Over the last month, Twitch users have become increasingly concerned and frustrated with bot-driven hate raids. To protest Twitch’s lack of immediate action to prevent targeted harassment of marginalized creators, some streamers are going dark to observe #ADayOffTwitch today.
Per the protest, users are sharing a list of demands for the Amazon-owned Twitch. They want the platform to host a roundtable with creators affected by hate raids, allow streamers to approve or deny incoming raids, enable tools to only allow accounts of a certain age to chat, remove the ability to attach more than three accounts to one email address, and share a timeframe for when comprehensive anti-harassment tools will be implemented.
Hey friendos, I won’t be streaming tomorrow in support of #ADayOffTwitch. (Here’s a handy graphic of some of the things those protesting are asking of @Twitch in case you’re not familiar with what’s going on.) I’ll be back on Thursday for our first swing at Senior Detective! pic.twitter.com/OA9NQlTnq3
— Meg Turney (@megturney) September 1, 2021
TechCrunch asked Twitch if it has plans to address these demands. Twitch responded with a statement: “We support our streamers’ rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service. No one should have to experience malicious and hateful attacks based on who they are or what they stand for, and we are working hard on improved channel-level ban evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”
Twitch Raids are a part of the streaming platform’s culture — after one creator ends their stream, they can “raid” another stream by sending their viewers over to check out someone else’s channel. This feature is supposed to help more seasoned streamers support up-and-comers, but instead, it’s been weaponized as a tool for harassment.
In May, Twitch launched 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race and ability, which users requested so that they could more easily find creators that represent them. But at the same time, these tags made it easier for bad actors to harass marginalized streamers, and Twitch hasn’t yet added tools for streamers to deal with increased harassment. In the meantime, Twitch users have had to take matters into their own hands and build their own safety tools to protect themselves while Twitch works on its updates. Twitch hasn’t shared when its promised anti-harassment tools will go live.
As recently as December, Twitch updated its policies on hateful content and harassment, which the platform said have always been prohibited, yet vicious attacks have continued. After facing targeted, racist hate raids on their streams, a Black Twitch creator RekItRaven started the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag on Twitter in early August, calling out Twitch for its failure to prevent this abuse. While Twitch is aware of the issue and said it’s working on solutions, many users find Twitch’s response to be too slow and lacking.
We've been building channel-level ban evasion detection and account improvements to combat this malicious behavior for months. However, as we work on solutions, bad actors work in parallel to find ways around them—which is why we can't always share details.
— Twitch (@Twitch) August 20, 2021
Along with streamers LuciaEverblack and ShineyPen, RekItRaven organized #ADayOffTwitch to put pressure on Twitch to make its platform safer for marginalized creators.
“Hate on the platform is not new,” Raven told WYNC’s The Takeaway. But bot-driven raid attacks are more difficult to combat than individual trolls. “I’ve had people come in with bots. It’s usually one or two people who program a bunch of bots, you bypass security measures that are put in place and just spam a broadcaster’s chat with very inflammatory, derogatory language.”
While Raven said they have since had a discussion with Twitch, they don’t feel that one conversation is enough.
Turns out a bunch of LGBTQUIA2+, BIPOC, Disabled, Neurodivergent, and Plural creators really can make a difference by showing up, being loud, and not backing down despite people telling us we won't accomplish anything. Just remember, we aren't done yet. #ADayOffTwitch
— Lucia Everblack (@LuciaEverblack) August 26, 2021
As part of #ADayOffTwitch, some streamers are encouraging their followers to support them financially on other platforms through the #SubOffTwitch tag. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ revenue, so creators are promoting their accounts on platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, which take a much smaller cut. Though competitor YouTube Gaming takes 30% of revenue, and Facebook Gaming won’t take a cut from creators until 2023, Twitch remains dominant in the streaming space. According to Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch represented 72.3% of the market share in terms of viewership Q1 2021.
Still, popular creators like Ben Lupo (DrLupo), Jack Dunlop (CouRage), and Rachell Hofstetter (Valkyrae) have recently left Twitch for exclusive deals with YouTube Gaming. If Twitch remains unsafe for marginalized creators, others might be swayed to follow their lead, exclusive deals or not.
“There are three common blunders that most SaaS marketers make time and again when it comes to clarity and high-converting content,” says Konrad Sanders, founder and CEO of The Creative Copywriter, “1. Not differentiating from competitors. 2. Not humanizing ‘tech talk.’ 3. Not tuning their messaging to prospects’ stage of awareness at the appropriate stage of the funnel.”
In an oversaturated market, how can you differentiate yourself? This week in marketing, Sanders took the time to answer that, break down B2B SaaS marketing, and tell us how marketers can do it right. Anna Heim, Extra Crunch daily reporter, interviewed Robert Katai, a Romanian marketing expert, as part of our TechCrunch Experts series. If there’s a growth marketer that you think we should know about, fill out our survey and tell us why!
Marketer: One Net Inc.
Recommended by: The Good Ride
Testimonial: “Exceptional SEO expertise. My e-comm startup relies 100% on SEO traffic and three years ago we were delisted from Google because we didn’t understand about duple content. One Net fixed our site and optimized it for Google, which allowed us to get back into the SERPs. Bottom line is: They saved our business.”
Marketer: Natalia Bandach, Hypertry
Recommended by: Jean-Noel Saunier, Growth Hacking Course
Testimonial: “Natalia is someone with an out-of-the-box approach to growth drivers and experimentation, full of creative solutions and many ideas that she quickly tests through experimentation. Rather than focusing on one area, she tries to verify what makes the most sense to a business and designs experiments that are crucial not only short but also long term. She is an ethical growth manager, likes to know that the business brings real value and is ready to pivot in every direction, [which] she does fast, however, with a focus on the team’s well-being, professional growth and always avoiding burnout.”
Help TechCrunch find the best growth marketers for startups.
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Marketer: Avi Grondin, Variance Marketing
Recommended by: Adam Czach, Explorator Labs
Testimonial: “They have a hands-on approach and worked with my team to not only drive results, but educate us on how we can grow our company further.”
Marketer: Nate Dame, Profound Strategy
Recommended by: Amanda Valle, Adobe
Testimonial: “They offered a robust content research, management and writing platform, which is enabling us to manage, produce and collaborate around our content better.”
Marketer: Oren Greenberg, Kurve
Recommended by: Michael Lorenzos
Testimonial: “He’s the most well-versed growth marketer I’ve met with a wide range of expertise and an uncanny ability to zoom in and out for business context and tactical implementation.”
(Extra Crunch) Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?: Konrad Sanders, a content strategist in addition to being the founder and CEO at The Creative Copywriter, wrote about SaaS marketing for Extra Crunch. He dove into what SaaS marketers are getting wrong, how to stand out in the crowded industry and the importance of how to approach each section of your funnel. Sanders says, “By creating content for every stage of the funnel, you’ll address your prospects’ concerns at the appropriate point in the buyer journey and increase the chances that when they do come to make a purchase, it’s with you.”
Romanian marketing expert Robert Katai explains how to get the most out of your content: This week, Anna profiled Robert Katai. Katai told her all about Romania’s startup scene and his views on repurposing content. When speaking about using content for carousels on Instagram and LinkedIn, he says, “The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.” Read the full interview to find out what the third slide should be!
Tell us who your favorite startup growth marketing expert to work with is by filling out our survey.
Facebook is looking to create a standalone advisory committee for election-related policy decisions, according to a new report from The New York Times. The company has reportedly approached a number of policy experts and academics it is interested in recruiting for the group, which could give the company cover for some of its most consequential choices.
The group, which the Times characterizes as a commission, would potentially be empowered to weigh in on issues like election misinformation and political advertising — two of Facebook’s biggest policy headaches. Facebook reportedly plans for the commission to be in place for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections and could announce its formation as soon as this fall.
