20Growth How to Master PR and Comms, How to Get Your Startup Written About; Press Releases, Fundraising Announcements, Embargos etc & Lessons Scaling Duolingo from 3200M Users with Gina Gotthilf, CoFounder @ Latitud



In this insightful episode of "20VC" with Harry Stebbings, PR expert Gina Gotthilf shares her granular tactics for leveraging PR as a growth strategy for startups. Gotthilf, co-founder and CEO of Latitude and former growth leader at Duolingo and Tumblr, emphasizes the importance of storytelling, creating a compelling one-liner, and strategically reaching out to journalists to generate interest. She advises starting with less important publications for practice before aiming for major ones and suggests that founders handle PR themselves for greater control and authenticity. Gotthilf also discusses the potential pitfalls of paid marketing, the significance of timing and relationships in PR, and the importance of aligning PR efforts with a company's core objectives.

Summary Notes

PR and Communications as a Growth Hack

  • PR and communications are undervalued tools for startup growth.
  • Startups can benefit significantly from being featured in the right publications.
  • It's important to have a narrative when pitching to PR sources.

"Make a list of all of the PR sources that you might want to be featured on, and start with the least important ones. When you're pitching, you need to have a story to tell. A lot of the time, it just comes down to understanding how you make people feel."

This quote emphasizes the importance of having a clear story or narrative when reaching out to PR sources, as well as starting with less critical outlets to build momentum.

Gina Gotthilf's Background and Career Journey

  • Gina Gotthilf is known for her growth and marketing successes.
  • She had a turbulent start to her career, with several setbacks before finding success.
  • Her experiences demonstrate that a non-linear career path can still lead to success.

"I majored in philosophy, which is arguably one of the most useless majors you can have... I applied to 100 jobs and didn't get any of them... my boss was a heroin addict... I kept losing my right to be in the United States because I'm Brazilian and I needed a visa... I left New York when I was 24... and I went back home to Brazil and thought like, okay, well, I'm going to sign up for Woof... and things really changed when Tumblr hired me."

This quote outlines Gina's early career challenges, including her struggle to find employment with a philosophy degree, working with a troubled boss, visa issues, and a decision to leave the corporate world, which eventually led her to opportunities with Tumblr and later successes.

Networking and Career Opportunities

  • Networking, or simply meeting interesting people, can lead to unexpected career opportunities.
  • Gina Gotthilf's openness to meeting people led to her being remembered and later recruited by Tumblr.

"I love meeting people... I decided I wanted to meet all the people who I had spoke to on the phone or emailed that I thought sounded interesting... one of the people I met was Mark Kotney... he was like, and we would love your help. And I remember saying, that is so great. But no, I turned it down... And at the end of that, they were like, we don't like anybody. Can you do it? And it was a really tough moment for me because I didn't want to... but it felt like a really pivotal moment in my career."

Gina describes her networking strategy and how it eventually led to her role at Tumblr, despite initially declining the offer. Her willingness to connect with others played a crucial role in her career progression.

The Tumblr Experience

  • Working at Tumblr was a learning experience in adapting and improvising.
  • The early stages of startups often involve figuring things out as you go along.

"No one knows what they're doing at most points in time, in life, and in business... I wasn't paid at Tumblr for six months because they couldn't figure that out... I realize everyone's figuring every step of the way out, and if they can do it, then maybe one day so can I."

Gina reflects on her time at Tumblr, noting the improvisational nature of early-stage startups and the realization that uncertainty is common in business.

Growth Experiments at Duolingo

  • Gina Gotthilf's role in growth at Duolingo began without a clear definition of what 'growth' meant.
  • Successful growth experiments can be low-investment but yield high returns.

"What is growth? Like, what is growth? And then startup... I could write copy in like 30 minutes... So the investment was very low, and the potential return was very high because the number of users who were seeing that was so high already at the time."

This quote illustrates the process of defining growth strategies and the effectiveness of low-investment, high-return experiments, such as optimizing notifications at Duolingo.

Learning from Failed Experiments

  • Failed experiments can be as informative as successful ones if they reveal significant user inflection points.
  • Understanding why something doesn't work can lead to improvements and new strategies.

"But if you run an experiment with statistical significance and it harmed your product, that means that you found a moment that really matters to users... it's not pain if you're learning, is how I view it."

Gina explains that a failed experiment that significantly impacts the product indicates a critical moment for users, which can be a valuable learning opportunity for further experimentation.

The Importance of MVP in Testing

  • The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is crucial in testing new features or experiments.
  • MVP allows for the testing of ideas with minimal investment before full implementation.

