November 5th, 2012 Founders@Fail: Pitching Publishers - The Do's & Don'ts of Selling into Big Media

On Monday, November 5th, 2012, OLC attended Founders@Fail: Pitching Publishers: The Do's and Don'ts of Selling Into Big Media. Four panelists: Bryan Birsic of SimpleReach, Dennis Mortensen of Visual Revenue, Shafqat Islam of NewsCred and Jake Dunlap of ChartBeat were questioned by Schuyler Brown, the moderator and host of Founders@Fail.



The event started with the panelists giving a little background about their companies. Shafqat Islam started with describing NewsCred as a content-marketing syndication platform. Content-marketing, that is, NewsCred licensing content for publishers and brands. Dennis Mortensen of Visual Revenue helps publishers decide what content goes on websites' home pages. "It is challenging to change an editor's mind," Mortensen said. Jake Dunlap and ChartBeat provides real-time data for publishers like ABC/CNN/MSNBC to maximize content. Bryan Birsic and SimpleReach help content creators increase engagement and analyze how content is engaged on site. "We look at 'How do these channels go through your site?' and 'What will drive traffic to your site?'"

Schuyler Brown asked the panel, "A lot of publishers are skeptical and scared of content publishing. What steps to you take to mitigate that fear?" Bryan Birsic tackled the question first. "I think the biggest mistake," he said, "is not contextualizing data. If you come in talking about new data, there will be a visceral reaction." Birsic said that SimpleReach tries to talk about tactic—not the result. "The publishers don't come in and say they don't believe in data-driven publishing," he said. "They're scared, but not upfront about it." Jake Dunlap said, "We try to make it simple and easy to understand. People are asked to do more with less staff now. When you say, 'Here's this awesome something you can do,' people get scared. We come in with one or two things that they can do and it's a lot easier that way." Dennis Mortenson said that he wasn't sure that data (charts, graphs) would make the publishers "nicer." Mortenson instead said that he and his team changed their attitude when approaching publishers. "If you can come into it with civility and fairness, you know, not me against them, me helping you, not me replacing you, and leave integrity and respect," he said, "I think the more one plays alone those premises, the better it is." Shafqat Islam said the best way to get into a publisher's door is to show them the money. "Go into it with money," Islamd said. "Say, 'This is how much money we can make you,' and they'll be more accepting."

Brown asked the panelists about sales pitch. "How does those triggers start to change?" he asked. Dunlap responded, "Early on, we had a publisher come across ChartBeat. I think we were fortunate that we had a client that helped us create our roadmap. I think the quirkiness and ability to sit down and build the product helped us." ChartBeat's product people sat down with the publisher's audience analysis people—which are technical writers that are both involved in editorial and analytical phases of the product. Islam said, "In publishing, it's hard to sell to publishers. Publishers are intrinsically laggards and followers. They might adopt new technology after watching other publishers use it successfully." Islam also emphasized, "Finding early adopters will be extremely helpful in the long run." Mortenson pushed for an analytics product and made a mental note to find bigger space for his "data monkeys" and he found a newsroom where he and his team spent 12 months working on data publishing. Mortenson said that working in a newsroom helped with developing his product because he was at the source and received crucial input from his surroundings.

The moderator switched up the seriousness of the conversation and asked the panelists if they've ever made a mistake they regret. Islam responded first. "In the early days, we had Yahoo! corporate reach out to us. They said, 'Your product looks cool'—we know now that corporate development reaches out to everybody. Turns out that it was a waste of time. We developed a half-worked product. Yahoo! did become a client of our real product later on."

Brown took the opportunity to ask how the panelists navigate through divisions throughout the company. Birsic said, "Not a lot people understand social. Social I think, will become the most traffic driven than searches. We realized that people got excited because we were a startup. We started going after people who were excited about new technology and data-driven startups. It's been a great way to find someone genuine who would give a throaty testimonial."

Brown then asked how panelists deal with big media companies that think they know a lot about companies. Mortenson said, "We try not to compete with Google Analytics, because we're not trying to be an analytics provider. We say we're not real-time analytics. It's just now what we do." Mortenson believes that educating the clients firsthand is the most important. "I don't want publishers to do analysis," he said. "It's potentially dangerous to hand data over to people who won't understand." Dunlap said ChartBeat proves a lot of data. "We to make it really simple to understand," he said. "We're trying to give [clients] one or two things that will help understand traffic spikes. It's not as easy as we're going to send you data on anything you want. We're trying to focus the product."

When asked if the panelists thought about product design for the end user, Birsic said that they try to answer two questions: "Why has this product become popular?" and "What is breaking right now?" He and his team put the data into a 99 to 1 score like a Klout score. "It is the article, 99 and 1 that is powerful," Birsic said. "It's changing right now. Trending is simple. It is vastly more popular. Just making it dead simple, I think helped."

The moderator asked the panelists what their response is then there are surges and troughs—"What are sort of the hacks to boost engagement when you see a trough?" Islam said, "I meet with my client services team every week to talk about what's going on. Just because the users aren't talking about the product doesn't mean they're mad or happy." He continued, "Maybe the indifferent user is just under the impression that our product can do just what you've done so far. If that's the case, we go out of our way to say, 'Hey, did you know you can do this with out product?' and help them discover more about it." The panelists seemed to agree with Islam's response.

When asked if this high touch was really scalable and what it takes to change a trial account, Islam answered, "Take care of your customers." He admitted that early on in the startup, everyone is obsessed about scaling. He said, "You might not be around in five years!" He emphasized customer satisfaction. "Do non-scalable things to maintain your customers." Birsic added, "Do it manually. You can always change while receiving customer feedback."

A question that seemed to be critical in the publishing world was: "How do you get money from the [publisher's] hands?" Birsic answered that it's tough to get money unless you "create a new revenue stream." Islam added that time saving and cost saving is a big thing and a motivator for publishers. Mortenson agreed. "Cost saving is a big thing," he said. "A lot of these publishers believe that they need to fight to survive and saving money allows them to allocate money." Dunlap said that ChartBeat doesn't use page view monetization and instead uses active visitors. "The biggest sales comes from getting the code on the site," Dunlap said. "You always want the air of the decision maker, but if the editors aren't on board with it, the deal won't go through."

Brown asked how the panelists over come annoying filters. Birsic said, "There are companies that have been burned by startups. Some of them pivot, some get acquired and shut down. I'm not sure of the exact answer. I'm curious." Dunlap intervened. "Getting endorsement from the top helps out a little bit. Finding one or two [well-connected] people helps a lot too. If you are able to find a behemoth and can handle their data, I think that is one of the crucial pieces," he said. Islam added that the first couple of sales in the early phases of a startup require "heroic actions." He said, "Get advisors, get reputable advisors to help you with your decision making." Mortenson referred to his proximity to a newsroom as a recipe to learn. "Our affiliation with the newsroom helped out tremendously," Mortenson said. "Tried success is another way to develop confidence." 

To close out the conversation, Brown asked how the sales pitch changes when early adopters come on board. Dunlap addressed the question: "We thought we could to blanket reach outs. In reality, you need to build a tight sales force. The crispness in your delivery is crucial. The way you talk to people: quality, quantity, time and money—it becomes palatable." Islam said that he and his team were close to closing their business. "We didn't know hot to get new customers. We put up ads on Google and people actually clicked on it. We eventually built an outbound team."