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Jul 16 / King Kaufman

How emotion can be an important data point in decision-making

One of the things we’re known for at Bleacher Report is our reliance on analytics, hard data that tells us what people want to know about and what they’re responding to. That information helps us make the site better, more responsive to its audience, every day.

But Bleacher Report is also built on emotion. The driving force behind the site has always been the passion that sports fans have for their favorite teams and athletes.

I loved this talk by my friend* Sara Critchfield, editorial director of Upworthy, the curation site that collects “Things that matter” and expertly helps them go viral. Critchfield, speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum 2013 last month in New York, talks about a point that a journalism professor of hers had once made in class: “Don’t forget to use your emotions as data!”

“That sentence literally did change my life,” Critchfield says, “because it reframed emotion for me as not just a soft skill, but reframing emotion as data turned it into a hard skill.”

* – We met at a conference once.

As an example, Critchfield points to a video that Upworthy sent viral earlier this year. It’s about Zach Sobiech, a teenage musician who was dying of cancer. The headline: This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

One of Upworthy’s curators put it on the site and it exploded. “The original YouTube video got 433,000 Facebook shares; Upworthy’s got 2.5 million,” Nieman Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan writes. The Upworthy curator, Adam Mordecai, had lost his father to cancer, and found himself crying when he watched the video. Here’s Critchfield:

We asked him, “Adam, did you know?” That’s what everyone asked. “Did you know that it was going to be a big megahit?” And Adam said, “On the second viewing, I was still crying, so I had a sense that it would be a hit.” So, notice he didn’t say, “I was checking the data and I—” You know, it was “I was crying, and so I thought it would be a hit.”

Analytics and data played a role in the video’s success, Critchfield says. Upworthy’s testing tools helped the site find the headline that got the video to 15 million views. “But the testing tools were no more a larger part of this story than Adam’s emotionally driven decision making,” she says. “So this is Upworthy’s big big-data secret, OK? We do emotional data plus analytical data, and we make room for that in our workflow.”

That’s a good formula.