In 2012, Mashable described Red Bull as “a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage” (How Red Bull Takes Content Marketing to the Extreme). That was the definitive recognition of a unique formula, evoked by many but according to some impossible to achieve: brands that acted like publishers, and did that with so much commitment – resources, brainpower, long-term vision and audience-centric culture – to become credible publishers. My luck and pride, to have been part of that story.
Fast-forward, 15 June 2021. Andreessen Horowitz, one of the tech venture capital firms with the highest profile, also known as a16z, famous for its tech investments (Facebook, Coinbase, Substack and Clubhouse to name a few) launches “Future”, a brand new media outlet, supported by a full editorial team combining journalism, academic and broader tech skills.
The reception among North American tech reporters? Lukewarm sometimes, highly critical of others. Their thesis? Something we already heard in the past: the people at a16z – so the critics – are going to do simply propaganda and not “real” journalism.
To understand this, we should dive deep into the tension that has existed for years between the journalistic media and Silicon Valley, which oscillated between moments of charm and mutual seduction and moments in which the mutual accusation is that of wanting to manipulate reality. But this is not what this post is about.
My point of view is well known: I don’t believe in current content marketing. It has a machine that spills irrelevant content on the web, maybe made for search engines but not for humans. And I don’t believe in corporate magazines. If you want to make content, you have to be serious and embrace the game of media.
I’ve had some experience in the continental European venture capital world, and while I’ve found a great desire to communicate, so far I have found no one who has embraced the editorial job as wholeheartedly as a16z. That’s why – not being an investor nor (yet) a founder – I am one of their regular readers and podcast listeners.
The next sections are a reflection on the state of the art of VC communication, and the benefits of having a Red Bull Media House in the world of venture capital for all: founders, investors… and journalists.
The four stages of VC firms´ communication.
STAGE 1 / PR-DRIVEN COMMUNICATION
- Still prevailing in continental Europe.
- Common tactics: pitching interviews with top VC executives with the media.
- The goal: be on the front page, get mentions, make journalists your “friends”.
Andreessen Horowitz mastered the art of cultivating relationships with journalists over events and even more at dinners: it was, and it still is, the Silicon Valley-style of media relationship building.
STAGE 2 / WE NEED A BRAND AND A STORY TO TELL!
Nobody, like VC firms, should know how storytelling is important: your “origin story” and your “reason why” are fundamental to new ventures. Gone is the time when it was all about the product and how to speed up growth.
In the last few years, many VC firms have developed, revamped or better developed their own brands with well-curated identities, inspired messaging, sometimes with a very creative and unique image (thinking now at “The Family”, the Paris originated VC firm, now run from London).
Branding was often delegated to a professional agency, sometimes instead done all in-house, sometimes hiring brand communication experts. The result? Honestly, too much effort to differentiate does not always pay off: if you take a half-day session to browse dozens of VC websites, you’ll find many repetitive messages that have in most cases to do with “changing the world by disrupting one or more industries” and “backing daring founders”.
What we should never forget is that a Brand is less about its tagline, more about the relationship it develops through its people and its… content. Editorial content is “the” relationship builder. Welcome to Stage 3.
STAGE 3 / WE DO CONTENT!
Hand on heart: how many VC blogs and newsletters made in Europe you read and follow to find inspiration? Not so many, indeed. The reason is that most content published on the VC websites made in Europe is a collection of press releases (see: Deutsche Telekom Capital Partners) or very self-referential (see: Speedinvest). In other cases, content follows the patterns of B2B content marketing – white papers to download, made-for-the-funnel content, a lot of “how-to” (see: Early Bird) and many more “opinions collections” (in written form or produced as podcasts – list of three to six voices that express their opinion about a topic – pure content marketing, and this is not a compliment).
It is still hard to find strong personalities on this side of the Ocean: investors that are rewarded as influencers and digital opinion leaders, like Andrew Chen (Andreessen Horowitz), Li Jin (former Andreessen Horowitz, now on her own) or Matthew Ball (Makers Fund).
The next stage: content as a commitment, publishing as a mission.
Here comes the opportunity to take the voice of VC firms to the next level, and use that voice to elevate the conversation about technology and innovation. Here comes Andreessen Horowitz to play the trailblazer role.
The path of a16z to become a media powerhouse.
