Facebook and Upworthy

Never Build Your House on Someone Else’s Land

I’ve kept a gentle eye on Upworthy since they published this deck on Slideshare, “How to make that one thing go viral” . I didn’t expect to be impressed, largely because I think it is incredibly difficult to plan for viral behaviour with any certainty. However, on reading it I realised that they did actually understand some of the mechanics involved and they were refreshingly honest, admitting that only 5 of their posts had achieved over 1 million views (that number might be larger today, the deck was published in December 2012). Mostly though they hammered down the need to write 25 headlines. Repeatedly. This wasn’t the magic sauce that creative studios were looking for, it was instead a pragmatic slightly cynical approach, that, well, worked.

Upworthy editorial 25 headlinesUpworthy is not my personal cup of tea (i’m not in the target demographic), but I was impressed that they had a good understanding of what was going on with ‘viral’.

Their second ‘secret’ was to concentrate on getting their content pushed through Facebook’s network. They had an intelligent and focused data tested approach to their UX, the overarching take out being…

upworthy ux likes facebook

So, hats off, they got some big things right and grew at an impressive rate. Until recently.

Bloomberg are reporting that things are no longer so rosy, and that since Facebook updated their algorithm in December 2013 Upworthy has lost 46% of its traffic, falling to 48 million a month from a peak of nearly 90. That’s a huge hit in just 2 months and I am curious as to how they will respond. Time will tell.

What I find most interesting, however, is something more fundamental than Upworthy’s fortunes….Facebook’s fortunes.

Firstly they now join a group of just 2, themselves and Google, whose traffic generating algorithms are so important that they can chop up the health of significant, large businesses with a simple change in the maths. Kudos.

Secondly, and perversely, this highlights the core fragility at the heart of Facebook’s business model. That might seem like an odd conclusion but there is something to it. Facebook announced that the December algorithm update was all about improving the user experience, while the observing masses were of the opinion that it was a deliberate move to hit the link bait farms such as Upworthy, in an attempt to force them to purchase their Facebook traffic. I think there is a 3rd dynamic at play as well.

Facebook’s stickiness was built around the connectivity of real people to other real people. As such I always felt they were in a tricky spot with monetisation as every increase in advertising content in the newsfeed meant less personal content. Less news about family and friends = less stickiness.

Upworthy and the like were taking up a chunk of the newsfeed oxygen, and there was already a critical competition for that oxygen between the raw material of the product (the friends and family content) and the advertiser content that needed to be accommodated. Bye bye Upworthy, for now at least.

Facebook has been pushing good revenue figures for a while now, having got a grip with their mobile product (so goes accepted wisdom), and are pushing their news app, paper (a standalone, an interesting diversification) at the moment, so this isn’t a post predicting the imminent death of Facebook, just some observations.

As a quick addendum this isn’t the only Facebook revenue story in the news this week. It seems remiss not to include this here. No commentary from me, the video does a great job of explaining the situation.


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