Facebook’s election commission could be modeled after the Oversight Board, the company’s first experiment in quasi-independent external decision making. The Oversight Board began reviewing cases in October of last year, but didn’t gear up in time to impact the flood of election misinformation that swept the platform during the U.S. presidential election. Initially, the board could only make policy rulings based on material that was already removed from Facebook.
The company touts the independence of the Oversight Board, and while it does operate independently, Facebook created the group and appointed its four original co-chairs. The Oversight Board is able to set policy precedents and make binding per-case moderation rulings, but ultimately its authority comes from Facebook itself, which at any point could decide to ignore the board’s decisions.
A similar external policy-setting body focused on elections would be very politically useful for Facebook. The company is a frequent target for both Republicans and Democrats, with the former claiming Facebook censors conservatives disproportionately and the latter calling attention to Facebook’s long history of incubating conspiracies and political misinformation.
Neither side was happy when Facebook decided to suspend political advertising after the election — a gesture that failed to address the exponential spread of organic misinformation. Facebook asked the Oversight Board to review its decision to suspend former President Trump, though the board ultimately kicked its most controversial case back to the company itself.
There’s a lot of advice out there on how to grab people’s attention, but there’s one aspect of marketing that Robert Katai thinks isn’t talked about as often: maintaining their attention. The solution, he says, is a combination of content strategy and positioning.
Based in Romania, Katai is known for his podcasts and speeches covering the gamut of content marketing. A product manager at online graphic design platform Creatopy, he also works with clients as a freelance content strategist, and it is in this capacity that he was recommended to TechCrunch via our growth marketer survey. (If you have growth marketers to recommend, please fill out the survey!)
Katai was recommended by multiple Romanian clients and contacts who vouched for his content strategy prowess, so we were curious to know more. Who is he? And is his advice applicable beyond borders?
The short answer is yes. In a freewheeling interview, Katai spoke about how content marketing should integrate with users’ daily lives, and how content can be repurposed across multiple formats. He also shared some insights on the booming Romanian startup ecosystem.
Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
TC: How do you help your clients as a freelancer?
Robert Katai: One of the two things I’m doing is that I’m helping clients with creating their content strategy based on their objective. You can get web traffic, but you can also create a message and build the brand. You don’t have to start at the beginning; You can rebuild the brand later.
For instance, I’m working with a Romanian outsourcing company that started in 1993. They pioneered this industry in our city of Cluj-Napoca, but lately they started to realize that they should be more attractive from a sales as well as from an employee perspective. So I worked with them to perform an internal audit to see why employees love the company, why they leave, why they stay and what they want from the company.
Image Credits: Robert Katai.
From there, I got to the idea that they needed to reshape their brand to not just have people notice them but to also maintain their attention. And here comes the content: I started an ambassador program, because there are people outside of the company who love it.
I also recommended they create an internal print magazine. It’s a very well-designed magazine that their 200 to 300 employees can take home and read. It’s not just about the job; it’s also about their hobbies, things to do in the city and some thought leadership articles that can inspire them to have a better life.
What’s the second way you are helping clients?
Apart from content strategy, I’m working with clients on their positioning for their audience, community and market, but also sometimes in terms of employer branding. Content can be a bridge between the two ways I am helping clients, because I’m using a lot of content marketing here and not focusing only on performance or growth marketing hacks. I’m helping them understand that if they want to establish a memorable, long-lasting brand in the market, they have to make content marketing part of their life.
If they want to reposition themselves in the industry, they need to say: Okay, these are the kinds of content we have to create for our goals; who will amplify the content, who will connect with us, and who will consume the content. Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that. And here’s how I can help the startups: Make a big piece of content and repurpose it in several small pieces; get it in front of people so that the brand is on their minds.
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How can brands achieve that top-of-mind status?
We all know that there are four kinds of content: Text, video, pictures and audio. These four formats never die. The platform can change, but the format will stay the same. A video can be an Instagram Reel, a documentary or something else, but it’s a video. The same goes for a photo. So the content strategy I’m working with is how brands can use that content ecosystem.
When I work with my clients — and also with Creatopy where I’m a product marketer — I recommend them to use content to build their brand and be visible to their users every day in their feeds. Every morning, when their customers are waking up and checking their phones, they don’t open a newspaper. They will open Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and maybe then when they get out of the bathroom and make coffee, they will open YouTube and connect with Alexa.
I really believe that brands should create content that can just be in the mind of the user. Snackable content, Reels, TikTok … It doesn’t matter what we call it.
You also talked about repurposing content. Can you explain that?
Let’s take the interview you’ve done with Peep Laja. You could have recorded it as a video. And he covered several topics, so you could have several short videos — 30 seconds, three minutes, whatever. You can publish them daily on your site or social media channels with a comment that says, “Here’s the link to the full article.” But remember that on LinkedIn, that link will need to go into the comments section, not the post itself.
You can also have a longer video that you can publish on social media or on Wistia, asking people to give their email — so now you also have subscribers.
Then the second type of content you can create is audio. You already have it from the recording. You don’t have to publish the full 45-minute conversation, but you can have a five-minute audio clip, and again link to the articles.
Now we have video and audio, but what if you also designed quotes with his headshot and messaging? If it’s part of a series, you should also give it a name.
And it’s not just motivational; it’s educational, too, so you should take these quotes and create carousels for Instagram and LinkedIn. The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.
The last slide will always be a call to action: Asking people to share, comment or save it for later — it’s the new currency on Instagram! And once you have your Instagram carousel, you create a PDF and publish it on LinkedIn.
So now you have five formats of content from one piece of content.
Wow, how much do we owe you?! Just kidding, we actually do some of that for the Equity podcast, for instance. Now, what other advice do you have for startups?
I’m a big advocate of documenting the process. Just imagine if Mark Zuckerberg had done that and you could read how he launched Facebook and so on. Noah Kagan is doing that right now. I think startup founders should do it, not just from the PR and marketing perspective, but for their audience. Even if your audience is not paying for your product right now, they are staying with you and giving your brand an essence in the industry.
Just think about what Salesforce is doing right now: They launched Salesforce+, which is like Netflix for B2B. It’s to get the attention of professionals and also maintain it, and I believe this is the currency of the big companies today: People’s attention.
Do you work with any startups in Romania? And do you have any impressions to share on the Romanian startup ecosystem?
Yes, I help a few Romanian startups with their content marketing and positioning. Sometimes other startups email me with questions, so I help them, too, but I don’t charge for email advice. I work with the ones that are looking for a long-term or project-based collaboration.
Startup founders here in Romania are curious, and very courageous to experiment even if it won’t necessarily work. And Romanian startups are very smart. For instance, Planable is doing a great job with content, social media and positioning. We also have social media analytics company Socialinsider, which this year launched virtual events, and TypingDNA, which wants to get rid of needing to log in with passwords and was founded by a former colleague.
I also found that the founders here work harder than their teams and don’t just leave others do the work — at least the ones I have met. We have several startup events in Romania: How to Web, and Techsylvania here in Transylvania.
I don’t like this name, but people say that Cluj-Napoca is the “Silicon Valley of Romania.” Lots of startups have been launched here, but the city that is getting more and more traction is Oradea, where the bet on education is paying off.
(If you are a tech startup founder or investor in Cluj or Oradea, fill in TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021.)
Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.
Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.
On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.
Image Credits: Apple
While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.
That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.
Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.
Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.
The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.
Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.
This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.
These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.
It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.
While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.
Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.
“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.
More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.
Netflix has announced Tudum, a global virtual fan event set for September 25 that will showcase exclusive news and first looks at some of the streaming giant’s original content. Tudum, which is named after the sound users hear when they press play on Netflix, will feature stars and creators from over 70 Netflix series, films and specials.
“It’s our first-ever global Tudum event, and our goal is simple: to entertain and honor Netflix fans from across the globe,” a spokesperson for Netflix told TechCrunch in an email.
— Netflix (@netflix) August 25, 2021
The event will feature interactive panels and conversations with the creators and stars of some of Netflix’s most popular shows, including “Stranger Things,” “Emily in Paris,” “The Witcher,” “The Crown,” “Cobra Kai” and “Bridgerton.” Netflix will also feature some of its popular films including “Red Notice,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Extraction,” “The Harder They Fall,” “The Old Guard” and more.
