The building at 49 Bogart Street: Steps away from the Morgan Avenue stop on the L train in Bushwick, Brooklyn, covered in graffiti and stickers like most of the neighborhood’s other low, converted warehouses. When I joined in 2016, this was ConsenSys’ headquarters, a single room in a mostly residential building with no security desk or formal process for entry. The building’s unassuming façade – seemingly worlds apart from the gleaming office towers across the river in Manhattan – would prove irresistible to nearly everyone profiling the company, even appearing as the lead image in a Bloomberg profile on the “crypto world” decamping to Brooklyn, N.Y.
It was largely here that, as chief marketing officer of ConsenSys from 2016 to 2019, I had a front-row seat to witness the emergence of Web3 and an important responsibility to tell its story. Marketing wasn’t a common skill set among the core of builders working on early Ethereum. When I first entered 49 Bogart, the environment was far more academic than commercial: Most of my colleagues were computer scientists, engineers, developers and a few key businesspeople. My new colleagues were some of the most brilliant people I’d ever met. Some had technical degrees from top universities; others were self-taught coders and hackers.
My path to joining them wasn’t an obvious one. After four years of college, during which I was relatively oblivious to the growing crypto movement, I had gone to work for Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post. Huffington and her co-founders had pioneered a new, digitally native approach to producing and monetizing online content through advertising revenue. Instead of investing heavily in expensive investigative journalism reporters (though it would invest in this later), HuffPost’s in-house writers would mostly summarize stories broken by other news outlets. They would hyperlink to the original sources and give them credit but, ultimately, if HuffPost created a more social media–friendly headline for the story and attached a more visually stimulating image to it that would appear on social media feeds, then it would draw as many – if not more – eyeballs from Facebook and Twitter to the story on its web domain than the original story, which it could monetize against advertising sales. With this model, called aggregation, they achieved higher return for lower upfront investment.
At the time there were few web-native media outlets. Print-based publications were just figuring out their digital strategies as they realized they could get wider distribution by publishing online and socializing content through Facebook and Twitter. The Drudge Report was probably one of the first web-native media outlets and likely the original inventor of the aggregation model but it was HuffPost, coming only slightly later, that was able to achieve this model at scale.
My first employer also innovated in the field of user-generated content with the HuffPost blogging platform. There was an air of exclusivity to being accepted to blog on the Huffington Post, and yet, bloggers were not paid for their contributions, even if they achieved massive distribution. Bloggers willingly signed up for this deal, believing the platform would remunerate them with a different type of value: exposure. Appearing on HuffPost, the bloggers believed, would help them build personal audiences among whom they could promote a business, advance a social cause, or achieve otherwise beneficial notoriety. Although the vast majority of blog posts were read by few, a small minority of blog posts would earn the most traffic of all the articles on the HuffPost website. With many bloggers on the platform and therefore many at-bats, a few blogs would produce extraordinary wins in terms of traffic and the blog was nearly 100% monetizable upside with almost no up-front costs.
This was perhaps the site’s most efficient moneymaker. In 2012, when AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million in one of the first and still one of the largest digital media exits, unpaid bloggers brought a lawsuit against AOL demanding their share, arguing they had contributed a great deal of the value. The courts summarily dismissed their lawsuit. This was the confirmation digital media outlets and social media networks needed: that it was legally permissible to collect content and data from individuals and monetize it without distributing any of that value flow back to the original creators – one of the core pillars of Web2 business models. Though this approach was deemed legal, Web3 would eventually revolt against it, not in the courts but by designing alternative incentive systems that would better compensate creators.
As a special projects editor working for Huffington, I witnessed the machine for producing online journalism in a digital environment and saw the inner workings of both editorial and the blog. Though some in Web3 are justifiably upset by the shortcomings of Web2 businesses, I’m less interested in criticizing them and more interested in capitalizing on their weakness to outcompete the old models with more creator-friendly alternative solutions. Far from moralizing about uncompensated bloggers, I was filled with admiration for the founder, who was and is genuinely a pioneer and an innovator. It was by watching and learning from her that I first realized that I, too, could perhaps someday start a company.
