“Upworthy pivots” is valuable news for CMOs, too

“Upworthy Pivots” and similar headlines dominated the media-that-cover-media a few weeks back. Amy O’Leary, former New York Times digital editor, announced her inspired vision for the future of Upworthy’s storytelling. Media ranging from Ad Age to Fast Company, Digiday to CNN covered the news about Upworthy’s shift from curation to original storytelling. Amy’s new approach details how Upworthy combines the contemporary science of data analytics with the classic art of narrative storytelling.

The vision Amy laid out for Upworthy provides valuable insights for brand stewards as well. It’s an approach that CMOs can capitalize on to generate greater levels of awareness for brands. For too long brand marketers have been subject to the same segregation — and lost opportunity — that Amy described so powerfully in her deck. Marketers are often forced to make a false choice: Will they be known as delivering “breakthrough creative” or will their reputation be tied to their ability to deliver a strong ROI? Amy’s point is you don’t have to choose.

In the cluttered marketplace brands must tell powerful, emotional stories that consumers care about, and use data to be sure the content reaches and engages the target audience. It can’t be one or the other.

Being a great storyteller doesn’t mean you ignore data that could reveal that most viewers quit a video at the :45 mark. And reliance on data does not mean one is tone deaf to the art of storytelling.

One recent Upworthy story showed just how false that choice has become. Take a look at this piece by Eric March, which was promoted by Unilever as part of a special Upworthy partnership with the United Nations. It’s an original story covering the speech of Xiuhtezcatl Roske Martinez, an “accomplished writer, hip-hop artist, climate warrior, and all-around way-too-impressive 15-year-old,” at a recent United Nations event. If you look closely, you’ll notice how data played a big part in how this story was told.

Eric’s piece is a powerful yet approachable narrative on what’s arguably one of today’s most pressing societal issues. But it’s different from your average climate change story in that it’s told from a teenager’s POV. It has jokes and gifs mixed among facts and statistics. It includes strategic techniques that we’ve found to be incredibly effective in engaging broad audiences on seemingly “non-viral” topics. And it yielded amazing results: Upworthy’s signature brand of original storytelling helped to more than double the shareability of the UN-produced embedded video, and close to 400,000 people (and counting) have engaged with the piece so far. Not too shabby for a promoted post on a super-serious topic.

Amy’s mantra is we are in a “street fight for attention.” CMOs who tell great stories built on a foundation of data are poised to win that fight.

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