Netflix is among several other major companies that have started hosting their own virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift toward livestreamed programming. Disney+, for instance, held a special event to honor National Streaming Day earlier this year in May. These types of events are becoming the new way for companies to showcase their original content, whereas in previous years they would do so at various in-person fan conventions.
With this new fan event and other similar ones such as Geeked Week, Netflix is no longer relying on other programming or conventions to promote its original content as it can now host its own events. Tudum also seems to be a way for Netflix to acquire more subscribers by promoting popular returning shows and teasing upcoming content.
The virtual livestream for the three-hour Tudum event starts at 12 p.m. EDT/9 a.m. PDT on Saturday, September 25. The event will be broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Netflix is also hosting special pre-shows to showcase its Korean and Indian original series and films along with its anime content at 8 a.m. EDT/5 a.m. PDT.
Netflix’s event announcement comes as the streaming giant has spent the past year expanding its service and adding new features. Recently, the platform has launched a new “Play Something” shuffle feature, a new section to help users track upcoming releases and a new “Downloads For You” feature that automatically downloads content you’ll like. In terms of the future, Netflix has said its gaming push will begin with mobile and that it plans to bring spatial audio to the platform’s iPhone and iPad apps.
OnlyFans has announced that it will ban sexually explicit content starting in October. The platform was not built specifically for porn but that has grown to be its most popular and visible use case, but pressure from “banking partners and payout providers” means the company will have to leave the adult content world behind and focus solely on SFW material going forward.
The news, first reported by Bloomberg, was confirmed by the company in a statement:
Effective 1 October, 2021, OnlyFans will prohibit the posting of any content containing sexually-explicit conduct. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy.
These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.
We will be sharing more details in the coming days and we will actively support and guide our creators through this change in content guidelines.
OnlyFans did not respond to TechCrunch’s inquiries as to its definition of sexually explicit content or how it expected this would impact the company’s bottom line.
The OnlyFans platform has become the de facto standard for independent creators doing adult content. Over the pandemic it grew increasingly popular as the adult industry, like others, had its normal operations interrupted. It has proved an invaluable asset for many creators, professional and aspiring, who used the platform to directly monetize fans without interacting with notoriously predatory established adult industry companies.
But sex work has always been risky in online operations. The practical risk of hosting illegal content means platforms must exert constant vigilance for things like child sex abuse material, malicious content like revenge porn and unwanted leaks, and everyday internet threats like piracy.
At the organizational level, however, the companies may find it difficult to scale due to the trepidation of investors and banks, both of which tend to avoid the industry in general as a “vice,” much the way cannabis and sex toy startups have faced challenges. Pushback from financial backers and payment processors can effectively sink an entire business model.
OnlyFans in this case says openly that it is abandoning adult content due to exactly this type of pressure. While the company has recently debuted and promoted its OFTV app, a SFW alternative to the main OnlyFans site, and of course there are many creators on the platform who do not produce sexually explicit content, this will be an enormous blow to both the sex work industry and to the company itself. Affected creators were not notified ahead of time.
“This is going to shatter a lot of people’s main source of income, the foundation of their entire business,” said Tristan West, who as dreamboytristan is a top creator of adult content on OnlyFans. “Me and a lot of people have got to do a lot of work to secure our business, move our assets, move our content to another platform. It’s not the end of the world, but this is a huge setback.”
West noted that other platforms are finding ways to monetize adult content as well, such as Twitter adding its paid follows and sites like PornHub building out direct monetization opportunities as well. But OnlyFans holds all the cards and will need to make that transition possible.
“I’d like to see them do what’s needed — it’s weird that they haven’t come to us and talked to us in any way,” said West. “Offer a quick option to download all your content on OnlyFans — that’s your asset, that’s your business. That’s the bare minimum that can do for creators.”
It’s a serious question whether OnlyFans will be able to survive this transition in any recognizable form. The choice to abandon their most lucrative and loyal segment of customers and creators may poison the well, with others declining to rely on a platform that failed to support others. Investors, once wary of the risk of putting money into a sex-adjacent product, may now be wary of paying to board a sinking ship. That $1 billion valuation may be farther away than ever.
The obvious and immediate answer from the tech community is to operate OnlyFans or something like it using cryptocurrencies, which are generally speaking not subject to these limitations. This may represent a way forward for the next platform, but for OnlyFans it may be too late to adapt.
“Thankfully, we have a couple months,” West said. “OnlyFans was the top platform in this market but they’re not the only one. It’s an opportunity for someone else to come around and do better for sex workers and online creators.”
This story is developing and may be updated in the near future with more information.
Box has been in an ongoing dispute with activist investors Starboard Value over control of the board, an argument that is expected to come to a head on September 9th at the annual shareholder meeting. In an effort to show shareholders that the numbers are continuing to improve under the current leadership, Box took the unusual move of releasing its earning report this morning, two weeks ahead of the expected August 25th report date.
Companies don’t normally report ahead of schedule, but perhaps Box sees the opportunity to do some lobbying, or conversely, to counter any negative lobbying that Starboard may be doing with its fellow investors ahead of the vote.
It’s also worth noting that in spite of the meeting being on September 9th, like a lot of voting these days, people will be sending in votes throughout this month, ahead of that day. Box wants to get its latest financial information out there sooner rather than later to catch those early voters before they cast their ballots.
Fortunately for Box and CEO Aaron Levie, the numbers look decent.
It’s not hard to see why Box released its earnings early, as the numbers provide an argument for keeping the company’s current leadership in place.
In the three-month period ending July 31, 2021 — the second quarter of Box’s fiscal 2022 — the company generated $214 million in revenue, up 11% on a year-over-year basis. And, as Box is quick to point out, its second consecutive quarter of “accelerating revenue growth.” The company bested its own guidance of $211 to $212 million in revenue for the period.
It matters that Box is showing an ability to accelerate its revenue growth. First, because doing so puts wind in the sales of its stock; quickly growing companies are worth more per dollar of revenue than more slowly growing concerns, and accelerating revenue growth over time is investor catnip.
The accelerating pace of growth over the last half year also provides footing for Box’s leadership to argue that their product choices have been sound, directly supporting their positions that they should remain in charge of the company. If they made good product decisions quarters ago, and those choices are leading to accelerating revenue growth, why swap out the CEO?
Box had more quarterly good news apart from its revenue numbers to disclose. It also reported improved GAAP and non-GAAP operating margins — a key measure of profitability — better billings results than it had previously anticipated for the period. Box’s net retention rate also expanded to 106% from 103% in the sequentially preceding period.
And the company boosted its guidance for its fiscal year from “$845 million to $853 million” to “$856 million to $860 million.”
The counter arguments are somewhat easy to generate, however. Yes, Box’s revenue growth is accelerating, but from an admittedly reduced base; it’s not as hard to accelerate revenue expansion from low numbers as it is from higher base levels. And the company’s net retention is lower than what any business-focused SaaS company would want to report.
Will the good news be enough? Shares of Box are up around 1.5% in today’s regular trading, despite a somewhat mixed overall market. Investors now have to vote with more than just their dollars.
Starboard bought approximately 7.5% of the company in 2019, and actually stayed fairly quiet for the first year, but at the end of 2020 it started making itself heard with rumors of pressure to sell the company. In what appeared to be a defensive move, Box took a $500 million investment from private equity firm KKR and gave the investor a board seat in April.
The activist investor did not take kindly to that move, writing in a letter to investors in early May, “The only viable explanation for this financing is a shameless and utterly transparent attempt to “buy the vote” and shows complete disregard for proper corporate governance and fiscal discipline.” In that same letter, Starboard made it official that it wanted to take over several board seats, outlining a litany of complaints it had about the way the company was being run. It also made clear that it wanted co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie gone or the company sold.
