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Stop the Presses: How One Tech Start-Up Answered the Call of Content Marketing

How does a growing tech start-up play the current, red-hot “content-marketing” trend? If you’re StellaService, you go native—and set up your own newsroom.

StellaService, a four-year old company that provides data and analytics to help e-commerce companies improve their customer service, has hired two ex-journalists to manage a content-marketing operation that churns out three to five data-driven “stories”, plus a newsletter and other shorter items related to customer service, each week. Many of the pieces run on outside news Web sites (WSJ and Re/code, for example) while others appear on a slick StellaService blog called “Happy Customer.” The focus on content goes all the way up to the top: Stella’s Chief Executive Jordy Leiser is a prolific blogger, penning posts almost weekly for Inc. magazine and writing frequently for The Next Web. He’s also a high-profile LinkedIn “influencer,” offering commentary on the social-networking site alongside luminaries like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson.

The writing efforts—which come on top of more-traditional marketing content like reports, case studies and Webcasts—are extensive, and not cheap. But the ROI is definitely there, says Ty McMahan, a former Dow Jones Newswires reporter who is now the company’s senior director of marketing and content. Stella gets emails and calls from customers, and potential customers, who specifically reference Stella blog posts, he notes.  The company tracks page views, social shares and time-on-site for its content offerings through Google Analytics. It’s also implementing Marketo to glean more detailed data about the impact its content is having with current and prospective customers.

In the end, the goal is growing revenue. “We’re building (this operation) for the salesforce,” says McMahan in an interview in a small Stella conference room, inside the company’s jam-packed offices in a building high above lower Manhattan. “This is unique marketing collateral that shows off the power of our data and products, but it’s also the type of content that our prospects can reference in their weekly meeting when they’re talking about ways to improve customer service.” According to McMahan, there are few other outlets publishing detailed, data-driven content about customer service. So Stella “has a real opportunity to be a valued source for those insights.”

More and more smaller companies, like Stella, are taking their cue from larger corporations and essentially setting up in-house newsrooms to fuel sophisticated content-marketing operations. This is happening as the value of “earned media”—traditional PR efforts that result in third-party news coverage in print, online and on TV—becomes more muddy amid the explosion of niche-focused Web sites and social media.

A clever or well-timed Tweet, or a Facebook link, to a story on a less well-known Web property can generate plenty of traffic and business leads for companies these days, particularly those whose products can be purchased in just a few resulting clicks. For some start-ups, coverage on these smaller sites, whether a traditional story or a piece written by a content marketer, can be just as impactful as a story about them in a mainstream news publication.

Even august print brands like Forbes have embraced content-marketing (such as the infographic the publication built using StellaService data). Forbes has opened up its Web site to hundreds of new paid and unpaid contributors, most of whom are experts in their field, but many of whom are not journalists. Last year, the New York Times announced a new advertising initiative through which advertisers could buy ads labeled as “paid posts,” with links to paid content. Dell, which has a large, in-house content-marketing operation, is one of the first advertisers.

Stella, like many companies today, tries to play both sides of the PR/content coin. It employs a traditional public-relations firm to drum up “earned” press about its business, but complements those efforts with content marketing. While the company certainly covets mainstream-press attention, it also gets plenty of oomph out of earned or placed mentions in smaller, more focused blogs and Web sites, including those covering the fashion industry, where Stella  has many customers.

“The phone rings whenever we have anything in Women’s Wear Daily,” says Adriana Dunn, a Stella marketing manager who previously worked at the Huffington Post and Good magazine. The company also tries to syndicate much of its customer-service content out to mainstream news sites, which have become increasingly receptive to the content over time. Now, many sites pro-actively request the company’s data and insights, executives say, so content staffers don’t have to spend so much time pitching. The content Stella produces can be very substantive. One recent post on its blog detailed the results of a three-month study the company conducted to determine how well customer-service departments respond to complex, two-question inquiries from customers. The answer, unfortunately, was not well. Just 9% of the 106 respondents answered both questions the first time, Stella found.

The post concluded that the mis-handled inquiries frustrated customers and drove up operational costs for the retailers involved. The blog suggested that more retailers consider incentivizing agents based on how thoroughly they resolve customer complaints and questions, not just on how quickly they plow through emails or get customers off the phone. Another recent blog post examined how many packages from e-commerce sites arrive to customers damaged, and ranked damaged-package rates by carrier. UPS had the worst record, with 11% of its packages being compromised en-route; FedEx had the best record, with just 7%.

Jordy Leiser, Stella’s CEO, has written recently about topics ranging from the need for companies to create customer-service “action plans”—in the event of a natural disaster, or a Target-esque Web hack—to the rise of “Moneyball executives” inside companies, who leverage data and analytics to make better, more-informed business decisions.

Leiser says he wouldn’t have predicted five years ago that content would play such a large role in his business.

“While not part of the original plan, we quickly saw how impactful it could be to have our data and ratings distributed through the mainstream media on top of our own publication,” Leiser says. “We didn’t mess around with hiring marketing people and ask them to write like reporters — we went straight to the pros and brought on all-star journalists in Ty and Adriana. They’ve helped the business tremendously.”

Rebecca Buckman

Rebecca is Battery's vice president of communications and content.

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