SlideShare needs no introduction. It went from being a pivot of an already successful consulting business (Uzanto) and a pioneering software (MindCanvas) to being a force to reckon with in the professional content community present online. SlideShare had established its behemoth position in the content space when it was acquired by LinkedIn that helped leverage its reach among other perks. Here is a quick look at all that went into making it the Quiet (not so quiet now) Giant of Content Marketing.
Business: Knowledge/Content sharing platform.
Founder/CEO: Rashmi Sinha
Co-founders: Jonathan Boutelle, Amit Ranjan
“We have taken a medium, a cold format for business communication, and made it social.”
– Amit Ranjan, Co-Founder, SlideShare
As the name suggests SlideShare is an online platform that helps people share slides and presentations. Formats such as .ppt .pdf .key can be uploaded and viewed on the site. SlideShare creates engagement through likes, shares, and comments by users on the slides present online. It has revolutionized presentations and the way people see them.
- The Founding Team
- Genesis of SlideShare
- SlideShare’s Growth Story (Behind the Scenes)
- Acquisition by LinkedIn
- SlideShare’s Revenue Models
- Distribution of Traffic
- Summary of Growth
- Founders’ Insights
The Founding Team
SlideShare didn’t actually start off as SlideShare but was a pivot from a consulting business called Uzanto. The backstory of SlideShare began in 2001. Rashmi, a Psychology graduate from Brown University was pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Even though she liked the program, a small part of her knew she wanted to build things and not churn out research papers all her life. The web and its workings managed to pique Rashmi’s curiosity enough to follow it up with her professors in the Information Science department. She discovered her passion for Social Software and Interface Design.
In 2003 when the internet boom was unfolding, Rashmi decided to dabble with this phenomenon and founded Uzanto, a user experience design consulting company in 2003. At Uzanto she had clients that included the likes of eBay, eBay, Blue Shield of California, AAA of California, and Ellie Mae. Her husband, Jonathan Boutelle, a software engineer and her brother Amit Ranjan an MBA professional joined her at Uzanto and helped build on the method Rashmi had devised and translated it into a software. While Rashmi and Jonathan worked out of San Francisco, in 2004, Amit started the company’s subsidiary in Delhi and hired 5-6 team members.
In November 2005, the team released MindCanvas, an online game-like software that ran surveys and facilitated customer research through technology. The use of MindCanvas as a product was sold to leading companies like Microsoft and Yahoo. MindCanvas was monetized as a result and the team was able to run it for 1.5 years without any funding. MindCanvas was the first live instance that demonstrated the distinct skill set each founding member brought to the table – Rashmi contributed to the Design/UX component, Jonathan to the Technology aspect and Amit to the Business-side of things. 2 years into MindCanvas and the team realized it was a B2B product which was built around their consulting practice at Uzanto. This meant they would only be able to scale with people and not technology. They clearly had complementing skill sets to start a technology company. This was just the beginning.
Genesis of SlideShare
In 2004 the trend of unconferences, an open version of technology conferences was on the rise. These were also referred to as bar camps. It brought people in specific areas, both professional and geographic together and they paid to attend it. In 2005 the San Franciso Bay area began to host 1000s of bar camps aka Startup weekend or Mobile Mondays.
In 2006, Amit and Jonathan organized the first bar camp in India at Adobe’s office in Delhi NCR. People from all over the world were in attendance with presentations being made throughout the day. The presenters wanted to distribute the presentations to the audience members and reached out to Jonathan and Amit to help them do that. They noticed that a lot of people were taking pictures of the presentation because it was easy to share images and videos of images on YouTube, Flickr, and such platforms. They were also exchanging files on USB drives. But there was no direct platform on the web that was able to host these presentations in their original format.
It seemed like a problem that needed a solution and they decided to pull out a few engineers from MindCanvas and see how a product could be built around this feature. It took 6 months to build. A very basic version of SlideShare saw the light of day in October 2006. In December 2006 they decided to shut down MindCanvas which was running successfully.