Box pushed back that the letter and another on May 10th did not accurately reflect the progress that the company had made. In July, Box took the battle public in an SEC filing detailing the back and forth dance that had been going between Box and Starboard since it bought its stake in the company
So far, the cloud content management company has staved off all attempts to force its hand and sell the company or fire Levie, but this is all going to culminate with the shareholder’s vote. It’s truly a battle for the soul of the company.
If Starboard convinces shareholders to give it several seats on the Box board, it would probably be able to push out Levie, take control of the company and likely sell it to the highest bidder. The early financial report released today, while not exactly stellar, shows a pattern of increasingly good quarters, and that’s what Box is hoping voters will focus on when they fill out their ballots.
Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s media company that has produced content for streaming services like Hulu, Apple and HBO, among others, has been sold to a yet-unnamed new media firm run by former Disney execs, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, the company announced this morning.
The Wall St. Journal first reported on the sale.
Deal terms were not officially disclosed, but reportedly, the sale values Hello Sunshine’s business at around $900 million, The WSJ says. The news outlet had previously reported Hello Sunshine was exploring a sale after receiving interest from a number of suitors, including Apple.
Hello Sunshine was co-founded by Witherspoon and Strand Equity founder and managing partner Seth Rodsky in 2016, and is best known for producing series like HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” and Apple’s “The Morning Show,” which feature Witherspoon in starring roles.
But the company has also invested in other film and media projects, ranging from Facebook Watch series to collaborations with Amazon’s Audible. It now has upcoming film and TV projects on the slate with Netflix, Amazon, ABC and Starz, and recently announced a Kids & Animation division as well as the acquisition of Sara Rea’s SKR Production to expand into unscripted content.
In addition, the company operates an online and mobile book club app, Reese’s Book Club, now with 2.1 million followers. The club’s more popular picks are often turned into the shows and movies Hello Sunshine later produces.
Per Hello Sunshine’s announcement, the company will be the first acquisition by the new media venture run by Mayer and Staggs, which is backed by private equity firm Blackstone. The firm is spending more than $500 million in cash to purchase shares of Hello Sunshine from its investors, including AT&T and Emerson Collective, The WSJ noted.
Following the deal’s closure, the senior management team will continue to run Hello Sunshine’s day-to-day operations. Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine Chief Executive Sarah Harden will join the board of new company and retain significant equity holders in the new business.
Hello Sunshine will become a cornerstone of the new media company’s strategy, which will involve being an “independent, creator-friendly home for cutting-edge, high-quality, category-defining brands and franchises,” it says.
“Today marks a tremendous moment for Hello Sunshine. I started this company to change the way all women are seen in media. Over the past few years, we have watched our mission thrive through books, TV, film and social platforms. Today, we’re taking a huge step forward by partnering with Blackstone, which will enable us to tell even more entertaining, impactful and illuminating stories about women’s lives globally. I couldn’t be more excited about what this means for our future,” said Witherspoon in a statement about the deal.
The deal arrives at a time when there’s an uptick in consolidation happening the media business, as companies adjust to the shift away from traditional TV and standard movie releases to the always-on world of streaming and cord cutting. For example, Amazon in May announced it would buy MGM Studios for $8.45 billion — a deal being investigated by the FTC for potential antitrust issues. Meanwhile, WarnerMedia and Discovery around the same time announced their plans to merge operations, in hopes of taking a bigger bite out of the streaming market. Now, Comcast and ViacomCBS are exploring ways to work together, too.
But as traditional media companies begin to stream, like NBCU did with Peacock, for instance, they also pull back content licensed to other streamers, like Netflix. That drives demand for new sources of independent programming, like what Hello Sunshine produces.
The company’s value in this market comes from its pipeline of quality projects, many of which are pre-vetted by its book club members, who serve as a built-in audience and fan base for the later film or televised release. Plus, the projects it backs are also those that tell women’s stories — a historically neglected segment of the market, and one that Hello Sunshine’s success proves there’s pend-up demand for among viewers.
Blackstone’s investment in the new company is being made through its private equity business, which previously acquired a majority stake in dating app Bumble. Blackstone has made other entertainment industry investments, as well, including music rights organization SESAC; a Hollywood studio space and Burbank office real estate portfolio; global theme park operator Merlin Entertainments; online genealogy platform Ancestry.com; online mobile ad platforms Vungle and Liftoff; and Epidemic Sound, which delivers music to internet content creators.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Grace and Chris to sort through a week that brought together both this quarter’s earnings cycle, and the Q3 IPO rush. So, it was just a little busy!
Before we get to topics, however, a note that we are having a lot of fun recording these live on Twitter Spaces. We’ve found a hacky way to capture local audio and also share the chats live. So, hit us up on Twitter so you can hang out with us. It’s fun – and we may even bring you up on stage to play guest host.
Ok, now, to the Great List of Subjects:
Developers can be a tough crowd. They typically hate being marketed to and are often short on time, which sets a particularly high bar for any content marketing aimed at them.
Coming up with relevant content that developers find interesting takes specific know-how, and this is where Draft.dev comes in. Its Chicago-based founder and CEO Karl Hughes describes the firm as “a superniche content marketing production company, producing technical content for companies that want to reach software engineers.”
Hughes and his agency were recommended multiple times in our growth marketer survey, which we launched to surface experts that startups can work with. (If you have your own recommendation, please fill out the survey!) One of the survey respondents noted that developers are underrated as a target audience: It may be niche, but it is a large one. More importantly, they are an audience a growing number of startups need to reach.
“If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.”
Developer marketing came up in our conversation with strategic marketing firm MKT1, so we called on Hughes to learn more. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from what he has learned and his ambitions to Draft.dev’s process.
Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity:
What kind of clients does Draft.dev work with?
Karl Hughes: Almost all of our clients are developer tools companies. Mostly Series A- and Series B-funded, so they have got some funding and some knowledge that content marketing works for their audience. What they are trying to do with us is scale production and make sure that what they are writing is going to resonate with developers.
What inspired you to create Draft.dev?
I’ve been a software developer, and then most recently was a CTO at a startup in Chicago, so I knew that there were lots of companies trying to reach developers [ … ] and that a lot of them were doing a poor job of it. So last year I wanted to combine my tech knowledge with writing knowledge, and that’s where Draft.dev came from — and it’s been awesome!
We get to work both with technical and non-technical marketing and developer relations people to help them get more content out. And even though it’s marketing content, it’s super focused on education, because developer marketing is a bit tricky. Developers can be a bit skeptical of marketing, so you have to be nuanced in your approach. You have to be genuinely helpful, so we really try to focus on helpful content that is also a net positive for the client.
What are some mistakes that you see companies making when creating content for developers?
There are a couple of big challenges that Draft.dev is specifically built to solve: Relying too much on your own team to create content when they are busy and have other priorities, and thinking that you can just get your general copywriting agency to cover developer topics. It usually doesn’t work well.
Many companies start off getting their engineers to write content and make the mistake of thinking this will work forever. Let’s say you’re a continuous integration tool and you want to write content that shows developers how your tool works and that it’s a good option. Marketing teams will go to developers and say: “Hey, could you guys write a blog post?” And they’ll usually get a few blog posts here and there, but it’s really hard to build consistent content when these engineers are building the product and have production deadlines to hit.
When you look at companies that have done developer marketing really successfully, like Okta and DigitalOcean, you see that they have dedicated teams to produce this content. There’s a reason for that: It’s almost impossible to get your engineers to write everything that you need to produce high-quality and consistent content over time.
The other big mistake that I see companies making is thinking that a general marketing writer or SEO copywriter can write great content for developers. That is super rare. I mean, I’ve probably met two or three who can do a decent job of making it look like they know enough to speak with some authority. In general, you either want somebody — either at your company or otherwise — who knows the tool.
So for example, if I ask a general SEO copywriter, “Could you write about how to write a SQL query that does X, Y and Z?”, maybe they can hack some other articles together and come up with something, but it’s certainly not going to have the authority that a real software developer has.
