Scale Venture Partners

The Startup Tapes #026

The intimate power
of a good content strategy

with Shahruz Shaukat (Super Deluxe)

Content Marketing is an increasingly common part of our marketing toolset. The promise of millions of eyeballs coming to your website, through blogposts or videos that are almost free to produce, seems hard to pass up. Alas, rapid changes to online channels, coupled with an increasingly demanding audience, make this a difficult tool for startups to wield in practice.
I sit down with Shahruz Shaukat, Cofounder & CTO of Turner-backed venture Super Deluxe: a Hollywood studio for the age of Snapchat, churning out online hits from their base in downtown LA, and nearing 2M subscribers on Facebook just 6 months after their launch. Shahruz’s a veteran of online content & startups, having worked on Buzzfeed, Harmontown, Earwolf, Seinfeld Emoji and many more projects, so I turn to him for answers to Content Marketing’s most pressing questions.

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LA’s new Media/Tech Scene

Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: Did you pick downtown L.A. right away? You were like, okay, this is where we have to be?

Shahruz Shaukat, Cofounder & CTO of Super Deluxe: Yeah, that was always the goal. We wanted to just be in a very diverse area, just full of inspiration all around of us.

Tim: Yeah, it’s not the traditional studio lots of Hollywood or Culver City. It’s very different, and I guess it shows. You’ve got a very interesting voice both in the kind of content you produce, but also how you distribute it. You strike me as the first outlet — even more so than Buzzfeed, where I know you worked for previously — that went really heavy on Facebook Live, went really heavy on making video for social media. And I think you exemplify something that’s kind of very interesting, which is that intersection between tech and content, tech and media in general, like say Facebook or Snapchat, but you focus on the production side rather than the channel side.

On the Importance of Content

Tim: I think content is enormously important, for companies in general and in particularly in startups. You could be a company with no funding, no employees, just trying to make something happen, you could even have no product, no technology. But if you have time, you can make content. And you can make good content. You can find out how to connect people, have them discover you, find you, engage with you. And I think it’s such a critical tool that almost every company could use correctly. Do you still feel like that’s a true statement in 2016 or has that changed?

Shahruz: I think it’s somewhat true, but I think it’s on the decline. I think it’s becoming very, very competitive. I mean, you have gigantic media companies that are fighting desperately for their impressions in the Facebook news feed and some newspapers that have been around for hundreds of years that are on the decline just due to Facebook algorithm changes. I think as someone just starting up, it’s not necessarily going to get easier and easier to compete with all these massive organizations. It’s just placement within the same feeds.

Designing Content for People, not Platforms

Tim: Right, it seems like it’s harder. There’s more people producing content. But you said also the platform, they are changing quite a bit. And now it feels like, I remember when I started this project, what we’re doing right here, I was like, ah, maybe I don’t need to worry about Snapchat and Instagram and all these kind of newfangled channels for me, it’s like I’m lagging behind. And it turns out I do, ‘cause I can’t really get the word out efficiently enough through Facebook and Twitter, people’s feed are saturated. You don’t get as many clicks, even as there aren’t big algorithm changes. And so what do you think is the answer? You guys seem to be putting a lot of focus again on kind of format and you also seem to be developing a very specific voice. And those things, do you feel like that’s maybe a key right now in putting stuff out there?

Shahruz: I think it absolutely is. I think as most of our audience right now lives on Facebook but that’s not ideally where we want to always be distributing our content. But I think with a unique voice, with something authentic, you can carry that audience regardless of which platform you’re on. That I think is what really needs to be the focus.

Authenticity as a Key Goal

Tim: Right, so let’s focus on that authenticity, right? ‘Cause that’s something that I get that advice a lot from PR people, they go “be authentic — people will like your pitch.” So what does that mean? I’ve heard people describe it as like just be true to yourself, talk about something you’re passionate about. How do you think about kind of doing authentic content?

I think about it a lot not in terms of like a scale or a spectrum, but rather as an on-off switch that starts off as on and then the moment you make a bad decision, it turns off.

Shahruz: It’s a really hard thing to define because I think it’s different for everybody. I think if I tell you how to be authentic, then you’re not going to be. But I think about it a lot not in terms of like a scale or a spectrum, but rather as an on-off switch that starts off as on and then the moment you make a bad decision, it turns off. Really the key is you have to find those moments where you know that “oh crap, I just did something that was inauthentic to my own voice. How do I avoid doing that again and again in the future?”

