Irrational Optimism and the Birth of Marketing Orchestration with NewsCred’s Shaf Islam

Episode 41 of The Verblio Show

Curious how content marketing came to be?

Hear Shaf Islam break down how NewsCred went from a fake news-fighting company to one of the earliest (and biggest) players in the content marketing space. He also discusses NewsCred’s recent transition into Welcome, a marketing orchestration software—and teaches us what marketing orchestration actually means.

It’s not all marketing, though. He and Steve also cover Shaf’s leadership style (“long-term optimism”), his favorite football team (the Tennessee Titans) and his current Spotify hits (old school rap, Kygo, and the Mary Poppins Soundtrack.)

Guest-at-a-Glance

📛 Name: Shafqat Islam

💥 What he does: Cofounder and CEO of NewsCred, now Welcome.

🖱️ Find Shaf on the web: Welcome | LinkedIn | Twitter

💡 Get smart: “Doing less and being more interesting should be the order of the day going forward.”

Top Takeaways

The next big category? Marketing orchestration 👉

“Marketing is the only organization within a company that doesn’t have some sort of operational system where everyone’s doing their planning and their execution,” Shaf says. “There’s no system of record. There’s no single unifying platform.”

With its recent transition into Welcome, Shaf and the NewsCred team intend to become that platform. “Marketing orchestration,” for Shaf, comes down to unifying the various aspects of marketing, from the people and teams to the content to the tech stacks to the data. By integrating all those pieces, marketers can stay better aligned on goals and strategies.

“We’re trying to orchestrate your marketing team internally—your team, your process, your content, your workflows, your calendars,” he explains. “It’s to help you work better together and help you work more effectively.”

Be more interesting 👉

One of the things that has surprised Shaf since the early days of content marketing is just how much bad and boring content has been produced. It’s a problem he was deeply familiar with at NewsCred: “We had at some point 10 insurance companies and I said, ‘If we have to write another article about winterizing your tires, I just wanna crawl into a hole.’”

Whether because people are trying to produce too much or because they view B2B as inherently boring, what has been created is a glut of unoriginal content on the web. Coming up with stuff that is truly original and different admittedly takes more effort, but it’s worth the effort.

“If it’s something where I could really learn and it’s something that’s not available elsewhere, I’ll read it all day long,” Shaf says. For him, it’s all about using your brand’s unique access—whether to people or data—to create original, data-driven pieces.

Episode Highlights

When he felt he’d made it in America 🏈

“When I arrived in the US in 1999 for college, I didn’t know anything about the NFL. American football was a new concept to me, but everyone was watching every Sunday. So I thought, I better pick a team, since everyone else seems to have a team. And I love this guy Steve McNair, who’s a quarterback for the Titan. So I started watching the Titans, initially just figuring out what football was all about.

Fast forward 21 years, I’m an obsessive hardcore Titans fan. I don’t think I missed a game in a decade. Ask my wife—she thinks I’m totally nuts. And the Tennessee Titans just started following me on social media. And to me, that was a big moment because I’ve been following them forever.”

Lessons from living in Bangladesh

“Bangladesh is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but it wasn’t like that for a long time. It was extremely poor. You look at a problem like widespread economic hardship or infrastructure challenges, and you can think of it in two ways: You can say, ‘Woe is us, everything sucks, life is hard.’ Or you can look at these problems and look at them as massive opportunities to fix things, to improve the wellbeing of a large group of people.

…Those countries where people don’t have a lot, they are forced to be resilient. And we talk about resiliency and perseverance and company values here in the US, and it’s almost superficial when you think about it compared to the resilience required in those countries, where you need resilience just to live, not just to work.”

Staying credible with long-term optimism

“One thing I have learned over the years is not to be blindly optimistic. I think that’s important. I think in my early part of my career, I was almost blindly optimistic and at some point you can lose credibility, right? People like optimism, but they also don’t want to be led down a path that is just futile.

So, I’ve learned to have what I would call long-term optimism, which is just being unambiguously and unequivocally, fully optimistic in the long-term, but a short-term realist—recognizing that the short-term is gonna be hard, there’s gonna be challenges, you’re gonna make mistakes. I’ve married those two concepts and I think it’s a lot easier to get people to buy into your optimism if you’re willing to be short-term realistic and call out challenges or issues that you may face on your way to some sort of greatness.”

How NewsCred evolved from fighting fake news to content marketing to marketing orchestration

“People talk about pivoting your business and everyone thinks, ‘Oh, NewsCred, you must’ve made some big pivots.’ And we never did. We never had a board meeting where we said, ‘Hey, we need to change our business.’ We just made little iterative tweaks all the time. And I think that the thing for us is, we always listened to the market and said, ‘The market is asking for this,’ or ‘The market wants that.’ And we would just make changes—some were evolutionary, some were additive—and eventually we got to something very, very different.”

How content marketing was born

“It was around the time that social media platforms had become big and brands had gotten on to them because initially, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera—it was all individuals. Then all the brands got on. And we said, wait a minute—this is the first time that brands have direct access to their audience, right? Whether it’s through social networks or their email or their website, in the history of the world, brands always had an intermediary—they have had to advertise through some intermediary. And now they have direct access.

And our hypothesis was very simple: They’re gonna need something interesting to say. So, how can we help brands become interesting or have something interesting to say? Let’s help them with content. We thought this was gonna become a big thing, and we started calling it content marketing.”

What surprises Shaf about content

“The growth of this industry surprised me. It went from being an interesting cute thing, to every company in the world is doing it—literally every company in the world is doing some sort of content marketing. Whether they’re calling it that or whether they have their own team or person responsible, they’re doing it. Very few are oblivious to the fact that you need to create interesting, compelling content, whether for your blog or email or social. So that’s one thing: I never thought it would be so ubiquitous.

On the other hand, I never thought it would be so boring. Like most of the content is just so boring—either it’s bad, or it’s boring. …I think we can do much better and create more interesting, differentiated content.”

Top Quotes

🎙️ Shaf:

[9:37] “If you’ve never been managed by someone good or bad, it’s hard to know how to become a good manager yourself.”

[10:56] “When I look back, I don’t remember the product I built or the software. …What I look back and remember is the people, the leaders, the ways they lead.”

[12:19] “Leaders bring a certain type of positive energy to the company every day, and their optimism is infectious.”

[23:46] “A category of one company is basically proof that there’s no market.”

[24:03] “The wonderful thing about category creation is your competitors are also really important allies.”

[38:51] “Doing less and being more interesting should be the order of the day going forward.”

[43:42] “As long as you make a few more good decisions than bad ones, things will work out in the long-term.”

Learn More

Read a quick summary of the Stockdale Paradox, which Shaf referenced in regard to his “long-term optimism” leadership approach.

Check out the book Steve mentioned, Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday, on how great novels are written with an approach that’s useful in the business world as well.

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