This is true in any area where you have to rely on subject matter experts to help you with marketing content, but because my background is in development, I knew that this was a huge problem for companies.
How does Draft.dev address that?
We are definitely not right for every company. But for companies that are looking to scale-up content production and have technical authority behind those pieces, that’s where we come in. Typically, these are companies that know they want to do developer content, but are stretched too thin on their engineering team or they have tried freelancers and have a really hard time managing them and keeping quality consistent. So they come to us to do that.
We solve that problem with a huge pool of software developers who write for us on the side. Right now we have about 50 or 60 active monthly writers who are all software developers; they work full-time jobs and do this at night and on weekends. We bring people who are actually in the field, doing these things every day. They bring that technical expertise to the articles that we create for clients.
The mutually beneficial aspect here is that while we obviously pay these writers, they also get a byline out on the client’s site. We don’t do a lot of ghostwriting, which is a little unique, but is really good for our style of content because you want to show subject matter expertise. It’s preferable when you don’t have your head of marketing listed as the author of every piece of developer content. It’s nice to have a byline by a real software developer.
All of this goes back to what your content strategy is and who you want to reach. This is not blanket advice for everybody, but for companies trying to reach developers who are writing code every day, I think it’s super helpful to have some technical authority from people actually doing this.
How do you make sure your writers have subject matter expertise?
We have a writer vetting and selection process. Once we have vetted the writers who have applied, we also look for the best match for each article. We are looking through their skills and past experience to see who’d be the best fit.
We also recruit specific writers to write about niche topics. Sometimes that means doing cold outreach; sometimes it means going through our networks and figuring out who we know who’s written about Rust before. Things like that can be really tricky and time-consuming for a marketing team to do, but because we are doing this full time for lots of clients, we can spread that work around. It makes a lot of sense, and our clients like that we do this for them.
How to you balance your writers’ technical expertise versus writing skills?
That is tough! But there are some best practices in this field. If you are going to have subject matter experts write, you also need to have good editors to work with them.
There are two sides to how we get high-quality content from software engineers who may be average writers when they start, and are often ESL speakers. The upfront part is that we plan content pretty thoroughly. We go back and forth with the content to make sure we know what we are producing, and we also have technical content planners who make sure that each article has a story, an outline and lot of structure before we give it to a writer.
The writer fills in the technical details and personal experience, and then every piece will go through three rounds of edits to get it up to our standards: a technical review; a developmental edit for things like structure and flow, and a copy edit.
How do you split these tasks?
We’ve refined this process a lot since starting this [in May 2020]. Initially, it was just me and my managing editor Chris [Wolfgang] — she had a lot of experience in editing, so she could do full-stack editing, and I was focused on writing, picking writers, reviewing, etc. That’s how we divided things in the early days, but as we grew, we realized that we wouldn’t find an army of Chrises and Karls.
We had to figure out how to split these jobs into specialities where people can do their best work, and that’s how we managed to scale and keep quality high while growing at the pace we have. We now have five full-time people and we work with over 35 startups of various sizes, so we are still a small business, but it has been growing very quickly.
How do you get new clients?
Our biggest source of new business has been referrals. Clients who work with us love what we do and refer us to other people. We have also ended up working with companies going through accelerator programs like Y Combinator, so when new YC companies ask who does developer content, they hear about us. Besides us there’s probably just a couple of other companies that specialize in this. It’s a very small field so we get mentioned a lot.
Have you worked with a talented individual or agency who helped you find and keep more users?
Respond to our survey and help other startups find top growth marketers they can work with!
Growth has been so organic at the moment that I haven’t pursued a lot of active outreach strategies, but we are starting to get better at boosting this [organic growth]. One of the first hires I made this year was an account manager who’s helped with maintaining relationships with existing clients and getting things like testimonials, case studies, etc. Another thing is that when people see our content, they ask the company who did it, because companies that are selling developers tools really need a way to produce this kind of content, and there aren’t many providers.
How do you complement your clients’ own content production efforts?
Our two sweet spots are bigger companies that are looking to augment their in-house content team, because they have a hard time keeping developer content going, and really small teams that are building a tool specifically for software developers and need to get going with content production or ramp it up.
A lot of our clients will have something like a community writer program in addition to what we provide. For instance, we work with Strapi, which is an open-source tool that has a big community with community writers writing about how they use Strapi.
But then they use us to augment that content, because they want to be able to set some topics themselves. A lot of times, community contributions are good for whatever your community happens to be working on, but you can’t necessarily ask your community to write about X or Y.
The other challenge here is that with any developer-focused community writing program, you are going to need to spend a lot on editing. A lot of companies underestimate the work it is going to take. That’s where we come in: Instead of hiring all these different people you need and trying to build your own process, you can slot Draft.dev in there for a while. If some day you want to go hire your own team and replace us, that’s great — we’d love you to outgrow us. But ideally, we’d like to stick around and always be part of your developer content efforts.
Do you also do anything related to content distribution, such as writing the tweets that go with the articles?
We just started doing that; it’s our first big add-on service, where for each piece of content we’ll create social media collateral, like a couple of tweets, LinkedIn posts and Reddit submissions with the subreddits they would be most appropriate for. Then the client just has someone on their team copy-paste and schedule it with whatever system they want.
We also send a full promotional checklist they can use to promote the content, because one of the challenges I see with some of the smaller companies we work with is that they sometimes get lost when it comes to getting the content we produce in front of people. If you are not a developer, it’s hard to come up with copy about a technical piece. So by offering that collateral, we’re making it a bit easier. It’s been our first foray into this. We could expand into other things in the future, but that would probably be next year.
There is no authoritative playbook for marketing these days. Every company must find its own voice, and as it grows and evolves, its marketing needs to evolve as well.
Relying on proven tactics and measurable metrics isn’t enough — today, the most effective marketers constantly study and learn from innovative approaches while exploring new avenues.
This is where Unmuted comes in. A growth marketing agency based in Amsterdam, this company focuses on LinkedIn marketing, content marketing, marketing automation and email marketing. Before starting Unmuted, Max van den Ingh was head of growth and product at MisterGreen, an electric vehicle leasing company, and he also served as head of growth marketing at ShopPop, a chat-based marketing platform.
Van den Ingh, who also serves as a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University, was recommended to TechCrunch through the TechCrunch Experts project. We’re currently on the lookout for top-tier growth marketers that you can recommend to other startups. If you know of one, let us know by filling out this quick survey.
Van den Ingh spoke with us about his “modern” approach to marketing, setting realistic goals, how startups had to shift during the pandemic and more.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You call Unmuted a “modern” growth marketing agency. What do you do that makes your approach to marketing modern?
The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. At Unmuted, our clients don’t come to us to have their ideas executed; they come to us for our process. In a way, we’ve productized a growth marketing process that generates ideas for our clients. They find immense value in that process.
Depending on the customer’s team size and resources, we either guide them during execution or execute autonomously and report back. This process-based service model is, in our opinion, the only way to grow a business in a sustainable way.
“The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. “
In a practical sense, this is what that process boils down to: We take all that we’ve learned from fast-growing companies and apply these principles to our clients’ businesses. Typically we focus on what we call “innovative companies” — whether that’s because they have a SaaS offering or they’re an innovator within a traditional industry doesn’t really matter. The process we’ve designed works for B2B startups, scaleups and SMBs. That last category can benefit greatly from the way we work.
Our role, then, is threefold: We come up with strategies that we carry out by experimenting with several proven marketing tactics based on our extensive in-house knowledge and experience. This relieves our clients’ marketing teams of potentially stifling tunnel vision.
Our growth program typically unfolds in three stages as well, which we call the Foundation, Acceleration and Transformation stages. In the Foundation stage, we set up the fundamentals based on an extensive audit of the client’s business, and start out with our initial experiments. In the Acceleration stage, we scale the experiments that have shown promising early results. Finally, in the Transformation stage, we teach our clients how to continue growing their business themselves. If necessary, we stick around in a consulting role.
