How 14,500 marketers are creating the future of content consumption

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Yam Regev is CEO, CMO and Co-Founder of Zest.is, a platform that delivers extremely high-quality content about marketing to marketers. In this interview, he talks about building a company with tribes, launching by word-of-mouth, and the big idea behind Zest that could change content consumption as we know it.

Zest.is addresses a problem we’ve all felt when searching for useful, informative articles online that tell us what we need to know - only to find fluff, misinformation, clickbait, and fake news. Social Media filters, Google’s algorithms and machine learning are currently no match for people who have learned to game these systems and manipulate readers into clicking into useless articles.

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The nuts and bolts of Zest are simple. It’s a new-tab Chrome extension where marketers can share and discover high-quality, genuinely informative articles about marketing. All of the content on Zest’s feed is suggested and manually moderated by its marketer community members. In fact, less than one percent of suggested content makes it to the feed - a point of pride for Yam Regev, Zest co-founder, CEO and CMO.

Why sift through content manually instead of just developing better algorithms and machine learning? The thought had crossed their minds - before they dismissed it as just not good enough.

“When we thought of doing it that way, we thought we’d be only creating another manipulatable type of platform, like Google. We needed to create a human-based model, a vote-based type of platform. But even an upvote system can be manipulated, and there’s no guarantee upvoted articles contain valuable content - it can be like a popularity contest. We went to a Seth Godin Ted Talk in 2009, and he talked about the Tribe-based model.”

Seth Godin’s Ted Talk sparked an idea for Yam Regev and his co-founder Idan Yalovich, who didn’t plan on just creating another content curation platform. They wanted to start a much larger movement.

Yam and Idan Standing
Yam Regev and Idan Yalovich

“It turns out that it’s tribes, not money, not factories, that can change our world, that can change politics, that can align large numbers of people… What we do for a living now, all of us, I think, is finding something worth changing, and then assemble tribes that assemble tribes that spread the idea that spread the idea. And it becomes something far bigger than ourselves. It becomes a movement.” - Seth Godin, TED, “The Tribes we Lead”

The idea of tribes became foundational to how Zest’s content curation system works and grows in efficiency, as Yam explains:

“We bring in professional marketers who believe in our agenda, who want to consume valuable content and not manipulated fluff. And that tribe of active members recommends content they’ve found valuable. Our group of ‘chiefs’ - like super members - review these suggestions and mark them good or bad. The good ones then go to our chief moderators, just to make sure it stands up to our quality standards, and if it does, we publish it to the Zest feed. It’s all around human-based filtering.”

That’s how Zest works now, but in the short time since it first began - it only officially launched on Product Hunt in March - it has evolved enormously. In fact, Yam says, the Alpha version was a total failure.

From Alpha fail to Beta believers - How to get the product right with a little help from your Tribe

Zest solves a specific problem for a specific group of people. Right now, its target audience is marketers, the group of people who Yam says suffer keenly from the problem of “irrelevant, regurgitated, clickbait articles that flood the space, content shock and infollution” - but who also are responsible for creating those very same articles. Addressing the problem of fluff and manipulated content at its source serves a larger vision, a vision so large, the co-founders didn’t even want to share it in its entirety.

“The vision itself is so big, we felt it would be too hard to digest.”

So they started small, with an Alpha version of Zest.is that basically acted like a curated newsletter in the form of a Chrome tab. It didn’t win many converts.

“People didn’t understand why they needed a new tab extension just for that. The content was good, but it was like a curated newsletter on steroids. When I shared it with leading marketing executives in Israel, they didn't get it. So the Alpha was a complete failure.”

They quickly figured out that they’d started too small, that they needed to bring people in. Because their larger vision wasn’t just to curate content.

It was to drive bad content out.

To change the way people consume content from reading it on social media, to finding it on platforms uniquely capable of weeding out useless articles and manipulative marketing.

So they tried something a little different.

“We added profiles for the people who suggested the content, so you could see the person behind the recommendation. Once we did that, some sort of magic happened. This social layer we added was the key factor we were missing in the Alpha version.”

Zest articles

This simple change added a component of personal accountability by putting the names of people recommending the content on the content itself. It was also the first step towards building a community of marketing professionals who were ready and willing to help the most useful, insightful and original content rise to the top.

The word-of-mouth launch

Zest is a platform created by marketers for marketers - and yet, they don’t do any traditional marketing. What they do is “community growth,” which focuses on building relationships with each user, so they become proactively engaged in contributing to the community and spreading the word. It’s this perspective that turns Zest’s marketing into a team effort, where users, founders and employees are all on the same team.

Zest website
Zest website

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Yam says they even personally email people with the reasons their suggested content was declined or approved, which, he says, surprises almost everybody the first time it happens.

“Users experience three ‘wow’ moments with Zest. The first is when they experience our intuitive, familiar interface design. It’s very easy to use. The second comes after a few days of use, when they understand that this content is all incredibly valuable to them. They’re so used to being bombarded with headlines, but once they click on one of these articles, they realize that it really is useful. The third comes after users suggest content and they realize that someone - a person - is actually reading, evaluating and approving it.”

Before its Product Hunt launch, Zest.is had a strong following, built on word-of-mouth. And when the launch finally came, their users were vocal in their support.

Zest on Product Hunt
Zest on Product Hunt

Yam says much of their success with their Product Hunt launch was largely due to the existing community Zest had built.

“We sent our members a really authentic email asking them to tell their stories about Zest wherever they can. It generated more than 40 articles written by our own members talking about Zest on a number of large and small blogs.

I think that was the first time we understood that something big was happening, and our vision - creating an active community around this mission - was starting to take shape.”