After a couple of years, I identified an opportunity to further innovate on the media business model by offering creators the chance to be compensated for their work, and I co-founded a news platform called Slant. We invited college journalists, and journalism graduate students in particular, to blog on our platform and would compensate them with 70% of revenue from the advertising we served across their content, taking home 30% for the company. Far from an agnostic platform such as Medium, where writers can publish pieces exactly as they write them, we worked closely with our writers to help them edit and package their content for maximum distribution online, teaching and learning the art of content marketing.
At the time, readers and news outlets were fascinated by first-person reports from college campuses as the topic of sexual assault in college and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement gained traction in the popular narrative. As a result of this timing and excellent work by a number of emerging writers, a small minority of top-performing articles were able to achieve significant traffic, sometimes earning a contributor thousands of dollars for a single story. However, the vast majority of pieces earned very little attention and often, to meet our commitment to pay out a writer 70% of advertising revenue on a given piece, we would find ourselves splitting the dollar, or even splitting the cent. At Slant, we depended on third-party payment processors to facilitate the transactions and because of the fees they charged on each transaction, we would lose money on low- paying content. Although our business model worked in theory and we were able to achieve the impressive benchmark of over 4 million page views per month shortly after launch, it did not work in practice because of payment processing. Designing an incentive system to draw in creators with better remuneration, we had innovated a somewhat decentralized micropayment-based business model for media even before the start of Web3 but we were stymied by the intermediated Web2 style of sending payments.
Out of concern for the company’s viability, I became obsessed with payments. In New York, where I lived, there were a number of technology meetups, and as a co-founder of a small but growing platform, I was able to meet and socialize with other founders. In 2015, I met several members of the early Ethereum team, including Joseph Lubin, Sam Cassatt, Andrew Keys and Christian Lundquist. Despite the code base being public, it was difficult for me to understand the inner workings of the Ethereum Virtual Machine without a computer science degree. However, it was clear the individuals being attracted to Ethereum were some of the smartest people I had ever encountered. Although I was unable with my media and marketing skill set to perform my own independent diligence on the technology they were building, it was easy to diligence the people. I recognized that they were brilliant.
See also: What Is Web3? Understanding What Web3 Is… and Isn’t / Learn
Not only did Ethereum theoretically solve the problem I encountered in my small business, it also unlocked countless business models and modes of value creation that made logical sense but not practical sense, impeded by the limitations of Web2. Wading through a sea of unfamiliar jargon, I was able to extract the idea that they were building what some called an “Internet of Value” that would evolve the “Internet of Communications” that Web1 had built. Where Web1 facilitated the global movement and exchange of information at a scale previously unimagined, Web3 had the potential to do the same for value. (It should be noted value is not the same as money, though money is a common way value is expressed.)
At the time we referred to the movement as “crypto” but occasionally would use the term Web3 to refer to the larger construct of a web where all kinds of value can be captured and interact frictionlessly, beyond the financial use case of cryptocurrency or blockchain-based tokens such as bitcoin [BTC] and ether [ETH]. Crypto today can be considered a subcategory of Web3 focused on the financial use case. As my interest in crypto grew and the perils of media business models reliant on advertising became even clearer, in summer 2016 I decided to exit my startup and join ConsenSys full time as chief marketing officer. There I would become the first Web3 marketer.
Most were unfazed by ConsenSys making its first official marketing hire. They were focused on writing code, contributing to what they believed could become one of the most important undertakings in software history and likely their careers. The atmosphere was one of barely contained excitement. We knew we were onto something big.
Others expressed concerns about ConsenSys starting to do marketing. The whole point of designing incentive-aligned economic models in Web3 was that they should be self-marketing. Plus the concept of “marketing” had a veneer of inauthenticity, especially from its context in Web2. The word reminded them of annoying ads on Facebook that no one clicks on, Instagram influencers hawking vitamin waters, exaggerated headlines and articles about the Kardashians. To these thoughtful technologists, marketing seemed more like an evil than a good, the art of using simple and deceptive language to manipulate consumers into buying products they don’t need. No one likes the feeling of being marketed to; many are happy to pay subscription fees to avoid seeing advertisements. Software developers especially, who were the target users for many of the first Web3 tools such as MetaMask, Infura and Truffle, particularly disdain ads. They would rather just inspect an open-source code base themselves and draw their own conclusions. Web2-style marketing was culturally incongruous with this group of hackers and academics.
