While you probably recognize Bitly as those short links you see on Twitter, the company’s most valuable service revolves around data.
In addition to its free link shortening tool, Bitly serves thousands of paying brand customers by managing their links and providing analytics. In this interview, CEO Mark Josephson explores how Bitly helps customers track their links across the Internet and personalize their experiences.
Before he got the job at Bitly, Mark worked at AOL’s Patch, running revenue and marketing. Before Patch, Mark was CEO of hyperlocal publishing platform Outside.in, which was acquired by AOL in 2011.
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Andrew Weinreich: Our guest today is Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly. Mark, thanks for joining us.
Mark Josephson: Thanks for having me.
Andrew Weinreich: We really haven’t spoken in years, from the time you were the CEO of Outside.in. I know this interview is really about Bitly, but it’d be great if you could just recount what you shared with me before about Outside.in before we get going on Bitly.
Mark Josephson: Sure. Well, it’s great to be here and talking with you. We were talking about when we met, I was CEO of a company called Outside.in. And we were aggregating and organizing, at the time, about 80,000 sources of local news and information. And we were building algorithms to geotag and put content on a map, and put information on a map because we thought location was going to be an important determinant of relevance and of value. The problem was, is that the first iPhone was coming out, and it was woefully under-powered from battery and location and power, and we were doing most of our stuff on desktop. So, we look today in the new release of iPhone X, which is an incredibly powerful device with augmented reality and battery and just all the power in the world. The thought of being able to organize the world by location is incredibly powerful and incredibly relevant today. And I don’t halfheartedly say that if we hadn’t sold the business to AOL and we were starting Outside.in today, it could be still a really great opportunity.
Andrew Weinreich: The vision was if you could in real time gather data from all of these different individuals, from all of these data gatherers, then not only could you put things on a map, but you could inform someone on a much more hyper local basis about what was going on around them, right?
Mark Josephson: That’s right, yeah. We built neighborhood news maps. So in New York City there’s five boroughs but there’s something like 200 neighborhoods that everybody fights over which street they end on. But generally speaking, NoHo or SoHo starts and ends in specific places. And we would identify content down to lat-long and then match it to an address. We actually built an iPhone app that’s coming back to me called Radar, and you could open it up literally anywhere probably the country, not the world, and you could see what was happening from those 80,000 sources, which included like the Twitter firehose at that time. Right. And other things so you could see what was going on around you at a very local level.
Andrew Weinreich: Take us on your journey. John Borthwick and Betaworks were original investors in Outside.in?
Mark Josephson: They were. So my journey started well before that. You can’t see my gray hair on the podcast, but I spent the past 25 years building at the intersection of technology and marketing. And I started off in an agency and then went client side, where I had the luck of being part of five startups. The first one was the company that would become an was About.com, and I spent a lot of time there building technology products for marketers and media products. I then went to roll out of there from an ad network business and then to Outside.in, then to AOL, and then to Bitly. So the story here is that, we’ll talk about this, but there’s very few products in any industry that work as well as our product does at Bitly. It’s true that we don’t have to market at all, although we do, to accomplish a core use case that’s used thousands of times every second in every country in the world at massive global scale.
Andrew Weinreich: Well, let’s break this into pieces. There’s millions and millions of people that are aware of Bitly, but probably not the Bitly part that we’re going to talk about from a business perspective. But let’s start with the Bitly part that everyone knows about, which is this URL shortener, originally so you could fit a URL on a tweet without consuming lots of characters, right?
Mark Josephson: Yeah. So the company was founded in 2008 inside of Betaworks, John Borthwick is the founder, a visionary. And the problem was that the links were just too damn long, right? Twitter’s character count kept at 140, turned out that Twitter and then Facebook and all social platforms turned out to be an incredible platform for sharing, sharing news, information and content, not just navel-gazing, ‘I’m having a latte’ tweets, right, which if you remember that’s what we all feared this would become. But it turned out to be about links, and the links were too long. So we built Bitly — I wasn’t here — Bitly was built to solve that problem. And it turned out that the links became an incredible tool and powerful tool on Twitter, but also on Facebook, also on LinkedIn, also wrapping pixels for images, also in email also in SMS. Anywhere where people are clicking, tapping or swiping, the world was putting Bitly links.
“…it’s really not about the size of the link that matters, it’s what you do with it.”
Andrew Weinreich: So we’re going to get to the opportunities there. I’m just curious, has part of that problem of the need for URL shortening gone away? I mean, the original imposition of a 140-character limit was driven, I think, by the interoperability of the carriers and the concern that you would drop part of the text message. On the consumer side, has part of the imperative to shorten URLs gone away or has it gotten more profound?