Zest website

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Today, they have upwards of 14,500 active members, all marketers, who deliver thousands of suggested articles every week. They also have superuser volunteers who freely devote a few minutes, or hours, each week to reading those articles and marking them as Zest-worthy, or not.

Zest has been growing fast, but Yam isn’t worried about scaling as quickly as possible.

“Our goal is to scale quality, not quantity and I will explain - I'm not planning to publish 10k posts on Zest each day. We will keep the current figure of between 46 to 98 articles a day as is, but the more content submissions we have, the more options we will have to choose from to find our 100 selected ones.

I also don't think that there are more than 100 stellar marketing related pieces of content that are being published on a daily basis.”

Sure, there are ways to scale Zest that would work, like moving it to a website-based platform, instead of a browser tab, which turns some users off. But their core followers, “the people who understand the tribe we’re creating,” love it the way it is. Although there are plans to add a mobile app, since so many people use smartphones to read articles, it’s not an immediate priority because it might drive growth a little too quickly.

“We’re not trying to hold growth down, but we’re not trying to double it either. Our growth has been so fast, our 14,500 weekly active users are generating more than 2 million pageviews each month. Engagement is massive. The outbound clicks we’re generating are hitting record numbers. We have a super engaged community generating so much traction. Yes, we think about moving out from the new tab, we think about it all the time. But we’re not ready to absorb all of that growth as of yet.”

Zest to go

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It’s another move that seems to run counter to the marketing paradigm of ‘grow as fast as you can, get funded, and worry about the rest later.’ Their focus, instead, has been behind the scenes, developing the dashboard that supports their tribe in sharing, filtering and discussing amazing content.

Only recently have they even developed a way to make money.

You read that right. The vision came first. Building a tribe came second. And only now are they developing revenue channels - with the help of their tribe.

A “Tribal Counsel” approach to profit

“Our users get the mission and the vision, the good karma aspect,” says Yam, which might make any shift to making money with Zest a tough sell. Then again, these are marketers. They understand, better than most, that changemakers need funding.

To make sure the revenue channel they added would be embraced by Zest’s community, they asked the community to help them build it: “they were involved from the start giving us feedback.”

Zest Hearts

The result: Definitely not banner ads. Or pop-ups. Both revenue sources were immediately vetoed by Idan, Yam’s co-founder and CTO, as soon as they were suggested, not only because they’re intrusive, but from the founders’ perspectives, “our feed is not really, well… ours. It belongs to our Tribe.” That decision came as a disappointment to some of the big SaaS companies who were actively inquiring about sponsorship opportunities.

They wanted to come up with a business model that would add value to the value they were already delivering to their community, as well as generate value for paying clients. Who those paying clients might be was easy: marketing brands.

In Zest’s announcement post, they outlined the advantages of working with marketers: “Tier-1 marketing brands have many advantages. They understand the high-engagement, high-conversion funnel that marketing content generates, they appreciate our demographics (69% are CEOs, CMOs, VPs of marketing)” and, perhaps most importantly, marketers are open to trying new things.

To serve these potential clients, and their community, they came up with a revenue model that was much more inline with their mission: giving articles that were already approved using their normal process extra exposure. They called it “Content Boost.”

Sixty-seven members alpha and beta tested Content Boost, and Yam says their landing page alone was created “by 400 people.”

The tribe not only directed the messaging and the unique value proposition, but vetted their revenue model: “It’s a work of art from our point of view - this tribe-based model that we’re just learning how to steer.”

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“It was a balance we found with our users. It wasn’t planned that way to start, but because boosted content was born with the tribe itself, I believe it will be scalable and sustainable.”

Yam is quick to stress that boosted content is held to the same strict quality standards as all of the other content, and many articles submitted by “boosted” companies have been declined. “But the ones that get through our process get extra exposure,” as many as 10x more clicks - from a highly engaged, specialized niche of professional marketers.

Zest graph

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The tribe has become integral to not just growing Zest.is, but defining its direction. Together, they’re taking a stand against fluff, clickbait, upvote popularity contests, and content designed to manipulate rather than to serve.

It’s a revolution in tab-form.

“This community we’ve created keeps us motivated. We’re young, the growth is massive, we’re not profitable yet, but we love the way things are going. With so many great minds giving us feedback, we feel good about what we’re doing.”

Would you like to get in front of an audience of Professional Marketers? Check if your content is Zest-worthy

For Zest’s team, bad content is a virus that must be contained and eliminated. Per their Content Quality Styleguide, bad content is “the kind of stuff that wastes readers’ time, leaves them feeling empty inside, and a bit used.” If you’re not sure where your content falls on the quality spectrum, there’s a checklist:

The Bad Content Checklist

  1. It’s a not-so-new take on a hot topic that they’ve seen again and again.
  2. Content that isn’t user friendly, that requires another tab with a dictionary open at all times to reference.
  3. It’s an infographic, so it’s cool right? Not quite. Infographics that are full of basic facts we already know are not cool at all.
  4. Meandering videos that take you two minutes or more to get to the point.
  5. Ebooks that are more like a physical book won’t fly, literally. Good design and to-the-point headers are the name of the game.
  6. UX is everything. Make sure that when a reader gets to your article it’s not a hot mess.

Zest’s Content Quality Must-Haves

Yam says the content he approves must have the following elements:

  1. Contains a new perspective or presents an original idea
  2. Actionable and filled with takeaways
  3. Contains references and visuals
  4. Free and easy to access
  5. Insightful and in-depth
  6. Thought-provoking
  7. Reputable source

And an eye-catching title image doesn’t hurt either - because once you make the feed, you still have to stand out.

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If you’ve got what it takes, you can join the tribe and submit your articles at Zest.is.