"Kindness alone won't solve the world's problems," and other lessons in buzz-building

By Erin Griffith , written on October 24, 2013

From The News Desk

I didn't go into my panel yesterday at the Media Tech Summit in New York thinking I'd get a story. How much ground-breaking insight could two founders really offer on the topic we'd been assigned to discuss, "how to maintain buzz"?

Answer: Enough for a story, it turns out! I didn't take great notes since I was moderating the panel, but I came up with a few worthwhile takeaways. Here goes.

Adam Braun founded Pencils of Promise with more than a desire to help developing countries by building schools. That was the basic premise, but he also had an enemy -- the non-profit world's current way of doing things.

His plan was to skip the old-school way of building a philanthropic business by courting high net worth anchor donors. Instead, he would court small donors using social media. He planned to do it using a popular startup philosophy, which states that it's better to have 100 people who really love your company than a million people who only kinda like it. Paul Graham of Y Combinator gave that advice to Brian Chesky, who applied it to his startup "impossible" startup, Airbnb.

Everyone told Braun that strategy was impossible when he started out, he said. "So the enemy was 'impossible," he said. "Kindness alone won't solve the world's problems. Neither does passion without accountability." Fast forward five years later, and Pencils of Promise has built 152 schools around the world, paid for by small donors.

Similarly, Ari Goldberg has built his business on the "find a common enemy" philosophy. He's taken it to the extreme, which is a bit easier do when you're running a for-profit entity. Stylecaster, his company, was started the company with the philosophy of "style to the people," and his enemy is Conde Nast. The site now has seven million monthly uniques.

Stylecaster represents style that is not dictated by editors in ivory towers but bloggers and regular women, he said. "I hate Anna Wintour!" he exclaimed. That mission, and the common enemy, is authentic, he says, and readers, employees, investors and observers all recognize it. That authenticity has translated into buzz and into business growth.

The overall message was this: Having a conflict to your story, or being up against some larger force, makes a company's story compelling to potential clients and users, as well as the press. If you don't have some new way of doing things that puts you at odds with the old way of doing things, then why do you exist to begin with?

The challenge, as many hyped-up startups have learned the hard way (ahem, Turntable), is that it's really hard to turn buzz and attention into something useful. The business term for "something useful" is "conversions." How many people who hear about your feud with Anna Wintour become Stylecaster readers, and how many just go away?

Braun experienced that with Pencils of Promise, when the group auctioned off pencil drawings by a group of celebrities including Shaq, Lea Michele, Jonathan Adler, Coldplay, Lil Jon, Steve Nash, Mariah Carey, Hugh Jackman and Seth Meyers and Katie Couric. Thanks to its A-list involvement, the campaign got tons of media attention and engagement online. But Braun says the attention and coverage didn't convert. A similar campaign, done peer-to-peer, might have reached more donors and raised more money than celebrities in this case, he said.

A big lesson Goldberg learned about generating buzz and picking fights is that hype isn't a meritocracy. The best products don't always get the most attention. (One example of this in my opinion is Rdio, which I has a better design than Spotify but will not reach that level of buzz, and in turn, adoption.)

That's why Goldberg likes sports, which is still a meritocracy. Lebron James won't continue to be the superstar he is if he doesn't continue to perform, and there are stats to prove it. "But Britney Spears can sell 100,000 albums even though she sucks at singing," he said. Stylecaster was a bit of a Britney Spears at first -- the company was making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention, but didn't have the product to back it up. Goldberg and his team hustled like crazy to deliver, launching new verticals, building tools like a virtual try-on studio, and running popular features like rankings of street style bloggers. That's why Stylecaster's readers have stuck around, even after the hype dies down.