Mark Josephson: It hasn’t gone away because you still have to present your content in a way that is clear, manageable and measurable. The character counts at Twitter are more forgiving today than they were before where as it relates to links, and attachments, and videos, and images, and GIFs. You extensively were solving for size of link in the past, but really you were solving for the elegance of the presentation. And that’s still a necessity today. What I would say has changed is that Twitter is less than 10% of our volume, and has been for years. It’s the realization that links are more valuable than we previously thought. You can do more with links if you try. And so, what I will often say is it’s really not about the size of the link that matters, it’s what you do with it. So the power of the link and how you take control of it, that has become more important.
Andrew Weinreich: When you’re talking about you, how you use the link, you’re not describing how an individual, this is for our audience the, “You” doesn’t refer to an individual. I think what you’re saying is that the, “You” does not refer to an individual selecting a link, shortening it, and posting it on social media. You’re talking about how a business offers.
Mark Josephson: That’s right.
Andrew Weinreich: Right. So can you talk to us a little bit about what that means and maybe even give us a use case with a specific business and how they use shortened URLs to track activity?
Mark Josephson: Absolutely. So I took over here at Bitly almost exactly four years ago. And to be clear, I had been chasing this job in this company from day one. My user account goes back to November of 2008, and I was a prosumer, if you will, using it for my jobs, whatever they were, to track opens of emails and engagement with my clients and peers. One of the things that was very clear to me when I got here and did my diligence with my team, was that sure we had millions and millions of people using the product every month, but we had the biggest brands in the world were also using us. And the biggest companies in the world, out of their marketing departments, out of their product teams, in their email divisions, because we were solving a problem for them. By the way, we weren’t really charging them per se, we were totally free, largely. But in order to build a business that’s successful, that is meaningful, and that fulfills, we’ve been a venture backed business until very recently. We had to sell product. We had to build a business. And so we made the decision as a company to start to put some very specific rules and regulations in place and build product and market to people who could pay the bills. And so, we took the company from cash burning to profitable and 5, 6x revenue in the past four years by focusing on the needs of the biggest companies in the world, to build better touch points and relationships with their customers.
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite examples is United. United Airlines actually cares a lot about customer experience. I know because we talked to them about it and have for years, but when you have a flight delay, you will get a text message from United that when you click on the link in that text message, it takes you to a page where they have proposed a rebooking of your flight. So they have created one link that is tied to the customer record in their CRM. So they’ll do 10,000 links in a minute. Blast them out to their people, and then when the customer clicks on that link, it increments in their CRM, so they know that they’ve engaged with that person. It’s a personalized, customized experience that drives them to the right place at the right time in the app, for example, to get better conversion. That link doesn’t go on Twitter, it doesn’t go on Facebook, it’s one link that’s seen by one person, and that’s their customer.
Andrew Weinreich: And that’s a link you’re providing.
Mark Josephson: Correct. They use our link technology to do that.
Andrew Weinreich: And so that link is taking that user to a landing page, you’re cookieing that user and now you’re able to uniquely identify not just with that user’s doing in that session but what they’re doing in future sessions?
Mark Josephson: It’s actually easier than that. Andrew, if they’re creating the link from the customer records. Think about any business that has a CRM or salesforce instance, every single record can have a Bitly link associated with it for every channel. So you know that your customer engaged with you on this channel, and we close the loop back to you.
Andrew Weinreich: Got it.
Mark Josephson: Right. Yes, we have cookie data but you don’t need cookie data to build great customer experiences.
Jeremy Levy: With United then, United has an identity associated with that specific user as opposed to Bitly’s anonymous ID from a global perspective.
Mark Josephson: Correct. They create that link from their customer record. I don’t know who that customer is, that’s their customer, but they create a link that’s tied to that customer record, it gets sent out through the- they hit our API for the link, they tie it to that customer, and then they send it out via their SMS engine, and it takes the customer in-app to rebook their flight without having to wait in line. They credit Bitly for reducing lines in airports and calls to the call center. And that’s with the link because we can do one specific link to one specific page in-app that’s customized for that user.
Andrew Weinreich: How would they have done that without you?
Mark Josephson: How would they have done that without us? I don’t know that they could have. Because as it turns out, creating links at scale and at volume is not easy, as you know. It’s a kind of thing that’s taken for granted. But if you want to say I want to create 10,000 links, each one individual to a destination that we don’t know about until we create the link, that’s hard. So it has to be done programmatically, it has to be able to burst, it has to have analytics, it has to have tracking, it has to be blessed by the carriers, it has to be reliable, it has to be encrypted with HTTPS, all of those things have to happen in order to make that work. And that’s what we do for them.
Andrew Weinreich: Who else offers a competitive platform to you?
