Here at Upworthy, we’ve spent the past two years building a culture around content curation. What is curation, you ask? It’s the process of sifting through the glut of content from across the web to find compelling, unsurfaced gems with societal importance and delivering them to folks in a way that breaks through the sea of same. As more and more content gets created on the web and audiences have less and less time to consume it, we think of ourselves as amplifiers, a service that finds worthy things deserving of a bigger audience and uses everything but the kitchen sink to connect the two.
We’ve spent the beginning of 2014 really investing in curation — more than doubling our curatorial staff by hiring 10 new full-timers and four contributors from a pool of over 2,000 applicants. The result is a diverse incoming crew that will allow us to go deeper with our core community around the topics they care about most and connect to a broader audience with expanded topic coverage.
Our full-time curatorial staff at our May 2014 retreat.
So what makes a great curator?
The best curators can find and recognize important things that resonate in a bone-deep way. That’s not always easy. The Internet is filled with painstakingly researched white papers on important civic issues. It’s also filled with satire, inspiring narratives, thought-provoking analysis, and the things that really engage us at a gut level. The mission for Upworthy has always been to find the middle of that Venn diagram — where the civically important meets the impactful. We do this because we think that in a world where busy people are faced with a daily blizzard of content, it’s the best way for the important stuff to find an audience and stick with them. It takes a discerning eye and a keen sense of quality to see through the blizzard. Coffee helps, too.
One fundamental quality we recruit for is lived experience. We believe that lived experience + intellectual experience = better curation. We hire people who have a strong grasp of the big-picture systemic issues facing our world, not just in their heads but also in their lives. We look for veterans and single mothers and biologists — people who might not reflect the rest of the media industry but who better reflect the people we’d like to reach. And we really seek a diversity of life experiences — we think the benefit is a broader representation of different ages, genders, ethnicities, geographies, sexual orientations, and points of view than is traditionally represented in the media.
We’ve also been intentional about hiring for geographic diversity. It’s really important to us to make sure our curatorial team actually embodies the broad audience they’re speaking to. That’s why we’ve got curators in not just Brooklyn, NYC, but Brooklyn, Mich., and 17 other cities spanning the coasts and everywhere in between. (Fun fact: We just hired our first curator in Canada, where 10% of our audience lives.) This leads to a balanced frame of reference as a starting point for curation — a staff of relatable folks who can collaborate and challenge one another to make sure they’re always speaking from a broad, inclusive perspective. As a virtual and distributed organization, we are uniquely situated to embrace geographic diversity as a strength, and we do so zealously.
What makes curation so different?
Collaboration and challenging assumptions are an indispensable part of our editorial culture. Some of this happens on the human-to-human level. Does this talk about something structural rather than purely personal? Does this connect in an engaging, resonant way? Does this use emotion/humor/satire/analysis in service of connecting the viewer to a larger point — or is it manipulative? Is this really, truly important? These are questions that are both common among our curatorial staff and unlikely to be replaced by a fancy algorithm anytime soon.
This is the starting point: editorial judgment and passion for the topic. But this is only half of the puzzle. The true secret sauce is something we call the Iron Man Principle.
The idea is to balance creativity and editorial judgment with technology and data that test assumptions and guide decision-making — one part human, one part machine. (Dig it?) When you layer in data on how audiences are actually responding, it can help you answer a different set of questions. Does the presentation of the content break through and grab attention? Does the content appeal to a broad audience or just the people who’ve pretended to read Foucault? Is there a catalyst or urgency for readers to share the content? It’s one thing to presume you know what will make people engage with a story you really care about and quite another to see it tested against your next-best guesses. It’s a profoundly humbling experience and one that pushes our curators to listen closely to what our community actually connects with —and what they don’t.
The key to the Iron Man Principle is to create a culture that uses data in a balanced, heuristic way — not to override human intuition (as data often does), but to guide and challenge it. We want curators to negotiate the data signal with their own editorial judgment and the review of their peers. This is how you really supercharge impact.
Is this curation thing really all that hard?
Some folks seem to think our curators come in and go through a headlines boot camp (“MORE CURIOSITY GAP,” “NOT ENOUGH ‘YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS…’”). In truth, curators go through an intensive three-month on-boarding where they are introduced to the Upworthy editorial culture and ethos, a finely tuned process for finding and framing content, and a tool set for tapping into audience feedback. We stress divergent thinking and challenge new curators to look at our site and imagine wildly different realities for it.
But with great data comes great responsibility. We’re arming our curators with a window into our audience — a real-time feed of what they’re clicking, consuming and sharing. The best curators know that’s it not all about them… it’s about understanding who’s on the other end of the message and what gets them out of bed in the morning. We want our curators to internalize the feedback, take it to heart, and continually strive to stay attuned to what’s resonating. This develops into a powerful instinct over time.
Here’s some data from the past 24 months that really illustrates how curators evolve in a culture of listening. The triangles represent our curators’ success at each month of tenure. You can see an initial uptick from the on-boarding process and a slow, steady increase over time as the audience feedback loop strengthens their instincts to discern great content that will connect with our audience.
Each triangle represents an Upworthy curator at a specific tenure. The Y-axis is virality of their published content versus the average content on our site. (And average virality has improved over time, so the bar is continually getting raised on curators.) You’ll see a huge jump from zero to one month, 25% improvement within six months, and a nearly 75% increase within two years.
At the end of the day, our mission is to bring massive amounts of attention to the topics that matter most in society. As you can see, we believe that building and maintaining a creative, data-empowered editorial team whose perspectives, backgrounds, and locations actually represent the audience we’re trying to reach is a huge part of that mission. As always, it’s a work in progress. But we’re already seeing our curator investments pay off in June (check out this viral post from our new curator Franchesca), and we’re excited to see them truly develop through the rest of 2014.