At ConsenSys in 2016 our goal was to build the fundamental tools and dapps [decentralized applications] that would enable more developers to build using Ethereum. Making Ethereum easier to use would unlock the growth of the Ethereum ecosystem, enabling developers to innovate with the Web3 substrate and build any application they imagined. ConsenSys brought teams together under one roof with shared funding, legal and back office infrastructure to help them get to market faster and more efficiently. Because these teams were housed in one incentive-aligned company, they could specialize to deliver the most critical applications rather than compete with each other to solve the same problems. It was a clever solution to avoid redundant work.
Early ConsenSys was also fruitful ground for collaboration. There were relatively few decentralized blockchain technology experts in the world and almost all of them worked at ConsenSys or the Ethereum Foundation. These experts often contributed wherever they were needed and would work on many different projects at once without official roles or titles, motivated by their desire to grow Ethereum.
Thanks to its critical mass of talent, culture of cooperation and an electric energy where anything felt possible, early ConsenSys was able to build foundational Ethereum standards, tools and dapps, many of which are widely popular today. These include Truffle, the original development framework for building Ethereum applications; Infura, the Ethereum infrastructure developers use to deploy dapps; MetaMask, the widely used self-sovereign Web3 wallet; and contributing to the ERC-20 token standard.
ConsenSys brought together teams to build dapps on top of these core tools, aimed at a wide variety of use cases and industries. Among these were Ujo, a Web3 music dapp that would pioneer a novel use of NFTs and inspire others; SingularDTV, a platform to decentralize film and movie production; Gnosis, a prediction market platform whose contracts are now widely used in other dapps; and Grid+, a system that promised to make energy use cheaper and more efficient.
Some of these projects would succeed, while others would disband and send their contributors to work elsewhere within the ConsenSys “mesh,” the name for the morphing collection of people and projects associated with the company. If the saying is true that 90% of startups fail, ConsenSys certainly achieved a far better than average track record. But the success of any individual project was only part of the point. My job as a marketer was to help these fledgling startups gain whatever traction they could, while also showcasing each startup as a possible use case for Ethereum. This would inspire others to build on Ethereum and drive ecosystem growth, even when an individual startup failed by other metrics like user acquisition or volume. Obviously, we wanted all our projects to succeed but our larger mandate was Ethereum.
There was no template for marketing in Web3. As the first official marketing hire at ConsenSys, I learned quickly from my colleagues, especially the few who reacted strongly to the idea of ConsenSys starting a marketing department, that the Web2 approach wouldn’t work. Luckily, I didn’t have a traditional marketing background and wasn’t set in my ways. I’d absorbed important lessons from my time at HuffPost and Slant about how content was distributed online and how that engine worked to capture attention, shape perception and convert audiences to taking the actions that matter to a company. I was no stranger to social media and influencer marketing and I recognized the importance of gathering people together for physical events. And perhaps most relevant, as a previous startup co-founder, I knew how to think about starting a business and shaping it over time to fit its customers’ emerging preferences.
What I didn’t know was very much about Web3. It was immediately clear it would be impossible to design a formula for Web3 marketing without understanding the substrate that is Web3. I needed to get to know the product before I could sell it. I read everything I could get my hands on about Ethereum and lured my busy colleagues out to lunch or happy hour, where I would mine them for information. Reassured of my intention to market Ethereum thoughtfully, free from hype and clickbait, they were cautiously optimistic that my unusual skill set could be deployed to help Ethereum achieve its vision and were mostly happy to spend time with me.