Your work at MisterGreen helped it grow about 10x. How much can a client expect to grow when working with you? How do you help clients set realistic goals?
Setting goals is always a challenge, especially when it comes to marketing. Why should you aim for a certain number? Why not aim higher, or lower, for that matter? At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we perform a series of exercises together. This helps us get a clear picture of where the client is now and where they could be when we’ve optimized marketing.
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Next, instead of fixed numbers, like a specific amount of new customers in a given period, we focus on growth levers, like month-over-month growth in certain conversion or activation areas. Focusing on growth levers makes our work more actionable.
We then construct a framework as part of our growth program that also allows room for certain beliefs a company has. I feel this “belief system” is truly essential to any growth marketing strategy. If you don’t allow room for gut feeling activities and only focus on data-driven projects, you will end up only working on things you can measure. We believe that growth marketing will become more effective when you also invest time and effort in channels and spaces you can’t necessarily measure.
When people talk about your solution on WhatsApp or during podcast episodes, that’s amazing and will effectively influence revenue, but sometimes there’s just no way to track these activities.
Finally, we don’t make any guarantees when it comes to growth results. That’s not how it works. We’ll always aim to maximize results as part of the process. Diligent focus on continuous improvement and optimization comes first. Results will automatically follow afterward.
For instance, we recently helped a B2B SaaS platform increase demo requests by 350%. But this wasn’t the goal at all. The process we were following was focused on optimizing every aspect of the demo request journey, from acquiring visitors to optimizing the demo page and more. Every experiment we ran increased the demo request metric to some extent. After six months, you start seeing these compounded results.
You were also the head of growth at ShopPop. How did that experience shape the way you help your clients?
Working for a fast-growing B2B SaaS company with a self-serve product taught me quite a few things. For starters, the importance of getting a really clear understanding of what sustainable growth looks like. Especially in growth marketing, there are a lot of things you can do to gain short-term results. But this doesn’t necessarily help, because you might be acquiring customers that you lose in the long run.
For example, running aggressive advertising campaigns in the early stages to acquire new users in sectors that you know won’t benefit considerably from your product. This type of superficial growth will come back in the form of churn sooner rather than later, and simply isn’t sustainable.
At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we put a lot of time and effort into understanding their best type of customers, what their problems are, and why that’s the case. Only then do we start looking at how to solve those problems with our client’s products or services.
You’re a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University and do speaking engagements as well. What do you hope people take away from your talks?
When I stand in front of a crowd during a speaking engagement, I always share stories about times where I took a pragmatic approach and did things differently. Growth can come in different shapes and forms, and although it often seems simple, it’s never easy. People, and especially management, have to understand that growth takes time and that you need failures to learn.
You need to have conversations to be able to learn and iterate. It’s better to have the wrong type of conversations than not having any at all. Without feedback, there’s no way to grow. And while an eagerness to learn comes naturally to most marketers, this isn’t necessarily the case for your average business person. If I can inspire audiences with my approach to growing by learning, I think that’s a great takeaway.
How have you seen startups change during the pandemic?
A lot of startups have been forced to change their approaches during the pandemic. Some have adapted successfully, while others are now stuck. I experienced it personally when I was still working at ShopPop, where we were focused on the music industry when the pandemic hit.
Music industry clients weren’t buying, for obvious reasons, so we had to pivot somehow. We ended up moving into e-commerce, which was, and still is, booming.
As the pandemic continues, what trends are you seeing in growth marketing?
The biggest trend I’m currently seeing is in the role marketing departments play. These have never been as important as they are now. Digital marketers, especially, are often the ones that come up with new ideas as to how a company can grow online. Nobody will know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, but in the meantime, every company is trying to adapt and find new ways to connect with their customers in unique, meaningful ways.
Logically, we’re seeing a surge in demand for online events like webinars and virtual summits. But everybody is doing those. So where can you carve out your own thing that becomes recognizable for your brand? Discovering these new channels and approaches — I think that should be the role of marketing.
How have you seen the startup market develop while working in growth?
The development of the startup market has been most noticeable in how new standards are being set. For example, startups have always been characterized as fast movers, but remote working and the rise of highly collaborative tools have further increased the speed at which startups operate. The whole industry transformed from speedboats into rocket ships. Talent became much more accessible, and through that internal cultures became more diverse and more resilient.
You can always depend on startups adopting new ways of working early on. They need to differentiate in order to survive, and a novel approach can be the one thing that makes them stand out from the crowd.
You have to understand that working at a startup often feels like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. And that’s also the moment you’re at your most creative. I think this is also how growth marketing as a whole came about. In competitive markets, people have to fight for their right to exist. Marketing is often a way to radically differentiate. When people become really good at that, set new standards and raise the bar, the market develops as a whole.
What do startups continue to get wrong?
It’s been said many times before, but even today, most startups don’t learn quickly and deeply enough. Founders often have an amazing idea and vision of how things will play out. But how much field experience does this person really have? Enough to be able to foresee the future?
Usually, for startups, short-term growth goes well — they get some initial traction from their network, but then the next phase kicks in. Especially when there’s an investment involved, putting more pressure on the commercial side of things, this next phase will mean encountering a lot of hurdles.
When a company doesn’t find a strong enough product-market fit and doesn’t apply what its learned early on, things will get extremely tough. In this phase, a lot of research and experimentation is necessary. If the founding team isn’t up for this and they put their heads in the sand, the startup will deteriorate quickly.
On the other side: What are startups doing better now than ever before?
The best thing a startup can do, and I’m seeing it happen more and more, is investing in community early on. When I was leading growth at MisterGreen, we created a community for the first thousand Tesla Model 3 owners in the Netherlands. Everyone wanted to be a part of this founding tribe, learn from each other, get insights and so on.
This group turned out to be our most effective marketing tool. Word-of-mouth went through the roof. We had all of these people talking about our community at birthday parties, in their office, you name it. This is a great example of investing in marketing you can’t really measure, but which you do strongly believe in.
Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich are the founders of of MKT1, a strategic marketing firm that does much more than just marketing. As we mentioned the last time we spoke with the company, it offers a plethora of services ranging from marketing consulting and organizing recruiting and mentoring workshops to angel syndicate investing.
The two founders took to Twitter Spaces on July 20 with TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton to talk about about the growth marketing industry. They offered some new perspectives, like thinking of growth marketing as an engine and other subdivisions of marketing that make up growth marketing, as the fuel.
After talking about what they were seeing in marketing, we opened the floor for a Q&A session that founders took advantage of to ask how to know when to hire a marketer and when is it good to outsource.
Below is an excerpt from the Twitter Spaces event, edited for length and clarity.
Help TechCrunch find the best growth marketers for startups.
Provide a recommendation in this quick survey and we’ll share the results with everybody.
What is growth marketing?
Emily Kramer: I think the easiest way to think about it is: Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel. It’s building that engine: Everything from building marketing ops and making sure that you’re tracking and can get everything out the door, to what you’re doing with email, ads, SEO and on your website. All of these things that are used to drive your audience throughout your funnel.
“Marketing consists of the fuel and an engine. Growth marketing is the engine and content marketing, product marketing, comms, events — all of that are your fuel.”
It’s not just getting someone to sign up or getting someone to be a qualified lead to pass over to sales. It’s also supporting the customer success team and the product team. Anything that is communicating with your audience in a one-to-many way is how I think about the marketing function. Specifically growth marketing in general — it’s a full funnel, it’s the engine, and it’s ever changing.
We in marketing have 5,000 names for everything, including growth marketing. You’ll often hear in top-down sales organizations it is called demand gen, but I really think of demand gen as a subset of growth marketing focused specifically on driving leads to sales. That’s kind of what it is and how I define it. Every marketer you talk to would define it a little bit differently.
What does the landscape of growth marketing look like in 2021? What are you seeing in summer 2021?