"Let's find a minimum viable product, like an MVP version of this test... what is the minimum version of this experiment that we think will give us the results that we need in order to determine whether this is a good or a non lever."

The quote discusses the strategy of using an MVP approach to test new ideas efficiently, which was applied to the implementation of badges on Duolingo, ultimately leading to one of the most successful experiments for the growth team.

User Engagement and Gamification Strategies

  • Duolingo initially introduced a badge for new sign-ups to test user engagement with gamification.
  • The badge featured a gamified girl with balloons to celebrate the user's first badge.
  • The team hypothesized that positive reactions to this badge would validate the effectiveness of badges in general.
  • The implementation of badges was complex, requiring consideration of logistics and display within the app's interface.
  • The initial badge for sign-ups failed to engage users, leading the team to abandon badge development for a year.
  • Later, the team realized the initial approach was too minimal to elicit the desired emotional response.
  • The team recognized that badges should be awarded for accomplishments that users are proud of, not just signing up.

"And so we decided to give people a badge for signing up. It was like, you signed up, and then you would get this really gamified girl with balloons that would say, like, you got your first badge."

This quote explains the initial badge design and its purpose. It highlights the team's rationale for choosing the sign-up moment to introduce gamification.

"But we decided this was the way to know. And what happened was no one reacted to the girl with the balloons. It did nothing."

The quote reveals the outcome of the experiment, indicating that the badge failed to engage users as intended.

"Basically. It was so minimal that it didn't actually elicit the emotions. It didn't actually do the thing that badges would if implemented in its full extent, because, first of all, you get a badge for something that you did and that you're proud of. No one's proud of signing up. That's such a lame moment."

This quote provides insight into why the initial badge was ineffective, emphasizing the importance of meaningful achievements in gamification strategies.

The Importance of Validating User Experience

  • The Duolingo team did not initially "dog food" their experiments, meaning they did not test the user experience themselves.
  • They later began trying out their own features to better understand their impact on users.
  • This practice helped the team improve their approach to growth and user engagement.
  • A year after the initial badge experiment, they revisited the concept with a more thorough and user-centric approach.
  • The revised badge system considered design, placement, and the achievements they represented, leading to significant improvements across various metrics.

"And what we weren't doing at the time was dog fooding our own experiments. We never thought that we should just sit at a table and actually try out the thing that we had just built to see how that makes us feel and whether it works or doesn't work."

This quote highlights the team's initial oversight in not testing their own features, which is crucial for understanding user experience.

Statistical Significance in Experimentation

  • Statistical significance is a scientific method used to determine the likelihood that an experiment's results will be repeatable.
  • The concept is based on sample size and the impact of the change being tested.
  • Larger impacts require smaller sample sizes to prove significance, while smaller impacts need larger samples.
  • Early-stage startups often struggle with achieving statistical significance due to limited user numbers and resources.

"Statistical significance tells you whether something that you tested, and the result that you got is likely to repeat itself over time, over, over and and over and over and over and over."

This quote explains the concept of statistical significance and its relevance to the repeatability of experiment results.

North Star Metric at Duolingo

  • Duolingo's North Star metric was always daily active users (DAU).
  • Submetrics helped understand the impact on DAUs.
  • The focus on DAUs influenced strategies across the company, including PR efforts.
  • Retention was prioritized because without it, acquisition efforts would be less effective.

"The North Star metric for Duolingo at all times was daily active users, Dau."

This quote identifies the key metric Duolingo used to measure success and guide growth strategies.

The Role of PR in Startup Growth

  • PR is often undervalued in the startup world, with a preference for product-led growth and A/B testing.
  • Tactical PR can be a significant lever for growth, as evidenced by Tumblr's expansion in Latin America and Duolingo's early growth.
  • Founders should craft a compelling story that resonates with their audience and iterate based on reactions.
  • PR messaging should include impressive signifiers to capture attention and generate interest.
  • Strategic event planning and leveraging government partnerships can enhance PR effectiveness, even if the partnerships themselves are not successful.
  • Founders should be resilient and adapt their PR pitches based on feedback.

"PR is so not sexy. It's considered really old school. It's like, no, I want to do product led growth. I'm going to be doing a b tests."

This quote reflects the common perception of PR as outdated compared to modern growth strategies.

"So you need to find those signifiers, and if you don't have them yet, it's okay. You can find proxies."

The quote emphasizes the importance of using impressive credentials or proxies to make a story more compelling to journalists.

Effective PR Tactics for Startups

  • Personal involvement in PR can be more impactful than hiring an agency.
  • Founders can afford to take risks and "spray and pray" when pitching to multiple journalists.
  • It's important to manage communications carefully if a journalist shows interest.
  • Startups should start pitching to less important outlets and learn from each interaction to refine their approach.
  • Generating FOMO (fear of missing out) and not revealing all information upfront can be an effective strategy.

