5 CEOs Share How Transparency Impacts Their Content Strategy

Radical transparency.

It’s an emerging trend among startups who are building a new type of company culture. These pioneers can be spotted publishing salaries online or letting the company read each other’s emails.

Call it a reformation. Call it crazy. But whatever you call it, you can’t ignore the way that transparency has impacted web traffic, social media engagement and overall brand awareness.

I had the opportunity to interview five truly innovative startup founders. They each practice some level of transparency in their respective companies, and each one is a seasoned practitioner of inbound/content marketing.

So, let’s meet the crew…


1) What kind of “transparent content” has attracted the most attention for your company?  Why do think this is the case?

Joel: By far the most popular “transparent content” we’ve shared has been our article on Open Salaries and how that works at Buffer. I assumed it would trigger conversation, but it did so far beyond my expectations. Why? My guess is that it is because this is probably our most radical step so far in terms of pushing how transparent we are as a company.

Rand: We have done a lot of sharing of our financials, our failures, and personal struggles, but the content that’s actually attracted the most attention (i.e. traffic and shares) is when we help to make data that others try to obsfucate transparent. Some examples include our ranking factors study, our Google algorithm update history, and Mozcast (which tracks Google’s changes). I think, in particular, Google’s lack of commitment to their supposed core value of transparency has made our work invaluable to those in the field.

Adii: As a rule of thumb, everyone always loves data (especially related to revenue), but this isn’t always easy to publish. I’ve had most success in sharing my mistakes (not necessarily full-blown failures) and how my own emotions and struggles relate to that.

I think the reason for this is that most people don’t trust easily and as a result they can’t be transparent to the point where it hurts and where they feel vulnerable. This means that most of the time, the really good stuff about startups and entrepreneurship (that happens below the surface or behind-the-scenes) never gets published and written about. This in turn means that anyone willing to open up publicly in this way, already has an unique competitive advantage about the content they’re publishing.

Peldi: Pretty much any blog post about how our company works attracts attention. The ones sharing financial data attracted a lot of attention back in 2008 because not many people were doing it. The ones about our company policies also attracted a lot of traffic. There’s definitely a thirst for this kind of information out there.

Dane:  Product planning and vision are number one. Usually this is transparent but our total transparency has made it ever more so and people care. Second is salary and equity, which of course makes sense, but honestly is much more a one time view then a weekly check-in.

2) What types of posts have been the most uncomfortable or challenging for you to write? What helped you push through?

Rand: Posts where I share information that could be perceived by Moz team members as hurtful or casting blame are the hardest. When I do that, I try to be as empathetic as possible, and remind myself that we all (everyone on the Moz team) signed on for a very transparent adventure, and have to be willing to step into some uncomfortable territory if we want to truly live up to the value. This post on generosity vs. entitlement, for example, caused more than a few hurt feelings and raised eyebrows from folks at Moz.

Joel: Being transparent is often uncomfortable. Especially in the beginning. The key is to keep doing it, then it gets easier. The real secret to succeeding with a strategy of transparency? Be extremely selective who you get involved with the company (team members, investors, etc.) What has helped me the most is that whoever in the team I ask for confirmation on whether to share some piece of information, they are supportive and help me realize why we should do it.

The hardest posts to write have probably been my Quora answer on how much equity we gave up when raising our funding, our Open Salaries and my blog post on firing people.

AdiiMy post about pressing pause on my startup was by far the hardest post I have ever written and I procrastinated on writing about it for weeks.

There’s three very prominent reasons for eventually publishing it:

  1. Writing is like therapy for me. Getting stuff like this out of my head helps a great deal in the pursuit of clarity.
  2. I prefer telling people wtf is going on, instead of them having to ask “WTF?” when they just see me dissapear or go quiet. I don’t like others guessing about the facts when I have the ability to share the facts.
  3. I think there’s massive value in sharing these experiences with others. That value being hopefully someone else can learn from my mistakes / experiences and not repeat them verbatim. :)

Dane: Much of it is hard. The times where you would not share for sure take more time and bring around more issues. The worst is the few times you have to, or maybe pretend you have to, bend the system. That feels like crap and should be avoided as best as possible.

Peldi: The two apology ones were hard to write…not necessarily because of the transparency factor, more because we had messed up and felt bad about it.

and http://blogs.balsamiq.com/product/2012/04/03/sorry/

3) Are you ever afraid that being transparent could backfire and hurt your brand? Is there such thing as “too much information”?

Dane: Of course! Few goods don’t come with a cost. We are aware of the communication tax thats on us but have yet to pay the inevitable price to come. BTW its still worth it!

Peldi: Yes, I believe too much transparency can hurt. I’ve seen in happen with other companies. The way it has hurt us, for instance, is how we used to be super-transparent about product roadmaps. Roadmaps evolve all the time (they must in order to respond to market and company dynamics), but people get really hurt if you promise them something they care about and then later de-prioritize it…they don’t have a full vision of why you’re making those decisions, so they’re hard to understand. We don’t share roadmaps so much any more. :)

Joel: I think there’s a chance, in fact it’s probably almost guaranteed that it will happen at some point. What I think many miss though is how much benefit you get all the while, when you are being transparent day in day out simply because that’s your culture. It’s easy to ignore the benefits and focus on the risks. In addition, I hear a lot of speculation about things that could go wrong with transparency but I don’t often hear of real examples.