Kramer: We’re seeing two major shifts. One is thinking about how community is a part of this, or at least throwing around the word “community” for things that have always been done. “Community-led growth” is obviously a big buzzword; that’s basically getting people in conversation to drive growth. The phrase “product-led growth” is another, and that is really just another way to describe self-serve.
Having growth marketers who can collaborate with product growth roles and product growth teams and having one centralized team has been a trend over the past 10 years. But now the term product-led growth is what we use for all of that. Marketers love to rebrand even their own functions.
Kathleen Estreich: A lot of companies are starting to think about growth marketing earlier. We’re seeing a lot of companies thinking about hiring their first marketer. It used to be you’d hire at Series A, but because all the funding rounds are sort of being moved up a level, a lot of seed-stage companies are thinking about growth earlier.
The skill sets of growth marketers are in high demand. They always have been, but it feels pretty acute right now. Given that a lot of the companies are raising money earlier and starting to try and build that traction faster to grow into the valuations, we’re starting to see a huge need. Pretty much every company we talked to is wanting to hire and thinking about growth levers they should be using earlier.
Where is there an oversupply of folks? Where is there an undersupply? Where’s the demand today? What’s underutilized today?
Estreich: In general, marketers are in pretty high demand. Product marketing in particular has been pretty interesting. We’re seeing a lot of folks in product marketing roles, because typically, the first marketer at a startup is someone who has product marketing experience and there are many companies being started and they’re looking for product marketers. And finding someone who has the experience in product marketing, who’s not just coming from a big company.
I think product marketing at a larger organization, you’re very much tied to a product line; you’re doing just product marketing. But at an early-stage company, you’re not doing just product marketing; you also need someone who understands distribution. So we encourage a lot of companies to hire someone that is what we call a pi-shaped marketer: Someone who has depth and competence in two areas of marketing.
Usually it’s product marketing and growth marketing, and finding that person is really challenging in a normal market. I would say in this market in particular, it’s a pretty tough role to fill. But if you can find the right person, you might have to make some trade-offs on either the level or the experience that you’re bringing someone in. But if you can find a person who has competence in product and growth marketing, I think that’s someone a lot of companies can benefit from in the early days of building their marketing teams.
Kramer: I’ve had a couple of startups that I’ve talked to, even in recent weeks, and I’ve heard, “Oh, our first marketer is going to be a community marketer.” That role is evolving and changing a lot. Back when I started doing startup marketing, about 10 years ago, community really meant social media, and it doesn’t mean that at all anymore. So finding people that have had that exact role before is really difficult.
In some cases, when people say community marketing, they mean they’ve done a lot of content, virtual events or customer success. I think when people post that role, it’s kind of like square peg, round hole or not knowing if it’s square peg, round hole. I sometimes see this mismatch on roles that are posted and the talent that is actually available.
I think my advice to marketers based on that is: Really read the job description, and maybe the title — does it match exactly what you’ve done, or does the title even match what you think you should be doing? Maybe there’s an opportunity there to kind of educate on what you can do and also educate on how to define roles in really early-stage companies.
When is a good time to start working with a growth marketer?
Estreich: A question we hear quite often is, “When do I know is the right time to hire my first marketer?” One of the things that Emily and I often tell founders is, the founding team is the first marketing team. You’re doing a lot of the early messaging and positioning. Usually kind of the early vision — that’s probably how you raised money. I think the way to think about it is to take a step back and ask, “Okay, what are the needs? What are the things that we’re trying to get done?” And thinking about product-market fit.
I think a product marketer, growth marketer or pi-shaped marketer is generally the first person that you would bring on. You want to make sure before you bring your first marketer that you actually have a product that’s ready to go to market. And if not, then it’s probably worth waiting until you have the product out there with some semblance of a handful of customers. Once you have that, then it might be time to start thinking about who that first marketer is.
I think the first marketer then is usually some combination of a product marketer with growth experience or a growth marketer with product marketing experience. Someone who, like Emily said at the beginning of the call, has experience with your business model and is ready to roll up their sleeves, because the first marketing job when you’re an early-stage company involves wearing a lot of hats, testing a lot of hypotheses and doing a lot of the work.
So you want to make sure that you don’t hire someone too senior who is not going to want to do the work. They’re just going to want to hire a team, which you’re probably not ready for. You also want to make sure they’re not too junior and they don’t even know what to do yet. Finding that balance, a midlevel person, is also going to be important.
Kramer: You mentioned that a product marketer can help you find the right niche to focus on. I think you should have some customers and a starting place. A better way to describe product marketers is actually audience marketers — they are figuring out how to communicate what you do to a specific audience. You probably have some idea, but they’re going to help you continue to explore within your team, like, “Should we expand to other audiences? Should we stay within this niche? What do those different audiences need? Are we talking to customers? What are they saying?”
They are responsible for knowing everything about your audience and also helping you grow into and test new audiences. That’s a huge part of the product marketing role. But again, it can be really risky to bring that person on too early at the sacrifice of building product and getting things out the door.
Is MKT1 seeing any trends with B2B and growth-stage businesses around the balance between hiring FTEs and outsourcing certain marketing functions?
Kramer: Early on, I think founders think, “I don’t need to hire a marketer. I’m spending so much time on marketing, but I don’t need to hire a marketer, or I’ll just hire a contractor or agency for content. I’ll hire a contractor or agency for paid or for SEM or even for SEO.” Then you end up with all of these contractors. But contractors, even the best of contractors, are only good when they have a contact or someone to help them review things, and when they have clear instructions on what they need to do. Because you’re working with so many clients, you can’t get up to speed on all of that quickly.
The management overhead of a contractor agency is sometimes just as much as doing the work yourself, especially if you are not experienced in that area, because of all the back and forth. Many times, marketing is more iterative than some other areas of the business where you can hand over some things, especially when it comes to the creative aspects, because you’re figuring out what your brand is. There’s just going to be a lot of back and forth.
I think there are a couple of areas where agencies and contractors are better to hire. One of those areas is paid searches. You won’t need to hire an SEM specialist for a while. And it is definitely a specialty; it is a unique beast and kind of changes a lot, what’s working and what’s not. Having someone who understands how that works and is inside AdWords all day is really helpful, so that’s a good area to bring someone on. So no matter the size of my marketing team, I think I’ve always had a search agency to augment. Even when I’ve had a dedicated search person on my team, I’ve still had an agency to augment them. That’s something you’ll always need; you’ll need different agencies as you scale to do different things.
I think another area where it makes sense is on the content side, to augment the content people or your product marketer. Again, you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to write about, what you’re trying to say, what your unique perspective is, what your brand is, before you start paying a contractor to write a bunch of content. Because what you’re going to end up with if you do that, is just a bunch of content that doesn’t really say anything; it doesn’t really drive a goal.
So content, paid search, always really good areas. And then as you scale — not at the beginning, most likely there are some exceptions depending on what type of business you are — but PR is the other area where media relationships, I mean, we’re talking to TechCrunch here, but like they can probably speak more to this. But media relationships are something where economies of scale really come into play. So having an agency that is a master in media or has a bunch of media relationships makes a lot of sense. That’s more later on. PR, content and paid search, but make sure you have people internally to manage them or it can become more detrimental than helpful.
Taboola, the company that operates a popular grid-based advertising and content recommendation network across media properties, today announced an acquisition to expand its reach further into e-commerce, its first big move since going public in June by way of a SPAC: it is paying $800 million in a combination of cash and stock to buy Connexity, a marketing technology company that operates an retail- and e-commerce-focused advertising network. Connexity has been owned by Symphony Technology Partners since 2011.
The deal — coming in the form of $260 million from cash on hand, $300 million from committed debt financing and approximately $240 million through the issuance of ordinary shares to the seller — will supersize and further diversify Taboola, which currently has a market cap of about $1.9 billion and is in hot competition with another content recommendation network operator, Outbrain: the two were set to merge operations but eventually went their own ways, and Outbrain itself went public this month.