Mark Josephson: At Bitly we call our product the link management platform and it’s used by millions of people every month. We’ve got two-thirds of the Fortune 500 who are our customers, and we help the brands own their customer experience, and that’s how we think about it. When you start to think about your links and take control of them, it gives you visibility into all of your touch points. Again, anywhere you’re clicking, tapping, swiping, push and play is actually technically a link. And if you use a link management platform to organize them all, you get the visibility, you get control and you get analytics and insights back. So it enables you to do a better job of building your business and building your customer experiences.
Andrew Weinreich: In the case of United, if you wanted to quantify the benefit to them. I mean, what they were experiencing is, they have a delay and they’re experiencing frustration. So how do you quantify success there?
Mark Josephson: So we reduced the call volume to the call center by I think it was 10%, plus or minus. That was a case study in a specific use case that we saw. So yeah, it’s very real. By the way, we have other data that shows when you use our links, if you brand them with a branded short domain and you customize the back half, so instead of es.pn/abcdef, it’s es.pn/superbowl or amzn.to/coupon. You’ll get up to a 34% increase in click-through rate and top of funnel volume. That’s huge.
Andrew Weinreich: Just because of the ability to remember the URL?
Mark Josephson: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, because it turns the URL into a creative unit, and smart marketers know what to do when you give them real estate to be creative and thoughtful. Two, because they associate with the brand and they trust the brand. You should never click on a link that you don’t know where it’s coming from, Bitly or otherwise. And three, because we work with every single distribution platform to make sure the links actually get through.
Andrew Weinreich: I understand the heavy lifting you described in the United use case. What’s the heavy lifting on the Vanity URL where ESPN is responsible for acquiring that domain on their own?
Mark Josephson: So they buy the domain and we have very clear and simple directions on our Website on how to point that to us so that we host that C name for them. And you can count on us building that more specifically into our product in the future because it’s a core part of what we do.
Andrew Weinreich: Back to the United use case. What else is that data? Is that data aggregated? I mean you’re sitting in a place where you see data from United, maybe you see it from American Airlines as well, and you’re seeing it from a host of other places. Is that data aggregated? Is there any cross-pollination?
Mark Josephson: There’s no cross-pollination in our data in the sense that we protect the data of every single one of our enterprise and paying customers. We will never take United’s data and merge it with or share it with or expose it to American. So this is a enterprise software licensing business and never the two shall meet. There is opportunity to build some benchmarking products and some other sort of insights that we can help share, but we’re never going to cannibalize the data for competitive benefit. That said, and this is important, 70% of our volume comes from our free product. So I do have a tremendous amount of data visibility into trends and consumption across the globe. And across every category and across every platform. And you will start to see those kinds of insights populate in the product to help you understand what’s working and what’s not.
“…we do see most of the world on a monthly basis”
Jeremy Levy: Does that mean that, you’re not sharing that specific data with United per se but across the entire Bitly link network, you are able to track an individual user across all the places they’re going. And I think where you were going with that is at a macro level, you can sort of see the emotions and the trends that people are sort of en masse doing across the Internet at any given time.
Mark Josephson: Well, any time you click on a Bitly link, whether you see it or not, it’s a 301 redirect through our product and our server, so we drop a first party cookie. We see about four billion folks a month. So we do see most of the world, so four billion browsers, so we do see most of the world on a monthly basis. And that provides a lot of opportunity and a lot of interesting brainstorming about what we could do with that visibility. But let’s pivot back to like using data to drive decisions and predicting future. I can tell you that companies that spend a lot of time brainstorming data opportunities and data businesses don’t stick around long. But businesses that have a product that work really well, that’s already being used by millions of people and thousands of brands and getting- we get five or six thousand new account signups every single day. That’s the data that I focus on. And what we’ve been focused on as a business is effectively providing value to those customers who use our link management platform to get you from point A to point B with control visibility and insight. That is what’s really powerful here, and I have spent a lot of time, probably too much time thinking about the golden egg of the data that we have. I’d rather- we’re focused on the link management.
Jeremy Levy: But it’s still really interesting though given the visibility you have into where the people are clicking and where people are going in the Internet. Are there some examples of insights that you’ve been able to discover through just analyzing where people are going at any given time, even correlating that to current events and so on?
Mark Josephson: Sure. I mean there’s always examples of things that we know are happening and that we can see in our usage and they happen literally every single day. I like to wave the flag when we see celebrities and famous people using our product. Our president uses our product pretty regularly, LeBron James, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, the Queen of England. So the pulse of the world does flow through Bitly on a pretty regular basis.
Jeremy Levy: But are there any examples you can give us that are a little bit more specific maybe?
Andrew Weinreich: Of the insights that you’re able to abstract, first from the free product, and then what would be interesting is you had alluded to how those insights were going to be presented to businesses, not the reverse. You wouldn’t take United’s data and share that with other customers, but it seemed as if there were insights from the free data that would be helpful to you United.