SlideShare’s Growth Story (Behind the Scenes)
Idea to Prototype
According to Amit Ranjan, Co-Founder & COO of Slideshare “The idea behind SlideShare initially began as a product for conference organizers to share slides. The focus was presentations and making them robust. Use by conference organizers was the first application and the focus was to reach out to this category of users. The first version was really basic. It allowed the user to upload a file, copy and use the embed code generated on external platforms. SlideShare became a utility for uploading and sharing a PowerPoint Presentation.”
Early Adopters to Growth
The idea began picking up with more and more users hosting content that garnered traffic and was also a simple and seamless way of communicating their ideas to the world. Initially, users barely tracked the performance of their content on SlideShare. After the first few months users took notice of the traffic their content was generating on SlideShare.
The SlideShare team was driven by product and focused on building capability. Their only marketing spend post-launch was the product review carried out by Tech Crunch titled Introducing SlideShare: PowerPoint + YouTube.They got their early adopters from the word that spread through the feature in October 2006.
6 months down the line the team discovered many other uses for SlideShare –
- Users were initially hosting presentations on YouTube which was not the best format for it. SlideShare was proving to be a more web-friendly format for presentations in their original format. This attracted a lot of users.
- People started inserting photos in a slideshow and shared it on SlideShare. It was well optimized in a horizontal format. Click, click, click. People loved its ease and SlideShare got a lot of users.
- Companies were using these presentations as a marketing tool.
Product/Market Fit to Scale
The data handling and analytical portions of the backend were not too sophisticated. They were more observational, intuitive and gut-driven. Even the decisions that came from them. Especially because there are different types of data and a lot of it is superficial with little or no bearing on the actual trends and performance of the product. However, if you dig deeper there are a lot more insights. For instance, the team realized that among the top ten content creators, more than 50% had signed up with their company email ids. So the use of SlideShare was more professional than personal. The companies were not necessarily on SlideShare. The database revealed the latest trends.
Game-Changing Growth Hacks
The SlideShare team resorted to several hacks that proved to be crucial game-changers at the product/market stage –
Placing Content on the Homepage to Drive Engagement
The team noticed a certain type of content gaining popularity on the platform. The content read like a visual story and was a huge relief from the tech-heavy ppts. The team looked further and noticed these visual slides were being uploaded by designers and creative agencies. To cash in on it they tried this hack. They put the content on the Homepage and then sent an email to the uploader informing them of the same and encouraging them to send the link to their friends. This feature went viral with people sharing the link to their work on the Homepage and at times also followed it up with a blog post about the event. The viral loop was insane, drove engagement and worked very well for SlideShare.
Come right back to SlideShare
SlideShare installed a feature in all of the presentations uploaded online. It was the ‘View on SlideShare’ option that allowed visitors to open the presentation in SlideShare after locating the deck on an external website. So even though users were able to upload a presentation, generate a link and embed the code on their blogs and websites, the visitors still had a way to find themselves back on SlideShare if they clicked on the icon to view on SlideShare. This feature also helped advertise the SlideShare brand on external sites the web over.
Share via email and social shares
The team inserted social hooks for sharing through Twitter and Facebook and mainly through email. All of these sharing tools are still very much in use even as of today.
SEO Hack (Organic search)
To build in SEO, the team took text and links from images and placed it as a transcript below the presentation. Thus the bottom half was for bots to identify text and the top half was for humans to view the deck. This made the page longer and created stronger SEO value for the same.
YouTube videos inside SlideShare
How to get people to engage with the content and make it more exciting for them? A tough one. But SlideShare found a solution. Considering a majority of the content was textual in nature with bullet points, subtle layouts, the presentations could be rather boring. Videos were exploding at the time. They began fusing videos with content to drive engagement. They began embedding links using IFRAME into decks and this drove a ton of traffic. They even taught users how to do add sound bytes, screenshots and make their presentations talk. Here is how. Considering they began as the YouTube of powerpoints, this hack was inevitable.
