Marketing lessons from the CrunchFund controversy

Michael Arrington

This may be inside baseball, but I am mesmerized by the drama playing out at TechCrunch right now — and I can’t help but see a metaphor for the shift of marketing within it.

The short version: TechCrunch is world’s most popular tech blog, acquired last year by AOL/Huffington Post, but largely permitted to retain its editorial independence. Founder Michael Arrington, a larger-than-life character on the tech scene, stayed on. However, Mike recently announced he would be running a new tech VC fund (“CrunchFund”), with significant funding from AOL, and the entire rest of the business tech press exploded in conflict-of-interest mania.

The New York Times. Reuters. The Wall Street Journal’s All Things D. AdWeek. Business Insider. Holy hand grenade, batman.

Mostly predictable, and in my humble opinion, mostly fair objections. I do think Mike should have stepped down with this announcement.

But it’s been the response of the TechCrunch writers that I’ve found most interesting. Paul Carr’s original retort to AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong, as well as his rebuttal to the NYT article by David Carr (no relation). MG Siegler’s “the end is near” post, as well as a more revealing post about the internals of TechCrunch editorial operations on his own blog. Pretty ballsy commentary by employees of an organization — yet completely in character with what makes TechCrunch so good.

Now, I always have a soft spot for people who are passionate about what they do — and that shines through here. But that last post by MG is the most fascinating to me, as it reverberates with the echos of the broader content marketing and social media marketing revolution underway.

If you take MG at his word, TechCrunch is a highly distributed publishing ecosystem, with individual writers given enormous liberty to write what they want, when they want, without having to submit stories for approval to an editor, without having to coordinate through daily or weekly editorial agenda meetings. According to MG, this is what gives TechCrunch its authenticity and its agility — and has enabled them to “scoop” the mainstream business tech press time and time again.

It’s no doubt anathema to traditional press — just as the social media wildfire has been an unpleasant conflagration for many traditional marketing hierarchies. But according to MG, TechCrunch “works because instead of a reliance on top-down management and editing, the emphasis is on hiring the right people.”

There has never been anyone with ultimate power running the show — at least not in my nearly three years with TechCrunch.

Mike certainly could have that power if he wanted it. Again, he is the creator and the driving force behind the site. But he’s smart enough to know that the site wouldn’t function as well that way.

Instead, he sits back and lets the rest of us do what we do. Again, he’s hired extremely well. He knows we’ll kick ass without any oversight from him. In fact — and I think he’d be the first to admit this — sometimes any guidance from him can be a distraction. “Hey did we hear about this?” “Yes, Mike, we covered that two weeks ago.” “Oh. Okay. Carry on.”

To me, that may be the epitome of great content marketing management.

If you view TechCrunch through the lens of content marketing — and I know, that’s not really what they are, but stick with me — it’s hard not to see them as one of the best on the planet at it. They consistently produce content that their audience finds incredibly compelling, at a pace and scale that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Which is MG’s final point:

But ultimately there is only one thing that matters: information. People don’t care how they get it, just that they get it. If they don’t think they can trust it from one source, they’ll find another way to get it. It really is that simple. The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless.

Don’t believe me? A day after half of the web was ready to start boycotting TechCrunch last week, I broke the news about Amazon’s Kindle tablet. The result was TechCrunch seeing visiting patterns decidedly opposite of a boycott.

Information is all that matters. All the rest is bullshit.

It is TechCrunch’s structure and culture that has delivered these goods, and I believe that marketing leaders could learn a lot from Mike Arrington’s success (well, up to the current CrunchFund debacle, of course). Who knows exactly how this will end, or if TechCrunch will lose its mojo in the process. But in the absence of this controversy, the real story to me is the reinvention of tech publishing that TechCrunch has pioneered and what that prefigures for the rest of us content producers.

Can your content marketing be this independent, authentic and engaging? Should it be?

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1 thought on “Marketing lessons from the CrunchFund controversy”

  1. It’s consequence of how you organize to face the customer I would say. In light of recent echoes of social enterprise, seems like TechCrunch is most in tune with the times. This reality demands a level of transparency and consequence so high, because the customer is in-house and engaging in real time. JP’s reflections back from dreamforce complements your view point and does so without the drama.

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