Mark Josephson: Well, we don’t spend a ton of time right now focused on mining that data on those insights, frankly. We’ve got a lot of road in front of us to execute on the link management platform side. That said, we do know and are able to see when people are performing at a band with their peers or if something is happening that is anomalous for them, to good or bad. And so we’re able to see when they have a piece of content that somebody else shared on their behalf that they otherwise didn’t know. That happens actually a lot and is pretty valuable. So think about share buttons around the web and on your phone. Quite often those share buttons have Bitly integrations built behind them. We’re built into 39,000 different applications around the web, so any time you’re sharing a link, the odds are you’re sharing a Bitly link. And corporate marketing department has a very specific schedule and program, but then they can be surprised that a piece of content is going viral but they don’t know how it got there and we’re able to show them that.
Jeremy Levy: Have you ever thought about open sourcing or anonymizing any of that data so that it can be used as a public dataset for people to drill into?
Mark Josephson: Yeah. And we have shared data with researchers and we’re generally pretty open to those requests when we get them.
Andrew Weinreich: What’s the future? Walk us through a little bit of the roadmap for Bitly from here.
Mark Josephson: The future is really bright. So this summer we completed a pretty significant investment from Spectrum Equity, that really sets us up for the growth phase of our business. Right, if you go from idea and scrappy startup to getting to profitability and building the infrastructure for a business and the next one is about scaling to be really big. So I want every company in the world to be a Bitly customer because I think we can provide and find value for them. I think what you’re going to see us do is continue to double down on the product that the world loves. I started this by saying there’s a product that really works and literally thousands of times every single second, every single day, someone’s using our product to get from point A to point B in a way they couldn’t before and that just works. So you’re going to see us continue to double down on adding value to the links, and features and functionality that make them work even better. You’ve seen us add things like mobile deep linking, to make linking from mobile web to app and back seamless, and just like clicking on any other links. You’ve seen us build campaign tools like our Bitly OneView dashboard which enables you to compare performance in audience and links across every single digital channel. You’re going to see things like that that drive a tremendous amount of pack, a tremendous amount of value into really small links to benefit our customers. You’ll see us scale our engineering, scale our sales, scale our marketing. You’ll see us go international because we have most of our usage comes from outside the US, but we haven’t really gone to market in an efficient and direct way internationally. And I think you’ll see us start to open up and explore pricing tiers and packages that are more focused on smaller businesses and individual opportunities because we think there’s been a tremendous demand for that from our customer base.
“…a lot of companies today leave a lot of data on the table and making gut decisions and intuitive decisions instead of data-based decisions”
Jeremy Levy: Are you able to share other uses that you might have in the pipeline for what other products can be derived from some of this data?
Mark Josephson: Well, I think a lot about the data, less about how we productize the usage data that we have to sell, but more about how to understand how people use our products so that we can drive more value for them. So I think one of the things that I think is really important is as we start to think about future predictions as this podcast is focused on is, I think people conflate data to mean external usage of the data versus listening and focusing on your own data that you’re generating to make your business better, by making your product meet more needs of your customers. What we’re really focused on, actually I have a four-hour meeting today on this topic, is how are we setting up our business and company within analytics and insight-driven platform to drive our business decisions. And I think a lot of companies today leave a lot of data on the table and making gut decisions and intuitive decisions instead of data-based decisions. So that is sincerely where we’re focused right now is- because we have such massive volume in our product, and so as an operator, all I want to do is make it incredibly efficient and make sure we’re meeting the needs of our customers and anticipating the needs of our customer based on how they’re using us. Great example actually. So we started to see SMS become more interesting and volume start to peak on links sent via SMS. And it started to come out of product management groups, not out of marketing department. So we would get API customers, people who only use our API because they needed to send out 100,000 links a day. We’ve productized the SMS use cases, we build collateral, we’ve trained our sales team, we’ve adjusted the dials on our rate limits and made it work better for those customers. For example, if we weren’t paying attention to our usage and meticulously combing through our data to understand what’s working and what’s not, we wouldn’t have seen that, it would just have happened.
Jeremy Levy: You mentioned a minute ago the total number of links that you observe on a monthly basis. Can you really give us some context for that in terms of the total volume of link clicks on the internet and then maybe if there are any other interesting vanity metrics that you don’t mind sharing?
Mark Josephson: I’m happy to share the metrics. You know we generate hundreds of millions of links each month that are created by our customers. We get 9,10, 11 billion clicks each month from more than four billion unique browsers. I don’t know how many clicks happen every day or in the world, but we are certainly big enough in the sense of our ability to, if you look at the geographic distribution and the geographic category and platform distribution, it’s all around the world.
Andrew Weinreich: Mark, thank you for your time.
Mark Josephson: Thanks, Andrew.