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Pay to play in HR Tech

BY -

Phil Strazzulla

December 11, 2020

A lot of the content in the world of HR Tech is pay to play.  I started off in this space around 10 years ago on the vendor side. It wasn't uncommon for us to get emails from thought leaders and various publications letting us know that if we wanted to be included in a "best of" list or an article they were writing for Forbes, we could just pay for a shoutout (usually $1k-$5k depending on the exposure).

In my current role people are much more likely to think they can pay me for exposure.  It's quite common to get messages from vendors asking me how much it costs to be featured on our website. Here's an example of a LinkedIn DM I received recently:

Pay to play email request from HR Tech company

Anecdotally, there is a strong correlation between vendors who lead with "how much does it cost to be on your site?" and poor products. Rarely do the vendors who reach out meet our criteria to be featured.

That's not to say vendors who advertise are of poor quality. In fact, it's almost the exact opposite. Vendors who can afford to advertise (google, conferences, SSR, etc) typically do so because they can use those dollars to get high retention customers that have very high lifetime values.

We offer advertising for vendors that we’ve already decided to feature on our site, and it's always interesting to note that typically the best solutions in a space are the most hungry for more leads. They have a great product that gets people to buy, and stay on as customers.  Their $1 of advertising gets them a lot more value than a bad product that's hard to sell and has high churn.

However, there is a wide gap between a paid placement on a list you don't belong to, and white hat digital advertising.

Pay to play is quite common

Pay to play is so pervasive that many times when we reach out to a vendor to learn more about their solution, their first question is "how much does it cost to be on the site?" — and sometimes, it's even very hard to explain over email that we don't charge vendors to be featured on our site.  They simply don't believe us because so many others have tried to charge them to be in a blog post, presentation, etc.

When we first started SelectSoftware, it was very clear that a lot of the internet's "best XYZ software" lists were pay to play. PCMag had a list of what seemed to be the worst ATS's out there (it's since gotten SLIGHTLY better). I remember in the comment section that Martin Burns had said something about the suspect quality of the companies featured, and then listed many of the vendors we consider to be the best and asked why they weren't on the page.  PCMag has since removed the comments section from their "best software" pages...

Ironically, it's better to be true to your audience (but only in the long run)

While there will always be short term profit maximizers, we strongly believe that the best long term play to become a trusted source of information about HR Tech is to create the most useful content in the hopes of building a brand through unbiased advice. In that way, we are incentivized to do the right thing.

We could make a lot more money tomorrow by simply allowing the largest HR Tech vendors to advertise on our site and support their claims of having the best HCM suites out there. But, we'd much rather see our traffic go up over the course of years by offering unique insights to our loyal readers who in turn help us spread the word about our site.

Our hope is that this will lead to building a more sustainable business for the long term that we can be proud of.  Thankfully, this thesis is playing out:

Line graph of sustainable plan to maintain SSR's reputation as a reliable HR Tech review source

At the end of the day, we are making a bet that pay to play doesn't pay, in the long term. So, when you look at the vendors in our HR Tech ecosystem, you can know we've put a lot of thought and research into who should be in these lists.

To wrap up, we recommend you have your radars up when looking around the internet for advice on what to buy. Even asking consultants, thought leaders and other stakeholders in our ecosystem can be a bit tricky as there are hidden incentives in people's answers. Don't be afraid to probe into the real truth behind someone's recommendation so you can find and buy the right tools for your organization.

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