Marketplace Manifesto: the economics of building a product customers love

As told by Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, CEO, AirPR.

To steal a concept from data oracle Nate Silver, whose predictions around the 2012 elections were groundbreaking and who was recently named #1 on the FastCompany 100 most creative people in business list: PR has the ability to cut through the noise and amplify the signal. In other words, when practiced at maximum, optimal efficiency, PR gets rid of the fat, connects the dots between the source and medium; and essentially builds the bridge between perception and truth.

On the flip side, when practiced poorly, PR adds to the noise and betrays the trust of its constituencies: the companies and the media it is instituted to serve.

Nearly two years ago, AirPR was born out of a problem I experienced over and over again as a young Venture Capitalist and Entrepreneur in Residence. For whatever reason, finding a PR pro to fit a startup budget seemed to be an arduous task; and what was more, as I started to dig deeper to understand the issue, PR as an industry had a fairly poor reputation and seemed “broken” on a variety of levels.

My curiosity was piqued, and I began exploring the ins and outs of the industry, interviewing hundreds of PR professionals young and old, companies who had engaged with agencies both small and large, and “experts” who had various insights into this frustratingly archaic black box of a thing.

And then it happened.

I fell in love.

I fell hard and fast for something everyone had tried to “fix” but no one had quite gotten right. But like most things you love, you quickly realize it’s not necessarily fixing that is needed: rather, unearthing the layers of misunderstanding compounded by years of miscommunication and things moving too quickly and changing too abruptly. It was about accepting PR for what it was, yet being willing to work with it to improve it by listening, observing, and patiently waiting for progress…not perfection.

The perceived “PR problem” was far reaching in scope, but despite my best efforts it had gotten to me on a level so deep I knew I was ready to tackle it, fight for its improvement. With my naïveté strongly intact I set out to change the PR story.

Building a team to love…

I soon stumbled upon my co-founder (naturally, at a hackathon) who was in love with the technical side of this problem; and we started to carefully create a roadmap for which part of the industry we would take on first.

Then, we found a data scientist who was in love with – you guessed it – the data side of this problem and whose level of understanding around it was downright genius.

The missing link? I found a PR pro who was in love with innovating in the PR space and believed the industry could be truly great if technology was applied to reduce friction and pain points.

So there we were: a group of love-struck, optimistic freaks who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and we were convinced – against all odds – that we would be able to make our ding in the PR universe.

Today, a full year after going through “stealth” mode then “invite-only” mode with our first product, the Marketplace, we are still in love with what we are building. But the better news is that our customers have fallen in love too. And so have the PR folks and even the big PR agencies. Beyond that, the media (with a healthy dose of skepticism) have supported our efforts to disrupt the status quo and create a better situation for everyone involved.

As we open up our Marketplace to the public this week, we want to share our Top 5 Insights into what has made this a product to love. It was not without hard work, sleepless nights, arguments, many deep breaths, and ultimately a fundamental belief in the greatness of the PR industry – and a vision of what it can become.

#1 – High quality supply & demand

It starts with people. Always has and always well. When you are creating a human marketplace both supply and demand must respect what each is bringing to the table. When one side feels like they are giving up more, or not getting their needs met, nobody wins; but when both are willing to mutually respect the process and communicate openly the results are astounding.

#2 – Curation is key

COO of Guide, Leslie Bradshaw, has a great take on big data: she notes that future companies will thrive through practicing “data literacy.” Meaning, you can have all the data you want, but without an understanding of how to apply it, the data is rendered useless. Communication is mandatory for data literacy to occur, and humans are often best equipped to fill this role. By providing customers with an objective, human resource to guide them through the funnel, the data is used to inform the process not to solve the ultimate problem. The outcome? Reduction of friction and trust building for both supply and demand.

#3 – Transparency in the process

Along the continuum of understanding what incents humans to respect each other, is the lesson of transparency. When expectations are clear from the beginning, and both sides of the table know what they are getting into, results are closer to satisfactory than a system in which murkiness rules. Key information is gathered up front, prices are pre-set, contracts are clear with flexibility in place, and outcomes are based on straightforward tactics derived from a simple bidding process.

#4 – A Trusted Screener

Gary Belsky – author, former editor-at-large of ESPN, and current Time.com columnist – once wrote in an article entitled “Why travel agents are back from the dead”:

We think we want unlimited choice, but what we really want is the illusion of choice and a trusted screener to help us choose.”

This statement could not be more accurate for an industry like PR, which is saturated with options ranging from downright terrible to highly valuable. Too much choice in a vacuum with no direct comparatives negates decision-making; too little choice devoid of options likewise negates decision-making. However, the ideal amount of high quality choices with a credible source to validate that choice leads to decision-making, on average, 75% of the time. At least, this has been our experience.

#5 – Solving a business problem

  • For VC firms we have solved the problem of providing a trusted “central location” to source PR for their portfolio companies; while also acting as a resource for their companies to learn and understand more about the benefits of PR.
  • For clients who fall below budget, the Marketplace is a one-stop referral channel for midsize to large agencies. Most PR folks – even at large agencies – are helpful and want to refer business. But the pain in doing so often outweighs their desire to be helpful.
  • For those PR professionals on our platform, the Marketplace has been a streamlined opportunity for business development with minimal inputs on their part. Independents on AirPR have been able to double their business and scale quickly because they can expend less energy on sourcing clients, while being protected by the AirPR legal “umbrella” including the PR contract and terms of service.

The future of the Marketplace

Some of our initial hunches – so to speak – have been wrong. Others have been spot on. As we double-down on what’s working, we will continue our mission of building a technology platform to increase PR performance.

And this story is just beginning…