Piano raises $88M for analytics, subscription and personalization tools for publishers, adds LinkedIn as investor

As publishers face up to whatever might be their next existential crisis — there are so many options from which to choose, including Substack stealing all their writers; or Clubhouse pulling in people through audio-based conversations where news and analysis intermingle seamlessly with networking — a startup that’s helping them build more tools to keep their businesses and audiences intact, and hopefully grow, is announcing a growth round of its own.

Piano, which provides analytics and subscription services to publishers, has closed a round of $88 million, funding that it will be using to continue building out the technology that it provides to its customers, as well as forge into newer areas where it can better connect audiences online.

The funding comes on the heels of a strong period for Piano. The company works with around 1,000 customers — they include CNBC, Wall Street Journal, NBC Sports, Insider, The Economist, Gannett, Le Parisien, Nielsen, MIT Technology Review, The Telegraph, South China Morning Post and (disclaimer) TechCrunch; and it has seen revenues grow 400% since 2019.

Piano has an interesting new backer in this round that might point to what form those newer areas of development might take. LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social networking site aimed at the working world, is participating in this Series C, which is being led by previous backer Updata Partners. Rittenhouse Ventures, which is based in Piano’s hometown of Philadelphia, is also participating.

(Piano is not disclosing valuation with this round but I understand it’s operating on a $75 million annual run rate currently. It has now raised just over $134 million.)

Trevor Kaufman, Piano’s CEO, would not be drawn out on how it specifically will be working with LinkedIn, but it’s notable that the latter company has long held back from leveraging the profiles it holds on its 740 million users to do much outside of the core LinkedIn experience.

That could be applied in a number of ways, for example similar to Facebook and Google logins to third-party sites; or for providing an identity layer to comment on stories; or even building a way to manage logins via a LinkedIn profile, which could then potentially be used to help people manage and read/consume all the content they subscribe to. Or something totally different: LinkedIn has a lot of unrealised potential that Piano could help tap.

“Members are increasingly turning to LinkedIn to stay informed on the news and views that shape their respective industries – critical to this is the work we do with trusted publishers and journalists,” said Scott Roberts, VP and Head of Business Development at LinkedIn, in a statement. “The opportunity to collaborate with Piano to help unlock more value for publisher content on LinkedIn makes it a natural strategic investment opportunity.”

The last year has seen many of us spending significantly more time indoors, and for a number of us that has also meant more reading, especially of smaller and more digestible formats such as periodicals. In a way, it’s no surprise that models like Substack’s have emerged and apparently thrived in this period, where writers are looking for different approaches and ways of connecting with readers while publishers by and large are conserving costs and strategies to weather out the storm.

Piano’s rise in that context is especially interesting, as in many cases it’s not reinventing the wheel for publishers but providing them with the tools to better leverage the content production that they already have in place. What’s notable is that in the process, it’s been able to capitalize on changing sentiments in the publishing industry. Whereas paywalls and subscriptions have in the past been seen as a drag on traffic (and the ads that get sold against it) and only useful for those in the world of B2B, now they are increasingly becoming more commonplace in a much wider range of settings, Kaufman said.

Piano’s tools are notable not just as basic levers to manage subscriptions (free and paid) but a more sophisticated set of analytics that provide more insight into how content is being read, which can in turn be used to develop those subscription tiers and determine the likelihood of people subscribing (Nieman Lab has good article on how that works here). 

To add to that, now another area where Piano is likely to develop more products is in the area of newsletters. No, not the Substack kind, but building tools for publishers to help them build out newsletter businesses that they can monetize if they choose. Indeed, the other kind of newsletter venture is far from Piano’s agenda.

“I can’t imagine a more damaging entity for journalism than Substack,” Kaufman told me. “I think it’s gotten a tremendous amount of attention from writers because it is a fantasy come true for journalists, this idea that you can make $500k a year for writing on occasion. But nothing can be farther from the truth.” He believes the model is so “pumped up venture funding” that it’s not a viable one for the long haul.

That remains to be seen, I suppose, and of course Piano has a strong vested interest in supporting its publisher customers. What it mainly says to me is that there are still some innings left in this game, and maybe some more games in a longer series.

The company may also be dipping into more M&A, given how fragmented the audience development, analytics and measurement space is. In March of this year, the company acquired AT Internet, a French company, to better manage and crunch analytics from across a number of silos, including traffic, advertising, subscriptions, engagement and more.

“Piano’s recent growth has been outstanding, and we continue to be impressed by the expanding set of capabilities they bring to both media companies and brands looking to drive more revenue from their audiences,” said Jon Seeber, general partner at Updata Partners and a member of Piano’s board, in a statement “They now have a true end-to-end platform that can power all aspects of the customer journey, allowing their clients to incorporate only the highest-quality data from across touchpoints to create the best experiences for users.”