NewsCred is well known for pivoting its focus and business model quite dramatically. Can you explain what the mission was early on, and how that’s led you to what you’re doing now?
We used to operate a B2C site called NewsCred.com. This was around the time when social news was really big and sites like Digg and Reddit were doing really well. So we said, “All of these sites are based on popularity. What if we took a different angle and looked at quality?”
It was a cool idea but it’s more of a non-profit idea than a real business, which is why we pivoted the first time. We went from a B2C site to a B2B business and the primary reason for doing that was to solve some of the pain we felt when operating this news site.
We wanted to license content for our site and it was extremely painful. The only options out there were AP and Reuters.
First of all, we found that strange. Why are there only those two options when there’s all this amazing content being created all over the world? And then we looked at the existing newswire ecosystem and decided it was ripe for disruption because from a pure tech side, not much had changed in the last 20 or 30 years.
What happened next was less of a pivot, but more discovering a new type of customer: the brand marketers.
Eighteen months ago, we got a call from Johnson & Johnson saying, “We need content for this app we’re marketing to doctors.” Initially we said, “Wrong number, we don’t sell to marketers.” And then we realized, “Wait a minute, maybe this is an opportunity.” And since then, the business took off.
Your approach to branded content is all about curating existing content for brands, rather than creating new, custom content. Why do you think that’s a better approach for brands?
We took a bet on premium content and said, “There’s so much amazing journalism being created, whether it’s by The Economist, FT or an amazing industry trade magazine, why don’t we help these content creators find distribution channels, find new monetization opportunities and at the same time, because this content is so good, use technology to give it an extended shelf life?”
By extended shelf life I mean, you create something, it goes on your website, it eventually just creates dust in your archives.
If we could patch it up with articles about the same topic from 10 other amazing publishers and put together something that a brand values and a brand is willing to pay for, we could solve problems for two sides of our marketplace – both the content creators and the brands who wanted content.
Long term, a brand is going to have to invest in both curated or licensed content and custom, original content. We’re going to solve both of those problems.
We are building a NewsCred content network where you can actually get custom content, so we’ll be providing access to world class writers and journalists.
We recently spoke to the President of BuzzFeed who said he thinks the age of creating custom platforms for brands is coming to an end, and that the trend seems to be moving toward so-called “native advertising.” It sounds like you think a combination is the way forward.
I agree with him that distribution is key when it comes to content marketing. A lot of brands think about the content part of content marketing, but not the distribution. If there’s a publisher that has amazing distribution built in, like BuzzFeed, then you absolutely have to think about creating content for that platform.
To me, BuzzFeed is just another distribution channel. Whenever you find a good distribution channel, you need to create content or find content that’s appropriate for that channel.
NewsCred boasts its own editorial team, but you’re known as a tech startup with some sophisticated algorithms for curating content. Is the future of editorial about people or machines, or some combination of both?
We’re a software startup and we’re venture backed, so one of the most important things to think about is how to build a scalable business. We were 100 percent algorithmic curation until a few months ago. What we realized is that, yes, that’s what’s ultimately going to scale our business.
But there are certain things that, no matter how good you are at computer science and search algorithms, human beings will always do better. There’s a reason why there are incredible editors who work at storied newspapers. There’s something special about them.
As software guys, we can’t be too proud to say that the human brain is often better than an algorithm. It’s just about finding the right balance.
Do customers really need brands to curate their news and entertainment? Don’t we already have Twitter and Facebook, as well as platforms like Flipboard or Zite?
Curation is important, but even more important is the content itself. Is it useful, or interesting or entertaining? Can it change people’s lives in some way?
It shocks publishers when I say this, but if the content is good, people don’t care who wrote it or where it came from, as long as it’s high quality and impacts their lives in some way.
There’s a lot of people doing curation, but if you follow a brand on Twitter or Facebook or keep up with its email newsletter, wouldn’t you rather have interesting content pushed to you, versus getting $2 coupons every day?
Most of the brands you work with will have their own marketing and even content agencies of record. What role do they play in the branded experiences you create for them? Do you see agencies as partners or competitors?
Three quarters of our business is directly with the brand, about one quarter is through agencies or one of the brand’s agencies.
I think we’ve learned to love the agencies. The reason is that I’ve realized the CMO has so many different choices now, given that marketing technology has really exploded with a number of companies operating in the space. Their brains are so full they could explode.
I think agencies do a pretty good job at helping sift through all these startups and helping brands and CMOs navigate this space.
NewsCred is a pretty phenomenal startup success story, all the more so since you and your co-founders hail from Bangladesh. How do you think your Bangladeshi origins have influenced the direction and success of the company?
Purely from a product and business standpoint, we built our products to be international from day one and to handle multiple languages. We always licensed content globally, we always knew we were going to expand into foreign languages, so that global nature of the business was part of our DNA.
From a company culture standpoint, because we were in three countries in the very beginning and because we had our roots in Bangladesh, we always wanted to make sure we never treated one office as the home office and the others as offshore.
We do technology development around the clock from both New York and Bangladesh. We have amazing designers and engineers in both locations. I think culturally, it’s given us an opportunity to play to the strengths of amazing colleagues in three different countries.