“We are so ubiquitous, but at the same time, people gloss right over us,” said Mark Josephson, CEO of URL shortening service Bitly. He joined the company six months ago from AOL, where he served as SVP of revenue and marketing at AOL’s local news platform Patch, which it sold to Hale Global in January.
At Bitly, Josephson leads the company’s team of 55, and has found an entrepreneurial endeavor that is better suited to him than the “structure” and “process” he encountered in large-scale corporate life, he said.
The company on Monday brought on former AOL Patch CTO Rob Platzer to serve as Bitly CTO, former Buddy Media VP of Marketing Melissa Wallace to lead marketing and inked a deal with marketing analytics platform Moz to track and score inbound links.
Josephson sat down with AdExchanger.
AdExchanger: What problem do you solve?
MARK JOSEPHSON: The problem we set out to solve was to make the link shorter for Twitter in 2008. But the interesting problem we’re trying to solve is what happens to content when it leaves your site and where it goes. That’s why we encode and wrap that content in a tag. Our Bitly links are tags that go out around the Web and travel with content and report back to us. That’s at the core of what we do- understanding how content moves and how audiences interact with it.
Bitly began as Twitter’s default link shortener, before the platform transitioned to t.co. Did this affect you?
Sure, it definitely did. But our market share on Twitter hasn’t dropped in years. When you scroll through Twitter, we manage branded short domains, so our go-to-market for brands is Bitly Brand Tools. We’ll manage companies’ branded short domains. That’s Es.pn. Nyti.ms. If you go to Twitter, you’ll see all of those brands, so we’re not just the unbranded Bitly. Unbranded Bitly is our free product. But 15% of every tweet is the link. When you’re a customer, one of the very first parts of it is we give you the ability to control the brand and to optimize the second half of that link. After the slash, we call it a Bitly custom keyword. So you can do Es.pn/Superbowl, and you can start to play with creative, optimize performance and run A/B tests. We give you back 15% of every Tweet you do to optimize and measure. We deal with all the reporting and analytics around who clicked it, where it’s from, etc.
How many customers are using Brand Tools?
We manage brand and short domains for more than 40,000 brands and there’s a subset of those who are using the next-level [paid] product and it’s in the mid-hundreds. Over 4.
How have you turned a simple link cruncher into a business tool?
We’re at the point now where we have a real story to tell brands about how to optimize their campaigns, making real active connections between their products and programs, campaigns and audiences. All of this stuff – marketing automation and CRM – is all going to tie together. It’s all going to happen and so how do we play in that in a meaningful way? We talk to clients and partners about encoding their owned, earned and paid so they can get a full-suite picture and understanding of their audience and what happens.
What kind of reach do you have?
We are encoding close to 500 million links a month and those links are getting clicked 7 billion times a month. We do that in sub-milliseconds. We also correlate clicks and profiles cross-property, so we can correlate a Facebook click to a Twitter click into one profile, which very few people can actually do. Those profiles are about 600 million, 28-day actives.
Links aren’t confined to social shares, though. What are you encoding for SMS, email, etc.?
For SMS, we work with a lot of marketers who are creating unique links for SMS campaigns and individual recipients so they can have better visibility and tracking. It’s about having a deeper understanding of that content and where it goes. People are encoding earned, owned and paid across all platforms. We are by default the independent third party arbiter of clicks between every platform, so we have a lot of people who encode with us just so they can rationalize their Google Analytics vs. Omniture vs. their DART tags vs. other third party reports. We are the unbiased one in the middle. Smart publishers and brands are encoding all of their assets so they can collect all their data and get it in one spot.
Are you getting into attribution territory?
We see the destination. Technically, it’s not that hard to do. It seems like it’s on everyone’s road map. We’re integrated into people’s share buttons. We’ve got code on people’s sites and code on their links and where their [links are] going. Connecting those dots is the next step.
Can you expand on what you do and don’t do with data?
We know where things start and where things end. Sometimes people don’t appreciate the value of what that link is. I think it’s an elemental piece of every Internet business in the world. In addition to a branding vehicle and optimization tool, it’s a vessel for data and the kinds of things we’re going to do are considering that link as a way to make more active connections for marketers to their CRM, to their marketing automation platform, to their email database, to make the connections between content cross-platform.
But you also work with some of the enterprise platform companies.
Adobe is a client of Bitly brand tools. Salesforce.com uses us for that part. What’s interesting is as marketers look for more control, we’re integrated in 75 different sharing, monitoring and publishing platforms because we’re one massive set of open APIs. We work with Percolate and GE really closely for example. As GE is driving their global strategy and working with Percolate as their content marketing platform, we’re at the table with them optimizing how they use the link, how they can take advantage of that, and how it can feed into and be presented in Percolate’s dashboard. We’re integrated into Hootsuite and we have customers who use Hootsuite’s platform and our link tools, and other examples are Sprinklr and Spredfast.
Who are your competitors? Would it be a social software solution such as Awe.sm?
Those guys are really smart and their investors are great. I’m a big fan of growing the market. But when we look at the link shorteners of the world, there is nobody with remotely close to the scale we have. Our biggest competitor is really apathy for the link. Every time I see an unbranded link, it tells me the marketer hasn’t thought about optimizing it yet. Our competition is also our own free product.
What’s on your 12-24 month checklist?
From a product standpoint, we empower marketers to brand their links and optimize the performance of those links. Fuel all of that with data, reporting and analytics, workflow and master sub accounts, and where we’re heading is creating more powerful connections with your audience in lots of different ways. For example, one thing we’re able to do – because every click is a redirect through us, we drop a first party cookie and that cookie travels with your user, so we can identify where your audience is and show people who’ve engaged with your content about Valentine’s Day three times in the last week and show you if they’re new, if they’re returning, and you can hypothesize about where we’re going with this, and what our data enables us to do, but it’s not in market yet.
With 45% of your decodes now mobile, how are you planning around the cookie?
It’s changing quickly, but we have what we call Bitly unique ids, which are cross-property. There are lots of companies playing in the space of [probabilistic solutions] just to figure that out for mobile. I don’t know if those companies are businesses [we would pursue ourselves] or tuck-in acquisitions we could make, but our team is working on those sorts of things as well. A lot of that is algorithmic, and we have about 20 engineers at Bitly solving problems like that.
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