In 2013, after eight years investing in other people’s ideas (including a little cab company called Uber), venture capitalists First Round Capital launched its own startup – a digital publishing arm to share insights with Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs. Its name: First Round Review (FRR). Initially, it was just another content blog, recapping events and turning them into articles. After a few months, the firm saw that the insights at these events from successful entrepreneurs were performing well. They decided to go all in and hire a content professional to head up this new publishing arm.
Step forward Camille Ricketts, a Stanford graduate who cut her teeth as a journalist on Wall Street and then buffed up those pearly whites as she whirled her way through communications at billion-dollar businesses (Tesla Motors among them), before taking a bite at First Round Review. Her remit: to take the Review from a popular but incidental news blog and turn it into a successful publishing enterprise that would not only empower and teach Silicon Valley startup founders, but also give voice to the First Round brand.
Today, the blog is hugely respected – known for the quality of its insights and its unique approach to content. So why does it work, and what can we learn from its success?
Lesson 1: Know your purpose
Ricketts summarised her intentions for the First Round Review in a self-styled, three-point manifesto. First, every article has to give direct access to wisdom from the people actually living the dream. There’s no room for arrogance in this approach: it’s not about First Round’s take on entrepreneurship, it’s actual advice from the actual entrepreneurs who have struck on a strategy, insight, innovation, whatever… that works.
Second, articles must be solution-based and actionable, packed with how-tos that make tangible differences. Finally, the words must never be dull or hacked – text has to be packed with ‘aha!’ moments that feed a hunger to hunt down success.
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This is a good manifesto, but it doesn’t necessarily work for all businesses. However, just having a manifesto is a brilliant way to provide direction for your content strategy. Having a set of written principles to hang your hat on makes sure everyone – internally and externally – knows just what can and can’t be featured on the blog.
Lesson 2: Know your audience
Born out of a venture capital company that looks for investment in tech startups in the Silicon Valley, the Review is, in the words of Ricketts herself, interested in “delivering actionable insights from wise tech experts to a popular audience of founders, aspiring founders, and many more.” While the ‘many more’ is certainly vague, we would bet that FRR has a clear set of customer personas which guides their content strategy.
The important thing to remember about personas is, you can have a target audience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appeal to other audiences. First Round Review is a case in point. It’s not simply founders who can benefit from what the Review has to offer. What salesperson or product developer can’t benefit from an article on pricing strategy; what woman in business isn’t hungry for the advice of some of the world’s most successful female CEOs, CMOs and COOs; what ambitious graduate doesn’t want to know how to become “insanely” well-connected?
In other words, the content strategy not only works for its target readership, but reaches far beyond.
Lesson 3: The strategy
“We believe that there is powerful, untapped knowledge out there that can transform the way people build technology.
There’s just one problem: It’s trapped in other people’s heads — people who are at the top of their fields, who rarely have time to share what they’ve learned (even when they want to). The Review is about liberating this knowledge to inspire and accelerate action.”
So begins FRR’s manifesto. At its heart, it’s a simple strategy. We know from experience that interview-led strategies are far from simple to execute. But there is no doubt that it produces amazing, original content.
The insight of First Round Review comes from interviews, and every piece of wisdom is quoted from and attributed to the person who actually said it. This is Gil Shklarski, she’s head of technology at Flatiron Health, and she has some really good shit to tell you. The interview strategy of FRR adds authenticity which means the insight carries more weight. It also shows the reach of their network, all important for Silicon Valley startups. These same benefits carry for smaller businesses too.
There’s another strategy here – quality over quantity. This might not work for all brands, but FRR put a premium on producing the best – while avoiding a specific publishing schedule. They are proof that quality will out. Of course, it helps to have both quality and quantity.
Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid of long form
In a world of lightweight content, FRR provides heavy substance. There’s a certain gravitas and confidence to taking your time with an article that’s in keeping with the brand. The success of FRR shows that, even where everyone is time poor, quality, insightful content will still attract an audience. Snackable content still has its place, but when you have a fascinating subject with something interesting to say, people will invest their time in reading it. FRR’s content is intended for people who are launching into a ruthlessly competitive digital marketplace. A good business leader can’t expect to find all the answers to the next Uber in a few stripped-back bullets.
Long form content is the most shared, and appears higher in SERPS than short form. It’s important to note that we’re not saying write long for the sake of it – quality matters above all – but interviews more than most lend themselves well to long form.
Lesson 5: Highlight specific content topics
Early on in her tenure at First Round, Ricketts developed a nine-category front page that enables users to go straight to the business theme that interests them. From People & Culture to Sales, Women and Fundraising (and more), each of those blog themes is now a digital magazine of its own, each containing articles specifically relevant to the users who want to read them.
Smaller businesses can learn from this – highlighting 3-4 big pillars of content to explore (9 is a lot). This gives a blog direction and personality. This can still be in keeping with the manifesto, but break it down into topics. In many ways it’s laughably simple (give the people what they want, and only what they want) – and yet, like so many simple ideas, it’s genius.
All well and good, but…
There’s always a but. We think it’s this one: interviews. Experts tend to be busy people and interviews mean at least an online dialogue and perhaps even (old school) face-to-face meetings. As a small or medium sized business, likely without a dedicated publisher or content person, organising, interviewing, transcribing and writing regular long-form articles takes a LONG time. And time equals money. Of course, there are outsourcing options to look at, but even then, expect to pay more for an interview-led strategy as opposed to regular features.
And not all interviewees are created equal. As a VC, First Round has its 300+ startups to draw from, all of them packed with purveyors of guru wisdom just waiting to find a voice. If VC isn’t your business, you may have to work harder to find finger-on-pulse, blow-your-mind savvy that no-one has heard before.
Nonetheless, as a content strategy it not just raises the bar but breaks through it. The navigation is targeted. The writing is direct. The knowledge is relevant. From the manifesto to the articles to the holiday videos First Round creates every December, the brand’s tone is authentic, engaging, inspiring and the resulting content is insightful, valuable and, above all, interesting.
What would your manifesto be for your blog? What are the content pillars you can explore? And how will you produce your content, not content you can read anywhere? Answer those questions and you’ll have the foundations for a successful blog.
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