Know Your Online Audience

Sara Critchfield, editorial director of Upworthy, shares tips for small business owners trying to market and grow their client base.

August 6, 2014

In a world that puts increasing value on provocative posts that could be characterized as “click bait,” Sara Critchfield is busting myths about what makes successful online content. Critchfield, the editorial director of Upworthy, a media company with the mission of curating and sharing content that addresses social and civic issues, says it has a lot less to do with punchy headlines and short videos and more to do with providing relevant information that’s interesting to viewers.

Upworthy’s editorial staff members consider themselves curators rather than journalists. Instead of focusing on content creation, the company has taken on the less sexy side of media — audience-building and distribution of content created by others that they deem worthy of sharing. And it’s paid off for them. Since the site launched in early 2012, it’s gained a following of more than 5 million e-mail subscribers, upwards of 6.4 million Facebook likes, and some 87 million unique monthly page views since November 2013.

But the content that got them to where they are today is not typical, at least in terms of the traditional definition of viral content on the web. For example, the most successful video they’ve shared is a whopping 22 minutes long, yet it garnered 17 million views in 2013. The video is about a Minnesota boy named Zach Sobiech who was diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer at the age of 14, later becoming an Internet sensation with his music.

“It’s about interest,” says Critchfield. “People won’t watch a 30-second video if it doesn’t interest them, but they will watch a 22-minute video that does.”

Critchfield says that in addition to catering to the interests of their audience, online marketers should measure their results. In the early days of Upworthy, they focused on subscription rates. Today, they track how many minutes of attention each piece gets and look at performance from topic to topic.

Numbers are important when judging the success of online content, but Critchfield says they still heavily rely on editorial judgment. “We look for things are that are going to elicit a response; then we look to see if it will elicit a response from a mass audience,” Critchfield says. 

Critchfield cites Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013), which looks at marketing and virality studies. “The most shared things correlated with certain emotions, like anger, or joy, or a feeling of awe,” she says.

Critchfield cautions against the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to successful content marketing. She suggests tailoring your online goals to your target audience. If you’re a real estate pro working a specific geographic region, you might want to connect with the most motivated or influential audience in that area, rather than the most readers overall.

“The No. 1 thing is meeting people where they are and not where you are,” Critchfield says. “For small businesses, that might not be in social media; that might be in community spaces or the grocery store. The other thing we’ve found out is if you want to stand out, you have to stand for something. If you’re the agent who focuses on a certain housing [stock] or area, own that. It matters that you’re authentic and that you stick to that.”