The world today has become more dependent on digital media than ever before. With the Covid-19 scare pushing people away from each other and stringent social distancing norms in place, every business across the world has but one time-tested strategy to reach out to its target audience, content marketing. With the sizable population it has, India is fast emerging as the largest market for content marketing.
The rise of social media has acted as a catalyst for growth of content marketing, a vital component of which is written content. News, Stories, Expert Articles, Opinion Pieces, case studies, newsletters, blogs and many other forms of text content are readily available across a plethora of digital media.
With so much digital content being produced worldwide and being pushed by its creators or marketers every second of the day, how can one be sure if their content can and will make the desired impact upon the target audience? A question that plagues every marketer’s mind today.
What if there could be a convenient tool, a predictory solution, which could analyze the emotional intelligence of the content, i.e., understand how words can trigger emotions. If that sounds too far-fetched, let’s meet the 31-year old who made it possible and is literally changing the way content optimisation works.
Meet Sharmin Ali, Founder & CEO of Instoried, an augmented writing platform which improves customer interest and engagement. The platform helps content writers in e-commerce, news, FMCG and other verticals to optimise emotions in their marketing content.
What is your background and what was the inspiration to initiate a startup of your own?
I have 10 years of work experience, out of which I spent 5 years working with Fortune companies in the US. My expertise lies in enterprise sales. Post that, I started my first company which was into content production, where I wrote 70 original scripts of my own. Probably ahead of my time with regards to content production on OTT platforms, I sold the copyrights of all my content to a Mumbai-based production house and made an exit. Post that, I published two books of my own and also worked with CXOs globally to help them build content strategies. My deep-rooted industry experience and understanding of how content works inspired me to start Instoried. Instoried has been covered globally by various media publications and because of it, I have emerged as a poster-girl in the startup culture.
How would you describe the core business proposition of Instoried? what does it aim to solve with its tech?
Brands, advertisers and market researchers know that emotions influence consumer behaviour. Understanding consumer emotional engagement with content is key to creating the best marketing campaigns and optimizing marketing spend. Gathering quality emotion data is critical as it predicts key success metrics such as brand recall, sales lift, purchase intent and likelihood to share. At Instoried, we have built an AI tool to help large companies build personal connections with their audiences by using technology to measure the effectiveness of content and rewrite their communication. Our approach is data-driven, scalable and measurable with long-lasting, visible results.
Tell us about your Eureka moment. How you came up with the idea and how did you make the jump?
I have known Sutanshu for almost a decade now, since our engineering days, and we have been friends since. I started my career with Mu-Sigma analysing data and eventually moving into sales, working with Fortune 100 clients in the US. Post that, I ran a theatre production house and also wrote two books. I have had a career in selling and content generation.
On the other hand, Sutanshu has worked with Microsoft, Public Health Foundation of India and then running an AI startup. He understands data and writes code like he's sipping beer. We cross paths at two junctions: both of us can pretty much eat anything that moves (no, we are not Bear Grylls' fans) and our long friendship. As a content writer myself, the biggest problem I faced was to predict how engaging my content is, and then took hours editing my piece. So, why not build a novel technology solution to solve this major pain point? So, Sutanshu and I decided to build an AI-enabled tool which would be smart enough to gauge the emotional engagement quotient of your content and also provide word and phrase level recommendations in real time, thereby, helping content writers build a great rapport with their readers very easily. Having known Sutanshu for so long, I knew we had to come together and build this. So he writes the code, and I sell; it's quite simple.
Tell us about the early days. What were they like? How did you draft the business blueprint?
I have personally interviewed about 500 content creators working with enterprises, across India and the US. The results were fascinating. The biggest challenge globally is to predict whether the content is engaging enough to strike a chord with audiences. And this is a 300 billion dollar plus market and ever growing. We, at Instoried, have a very strong technology foothold. We had to use technology to solve this problem in order to make writing easy for the masses and help enterprises cut down exorbitant marketing costs as they spend large sums of money each year in just outsourcing content marketing.
What was the main challenge you guys faced in the early days? Any anecdotes? How did it shape future growth?
There were a number of challenges that we faced, shortage of funds, being the biggest one. After exhausting all our savings, I broke my PPF (Public Provident Fund), withdrew whatever I could and paid salaries. My parents did not talk to me for a month, as withdrawing PPF was the biggest committed crime according to them, as PPF money essentially is a long term investment for life. The money turned out to be not enough, so I mortgaged my gold jewellery that I had bought years ago during my good old corporate days, and used that money to pay salaries. But this time, I did not inform my parents at all.
We had to go pitch to investors in various cities, we soon ran short of money. Sutanshu borrowed money from friends and family, and helped sponsor our travel and stay. Soon we heard about start-up Chile, which funds global startups with grant money. We applied and got through. I ran to Santiago, Chile, to get those funds and run the company here in India. While I was attending the acceleration program in extreme weather conditions in Santiago, Sutanshu took the brunt of staying back and running the company in India. Our relentless efforts finally paid off when we secured half a million dollars in funding from some of the most notable investors in India and the UK. Just for the record, I guess, finally, my parents are coming to terms with the startup journey and struggle, though I occasionally do get scolded for withdrawing my PPF money.
Where does the startup stand today? Where is it headed?
We have seen a hockey stick growth in the last six months. Our customers love us: From a 70 billion dollar German corporation to a mere 50-person small enterprise, we have helped companies increase their inbound leads by over 300 per cent, improve lead to conversion cycle by 3X, and we are growing at a month-on-month rate of over 60 per cent. This is just the beginning, we are now getting ready to scale. We have raised $500K USD from SOSV by Chinaccelerator, Venture Catalysts and Jain Angel Network. Our very early investors include Axilor Ventures, IIIT Hyderabad and the Cowrks Foundry run by the RMZ Family Office.
We have now entered the video space where we will be analysing responses to various video campaigns and help brands and publishers measure the effectiveness of their videos and publish the best one. Our strong technology experience with computer vision and audio analysis will help us achieve this in the next six months.
Disclaimer: The views, suggestions and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.