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Zack Dugow is the Founder and CEO of Insticator, a leading global publisher engagement platform. Considered one of the most rapidly expanding companies in North America, Insticator’s products reach over 2 billion users annually. Nearly 2000 publishers utilize its content engagement units, commenting, and monetization solutions.

In addition to heading Insticator, Zack is a mentor and invests in startups. He is a member of YPO, the IAB, and a contributor to the Forbes Tech Council. He has also been recognized on the DMN Top 40 Under 40 list and named to Crain’s New York’s 40 Under 40 list.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • [03:30] Zack Dugow talks about Insticator and what it does
  • [05:29] Insticator’s customer success stories
  • [07:00] How Insticator is helping clients create more content engagement, trivia, and polls
  • [11:39] Zack explains how Insticator’s services and hiring process have evolved
  • [16:12] How Insticator maintains culture globally, even after the acquisition
  • [22:23] Lessons learned from past acquisitions
  • [26:41] How did Insticator get the big media partnerships?
  • [32:01] How companies increase monetization through content engagement
  • [35:25] Zack shares his insights on partners and vendors
  • [37:42] The value of having an ownership mindset and an advisory board in a company
  • [42:01] Insticator’s ideal client profile

In this episode…

Are you trying to find ways to maximize the revenue generated by site visitors beyond standard ad placements? As a publisher, how can you do so effectively?

Many publishers need a one-stop shop where they can test their readers’ smarts with trivia, gauge their opinions with polls, or provide a platform for healthy dialogue through comments to maximize ad revenue. Zack Dugow shares his journey of creating a company with engagement products that help publishers establish a strong social community within their ecosystems by encouraging users to engage more with site content and each other.

Listen to this episode of the Inspired Insider Podcast with Dr. Jeremy Weisz featuring Zack Dugow, Founder and CEO of Insticator, who discusses how publishers can drive more content engagement. Zack explains how Insticator is helping clients create more content engagement, trivia, and polls, how it maintains culture globally even after an acquisition, and how it got big media partnerships.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:01 

You are listening to Inspired Insider with your host, Dr. Jeremy Weisz.

Jeremy Weisz  0:22 

Dr. Jeremy Weisz here founder of where I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and leaders today is no different. I have the founder of Insticator, Zack Dugow and Zack, I’m gonna formally introduce you in a second. But I always like to point out other episodes, people should check out of the podcast. And since you’re in YPO. I looked through what are some other cool YPO, YPO is an amazing organization. What are some other interviews I’ve had, I had Sean Magennis, president and he was COO of YPO for a while, and he talked about why civility and kindness need to make a comeback. I had Kevin Hourigan, who also is in YPO, he’s the founder of Spinutech an agency. He’s an agency since 1995. So he talked about kind of the evolution of the space, the internet space in general, and Ryan Mulvany, also, the journey of building selling Amazon agency, which is interesting as well. And this episode is brought to you by Rise25. At Rise25 we help businesses give to and connect to their dream 100 partnerships and relationships. And how do we do that we actually help you run your podcast for an easy button for a company to launch and run a podcast. We do strategy, accountability and full production execution so we call ourselves kind of the magic elves that work in the background and make sure the host looks good and could just spend the time on the conversation. not do anything else. For me, we were talking a little bit before we hit record, the number one thing in my life is relationships. I’m always looking at ways to give to my best relationships. And I found no better way over the past decade to profile the people and companies I most admire and share with the world what they’re working on. So we’ve talked about podcasting, you should if you have questions, go to And I’m excited to introduce Zack Dugow. He’s the founder and CEO of Insticator, which is a leading global publisher engagement platform. They have over 100 team members spanning the globe, they have nearly 2000 publishers utilizing and I haven’t talked a little about the products they offer. But they utilize content engagement units, commenting and a bunch of monetization solutions. And he’ll kind of go in-depth on that. And Insticator is considered one of the most rapidly expanding companies in North America, their products reach over 2 billion users annually. And over the last four years, that company has been named an inc 5000 Deloitte technology fast 500. If you’re watching the video, you could see behind Zack cranes, New York Business fast 50 and many more. And it’s really interesting. And we’ll talk because, Zack, I’m interested in, you’ve established so many amazing partnerships with large-scale media companies, the Washington Post, Web MD,, and organizations like Major League Baseball, and USA Today. So Zack, thanks for joining me.

Zack Dugow  3:14 

Great to be here Dr. Jeremy, do you like to get by Jeremy or Dr. Jeremy?