Taboola said it expects the combined company to have gross profit of over $500 million for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021 (ex- traffic acquisition costs, or TAC), with $185 million of adjusted EBITDA for the period, with both figures growing 20% in 2021 versus 2020.
Connexity was originally called Shopzilla before rebranding, and it has over the years amassed a number of related businesses, including Become.com, Skimlinks and PriceGrabber. (Even Connexity itself was an acquisition made by Shopzilla when it was primarily a shopping search engine.) Together, it’s helped the company build out what has become a sizable network focused around the business of e-commerce.
While Taboola focuses on content recommendations and advertising that runs alongside that, and Connexity is more squarely focused on the business of e-commerce, the two have something in common. They both position themselves as viable alternatives to the big players in advertising and discovery, giving publishers and retailers another way of making revenues and finding new customers without selling out data and a cut to the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of this world.
Adam Singolda, the CEO and co-founder of Taboola, told TechCrunch that when Taboola went public, part of its sell to investors was that it would move into newer “types” of recommendations, covering new segments, that would also further scale the bigger operation, and this is a part of that strategy.
“We believe the future of the open web is e-commerce,” he added.
Taboola today has 9,000 digital property partners, 13,000 direct advertisers and 500 million daily active users on its platform, where publishers can use the content recommendation format to recirculate their own content as well as that of other publishers and advertisers on the Taboola network.
For Connexity’s part, it covers various activities like affiliate links, influencer marketing, in-stream advertising, shopping search ads, and more. Its customers include 1,600 direct merchants, and 6,000 publishers ((Walmart, Wayfair, Skechers, Macy’s, eBay and Otto are some of the most high profile of these). And in total, it says its network has some 40,000 retail-oriented publishers that can select from a pool of 750 million product offers, and an audience of 100 million shoppers.
And in a very fragmented e-commerce world rife with challenges in keeping online consumers’ attention, it says its various activities have generated over 800 million shopping leads and in 2020 more than $2 billion in sales for its customers.
That is still a relatively small part of the pie, though. eMarketer estimates that the e-commerce media market is worth some $35 billion in the U.S. alone.
Added to that, Taboola’s bet is that the publishers it already works with are going to be getting deeper into this space as part of their own drive to maximize more revenues per visitor/reader and make their own business models more viable (alongside diversifying into paid content, paywalls, alternative advertising formats like sponsored content, events, and so on).
“62% of US publishers expect ecommerce to be one of their biggest revenue channels,” Singolda said. “I strongly believe every publisher’s leadership these days have e-Commerce as a top 3 thing they want to get into in a big way.”
Connexity is a fairly multichannel offering today — a byproduct of all the acquisitions it has made into adjacent technologies — and Taboola plans to keep it all, with “massive cross sell and upselling opportunities, bringing eCommerce to every publisher on the open web, driving higher yields, going global with e-Commerce, empowering editorial teams what to write about around e-Commerce,” Singolda said.
Connexity on its own is a substantial business, and the shift to more e-commerce in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic has put a focus on the different tools it has in its armory to capture attention and convert ordinary site visitors into browsers and then into shoppers. It says that in 2019 it generated $151 million of revenue, $63 million of ex-TAC gross profit and $28 million of adjusted EBITDA in 2019, with that figure increasing to $172 million of revenue, $78 million of ex-TAC gross profit and $38 million of adjusted EBITDA in 2020.
More doesn’t necessarily mean better — and that’s a lesson for life and for tech. To focus on the latter, the startup ecosystem is experiencing a boggling influx of capital right now. However, the increase in dollars isn’t being evenly distributed to all founders. For the vast majority of people, especially women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, it’s still hard to raise money — and perhaps even harder than before the pandemic.
All Raise, a nonprofit that has for years worked to advance women and nonbinary folks within tech, has been watching closely the dip in funding for female and nonbinary founders. Per VP of Marketing Caroline Caswell, while pockets of progress do exist, funding for female founders is still “lukewarm.” She noted how in the first half of this year, 1.6% of venture capital went to female founders, down 30% from 2.3% in 2020, which was already a dip from the year prior, per PitchBook.
“The narrative that ‘VC is back?’ ” Caswell said. “It is back for the same people as it was before.”
The misconception that the hot-deal summer is benefitting everyone has given All Raise some urgency to launch a new product for women and nonbinary founders, which it’s announcing today.
The nonprofit is releasing a series of master classes meant to give an inside glimpse at raising first institutional rounds and scaling companies. The material, which includes pre-recorded sessions from All Raise’s in-person Founder Bootcamp, will be free to access for anyone interested.
Instructors include checkwriters such as Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee and Benchmark Capital’s Sarah Tavel, as well as seasoned executives like Figma’s VP of Communications Nairi Hourdajian and Solv Health co-founder and CEO Heather Fernandez. All Raise said that it did not track ethnicity or racial data of its instructors, however it did offer a breakdown of the 400 beta users who tested the master class series.
There’s constantly a disconnect between tactical content on how to fundraise and true access to capital; tips don’t necessarily lead to a closed check, which leaves some founders skeptical of yet another launch of resources.
That said, Caswell says that the master classes are trying to move beyond the “typical Sandhill Road Medium post” or Twitter threads, and thinks that the explicitness and real-world examples could serve as an empowering tool to founders.
Topics range from basics like how to prepare for your Series A to more nuanced thoughts like the emotions of fundraising, and how to say goodbye to a team. The programming is meant to be a more intimate look at early-stage tech, beyond what you’d find on a Twitter thread, Caswell explains.
Image Credits: All Raise
“When it comes to resources and insight for typically underrepresented founders, more is more is more,” she added. Lessons range between three to 60 minutes, and amount to some 15 hours of content.
The structure of All Raise’s master classes looks similar in format to what Y Combinator offers in its free series Startup School, which includes some light content specifically targeted toward female founders. Long-term, it’d be interesting to see how All Raise refreshes material to work more for online learning, as it already has an engaged community that it could easily turn into a living, breathing class that filters through the nonprofit’s other tools.
Instagram is giving its users a tiny bit more power to see what they want — and not see what they don’t want — in its content discovery hub. The company introduced a new toggle called “Sensitive Content Control” on Tuesday that allows anyone to screen posts that it thinks could be offensive, hiding them from the Explore tab.
The new feature appears in the settings menu and lets users choose to either allow more content that could be “upsetting or offensive,” limit that content or “limit even more.” The phrasing is kind of weird but it acknowledges that the company’s moderation efforts aren’t perfect, and that’s realistic at least.
“You can think of sensitive content as posts that don’t necessarily break our rules, but could potentially be upsetting to some people – such as posts that may be sexually suggestive or violent,” Instagram explained in the announcement.
TechCrunch asked the company to expand on what kinds of posts are screened out under each category and if human or algorithmic moderation determines what is sensitive, but did not receive a response.
We also asked if the company has any plans to create separate toggles for violence and sexual content, considering that a lot of people comfortable with the latter might be less inclined to see violence bubble up among the app’s makeup tutorials and influencer junkets.
On Instagram, “sensitive” content is a massive catch-all category for stuff it allows but doesn’t want to be seen as directly promoting. In its own guidelines on content it recommends, Instagram states that sexually suggestive content like “pictures of people in see-through clothing” aren’t eligible for the Explore tab. Instagram’s definition of sensitive content also includes dangerous forms of content like “exaggerated health claims” and posts promoting weight loss supplements.
Instagram is notorious for over-policing content that the platform deems to be sexual. A campaign from Black plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams successfully pressured the platform into relaxing one of its overly restrictive nudity rules last year.
Instagram contextualized the new content controls as part of a new effort to give users more power to determine what shows up in their feed. “We believe people should be able to shape Instagram into the experience that they want,” the company wrote in a blog post, noting that recent changes like being able to disable comments also give users more choice.
While the company is giving users more control over its algorithm in some small ways, it’s also considering giving them less. Last month, Instagram began testing algorithmic suggestions mixed into the main feed, a design choice that would let the company inject the platform with even more of what it wants you to see.