Unicorns are a phenomenon. Over the past 18 months, they have gone from mythical creature to tech meme – spawning greed and envy for global entrepreneurs, investors and recruiters, while feeding the tech media engine with endless news stories, leader boards and Fortune cover stories.
The “unicorn” concept was coined in Nov’13 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, and refers to privately held start-up companies with valuations exceeding $1 billion. What started out as a rare breed grew to 146 companies by April 2016, according to Dow Jones VentureSource.
The chase for unicorn status has abated somewhat as startup valuations moderate in early 2016. However, the class continues to expand and contract almost weekly – providing a valuable microcosm to understand today’s tech trends and startup dynamics.
To that end, we studied 75 top unicorns to benchmark their visibility and momentum across news, social and search channels. This is relevant because many founders believe unicorn status provides advantages for recruiting top talent, and demonstrates a startup’s viability for customers and prospects.
We ultimately conclude that unicorn status and valuation alone do not dictate media performance. We learn a lot about category performance, company success factors, IPO impact and channel dynamics. The study also showcases a new Earned Media Index™ for benchmarking earned media performance – often the most impactful but least-invested, under-measured part of the marketing and communications mix. Here are some of our key findings:
Snapchat Is #1, Followed by Pinterest, Spotify and Dropbox
Snapchat (#1 earned media, #6 valuation) was the fast mover with pronounced growth trajectory from 41.02 to 71.22, outpacing all others after Jul’15 based on platform success. Pinterest (#2 earned media, #10 valuation) was more constant, averaging 44 points/month. No. 3 Spotify was much more erratic with pronounced peaks and valleys, year-end growth. Dropbox (#4), Flipkart (#5) and Uber (#6) are the next band with Square (#11) spiking on IPO, and Xiaomi (#7) steadily declining over the year.
Valuation Influences Media, Doesn’t Dictate Performance
We categorized the final list into 11 “media megastars” who had an average monthly index above 10.0 throughout 2015, while 17 other “media superstars” averaged above 1.0. The remaining 47 unicorns indexed below 1.0, reinforcing that unicorn status and valuation alone do not determine earned media performance. Category strength, audience enthusiasm and executive profile matter a lot, as do other communication factors.
Consumer Brands Suck Oxygen from Other Companies
Not surprisingly, consumer tech and Internet unicorns were typically more visible than B2B-oriented unicorns. Specifically, social media platforms and on-demand services dominated valuations and earned media throughout 2015. The top B2B players landed outside the top 10, including GitHub (#12), SpaceX (#14), Slack (#17), Pure Storage (#21) and MongoDB (#22). GitHub and MongoDB out-performed thanks to vocal developer and open source fans, while Slack become its own phenomenon throughout 2015 — and SpaceX benefited from its megastar CEO.
Looking at other categories, software was steady but unspectacular — despite having a large class of 19 unicorns out of the 75 we analyzed. Hardware stood out with negative linear trends for four of the five companies. Healthcare under-performed as all six companies averaged less than 1.0 point per month. And looking internationally, Flipkart (#5) and Xiaomi (#7) were standouts despite limited availability.
Controversy and IPO Windows Drive Major Spikes
Controversy obviously fuels news media and social media, and the unicorn data for 2015 reflects it. Theranos in particular spiked 11X from ~0.25 to ~2.75 in Earned Media Index scores during Oct’15 and Nov’15 due to its media firestorm. Uber dominated news (#1) rankings due to a series of controversies globally, but lagged in social (#3) and search (#9) despite being #1 in valuation.
Meanwhile, Square spiked to #5 for Sept’15-Nov’15 based on its IPO window, but is trending down from that peak as we move into 2016. Square and others will be worth watching to see if they can sustain media visibility beyond the IPO window — especially as many unicorn founders and investors debate the benefits of going public versus staying private.
So What? Now What?
In conclusion, we offer up three key insights and recommendations for unicorn companies — and other technology marketers and communicators who can learn from this class:
- Unicorn status and valuation influence earned media – especially news and social – but they don’t dictate media performance. Companies need to cultivate category (not just company) interest, build their vocal audience base and develop executive thought leadership.
- Company performance varies widely across news, social and search channels, reflecting a lack of leverage across media. Companies should bust marketing silos to get more integrated, while investing more in owned and earned media, and use analytics and planning to drive leverage.
- Consumer categories dominated earned media in 2015; software was steady but unspectacular; fintech is rising and hardware is declining. We should continue to track the Unicorn Media Index to learn more about category dynamics, post-IPO drop-off and “unicorn fatigue” throughout 2016.
To the last point, Big Valley will continue to study this important class — and apply our Earned Media Index to other categories — in future posts. We look forward to your feedback…