Jeremy Weisz  3:18 

if I was adjusting you on the chiropractic cavity call me Doctor but no otherwise Jeremy place? So tell people a little more about Insticator and what you do.

Zack Dugow  3:30 

Yeah, sure. So starting a high level. So we believe and Insticator that the future of social media and social interaction is distributed across the publishing ecosystem instead of siloed in what we call the walled gardens of like Google or Facebook, or TikTok, or Meta or Twitter as an example. And so we really focus on building community inside of places where people have commonalities like in content on publishing sites, so you take a publisher of ours like Evolve Media was a site like dog time, and users can engage in trivia and polling, they can comment they can react to the articles they can engage with each other really builds community. And in doing so, it allows them to have that social interactivity that we look for when we have some people use social media that like social connection. And what we also do is then collect a lot of this end-user data that allows the publisher to build better content experiences based on understanding their audience more effectively. So whether it’s our content engagement units, or commenting product, then we allow them to monetize more effectively with our own full Ad Management System, or we’re serving ads into the site’s experience and our own supply-side platform. So but everything we do from the publishing side and the community side of the business is around how do we build great user experiences for publishers so that people want to live on the sites more. They want to embrace that content, and they want to interact with other users who live in that experience as well. And so everything that that’s all, we’re all of our product and features, that’s the genesis and core of where they come from.

Jeremy Weisz  5:16 

I love it, who doesn’t want more engagement? Whatever business or company it is, and you mentioned Evolve Media. Can you talk a little bit about what you did with Evolve Media?

Zack Dugow  5:29 

Yeah, absolutely. So Evolve was previously using two competing companies from one called Discuss when called Open Web for their commenting solution, they weren’t getting great results in terms of engagement and comments and analytics, and metrics, and we help them switch over to our system, while also still using our constant engagement units. And they saw a very big overall 40% increase in users commenting, reacting, engaging pages that they visited by switching to our solution and community, which then ultimately led them to making a lot more money as well as a publisher. And so that big increase, I think, was over 10x allowed them to then use those resources to flow back into writing great content and growing more of their business. Paul has over 15 different publishing sites. And so it was exciting to see how our products across very different types of communities like they’ve got a site called superhero hype, which is very much like a superhero community, they’ve got a site called PlayStation lifestyle, which is really like kind of a games community. They’ve got sites like dog time, which is like a pet community, that different types of communities with vastly different user base is also real benefits and utilizing our technology. And it improved their experience, the publisher experience and the advertisers experience as well.

Jeremy Weisz  6:48 

So when we’re looking at content engagement, that could be trivia polls, anything that will help get engagement and help create a better user experience.

Zack Dugow  7:00 

And that’s right, so we have polling, we have Trivia, we have what we also called Content Recirculation, where we’ll circulate an article based on who the user is that they’re going to find more interesting, we have a way that users can subscribe and leave email signup, and capture so that they can ascribe to more content from that publisher as well. So we have different ways that we’re utilizing those types of formats to drive more engagement on the site.

Jeremy Weisz  7:26 

What do you find? Let’s take Evolve Media, for example. Are you giving best practices to them? How does it work as far as creating a trivia or a poll, I love to hear are they going in and they’re able to kind of create it from what you give them the tools? And if there’s big mistakes that people make when creating a trivia or a poll in general? Are they doing it on their own? Or are you kind of guiding them?

Zack Dugow  7:55 

Yeah, so a lot of our publishers do this themselves, but the others, the vast majority of the content is written by our content operations team. So we essentially when a publisher signs up with us, we have a content operations team and Jenny and Alec and other numerous members who are fantastic, they’re looking at the site connecting with the editorial team and creating questions that are going to be the most engaging based on the content time of year the formats and that allows it so that a publisher who that may not be their sweet spot of like okay, what kind of poll should I create what kind of tribute like our team will step in there and do all that for them or also or supplement their efforts?

Jeremy Weisz  8:37 

Do you remember any throughout the years that I’m not saying surprised you but like, wow, this just blew it out of the water? Like what the poll or the trivia was?

Zack Dugow  8:46 

Oh, yeah, let me say there’s probably there’s a few that stick out in my mind. One was, as it relates to like, how often people game that we ran across numerous gaming sites like game just game, how often do you play your favorite gaming title, and for us are myself and I used to be by the way, I used to be an avid gamer. I used to play Warcraft three a long time ago. And I thought for somebody was an avid gamer that that might be in the two hours, like a one to two hours a day range, which I thought wow, that’s pretty significant. You get home from a day of work and you’re diving into that, but there was much more the…

Jeremy Weisz  9:29 

23 hours a day.