Tim: So do you feel it’s like that Supreme Court thing of “you know it when you see it” ? You either feel like it clicks for you or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t then you shouldn’t bother publishing it?

Shahruz: I think so, yeah. Well, I don’t know if I would argue that it’s not worth publishing. I think there’s no harm in just publishing lots and lots of stuff to try lots of different stuff out.

Tim: That the upside of that is channels are so saturated and it’s so hard to get attention, you can experiment. The authenticity is kind of interesting and I guess it is very, very unique, but the other thing that seems to authentic, in a way, is that fit to the channel. It’s developing something that feel like it’s native to Instagram or it’s native to Snapchat or it’s native to Facebook or native to Facebook Live, and that seems hard to me. I struggle with that quite a bit, because those channels are new, I’m kind of new to them too, everybody kind of is still. And so how do you find that fit, the right kind of format, the right kind of guidelines, I guess, that makes the community feel like this is idiosyncratic to that platform?

Shahruz: I think it’s very much like building a software product. It’s a lot of just iteration, it’s a lot of starting off with what you feel is best and then seeing how people respond to it and then just trying it a little bit different the next time.

Measuring Content Effectiveness

Tim: How do you suggest people measure it? Is it just as simple as measuring like the likes, the engagement, the metrics people give you or do you feel like people have to go a little bit deeper?

a lot of times you know instinctually just by parsing the comments, looking at the share counts and what people are writing when they share it, how people are responding to it and reacting to it.

Shahruz: I think it depends on what scale you’re at and what you’re looking for. I think a lot of times you know instinctually just by parsing the comments, looking at the share counts and what people are writing when they share it, how people are responding to it and reacting to it. I think a lot of it you can just tell intuitively. Obviously at a certain point when you have to scale up and you have many, many content producers that are working for you, you have to put in place those systems and kind of help quantify those goals and map this improvement.

Authenticity vs. Metrics

Tim: Do you feel there’s a dichotomy at all in this new era — in the context of a startup trying to push content and get attention — between doing the right thing artistically or on some level that’s not measured by metrics versus metrics? Or do you feel like they’re kind of one and the same in this day and age?

Shahruz: I think the argument could be made for both. I think this is something and I think about it a lot and just don’t know the answer to. I don’t know if there is one.

Tim: I’ve seen the argument made that if you do something that’s really unique and artistic, people will connect with that and they’ll like it and share it. And then conversely, I’ve seen people just kind of go after the share count and find great ideas and great series and build great things on a marketing sense at least, if not more, just from click-hunting to put it simply. So it’s funny, right, it’s a bit of a duality.

Shahruz: I think every person or entity needs to find where they fit, what that fine line is for them and just find the right kind of meeting point for that.

Optimize for Shares Above All Else

Tim: So metrics-wise, while we’re on the subject, I get question asked to me all the time of like do I need to worry about likes or retweets, do I need to worry about shares, do I need to worry about subscribers? My bias, personally, is to always try to get subscribers. I think every time you get another bunch of subscribers, it just makes it so much easier to have this initial sharing wave of your new content. Do you feel like that’s what you would also recommend people prioritize early on?

I think shares are the primary way that content gets distributed nowadays, right? Especially with these algorithmic feeds that Facebook has and Instagram have — if people aren’t sharing your stuff, there’s a much lower chance people are actually going to see it.

Shahruz: I personally look at shares more. I think shares are the primary way that content gets distributed nowadays, right? Especially with these algorithmic feeds that Facebook has and Instagram have — if people aren’t sharing your stuff, there’s a much lower chance that people are actually going to see it. And the stuff that gets shared heavily is introducing new people and offering them an opportunity to subscribe. So I think it leads back into the subscriptions. But personally I find sharing to be the more effective thing because that’s also, I think it’s something that you can iterate on as well. Like you can learn, all right, people shared this and you can read what they wrote when they shared it. You can use all that knowledge on your next content that you make.