But my goal was to commercialize Ethereum and bring Web3 to a retail audience. In my first interview with Joe Lubin, I told the Ethereum co-founder and ConsenSys founder and CEO point-blank that I wanted to make Ethereum a household name like Starbucks and Major League Baseball. This was Earth-shaking technology – not flying cars but the most exciting thing I’d ever encountered in the world of bits. If we presented it the right way, everyone would care about it. The idea of commercializing Ethereum was controversial among the quiet academics and anti-establishment hackers of early ConsenSys, but Joe nonetheless offered me the position. After all, he had founded ConsenSys to grow Ethereum and bring it to more people. Despite the fact that I was only 25 years old, Joe gave me the benefit of the doubt. I was obviously passionate about Ethereum, and it wasn’t like the world’s best marketers were flocking to an obscure project whose only reputation was for being inscrutably complicated and getting hacked that one time. Hiring me was an experiment and I think Joe was curious to see what, if anything, I could do. But I would be given no resources: no new hires and no budget until I proved marketing mattered.
I spotted the first opportunity to do so almost immediately thanks to Andrew Keys, an early Ethereum evangelist and master salesman who was leading business development. Warm and gregarious, Andrew invited me out for dumplings in Shanghai, where we were attending the second annual DevCon, the yearly meeting of Ethereum developers and enthusiasts hosted by the Ethereum Foundation. Talking a mile a minute, Andrew effused about a project he and others were working on: launching the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). Months previous andrew had cold-called Microsoft to tell them about Ethereum. Two executives, Marley Gray and Yorke Rhodes III, had listened carefully. They were excited about its capabilities and curious to explore use cases for their business. Encouraged by the reception from Microsoft andrew worked tirelessly to rally the blue-chip companies that wanted to experiment with Ethereum.
See also: How Are Institutions and Companies Investing in Crypto? / Learn
Microsoft, Intel, JPMorgan Chase, Santander, BNY Mellon and Accenture were among the long list of firms that agreed to launch an intercompany working group in partnership with ConsenSys, several other startups and academic groups. Its goal would be to set standards for enterprise implementations of Ethereum that could be used by all. This was novel, not only because of Ethereum. These were companies that would otherwise compete, or at least disclose minimal information to each other, suddenly agreeing to band together to build a shared resource. Web3 economic models often incentivize collaboration and here, in the unlikeliest of places – the cutthroat worlds of finance, enterprise software and management consulting – the spirit was already taking hold.
By the time Peking duck was served Andrew had me convinced this was a remarkable opportunity for marketing. At that point during summer 2016, when people googled Ethereum, the results would mostly show them its teenage inventor, Vitalik Buterin. While Buterin and the rest of the early Ethereum technology team were impressive to computer scientists, Ethereum was still a hard sell for enterprise business executives who didn’t recognize any familiar names on the masthead. Most of the Ethereum presale investors had been private individuals and small funds. There weren’t big brands or many famous investors putting their weight behind the project, which made Ethereum seem niche and unreliable.
Blue-chip companies rigorously vet their choices of software and partnerships and at the time, Ethereum had no third parties validating its merits that would appear trustworthy to decision-makers who, to make matters worse, inherently distrusted crypto. Ever since the Silk Road case, Bitcoin, the best known blockchain network, had been associated with drugs and violence in the internet underworld. But Ethereum wasn’t offering an easy way for dealers to sell pot; it was a new web architecture for creating an Internet of Value. If only a group of trustworthy companies endorsed the Ethereum blockchain, businesses of all sorts would recognize its advantages, overcome their skepticism and indifference and join the movement.
I would continue the conversation with Andrew and other colleagues over the coming months. We recognized this was an important chance to tell the story of Ethereum in the press, which could help reset the narrative that was established with The DAO hack. Serious companies needed reassurance that Ethereum was structurally sound and wouldn’t be exploited again. With household name brands involved in the EEA, we could tell the story of what Ethereum is and why people should care and have it featured prominently in every major media outlet. Millions would discover Ethereum for the first time in this new context.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters and thousands of smaller outlets all published the story at the end of February 2017. Andrew and I had pounded the pavement securing coverage from journalists, explaining Ethereum and the EEA and coordinating press releases and interviews among the member companies, no mean feat with so many corporate communications departments involved. But the plan worked. After that fateful day, anyone who googled “Ethereum” learned about Buterin but also Gray and Rhodes from Microsoft, Julio Faura from Santander and Amber Baldet from JPMorgan. ConsenSys was widely credited with assembling the group and featured in many of the stories, exploding the name recognition for our business, which was still relatively new.