"When you are at a startup, you have nothing to lose by spraying and praying, which means like, I really want to get featured on whatever newspaper or whatever site or whatever blog or whatever influencers account."

This quote advises founders on the aggressive approach they can take with PR when trying to gain attention for their startup.

Initial Contact with Journalists

  • Gina Gotthilf describes her approach to contacting journalists through LinkedIn and Twitter due to character limits.
  • She emphasizes the importance of crafting a short, intriguing message that encourages a journalist to engage.
  • Once a journalist responds, even minimally, a relationship is established, making them more likely to respond again.

"So I got really good at just sending that short message. But the short message has to be interesting in us that the person would reply with one word, like, would you like to hear more? Sure."

This quote highlights Gina's skill in creating concise messages that pique journalists' interest, leading to further communication.

PR Strategies: Exclusives vs. Embargoes

  • Gina Gotthilf discusses two main PR strategies: exclusives and embargoes.
  • Exclusives involve allowing only one publication to share news, which can be beneficial when targeting major news sources.
  • Embargoes set a specific time for all news sources to publish simultaneously, creating a "surround sound" effect.

"One is you decide to do an exclusive, which means that you're only going to allow one publication to share the news that you want to share."

This quote explains the concept of an exclusive in PR, which can lead to widespread distribution through a single, influential source.

Timing and Relationships in PR

  • Timing is critical in PR to give journalists enough time to cover a story without it becoming irrelevant.
  • Building relationships with journalists is key, starting well before the release of information.
  • Making journalists feel valued can lead to better recall and cooperation.

"You want to start earlier. But then in terms of actually sending them the information that they need, I would try to give them more than one week of time, maybe two."

Gina suggests starting early in building rapport with journalists and providing them with ample time to craft their stories.

Engaging with Journalists on Social Media

  • Gina recommends creating a list of relevant journalists and regularly engaging with their social media content to build recognition.
  • Even minimal engagement, like liking tweets, can lead to journalists remembering you, which is beneficial for PR.

"Consistently, I notice 100%, and so instantly, you have that recognition."

This quote emphasizes the impact of consistent engagement on social media, leading to familiarity and possibly favorable coverage.

Paywalls and PR Strategy

  • Gina explains how Duolingo's B2C product aimed for wide reach, avoiding exclusives with paywalled publications.
  • For B2B or industries where trust is paramount, exclusives with prestigious publications behind paywalls can be beneficial.

"Duelingo is a b to c product. It can be relevant to most of the population... And so we were really going wide, and that's why the spray and pre approach worked."

Gina discusses Duolingo's strategy to reach a broad audience and why they avoided exclusives with paywalled publications.

Aligning PR with Core Objectives

  • It's important to identify the core objectives of PR efforts and choose the right publications to target.
  • The success of PR can sometimes be measured in tangible results, like user acquisition, or intangible ones, like brand equity.

"What's the objective and who are we going for? And let that trickle down into your publication list?"

This quote stresses the need to align PR efforts with the company's core objectives and target audience.

Control Over Content in Journalism

  • Gina acknowledges that control over journalistic content is limited and advises preparing releases as you'd like them published.
  • Building relationships with journalists can help mitigate negative outcomes and misinterpretations.

"You don't get control. Like if you're working with real journalists, they think and they write, and that's the best thing about journalism."

Gina explains the nature of journalism and the importance of crafting press releases carefully to influence the resulting articles.

Handling Embargo Breaks

  • When embargoes are broken, Gina suggests reacting quickly and firmly to contain the situation.
  • The response to an embargo breach depends on the journalist's relationship and the cultural context.

"And in some cases, you're just going to have to really hope that the journalists you really care about are not going to see that embargo was broken and move on."

This quote describes the precarious nature of handling embargo breaks and the reliance on journalists' cooperation.

Measuring PR Success

  • Measuring PR success can be challenging, with metrics varying based on the stage of the company and its objectives.
  • For Duolingo, daily active users (DAUs) were a key metric, indicating the effectiveness of PR in attracting and retaining users.

"So for Duolingo, it was daus like if we were actually able to get new users that became active users, that was our success metric."

Gina shares Duolingo's primary metric for evaluating PR success, emphasizing the importance of aligning metrics with business goals.

Maximizing PR Distribution

  • After gaining media coverage, it's crucial to promote the content across various platforms.
  • Crafting social media copy that aligns with the company's mission can encourage sharing and further amplify the message.

"That's such a great point because it's so important. I think that this is so relevant because if you're trying to build a brand, which you should be, because again, it's about how you make people feel, not about whether the thing that you're making is useful."

