A little over a year ago, Joe Griffin and Jay Swansson sat in their offices etching ideas on their transparent whiteboards that double as office walls. As co-founders of the content marketing agency, iAcquire, they already knew what it took to fund, build, pivot, champion and run a business, but this time the idea came out of necessity.
ClearVoice’s co-founders did not wake up and say, “we want to build a new cool tool for marketers.” They ideated ClearVoice after realizing that marketers faced a universal problem. The challenge was that sourcing, scoring and vetting subject matter experts skilled at crafting content was incredibly difficult. Brand journalists and publishers widely leverage external contributors, but there was no way to scale this effort in one platform.
ClearVoice launched in October 2013 to iAcquire’s internal clients. Between October 2013 and June 2014, a group of developers were voluntarily locked into their offices indexing sites, developing algorithms and building a one-of-a-kind content platform. Meanwhile, an executive team that consisted of marketers, PR pros, content strategists and product advocates planned for the “big bang” beta launch of ClearVoice.com on June 24, 2014, which spotlighted the ClearVoice Score.
Since then, we’ve been refining the algorithm, spreading the word about the product and preparing for Phase 2 of ClearVoice, the assignment desk. The newest update will further empower brands, publishers and writers to create, mange and promote content. And, subsequently, we’ll roll out updates to the platform every 60 to 90 days.
What follows is our best effort to share what it takes to get a content startup off the ground. Here are the ups, the downs, the good and the bad crowd sourced from the individuals at the helm of designing, building and promoting ClearVoice: Anita Malik, Vice President of Content Operations; Andrew Bart, Director of Growth Initiatives; Allie Freeland, PR Director; Bill Volhein, Senior Product Manager; Robb Dorr, Creative Director; Tom Rusling, General Manager; and Mike Bernandez, Senior Software Developer.
Have a listen:
- Build to the needs of the audience. It’s one thing to have a great idea and blindly run with it and hope it sticks. It’s another thing to go beyond the concept and let the market prove the need and define the value. Our preliminary boots-on-the-ground efforts at various conferences enabled us to tailor the platform to the expressed needs of the influencers, brands and agencies that it was built to serve.
- Rein in the scope. As with all technically complex products, the initial planning stages allow for all feature sets to be discussed. This is an exciting part of the product discovery phase, but leads to a lengthy list of secondary features that can distract from the overall goal. Because of our predetermined, aggressive timeline, we learned quickly to stomp out scope creep.
- Never stop testing. From engineering to the intricacies of end-user evaluation, there can never be enough testing. While ClearVoice was in pre-launch mode, it became clear that more testing was needed. When launching a new product, or feature sets to an existing product, it’s imperative that the necessary testing time is baked into the milestone schedule.
- Define your strategy from beginning to end. Before writing any content or creating one single pixel of art, define your strategy. A clear strategy will save you and your team time, money and frustration and it will give team members a roadmap to follow, enabling them to work more effectively and efficiently.
- Support internal knowledge transfer. With all the complex tools and applications, it’s common for internal support departments to lose focus on the key components of the products they support. Making sure that everyone is engaged, learning and participating in the development process is key.
- Gmail’s 100-year beta phase forever changed the definition of beta. The core of what was once beta has now been largely moved to alpha, and what was once alpha is now “pre-alpha.” Regardless of what it’s called, it’s important to communicate with users that it’s not yet a “1.0” and as such, they might stumble on undocumented features—even if there’s an excessive amount of documenting and profiling.
- Minimum viable product (MVP) isn’t minimum acceptable effort. MVP isn’t about making things simpler to make it easier—it’s keeping things simple to have a distilled and easy-to-use product. MVP is not an excuse to get away with not building features just yet, it is the reason to build required features to an intensely polished state.
- A browser war is raging, but not directly because of different vendors. Mobile has practically taken the over the helm of what was once IE6’s domain. Like it or not, mobile has to be supported—and should be the first consideration in many cases—and in spite of the strides that have been made in responsive design, the march toward a smarter webpage meant losing some ground in the battle to provide a consistent experience across all platforms.
- Collaborate by any means possible. Google’s online business tools are priceless for working remotely and still communicating and functioning as if everyone was in the same office. The file sharing and collaborative document editing abilities enable our remote team members to peer-review specs, wireframes and process workflows. Google hangouts, Skype and Uber Conference keep co-workers accessible and help you avoid endless email strings.
- Develop a tiered communication approach. ClearVoice, what it is today and all we have planned for it to be, has several distinct audiences. The platform and the ClearVoice score have relevance to brands, publishers, agencies, writers and editors. How do we speak to all of these segments at once? We realized quickly that we don’t have to answer that question nor should we. And after a bit of trial and error, we also accepted that we couldn’t design a home page that resonated with every audience … not just yet. So we decided to start with one audience at a time. Building communities, building user trust and understanding with a phased approach is key.
- Less is definitely more. Although our content and communications team wishes otherwise, people don’t read. They skim at best. In crafting web and on-boarding copy, both instructions and tips, we saw very quickly via testing that less is more. We strive for soul and brand personality in all we do, but keeping copy direct and concise is key. The focus should be on the user takeaway.
- What our why is at this moment in time. There is a lot of wisdom around content marketing best practices and advances in our offices, so sorting through what our editorial focus should be at launch was a bit challenging. Ultimately, with Phase 1 of ClearVoice being centered on the score, the conversation around developing your voice and brand became our focal point. Rather than skim the surface, we dove right in learning what knowledge gaps existed with users and how to best address them on the ClearVoice blog.
- Formulate relationships ahead of the product. With nearly two years’ worth of development and planning behind ClearVoice, we were able to perform significant due diligence. We attended numerous industry conferences where we strategically sprinkled the message into controlled channels that offered relevant sample-size feedback. At these events, we diligently worked to establish real and meaningful relationships with industry influencers who ultimately proved to be critical components of our marketing and PR launch plans.
- Leverage tools for finding reporters who cover your beat. Prior to launching ClearVoice, we created a giant list of influencers and press contacts that we wanted to contact to inform them of our launch. Tools like MuckRack, Press.Farm, using ClearVoice itself to find category-specific journalists, and even using boolean Google searches were invaluable for us as we had a) a small team and b) limited resources. Moz’s Open Site Explorer is another great SEO tool that can double as a PR tool: Use it to search for competing sites’ media and link placements.
- Map out the landscape and find partners. After mapping out the landscape of the content marketing industry, we identified and pursued relationships with a variety of partners who would clearly benefit in more than just one way from a partnership. Through deductive reasoning and establishing patterns in the respective needs of different types of partners, we seamlessly addressed what each partner type described as a necessary evil of their business. These included ease of locating relevant authors, premium content creation, and providing a dynamic set of content workflow tools to manage the creation process. Rather than looking at competitors as competition, at ClearVoice, we took the approach of how we could work together within this vast overall market so that we could each narrow our focus to the individual piece that we specialize in.
We hope that in publishing this post, you can take the lessons we’ve learned and put them to practice as you start, grow, and advance your own startup.