Investors read the financial press and, sure enough, headlines about Ethereum rubbing shoulders with the most prominent firms in technology and finance brought capital pouring into its token, ether. Ironically, the enterprise standards originally imagined for Ethereum didn’t even use ether; they called for private instances of the Ethereum blockchain that wouldn’t require a crypto token. It was simply the publicity Ethereum was getting in association with top firms that built investor confidence, sending ether surging above $20 quickly after the announcement. By the first Ethereal Summit in May 2017, ether prices would cross $100, one of the fastest price runups in crypto history.
Joe was pleased with his one-woman marketing department. I had ridden in on Andrew’s coattails and proved that marketing mattered. What was exciting to Joe wasn’t just brand recognition for ConsenSys or investors pouring into ether – of which he owned a significant stake – it was how the story stimulated network effects that would help Ethereum grow. More investors meant more funding for Ethereum projects, more entrepreneurs raising capital to build on the platform and more developers hired by those projects to contribute to their code bases.
See also: FTX Showed the Problems of Centralized Finance | Opinion
Our metric for success wasn’t the ETH price; it was the number of developers building on Ethereum, in languages such as Solidity and LLL. With more developers building on Ethereum came more at bats to build the “killer dapp” that would drive massive adoption. Almost no developers who started working in Web3 in 2017 would credit their career decision to the EEA launch. To the contrary, many would be motivated by a desire to disrupt the banking industry and disintermediate large corporations. But the EEA launch story began spinning a flywheel of growth whose secondary effects would draw countless developers to Ethereum. (The flywheel is a useful image: A heavy wheel on an axis that at first takes a lot of effort to push but after a while, picks up tremendous speed – the energy from previous pushes now working with the mass of the wheel such that the wheel accelerates, seemingly turning itself. We’ll return to the image of the flywheel when discussing certain momentum-generating aspects of Web3 businesses.)
I made my first hires for the ConsenSys marketing team. The first were Matthew Iles and Elise Ransom. Matthew had a traditional Web2 marketing background and had co-founded a marketing agency with his wife that had successfully marketed well-known retail brands including M. Gemi and Web2 companies such as General Assembly. Matthew and his wife had designed the General Assembly course on digital marketing. Coming from the media world with my nontraditional marketing background, I wanted to partner with a leading expert, and Matthew had codified digital marketing best practices and taught them to thousands of students. Matthew was flexible and creative. Far from resting on his laurels, he didn’t assume that Web2 marketing would work in Web3 but brought structure, process and a wealth of knowledge.
Elise, too, was a remarkable addition to the team. She had worked in fintech (short for financial technology, refers not only or even principally to Web3 applications but more broadly to technological innovation transforming or disrupting financial services) marketing for a real estate-focused startup. Though only a few years out of college, like me, Elise was obviously passionate about Ethereum. For months she persistently contacted ConsenSys employees looking for a job. I recognized when we met that she was an extraordinary communicator, with a talent for distilling complex ideas from the world of fintech into clear messages. During her interview, Matthew and I asked her one of our favorite questions: Explain something complex that you understand really well but that confuses other people. Elise flawlessly explained the 2008 financial crisis and the role of mortgage-backed securities, charting the course of the collapse that had inspired Satoshi Nakamoto on the whiteboard of our tiny meeting room at 49 Bogart Street.
Together, Matthew, Elise and I began laying the groundwork for the first-ever Web3 marketing team, a department that by the end of my nearly four years at ConsenSys would include more than 80 people on teams specializing in public relations, content marketing, social media, community marketing, growth marketing, visual design and product marketing. As a team of non-engineers, we learned voraciously from our technical peers at ConsenSys, always conscious that we needed to understand the constantly evolving Web3 substrate in order to mold it. Our team would choose the best marketing practices to adapt from Web2 and also derive new, natively Web3 marketing practices from first principles. The technology we were bringing to the world shifted economic control away from discretionary decision-making by groups of people and toward transparent governance by algorithm.