Adii: Possibly yes, but I’ve not encountered that part just yet.

I think as a founder (or as founders) one needs to be careful about being too vulnerable and transparent, as some members of one’s team might not be comfortable with that or be able to cope accordingly (some people want leaders that always appear strong, regardless of what’s happening below the surface). That said, this level of (uncomfortable) transparency actually just filters the type of people (team members and otherwise) you tend to work with.

Rand: It’s something I’ve worried about in the past, but these days, I feel like I’ve found a healthy balance (or at least, one that works with our quirky culture). I will say that there are things I’ve wanted to share that I’ve forced myself not to, because doing so would be telling stories that aren’t mine to tell, or giving one side of an experience when the other party isn’t there to defend/represent themselves. Our core values include both transparency and empathy, but we bias to putting empathy first in most cases.

 4) Is there a risk of talking about yourself too much? If so, how do you strike a balance between self-indulgence and authenticity?

Rand: That’s actually one of the big reasons I split out my personal blog from the company blog. I wanted a place where I could write for myself and with a focus on my thoughts without worrying about whether the topics were too self-centered. However, I still try to only blog when I believe there’s something of value to share with others.

Joel: Great question. I think the impact of of your voice can decrease if all you talk about is yourself. As an example, I try to share great articles from others 80-90% of the time, and only share my own articles or thoughts on Twitter or Facebook the other 10-20% of the time.

At the same time, I think it can be easy to be afraid to speak up and provide value for others. I always encourage everyone to blog, even if you’re at a very early stage compared to where you want to be. There is always someone that one step before where you are, who you can help. Once you’ve reached your goals you can’t help that person as much, since you’re much farther along and they would struggle to relate.

Dane: No, don’t think so. The whole thing lacks hubris and secrecy but thats the point. It is always better to over communicate the under and if it gets annoying at least your on the better half of the possibilities.

Adii: I think it all comes down to the aim and purpose of why you are sharing these personal tid-bits. And perhaps there is a point where you’re not offering any value in favour of just saying “I this” or “I that”.

Peldi: Totally. I see this a lot in other companies. They over-share because they’re fishing for compliments or begging for attention, or most commonly they do it as a recruiting tool — notice how the Valve handbook “leaked” right around the time when Valve was trying to hire a huge linux development team?

Also, people who blog too much always beg the question: how do they find the time to write so much? Shouldn’t their business keeping them busy enough?

5) Do you think transparency is an all or nothing deal or is it appropriate for companies to pick and choose certain things to disclose?

Adii: I think the latter is mostly fine; the more transparent any person or company can be, the better. One consideration however would be that you shouldn’t actively try hide things, because if you are found out, others could probably question the authenticity of the transparent stuff that you put out there in the first place.

Joel: This is an awesome question. We’ve decided to take transparency quite far. The way we see it is that there’s a level of transparency that no one will argue whether it’s a good or bad thing. In general, most wouldn’t say transparency is bad, every company wants to say they’re transparent. We believe in the value of transparency so much that we want to go all the way and go to the point where we automatically filter new team members based on that. Some people are not comfortable with making their salary public information.

However, I think going this far is not for everyone. It’s probably not appropriate in many cases, there are different dynamics with companies in other locations or markets. In this regard, I think that there are some great pieces of transparency which can be picked and can still provide a lot of benefit. One of these would be to experiment with email transparency within the team.

Peldi: Definitely not all or nothing…very few things are black-or-white and I think it’s dangerous to think that way.

Dane: Doesn’t need to be all or nothing but the cost reward ratio encourages it. You take on a lot of cost for a little value if you open up just one aspect. Finding the right balance especially for existing companies is part of the art. Exploding the known office bombs in a controlled fashion is a pre-requisite.

Rand: I think it’s fine to choose certain things to disclose. Transparency doesn’t have to be a core value – for some, it’s just a marketing tactic or an experiment, and that’s OK. But, if transparency is a core value, then please do try to live up to that by sharing more than what makes you comfortable. IMO, real transparency happens just over that border of what feels right :-)

*Bonus Question*

One piece of advice for those of us trying to create content that has more impact?

Rand: My best advice is to recognize that content requires being two things – 1) Substantively better/more interesting/more valuable than 90% of what already exists on the topic and 2) Willing to try and fail for a very long time before you succeed. If you’re not willing to invest the effort and energy required to do both of those, then content marketing may not be the path for you (and that’s OK, too – there are lots of other ways to buy or earn traffic).

Joel: Try to be consistent with style, topics and regularity. This helped me a lot. I write about startups and life/learning topics, and not much else. I’m originally a coder but I don’t write about that. Also, the times I had the most success is when I wrote every week consistently. I found that 800-1000 words was a perfect article length for me. On the Buffer blog, we publish 4-5 times a week. It doesn’t too much matter what you decide, but try to stick with it and you will see the impact over time thanks to compounding.

Peldi: Hmm…stop focusing so much on producing content and focus on MAKING something worth talking about instead? As Steve Martin says, “be so good they can’t ignore you!” – if your product is amazing, people will write about it, you won’t have to worry about writing good content for it.

Adii: Just write from the heart. When you are sharing authentically and transparently, the easiest is to firstly just write for yourself; removing the obstacle of publishing it for the world to see.

Dane: Be bold, go big or go home, do interesting things and the rest will follow.