You’ve heard about astounding success stories like this before: a digital media startup opens up with a big idea, targets a particular niche and then intends to fully leverage the power of social media – and breaks the internet.

But you’ve never gotten the behind the scenes insight before, the secrets behind how those teams make decisions to publish content.

2015-05-01_5543e96d4be4e_LittleThings.comlogoEnter LittleThings,  the leading lifestyle destination for inspiring, uplifting, and inspiring content. Since its launch in September 2014, LittleThings has experienced explosive growth, becoming the 4th largest mobile site, 5th largest Facebook publisher, 7th ranked Lifestyles site, and the 62nd largest site in the U.S., with 51.1 million monthly readers and 14 million social fans.

How do they do it? According to Maia McCann, editor-in-chief of the site, the recipe for the secret sauce is: 

  • part positive psychology
  • part predictive algorithms
  • and ALL knowing your audience.

Read on to find out more.

LittleThings is kind of a big deal, what do you guys do?

Maia McCann: Yeah, we’re the number 1 destination for inspiring content for women on the web. We offer people a break from hard news and negativity that’s in the news and everyday media.

Oz: You’ve only been around a few years, and you’ve already got a staggering 51.1 million unique monthly page views. What’s the secret behind your growth?

MM: We’ve gone beyond curating viral content to creating original content, which definitely sets us apart from the pack. But more than that, I think it’s our focus on uplifting content.

According to research by Michelle Gielan and the Huffington Post, “Those who watched transformative stories reported having a good day 88 percent of the time.”  That’s a big part of our secret sauce.

We found that 75% of our readers come back to the site at least once a month and 25% of them read us on a daily basis.

While we get a lot of people who are returners, we also get a lot of unique visitors by staying ahead of the viral curve.

Oz: What’s the viral curve? How can you tell where it is is?

MM: I would say that it’s not just picking up on things that you see are already going viral, it’s finding stories that you think you can shape into something you think people want to know about.

The number 1 post of 2015 on Facebook is actually a video from 2012 that we found. We created anScreen Shot 2016-04-20 at 3.32.35 PM enticing headline and thumbnails around that video and shared it and wound up being the most engaged with post of 2015.

Oz: What’s the most crucial part of choosing high-performing stories?

MM: Being really in touch with your audience and what they’re engaged with. What goes viral with my audience could be completely different than what works for yours.

Very often, we see things on BuzzFeed that don’t do anything for us. We’ll try and make them work, but they won’t resonate because our audience isn’t between 18 & 30, they’re 30 +, so it’s a different kind of taste, so you kind of have to shape the content for your audience.

Oz: Because of this perspective and audience focus, do you think your editorial team works differently than other teams?

MMWe have to trust that our opinion isn’t the be all and end all. Our audience is a bit different than others, and most of our writers are millennials while we’re not usually writing for millennials. So, we take a different approach to picking the stories we cover.

Oz: What’s that approach like, how do you guys come up with ideas? What does an editorial meeting look like for you?

MM: We have pitch meetings in the morning where editors will say yes or no to certain pieces of content, and then writers go off and fulfill their quota for the day, but there’s a second level that kind of takes the ego out of the editorial.

Oz: Taking the ego out of editorial? That sounds tough, how do you do it?

MM: Once it’s been posted on the blog, we run each piece through testing. If it doesn’t pass our testing algorithm, which based not only on clicks but also on levels of engagement, it doesn’t go to our Facebook page.

Oz: How do your writers come up with ideas?

MM: We have a number of sourcing tools. One that we rely on quite a bit is Spike, which is an extension of Newswhip. Spike combs the internet and picks up on stories that are starting to pick up a lot of attention but haven’t gone super viral yet. We use their “pre-viral” section quite a bit, but we also use the front page of Reddit, certain subreddits, YouTube channels, and of course each writer has her own sources.

Everyone’s got that aunt who posts to Facebook 10 times a day and shares the weirdest videos from local radio stations. Sometimes those people stumble upon gold.

Oz: Does the original content team use the same sources for ideas?

MM: I think they have a lot of different sources; it’s more creative.  A writer can find inspiration from a Cosmo quiz that she took ten years ago. Another time it might be like “home remedies using X ingredient.” If a writer thinks, they can get a particular ingredient to pick up. 

For example, earlier today we had an article about surprising uses for VapoRub. We did it all with original illustrations and research, and that was cool.

Oz: What gave you a clue that Vaporub was going to pick up?

MM:  Well, nostalgia is huge. No matter who your audience is, Vaporub often evokes something for Americans who’ve had a relationship –whether that be positive or negative with Vaporub since childhood.

My mom describes how she hates the smell because when she was deathly ill, her mom would slather it over any exposed skin that she had. She associates it with being ill and hates it while some people associate it with being taken care of, and they like it.

A big part of going viral is tapping into those memes, things that everyone remembers from childhood, remembering what was a big deal when you were just beginning to be a human with your own thoughts.

Oz: So much of the creative process if about that sensory experience. What’s your philosophy about data and creativity? Are you attached to pieces that you think are going to perform well on the blog, but don’t?

MM: At this point, I’m not anymore. When I worked at Distractify and tried to take ownership of each piece of content, I did feel disappointed when a video that I really liked, say about a pug, because I’m pug obsessed, didn’t succeed. But I’ve learned that I’m a unique person, and my interests are esoteric.

I listen to crime podcasts like Sword and Scale, which are probably too dark for the average American. I’ve learned my opinion is not the be-all and end-all, which is super humbling. Numbers don’t lie.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t create stuff that isn’t super esoteric, but for what we’re trying to do at LittleThings, which is just to be generally uplifting and provide people with a break from negative news and negative media we want to catch as many eye-balls as possible.

So, if my favorite pug video of my dog doesn’t pass the test, I’m not going to post it. I may try and get it past the director of social engagement, but he’ll probably stop me.

Oz: Do you do massive amounts of A/B testing?

MM: Yeah, it depends on the article. Original content that someone’s devoted a ton of time to, we’ll even do A/B/C/D testing. Every piece almost gets an A/B test unless we’re really confident about the title. Breaking news, for instance. When Chrissy Teigen gave birth to a baby girl the other day,  we didn’t A/B test that, we just put it up right away.

Oz: Do you just test headlines or other qualities as well?

MM: Mostly headlines but sometimes might test different format for the piece. It happens less often, but it does happen.

Oz: So, how would you rate your intuition? Are your  hunches accurate?”

MM: Oh man, I don’t know, about 80% accurate.

Oz: Wow, 80%! Congratulations, you’re 80% algorithm; that’s impressive!

MM: There are definitely things I know for my audience at this point. If you put me on someone else’s page, it’d take me three months to figure it out. It’s not like I know what’s going to be viral in the universe, but I do know my audience quite a bit after two years at LittleThings.

Oz:  And are you much happier now that you work at LittleThings? Has your personality changed?

MM: I like that at LittleThings we celebrate everyday heroes and not just those people who are famous because their sister is famous or something like that. I like that we celebrate people who achieve something or the bus driver who saved the puppy who is crossing the road. That’s one of the most rewarding things about working at LittleThings.

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