This week, I found myself launching a Unilever-promoted Upworthy video, enticed by the headline, “They ask these couples a question that is usually none of our business. But then they show the video.” Although I never learned who “they” are, and in the Upworthy 2:55 minute video version never see the expectant couples’ reaction to the video command “Breathe calmly and bring your child into this world,” I knew I was watching storytelling, at its most intense.
There were characters: eight anxious expectant couples and scores of happy, playing, school-attending, tree-climbing future children. There were emotions: joy, anxiety and fear of war and environmental waste. There was structure and surprise: tangible progress being made to create rainforest certified farms, increase clean drinking water availability, and disease elimination with simple hand-cleaning cleaning products “so that more future children can expect to meet their great grandchildren, than anyone living today.” There was meaning: “There has never been a better time to create a brighter future for everyone on the planet for those yet to come.”
The Unilever video, which has a longer 4:25 minute version on the Unilever YouTube Channel that includes more violent war scenes, relieved parent video-watch reaction and Unilever, Dove, Knorr, Hellmann’s, Lipton and Ragu logo close, is one of several promoted Unilever Project Sunlight videos available on Upworthy’s Unilever Section after the two organizations entered into a 2014 native advertising agreement. According to Upworthy’s co-founder Eli Pariser, “Unilever’s leadership in moving to improve child welfare and contribute to a more sustainable world made them a strong fit for this [native advertising] program. The heart of [Unilever’s] Project Sunlight matches several of the top topics our audience voted to see more of in 2014. We look forward to working together to bring more attention to young people who are making the world more sustainable.” Upworthy has earned $10 million from its native advertising agreements that include Unilever and Starbucks. For Unilever, the Project Sunshine Series quickly garnered 25 million total impressions from 1+ million unique visitors, while social sharing generated similar better-than-expected results.
Although I initially enjoyed Upworthy posts on my Facebook timeline, I was an example of one of the 88 million 2013 viewers to stop visiting as of June 2015, when viewership declined to 19.8 million. Even though Upworthy includes a subtle, light-colored font disclaimer at the top of sponsored content pages, the site’s algorithm and design make it easy for a visitor to miss the distinction between Upworthy editorial content and a brand’s sponsored posts, sponsored curation and content consultation messaging. For me, the extra time commitment to evaluate brand vs. Upworthy editorial content caused me to stop reading: I no longer felt inspired by the content because I began not trusting its truth. According to a 2014 Contently survey of native advertising more broadly, 2/3 of respondents felt “deceived” after learning a given article or video was sponsored while 59% indicated that a news site loses credibility by publishing sponsored material.
Although Upworthy’s initial partnership with brand content sponsors has been a clear revenue success for them, their mixed results in 2015 viewer traffic combined with general sponsored content viewer avoidance and unfavorable rating, Web publishers should venture into native advertising carefully. However, given the 41% 2015 global increase in ad-blogger software that caused an estimated $21.8 billion loss in blocked ad revenue, eMarketer expects native advertising to reach $8.8 billion by 2018, up from $4.3 billion in 2015.
To read more about Upworthy and Unilever’s native advertising experience
Joseph Lichterman writes about “How Upworthy is using data to move beyond clickbait and curation”
Lara O’Reilly writes about “Unilever and Upworthy share the same fundamental objective: worthiness”