Upworthy: Paid Content Brings More Clicks Than Editorial


…even if it’s sponsored

Yesterday we posted on a Contently survey finding that sponsored content (NOT general “content marketing”) usually elicits groans, irritation and a feeling of being “deceived” among average readers. The survey even found that such material often damages the credibility of the pubs in which it appears.

And yet, one of the hottest viral content sites on the Internet now claims that its sponsored posts drive more traffic than editorial.

You won’t BELIEVE what happens after the jump…

Back in April, Upworthy announced plans to partner with Unilever for a series of “feel-good” sponsored posts. Turns out that the paid content did quite well, thanks.

A quick glance at the site shows no discernible difference between branded posts and others, though individual pages feature a variation of this disclaimer:


Upworthy’s head of marketing explains how it works to AdAge:

“Upworthy works closely with brands to develop a campaign that includes promoted posts and sponsored posts, which consist of content that Upworthy editors find and package but carries a brand logo.”

These sponsored posts then appear in “you may also like” form along with others that aren’t paid. Essentially, the Unilever material is embedded so deeply into the site’s algorithm and design that the visitor doesn’t even realize they’re there. At the same time, the disclaimers seem to dispel some of the sense of being tricked by the sponsor.

This interview coincides with the naming of publishing executive Kim Kelleher to Upworthy’s board, so we can expect more similar projects moving forward. But what about the ethics of a site that’s all about idealism?

In its explanation of the sponsored post project “Upworthy Collaborations”, the site writes that it “draws the line at ‘greenwashing'”. Unilever itself has been in trouble in the very recent past for animal testing and other such issues, though it has also taken big steps in the name of sustainability; apparently the Sunlight project is valuable enough for Upworthy to conclude that Unilever is indeed “engaging in honest-to-goodness efforts to make the world a better place.”

Here’s one of the spots. Take the signature “I’d Be Pretty Darn Excited If We Can Make [The Future] Look Like This” headline away, and it looks a whole lot like a traditional cause-driven ad to us.

So what is Upworthy doing right that so many others are doing wrong?