action:

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2. If readers are quoting inaccurate statistics or making false claims, offer clarification when relevant:

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3. Ask readers a question to get more information for a follow-up post:

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Now for many journalists out there, the act of even commenting can feel uncomfortable. There were plenty of editors at Patch not comfortable with this practice, or others who took it too far in the opposite direction and got into spats with folks in the comments thread.

Why even bother diving in? How does improve the reputation of the journalist or the site? Here are a few reasons:

1.Reporters and editors commenting shows that someone is watching. Some of the worst threads I’ve seen are usually absent of any voice of authority diving in. Usually half of the comments after a while will say something like ‘if [insert name of media publication] is even reading this].’ By dispelling rumors in the the thread, adding insight and facts, reporters are doing what they do best: sharing facts and providing contest.

2. Online news platforms allow us to get direct feedback from readers in a way that print never did. But yet when you think about the way newsrooms were back in the days before there was online, there was still the expectation that phone calls with readers were returned and letters to the editors were published. If someone showed up in the office demanding to speak with the publisher, usually they would see someone. I remember those ‘types’ from my newsrooom days. There is always that one curmudgeonly reader who would call and leaving rambling voicemails on reporters’ phone every week. While we may not have returned every phone call, the expectation from a customer service perspective was we usually had to call the person back at least once.

But not all online discussions are as innocent and polite as the topic of chairs left out ahead of the Fourth of July parade. If only it were that easy, right?

With 900 sites across the country, Patch had its shared of crazy comment threads. Like, in the hundreds. Our team (the Community Engagement team) was often tasked in the last year of advising editors how to respond. Here are few approaches we took:

1. If someone is diving into the comments of a story to be contrary or nasty, feel free to take a stand. Especially on stories where you know someone else is probably reading that and thinking, ‘how rude.’ This comment came on a story featuring a high school senior who was looking to start a political career. The first comment made was a reader attacking the politicians of the town.

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2. If you need to delete something, be clear that you did and why (linking to TOS if you have it). Leave your contact information and thank readers for commenting. Again, this makes the moderation happen in a transparent way for readers. If you delete comments on a thread without any reason, readers will start spouting all sorts of conspiracy theories as to why.

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3. If you are personally attacked, feel free to address it, and be transparent about any conversations you may have had with the source or your intentions with the article. Readers will appreciate your acknowledgement of it in a professional way.

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While it may take extra effort to spend time moderating these comments or to compose your responses, you can also keep a list of ‘canned responses’ to adapt for different types of comments you see all the time. When it comes to community news, you can’t hide behind the site when you’ll likely see your readers at the coffee shop!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an engaging comments section on a local news post that wasn’t Patch (if I’ve missed something, feel free to share!), but I’ve always enjoyed reading (Baltimore native) Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Atlantic.

Here’s an audio interview with him about how to create a good comment section (credit On the Media). His strategy: treating it as a dinner party where he is the host. If you threaten one of his guests, he will ask you to leave.

Social Media Advice for Nonprofits

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If you run a volunteer organization, chances are you’ve often felt you need a stronger social media presence, but you don’t know where to start. Or maybe you have heard conflicting advice. After all, there are a lot of so-called social media experts out there!

I’ve spent some time working on social media in both the news media world and the volunteer world (see about page of this blog) for the past few years and I’ve compiled a list of the basic things any administrator of a basic Facebook page can do to boost their presence online.

1. First, let’s start with the anatomy of the page. You’d be surprised how many pages are categorized incorrectly.

From your admin panel (the top of your page when you’re logged in as yourself or the account associated as the admin of the page), click ‘edit page’ and ‘update page info.’

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What is the category listed for your page? If you are nonprofit, make sure you’ve selected that category. The category is what helps content show up accurately in Facebook’s graph search, which will help people find your business or group.

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Make sure you have as much accurate information as possible in the other fields, including the correct website, products, company overview, long description and general information. It’s good to check this page every six months or so, as sometimes features and fields for an admin page will change over time.

2. The next thing that nonprofits or page admins often struggle with is how often to post. It may not be a high priority to post content to Facebook with so many other tasks to do.

If you’re struggling with remembering to post to Facebook, just start out with a small attainable goal and grow it from there. If you’re posting once a week, set a goal to post twice a week. If you’re posting several times a week, you will see a large bump in your engagement if you start posting every day.

Why should you post more often? Every day a Facebook user could potentially see thousands of articles, updates, photos, etc. from their network. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm filters out a lot of that (source: Social Media Fuze), so the likelihood that your post will actually be seen by the fans who like your page isn’t very high. The shelf life of a newsfeed is also a few hours, so even if you posted on Monday, your users may not see that post if they haven’t logged on in 24 hours.

Want some more stats about Facebook? Here are some basics I put together for a presentation on reaching social media and youth for a conference for rock climbing organizations in late 2013:

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The entire presentation about social media can be found on the site here.