Getting Angel Investors who were SlideShare users on board
When the team was looking to expand and raise funds for the very first time they reached out directly (through good old email) to distinguished members of the SlideShare community who also happened to be angel investors. These included Mark Cuban, Jonathan Abrams, and Dave McClure. They were some of the first ones to invest in SlideShare.
Added Analytics for Users
The team added analytics around metrics that would help users determine how their presentations were performing. These included traffic sources, visits by geography/source and engagement stats to name a few. They also published a Guide on Analytics and how it could be accessed for each user account.
Embeds leading to Backlinks
The team wanted people to embed content. This idea came from what they saw on YouTube. New users usually found YouTube by way of video links embedded onto blogs. With all the readers of the blogs getting exposed to SlideShare, embedding was becoming a form of free marketing. This resulted in 60% embed links on the site and 40% across other websites. SlideShare was the very first website on the internet that did this actively. Each time somebody copied the embed code and put it on the blog, they got a link back to their website. With every embed, they got a backlink. It did wonders for their SEO. They got 10,000s of backlinks from harvard.edu. However, they dropped this later because they figured Google may find it spammy.
Best Presentation Contest
SlideShare had a whole bunch of users who created presentations frequently. From 2008 they began hosting the Best Presentation Contest annually each year where users were free to make presentations on whichever topic they fancied. Pre-determined categories were made available and the panel to judge these presentations were the who’s who from the world of communication. These included experts like Guy Kawasaki, Bert Decker, Garr Reynolds, Jerry Weissman, Jane Hart and Beth Kanter to name a few. The idea was to have killer slide decks go head to head for some of the best prizes (sponsors included the likes of Microsoft) on offer and the coveted title of Best Presentation on SlideShare.
April Fools Day Prank
On 31st March 2009, SlideShare decided to play an April Fools Day prank on their users by adding two extra zeroes to their presentation views on SlideShare. They sent out emails to users and asked them to mark their tweets with #bestofslideshare. People were surprised and fooled and the prank managed to do what it was meant to…have some fun but it also stirred up some conversations on Twitter even though the views were rolled back to normal within a few hours. The hack managed to grab eyeballs and trigger engagement but it also drove home some Lessons for the SlideShare team. They realized statistics were sacred and an April Fools joke can only be called that if people figure it out within 30 seconds of viewing it. Learning has always been an important aspect of SlideShare and they treated this too as a hack that taught them a few truths.
Fuze Meeting + Slideshare, Tell a Story Contest
In 2009 SlideShare got together with Fuze Meeting (now fuze) to host a storytelling contest. They wanted audiences to tell their stories in words and pictures, using audio or video. Whatever they preferred but within 30 slides. It could be a brand story or even something that people cared about. They had a line up of prizes for various categories and also a widely known judges panel to decide the winners. The contest garnered traffic and engagement with people sharing links to the contest and their presentation on social media and through email.
What did not work?
- Zing was one feature added by SlideShare that clearly did not work. This feature was derived from the model of voting things up and down. Features like social sharing, no of favorites, no of comments were already present on SlideShare to indicate which content was most engaging and liked. Zing proved to be an artificial way of doing something that was already factored into the features and thus nobody got it, nobody used it and the SlideShare team was compelled to remove the code and throw it out.
- SlideShare faced some heat in terms of competition within the presentation sharing space with the advent of Speaker Deck which claimed to be simpler and not cluttered. Speaker Deck was acquired by Github. It is a free service with no ads and can only handle pdf files up to 50MB. It is mainly used by the programming community.
SlideShare was built with a lot of hits (Zipcast for instance) and a few misses. It was a high gestation product which required the team to rough it out for 3 to 5 years. They survived and thrived with the right expectancy and mindset for an innovative product.