And yet, the process of bringing it to market was all about people. We were successful insofar as we brought in the best talent from Web2 and trained ourselves together on Web3. These included Kara Miley and James Beck, who joined soon after to run public relations; Avery Erwin and Everett Muzzy on content marketing; Kanwal Jehan leading community; David Wu and Dean Ramadan in growth marketing; Elaine Zelby, Brett Li and Camilla McFarland on product marketing and so many more. After ConsenSys, they would go on to illustrious careers, mostly in Web3. Camilla, Elise, Kara and Everett would join me at Serotonin, the Web3 marketing agency and product studio Matthew and I co-founded in 2020.
After years training ourselves as the first Web3 marketing team, bringing many of the most successful early dapps and tokens to market, we hung out our own shingle to bring our best practices to the next generation of Web3 projects: layer 1s, layer 2s, Web3 utilities, DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations], DeFi [decentralized finance] protocols, NFTs [non-fungible tokens] and metaverse worlds. At Serotonin, we have further refined Web3 marketing and continued to evolve alongside the industry, developing a new specialty in Web3 transformation and coining the term “Web2.5” to refer to traditional and Web2 companies gradually adapting their business models to Web3.
As other marketing practitioners enter Web3, we at Serotonin continue to enjoy the advantage of being Web3 natives, deeply familiar with the Web3 substrate and the Web3 community’s history and unique character. That being said, we cheerfully welcome new marketers into the space, because unlike Web2, with its finite pool of business to be competed for by rival agencies and practitioners, Web3 is growing at a breakneck pace, and thanks to Web3 economics, the rising tide of growth truly lifts all boats, stimulating network effects to drive more investment, developers and users. It behooves us to share our best practices with others in the hope they continue to grow our still-fledgling industry and also to continue to learn from those newcomers, perhaps the readers of this book, who innovate in molding the Web3 substrate and set new standards for all of us.
Marketing in Web3 is simply the practice of connecting potential users with products or services they want, starting by making potential users aware of them. To be successful, marketers must learn how to stimulate demand for a new product, often starting from zero. They must deeply understand their product as well as their target audience.
This information enables them to construct a marketing funnel that takes potential users through the steps of discovery, engagement, use and retention. In many cases, a Web3 marketer seeks to convert new potential users from discovery into engagement with an invitation to join a community.
“Community” in Web3 usually refers to an incentive-aligned group of people, typically gathered on a communications channel, such as Discord or Telegram. This group often includes the team working on the project, investors who hold tokens or equity in the project and users of the dapp or protocol. These categories blend fluidly; for example, a user in the community might contribute to the project’s open source code base and receive financial rewards for doing so. Members of the full-time team may come to see this contributor as a regular teammate. A token or equity holder in the community might start using the product and a user could decide to invest. Communities typically share sets of values and interests beyond the mission of the project. A vibrant community can look like a digital social club where members work and play together.
See also: How to Use a DAO to Build a Web3 Community | Opinion
For a marketer, communities offer a pool of potential users to continuously reengage and convert to using new products and features. Ultimately, though, as a community grows, the distinction between the role of the hired marketer and the community member with a marketing skill set can vanish. Just as projects invite their developer communities to contribute to code, they can recruit and reward members with marketing skill sets for contributing to community moderation, content creation, visual design, social media management, hosting IRL (in real life) meetups or events and ambassador or referral programs. It’s efficient for Web3 projects to implement high-quality incentive systems to draw out talent from their communities. Correctly designed, these systems lead to more and better ideation and execution with fewer employees and less back office overhead, while remunerating contributors with valuable rewards.
Web3 projects can eventually become self-governing and self-marketing. With a sufficiently strong community, a Web3 project can progress along its path toward decentralization and dispense with formal employment or even disband its legal entity, because these are no longer necessary. Marketers should consider the design for a self-marketing system from their first day working on a Web3 project but they also need to know that the road to implementing it may be long. Before a community can grasp onto an incentive structure to take over essential functions, projects need to solve the zero-to-one problem of driving discovery for their product and attracting members in the first place. The following sections will cover the steps required to generate initial traction, stewarding that traction into a self-marketing system and specific strategies shown to work along the way.