The fundamental question is: do we need more content coming from VC? The honest answer is – yes if it is not pure PR and delivers value-added. Opposite to the sceptic attitude of many tech reporters, I see many things speaking in favour of a16z becoming a publisher:
#1 It does not come out of the blue: a16z has already delivered excellent content.
Andreessen Horowitz, as we know, is not new to content: among its partners, several write blogs and books (the above-mentioned Andrew Chen, for instance). Podcasts and live events are part of its regular content line-up: all of them of high editorial quality, crisp and insightful. No room for clickbait and not self-referential.
In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Marc Andreessen published an article titled “It’s time to build”: it started by asking why the response to the pandemic was so bad in the USA and the western world. It gave its inconvenient answer: the root cause was the complacency with the status quo and the unwillingness to build for the future – in cities, in education, in healthcare. The post ended as a manifesto for a new commitment to build things. It included a call at both political right and left to support this commitment:
That Manifesto was the foundation of the editorial vision of Future:
#2 A serious publisher says upfront what it stands for.
That is what A16z and Future do, openly and transparently. Can we say the same of many journalistic titles out there, including some that rose criticism against the media endeavour of Andreessen Horowitz?
´Rational optimism´ is the point of view that underpins the Future content lineup. It is more than a straightforward techno-optimism, although the founders of a16z do not hide their disappointment about the number of anti-tech voices that populate the mainstream media.
#3 A publisher starts with the intended audience and a value proposition for them.
Future is run by professional media makers that have taken time to outline in this blog post the positioning of “Future” – what the content will be about, what the intended audience, and – what matters most – what is the value-added it aims to deliver. It is all distilled in one sentence:
AUDIENCE Future wants to speak to a broader audience – it will be more than simple “media disintermediation” and more than a “hook” for founders and entrepreneurs. There is a potential to reach out not only to techno-enthusiasts but also techno-curious that seek first-hand insights and deep dives, have an open mind and want to understand complex tech topics from the point of view of operators. Or, people in consumer tech that want to cross-pollinate their ideas with deep tech arenas.
ACTIONABLE CONTENT. Margit Wennmachers (Operating Partner at a16z, responsible for content) words:
#4 Elevate the conversation around technology with original content.
In many technology domains – for instance, deep tech or applied life sciences – some topics and developments are difficult to translate into commercially viable content, therefore not covered by mainstream media.
Future wants to build a bridge to the labs where researchers, founders and developers have deep knowledge and experiences worth decoding to inspire others beyond their original domains: explainers, how-to content and cohort learning by experienced founders in and outside of the A16z portfolio will be part of the content line-up.
To give an impression of what type of insiders will be the contributors to Future, a couple of names that come from two completely different realms:
- Betül Kaçar is a professor at the University of Arizona. She directs a NASA research consortium exploring the origins, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe. Betül will contribute to Future on paleobiology and how the past can help build the future.
- Jade Raymond is a Canadian video game creator, best known for helping create the Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs franchises, and for building the Ubisoft Toronto and EA Motive Studios. Jade will cover big company IP, gaming, and creators.
Will “Future” succeed? It will depend on the readers: the editorial team is not afraid of using relevant metrics to provide the answer: not vanity, to measure that success. Do not expect them to use eyeballs, visits or media visibility. The focus will be instead on engagement metrics: consumption, reaction and action. Ability, also, to drive new relevant contacts – call them “leads” to simplify, but it will be more than that: it will be about new contributors, interesting conversations and collaborations on projects.
But if it succeeds, it will not only an a16z success, but a contribution to improving the overall communication of technology, and media overall.
We are living interesting times in the media. In the last years and during the pandemic we heard a lot about the crisis, but also about reinvention:
- From the era of consumer-generated content we have entered a new age of creators, that become publishers themselves
- Platforms and the ecosystem of the attention economy is being challenged by new platforms that empower those creators to control the relationship with their audiences and customer and develop new business models
- Journalism itself, driven by necessity, is reinventing and adopting healthier ways to generate revenues. Some traditional publishers, by developing new digital products and experiences (virtual events, e-commerce, online education), made even more money than before.
- Investors – Andreessen Horowitz, above all – are becoming more interested to invest in media startups and platforms that work to overcome the attention economy
In times like these, there is nothing bad in brands – VC firms, too – deciding to commit to content fully and passionately and working to reach out to the audience directly, ready to fight the battle for relevance instead of relying upon PR and mean content marketing. Everything working to deliver better content and meaningful messages must be welcome, for the benefit of all – media makers and media consumers.