Acquisition by LinkedIn
With the world’s largest professional network (LinkedIn) acquiring the world’s largest professional content community (SlideShare), the outcome was a complementary one. At the time Slideshare had around 50 million users and Linkedin had 350 million users. Clearly, there was no risk in the product and the two put together made for a lethal combination. Professionally it made complete sense and personally, too it made complete financial sense. Everyone at SlideShare had equity and the employees also stood to gain from this acquisition.
SlideShare’s Revenue Models
Barring Paid Accounts here are some of the unique revenue generation models deployed by SlideShare –
B2B Lead generation
Lead generation is very popular on SlideShare with companies offering products/services being able to attract and convert visitors and prospects into individuals showing a keen interest in the company. The lead generating element in the case of SlideShare is the online content created and shared by individuals and companies seeking to spread information about
Content Ads on LinkedIn
This format provides a paid option for clients to gain targeted engagement and leads through rich and optimized content on SlideShare. SlideShare & LinkedIn together provide a strong source of earned, owned and paid options for marketing through these content ads. With the acquisition by LinkedIn, brands now have a unique opportunity to share their content with LinkedIn’s professional community through SlideShare Content Ads. These ads can also feature company news, videos, and blogs. Thus brands can showcase their content as SlideShare presentations and market it to targetted professional communities in the LinkedIn space.
AdShare & LeadShare
AdShare lets companies run ads on SlideShare which are relevant to the content that people are viewing. LeadShare, on the other hand, prompts users on the site to provide their contact information either before or after viewing a presentation if they wish to receive additional information about the sellers (companies) and their products.
Distribution of Traffic
SimilarWeb, a data collection tool was used to gather statistics related to online visitors.
Even though a lot of competitors have come up in the slide sharing place, SlideShare is still the most visited and used platform for sharing and uploading presentations. The fact that it receives a lot of its traffic from search isn’t surprising. Its high Domain Authority increases the probability of its content showing up on organic results. Also, a lot of marketers especially in the B2B space have started optimizing their content on SlideShare to show up for organic results.
From all the SlideShare hacks that you see in this content piece, SlideShare has an embed feature which gives them a ton of referral traffic. Now, Similarweb may not reflect that but even today that’s been their #1 strategy for growth.
Takeaway: Looking at this data, I would recommend if you’re a B2B business, look at the kind of content that is doing well on SlideShare in your category and see if you can create a better version of it and rank for it.
Summary of Growth
|Idea → Prototype||
|Early Adopters → Growth||
|Product/Market Fit → Scale||
The SlideShare team gathers product insights in a very balanced and holistic manner. This is how they approach the periodic review of SlideShare.
- They begin by analyzing everything. The qualitative and quantitative data or as they like to put it the art and the science. But at first, the emphasis is a lot more on the art. More qualitative first, then quantitative.
- In SlideShare given the diversity of content, the initial part is a lot more iterative thus more experimental and a lot more art and less science. The reverse is true for LinkedIn which is more science thus more predictive and formalized research is involved and a lot less art.
- What is science/quantitative data in this regard?
- Overall User Behavior aka superficial data. This can be sourced using Google Analytics.
- Individual User Behavior Data that helps identify who the users are.
- Product Data which helps identify what type of content is leading in views and engagement and how are users interacting with it.
- System Data helps identify features that are most in use and also email addresses in use. For instance, a close look at the leading content creators indicated that they used their work-related systems and not their personal accounts.
- What is art/qualitative data in this regard?
- Feedback which provides insights into what people are saying about the product.
- Observational Data which delves into the general trends noticed around the use of the product.
- Give your team the chance to express themselves and showcase their ideas.
- Instill a sense of ownership.
- Create a culture that believes in giving ideas a fair chance.
- Make people believe the company/team is iterative and open to change.
Their parting shot on how to get it right while starting up – Stay super lean and agile in the early days. Aim for a quick release.
I found a gem of an interview conducted at Stanford where Rashmi Sinha and Jonathan Boutelle spoke rather candidly about how SlideShare came to be and their journey with it. This dates back to February 2010 before the LinkedIn acquisition. Worth a watch. Cheers.