Tim: It’s true and you’re right, the algorithmic change, it also has had this opposite effect where it’s kind of devaluation of subscriptions in a lot of ways because even if you’re a subscriber to like say Super Deluxe on Facebook, it might not show up in your feed unless you starred it and all these different things. And even on platforms that don’t do a lot of algorithmic stuff, like say Twitter, the platform just became so noisy that even if you subscribe and you technically see all the posts in your feed, you might not actually catch it.

Shahruz: And even the experiments that Twitter is now doing with the While You Were Away or Posts that You Might Like, a lot of that is just built on the social engagements that the people that you’re following have performed on a certain tweet.

How to make content shareable

Tim: So is there a trick to making content that’s shareable?

Shahruz: I think it depends. I think it’s always different for whatever you’re doing. A lot of it is just like if you can make something where people watch it and they see a reflection of themselves or they see a reflection of a relationship that they have with somebody else I think that tends to be one of the key kind of things.

make something where people watch it and they see a reflection of themselves or they see a reflection of a relationship that they have with somebody else

Tim: It’s funny because in like, not so long ago in marketing people would say: “have a clear call to action”. It was CTAs all the time and clear buttons and blah blah blah, and it seems now in this new kind of content-driven world, all those kinda explicit calls to action, they almost detract people from actually sharing your content or liking or engaging. And I’ve seen you guys do some interesting stuff with, for example your live events, where you make people vote with the like buttons, but those seem to be counter-examples to me rather than the norm. It seems people really need to connect with what you’re doing. And yeah, it does seem like finding that authenticity and finding that reflection and evoking something in people in a very true sense is the key to success.

Facebook Controls Most of the Attention; Will Control Most of your Spend

Tim: Is there anything else you think people need to worry about?

Shahruz: I think a lot of it has just been a lot of focus on sharing for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram specifically. I do think and a little hope that that’s going to change too. I think content distribution is becoming very homogenized. I think, it makes me very nervous to think that Facebook is going to continue owning the audiences and just going to keep growing the amount of attention that they own of our audience. I hope and pray that something’s going to change where it starts becoming a little bit more diverse as well.

Makes me very nervous to think that Facebook is going to continue owning the audiences and just going to keep growing the amount of attention that they own of our audience. I hope and pray that something’s going to change where it starts becoming a little bit more diverse as well.

Tim: Right, it’s funny because everybody I know in the kind of publishing world in a very general sense, like media entertainment, they’re worried about that, they talk about that all the time, but it seems like marketers aren’t there yet. They haven’t realized that their audience is similarly locked in and that they’re, we’re like three or five years, maybe less, from having that moment of doom and realization that like oh my gosh, you know, my spend and all that is controlled by a platform that’s like drastically changing feed rolls. And that’s gonna be an interesting challenge not just for like media publisher people who live and die with this today, but like all the companies and startups that kinda do marketing that may hit that Facebook kind of wall problem very soon. So that’s an interesting one.

[Marketers] haven’t realized that their audience is similarly locked in and that they’re, three or five years, maybe less, from having that moment of doom and realization that like oh my gosh, you know, my spend and all that is controlled by a platform that’s drastically changing feed rolls

Remember to Support your Local Creators

Tim: You’ve done a lot of things, not just for Super Deluxe, but also a lot of side projects. So is there like anything you would recommend people think about or keep in mind as they’re trying to do content for their projects?

Shahruz: Sure, yeah. I think one thing that I’d love to see more of and something that I’ve tried doing a lot of here at Super Deluxe is just being a patron of the independent creators out there that you love. I think that’s an easy way to authentically share something that you love that represents something similar to whatever it is you’re doing professionally. And I think the fans of those independent creators really like seeing companies, startups, individuals be patrons of them and support them financially and support them as creators.

Tim: Makes complete sense, yeah. Thank you so much.

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The Startup Tapes chronicle the highs & lows of building a startup, through candid, immersive interviews with founders, operators & advisors. Tim Anglade, an Executive-in-Residence at Scale Venture Partners and formerly with Realm, Apigee, and Cloudant leads the project with the goal to de-mystify the process through which startups emerge, grow & succeed. His unfiltered interviews transcribe the conversations we often hear in the boardroom, amongst our portfolio community and with entrepreneurs and partners we engage with every day.

Learn more about Scale Venture Partners at scalevp.com.

For guests suggestions, feedback or questions, email tim@scalevp.com
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