Gina highlights the significance of brand building and emotional connection in PR, especially when encouraging content distribution.

Making Sharing Easy and Personalized

  • The ease of sharing a message is crucial when trying to get someone to share your content.
  • Personalization of the message is important as it reflects on the sharer's personal profile.
  • A well-crafted message can serve as a humble brag for the sharer while promoting the sender's agenda.
  • Latitude used a tactic that involved creating tokens and personalized messages for startup founders to share their acceptance into the program, which effectively attracted more attention and sign-ups.

"And so what that means is, first of all, you're going to write a really nice message asking them to share, and then you're going to write exactly the message that you want them to share."

This quote emphasizes the importance of providing a ready-to-share message that is both appealing and easy for the recipient to distribute.

"I wrote the copy in a way that makes them seem amazing to their audience. Like, wow, you are so impressive and also really humble."

This quote describes the strategy of crafting a message that not only promotes the sender's interests but also flatters the sharer, making it more likely for them to post it.

Crafting Personalized Communications

  • Personal touches in communication can make the recipient feel remembered and valued.
  • Even small gestures, like mentioning personal details or sending well-wishes, can significantly impact the recipient's perception of the sender.
  • This approach is not only applicable to social media shares but also to professional communications like press outreach.

"Personalized. You're like, oh, wow, Harry remembered I live in Miami."

This quote highlights the impact of personalization in communication, showing that a small effort can leave a positive impression.

"I'd have the copy with the links all perfect there, et cetera. And then the other thing, I think you don't have to do this anymore, but it depends on your email client. Like select all, remove formatting and redo formatting."

This quote reflects the meticulous attention to detail required in professional communication to maintain credibility and avoid the appearance of mass, impersonal outreach.

PR Strategies and Relationships

  • Understanding the recipient's perspective is crucial in PR and growth strategies.
  • Founders should consider whether to work with PR firms or handle PR internally based on their own time, bandwidth, and knowledge.
  • The cost of PR firms can sometimes be better allocated to hiring a dedicated, hungry individual to chase leads.
  • PR should be a steady effort to keep a company top of mind for consumers and grow brand equity.

"If you can do it yourself, do it yourself."

This quote suggests that founders should take on PR tasks themselves if they have the capability, as it can often be more effective than outsourcing to a PR firm.

"You want it to be a steady drum beat, if you can, because you want to stay top of mind to consumers, and then you can grow your equity that way."

This quote underlines the importance of consistent PR efforts in building and maintaining brand awareness and equity.

The Evolution of Growth Tactics

  • The framework of understanding what motivates people is more important than specific tactics in growth.
  • Paid marketing, especially on platforms like Facebook, is often a short-term tactic that can become less effective over time.
  • Growth tactics tend to lose efficacy as they become saturated and widely adopted.
  • Continual innovation and exploring less saturated channels are key to effective growth strategies.

"It's understanding what makes people tick and what's the highest lever thing you can impact that is still the same."

This quote emphasizes that the core principle of growth marketing is to understand and leverage human motivations rather than rely on specific channels or tactics.

"Every growth tactic, quote unquote, dies when it becomes saturated."

This quote points out the lifecycle of growth tactics, which eventually become less effective as more people adopt them, necessitating the search for new, innovative strategies.

Hiring for Growth Teams

  • Hiring before achieving product-market fit can be a mistake for growth teams.
  • Early-stage companies may prematurely focus on A/B testing without the ability to reach statistical significance.
  • Hiring a growth leader too early can sometimes result in a lack of hands-on experimentation and creativity.
  • It's important to find a balance between experience and the willingness to try unconventional strategies.

"Definitely hiring before product market fit."

This quote warns against hiring for growth prematurely, suggesting that understanding the product-market fit is essential before scaling efforts.

"Duolingo actually hired someone amazing who had great experience in marketing, who then hired me and they ended up keeping me and promoting me the head of growth because this person was great at coming up with ideas and then asking other people to do those ideas."

This quote illustrates the advantage of having team members who are both idea generators and willing to execute on those ideas, highlighting the importance of a hands-on approach to growth.

Reflections on PR and Media

  • PR is not limited to journalists and big media; it includes reaching out to anyone with a large audience.
  • Influencers, micro-influencers, and even professionals like professors or doctors can be leveraged in PR strategies.
  • PR is about effectively identifying and reaching out to individuals who can amplify your message to a broader audience.

"PR is reaching anyone who has a big audience and getting them to share that with their big audience."

This quote redefines PR as a broader practice of engaging with individuals who have the capacity to influence large audiences, not just traditional media outlets.

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