Zack Dugow  9:32 

The vast majority was in the six plus hours a day. You realize is that game communities like that is for lots of people, their entire social interaction community, like getting home from work, or whatever it is that you’re doing, and then staying online and playing till 11 o’clock at night, 12, 1 am, 2 am, 3 am. You’re a part of a clan, you know each other’s names. You talk and there’s just it was like a very surprising and that people really. And it not just people that you think oh, they’re young people, people that have families, people that have lots of familial responsibilities, find the time to gain. That was one that stood out to me. I don’t know if you were ever a gamer, Jeremy. But that was interesting.

Jeremy Weisz  10:18 

I wouldn’t define myself as a gamer. I liked playing different dating myself Nintendo or Sega Genesis or those kinds of games, but I was I was never. So I love those things. But it was definitely, from a community standpoint, playing with friends, you know? Yeah. What any others that stick out? Polls or trivia that just were really interesting, or interesting results, too.

Zack Dugow  10:44 

Yeah, there was a site kind of this has got to go back a couple of years. But we ran a question around, like, what type of diet and format do you think is like, the healthiest to go by? And I guess I thought, like, the vast majority of answers would have been something around like, vegetarian or Pescatarian, or something like that. But it was not even close to that. I think it was something like, I can’t remember what we called it, but it was either like meat only or a carnivore diet or something like that. There was like a lot of answers that were heavy on the meat front, which you know, rightly or wrongly, wisdom of the crowds. It was just very interesting to see that.

Jeremy Weisz  11:23 

Early on with the business, I know you, with any business, they don’t end up doing what they start doing a pivot. What was the original idea and the kind of evolution of the services?

Zack Dugow  11:39 

Yeah, so when we got started at Insticator was very different from what we do now. So the initial idea for Insticator came from me sitting around with a bunch of friends watching Mad Men. And we were all very connected to the characters. And we were making bets about like, from the bats, if you will, about Don Draper’s divorce, if he was gonna get divorce from his first wife, Betty, if you will. And what was interesting to me was like how connected we were into the experience and like what are called like Para-social relationships with the characters, right? And like, we naturally all have them, we just don’t think about them like that. Like, when you’re watching a movie, and you’re rooting for the hero and something bad happens and it hits you and you cry, or you’re sad, or one of the TV show characters that makes you angry when they’re mistreated. You’ve got this real, for lack of better words, relationship with this fictional character, right? And you don’t think of it like that, but you’re really invested in their future. And so that was a part of the initial idea for Insticator was that people could engage in community and predict outcomes of TV shows, and a real gamified experience. They can win points, they can redeem rewards, they can engage with other users and predictions, and polling and trivia. And we launched with that. And we had some success with that. And I’ll tell you something interesting, because what we didn’t expect was that like the two biggest communities on our platform, were the Vampire Diaries online and the originals. And I have never actually seen the shows, but we just had this massive swarm of those fans who were so engaged, like so connected to those characters. And so it was really interesting. And then we launched that had success with that and realize to really get scale we needed to go to where the communities were. So we changed and pivoted the technology to be an embedded experience. And from there, we were able to embed into all different types of sites and formats, football fan sites like cheesehead TV to like sports sites, to new sites. And one site became 10, became 50 became 500. And things kind of evolved from there, not unlike how a lot of technology companies evolve. A lot of people forget that a lot of big tech companies we use today, YouTube started out as a video dating site called YouTube and hook up. And Twitter started out actually as podcasting, right audio and then it pivoted into microblogging and Flickr was a role-playing strategy games. So I’m happy we were able to find what was going to be value add and really community-built.

Jeremy Weisz  14:16 

How did your hires change throughout? When you say embed, I think very technical, you need a team that, software development, how did your hires change throughout the course of the company?

Zack Dugow  14:31 

Yeah, many times when we thought you know, okay, our businesses x and then it’s now a 180 from that you realize you need like a whole different skill set. And so we brought on different advisors and we brought on different team members to help us scale and some team members were really versatile, which was fantastic and were able to help us grow and evolve regardless of the pivots in the business. And somewhere so excited about that, or didn’t want to be a part of the new journey when we initially had pivoted the business, and that’s okay, too. And so there was a lot of change as it relates to team, especially in those early days where you’re really trying to figure out what it is the business is going to be. Because when you launch a business, you kind of unless it’s like, okay, we’re setting up a restaurant, and we know people like to eat and they need to eat, if you’re creating a novel technology product, or a new technology product, you have a hypothesis about what to work, you don’t know until people use the product or the platform, and then you adjust from there.