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Content Marketing Lessons from First Round & a16z

Vinay Rao
3 min read
Content Marketing Lessons from First Round & a16z

I listened to this excellent podcast by the two OGs of Content Marketing recently — Camille Ricketts (ex Head of Content at First Round; presently Head of Marketing at Notion) & Sonal Chokshi (Editor-in-Chief at a16z).

Managed to condense the podcast into 10 actionable takeaways. Found #8 (distillation of all Content Marketing efforts into two words) particularly interesting and of relevance to early-stage startups.

1/ On long form: When writing long form (anything greater than 1000+ words), Sonal recommends keeping people hooked for the first third of the article. Also taught as the inverted pyramid approach in j-school / journalism school.

Another journalism trope (that Sonal and Camille reco) is the use of trail markers (multiple subheads in each article) to help readers do a mental math of which parts of the article to invest reading time on. This is the biggest contributor to increased time on site (when info density is high)

2/ On virality: Pull quotes are a huge part of the appeal (both with First Round & a16z). A lot of what is captured as screenshots and shared on social media (in the context of First Round) are their pull quotes. Great hack to push the envelope with virality.

Sonal's only refrain with audio is also this — you CANNOT take screenshots of a podcast and publish on social media. Podcasts (by Sonal's admission) should only be attempted if you are confident about being the ONLY audio game in town. Audio, inherently, is not good for distribution.

3/ On POV: Sonal talks about the importance of building 'argument / POV' into every content piece. This is the unique lens through which they dispense information about their thesis areas.

For example: An explainer piece on AI / ML is not necessarily Content Marketing (in the strictest sense). An article on AI / ML told thru the lens of a certain argument / POV however qualifies as Content Marketing. For a16z, this POV was 'The AI spring', followed by 'The AI Winter'.

4/ Op-ed vs Broadcast: Both a16z and First Round use Twitter ONLY as a broadcast medium (and not as an op-ed medium). All op-ed related commentary on social media is done by the partners and principals thru their respective social handles. The company handle is only used to amplify their individual voices.

5/ Pre-customer: First Round was widely successful with their editorial strategy (targeting 'first time' founders) since they settled on the ‘expert interview’ format targeted at the ‘pre-customer’ (and not the customer herself — the founder).

Camille and her content team at First Round curated top-of-the-shelf advice from people these pre-founders didn’t have access to.

6/ All things new: Sonal talks about the importance of publishing 'new knowledge' over commoditised / repetitive content (that already exists on the www). New knowledge sparks 'new conversations'

7/ Stock vs Flow: In the book 'The War of Art' Steven Pressfield talks about the “resistance” being the greatest enemy to creativity, and offers many unique and helpful ways to overcome it. One such hack he proposes is the idea of 'stock vs flow'.

Sonal also advocates employing this hack to create a content calendar. She says, "Very important to have 40% of your content in stock mode — production nearly complete and ready to drop; and 60% in 'flow' — production underway. Not good to wait till an entire batch of content reaches fruition before introducing a new batch to the content assembly line."

8/ North Star: With content creation, having a very clear north star is extremely critical. Sonal recommends distilling all content marketing efforts to two words that can serve as a veritable north star.

At Wired (her previous workplace) — it was 'informed optimism'. At Xerox (another previous workplace) — it was 'entrepreneurial scientists'.

FR's northstar is - New Yorker meets HBR. Period! This is what allows them to offer counter-intuitive, manual-like advice, that is such a huge hit with the ecosystem. Related tweet.

9/ Narrative Style: Focus with content / over-indexing on one narrative style of content is extremely important. a16z over-indexes on audio and long form writing that follows first-person linear storytelling. First Round focuses on an interview-led approach. All of FR's content is a third-person documentation of their interviews with known operators in the ecosystem (that their pre-customers can benefit from).

10/ Levers of content: Sonal keeps a tab of 5 levers while creating content (esp, audio content) — energy, content, expertise, examples, personal narratives. She talks about the importance of pulling them at diff points and diff weights to ensure that the content piece is not flat / underwhelming.