Rand Fishkin made a name for himself as co-founder and former CEO of Moz. Today he is founder of SparkToro. His new product, an audience intelligence tool, has been very well-received.
What's in store in this guest appearance? Rand talks openly about his business journey, his current undertakings, and where he sees digital marketing headed.
In this interview:
01:43 – In case you don’t know who Rand Fishkin is…
04:11 – All about Rand’s venture into audience intelligence
09:43 – Trends in the current landscape of digital marketing
14:09 – Audience insights in a world that’s gone online
16:35 – A lot can be accomplished by turning things off
18:03 – The trouble with trackability of ROI
27:20 – How true is it that anyone can do this?
28:59 – What the essential starter kit was for audience analysis tool SparkToro
25:31 – Some wisdom to close out with
In case you don’t know who Rand Fishkin is…
Many internet marketers are well-acquainted with the name of Rand Fishkin. The SaaS he founded, Moz, is a large and popular provider of SEO software worldwide. Rand has written a transparent rule book about the startup world, and pioneered the Whiteboard Friday content series that was pivotal for their industry.
Rand, however, has since moved on from his role as Moz’s CEO. The new company he’s founded, SparkToro, is shaping up to become a success in its own right, and he guests in this SuperFastBusiness episode to tell its story.
All about Rand’s venture into audience intelligence
SparkToro launched its product about 10 months ago, and it’s been a really interesting journey, says Rand. Operating at a much smaller scale than Moz, SparkToro is two people, and is not venture-backed. Rand and his co-founder are trying to build something very unique in their space instead of entering something already existing.
SparkToro is in the category of social listening tools, essentially a giant database of public web and social profiles that you can search over to get behavioral data about them.
Say your business wants to target chemical engineers in the UK. You want to figure out which podcast you should sponsor and pitch and do business development deals with, and what websites these chemical engineers are visiting. What events are they going to? Who are they listening to online? What are they following on social? What YouTube channels do they subscribe to?
SparkToro can tell you. It has access to over a thousand profiles of chemical engineers who have some public presence on the web. And it analyzes what they follow, what they read, what they watch, listen to, talk about, share hashtags they use, all of that.
The tough part of SparkToro, says Rand, is that there’s not really a term in the industry to describe it. You say you do SEO, everybody knows what that is. Content marketing, everyone knows it. Social media marketing, paid advertising on display, everybody’s familiar.
Sparktoro is a new area of audience analysis. They’ve been calling it audience intelligence, which describes it reasonably well. But it’s definitely a new challenge trying to almost build an industry.
James likens it to what they’re doing on his surfing website. A surfer interested in a board would normally look for it on Instagram, then look up clips of it on YouTube, and visit the manufacturer’s site for specifications. Then they might check out various reviews. On James’s site, everything is collected in one place – specs, images, videos, reviews. So in the same way, SparkToro is an intelligence aggregator.
Rand agrees. Say you wanted to sell surfboards – SparkToro could help you figure out what hashtags you should use on Instagram. Which Facebook pages should you run ads against? And what is your audience talking about on social media, so you could follow those conversations or create content around them or advertise against them, or what have you?
The marketing tactics, however, are broad, just as the use case for the data you collect might be broad. Says Rand, if they knew they were only going after one type of user for one problem that they were solving, they’d have kind of a laser target. They can’t complain, though. SparkToro has been profitable since about September, which is wonderful.
They have just roughly 600 paying customers, but a little over 40,000 people who use the forever-free version, and just log in to get the free data. When COVID hit, they decided they were going to be much more generous with the free plan. And that has been very popular, and helped a lot with the product growth.
Trends in the current landscape of digital marketing
It’s ironic, says James, that his team will be using SparkToro to promote Rand’s episode via social media.
That’s definitely a smart use, replies Rand. A lot of people in podcasting use the tool for deciding who to invite as guest, who would be influential for a particular audience. And if they have a guest on, where should they go to promote their episode?
Digital PR, or going and finding those things is getting more used and useful to people in SEO, content marketing and paid media, because of the increasing competition in those areas.
An interesting point, says James. With everything that Rand knows, it would be crazy not to ask: what does he see are the trends between content marketing and paid marketing that are emerging in today’s digital marketing landscape?
There has never been a time, responds Rand, when a combination of SEO, content marketing, PR, digital PR and social media marketing have been more heavily invested in.
“There’s just this flood of attention in the digital marketing landscape.”
This is especially true over the last year as tons of businesses came online, competing with a lot of people who realized that all behavior went online. There’s just a flood of attention in the digital marketing space.
You can see it in three huge transactions that occurred in the last two months. SimilarWeb announced that they were going public, filing for an IPO. Brandwatch was acquired by Cision, a massive, massive deal. And just the day before this interview, SEMrush announced that they are going public.
Amidst the market froth and tension, Rand predicts a ton of private equity, dollars, flooding in as well. This is happening because of the amount of activity in the space. And as an individual digital marketer, you might ask, what does it mean for me?
A few things, says Rand.
1. You are facing more competition than you ever have before.
2. It will be more difficult to stand out, because so many people are investing and being creative in how they invest and what they’re doing.
3. A lot more money and attention and awareness are going to this field, which means many more people will be trying to get jobs there and a lot more people will be hiring.
A lot can be accomplished by turning things off
In terms of advertising, an interesting thing is happening. Chase Bank, for instance, had a viral story in the New York Times, where they basically cut all their online advertising spend and saw their results rise. They took their ads off of hundreds of thousands of websites, keeping just a few, and did hugely better.
P&G cut their ad spend significantly in 2019 and saw their brands do way better. Most recent are Uber, who cut their spend massively last year and saw a big increase, and Airbnb, who cut their online advertising budget to zero in March of last year, and lost less than five percent of their traffic and conversions.
“Google and Facebook and the other ad platforms are taking credit for a lot more conversions than they are actually delivering.”
It feels like, says, Rand, Google and Facebook and other ad platforms are taking credit for a lot more conversions than they are actually delivering. And they’re doing that because of view through conversions, and long visit paths, and the fact that they know they can show in analytics that they were somewhere in the journey. Then they’re trying to take credit for that, and CMOs and a lot of digital marketers just believe them and report their data.
“Half your budget is wasted. It’s a matter of finding out which half.”
James agrees. A lot of agency reps are likely getting flogged by customers wanting accountability. James himself uses a tool called Wicked Reports, because he wants a full picture of what’s going on with his marketing. And Rand is right, if you just use Facebook, or Google goals, or whatever, you’re only seeing a biased version of it.
What’s interesting is a saying in marketing, that half your budget is wasted, it’s a matter of finding out which half. Perry Marshall in one of our episodes said, if you just stop doing your loss-making things then you’ll actually make more profit. James talks about it in his book, Work Less Make More. And Jay Abraham says, if you just stop doing the unproductive things, you’ll leap forward. So just stop doing dumb stuff.
“Just stop doing dumb stuff.”
And if you’re not tracking what you’re doing, you’re probably wasting your money. You might as well just stop it and see.
The trouble with trackability of ROI
This, says Rand, is where he thinks there’s a complexity in digital marketing that is very frustrating and very challenging for a metrics-minded person.
His experience has been that a lot of the channels, activities, tactics, strategies that build brand marketing, that build content marketing, that have an impact on SEO, are extraordinarily difficult to measure. And they’re up against the perfect trackability that Google Ads and Facebook ads give, where they claim credit for conversions that probably would have happened anyway, and you won’t know until you cut back your marketing spend on those channels. How do you sell that to a CMO?
James manages, he says, by asking everyone who joins his membership how they got there. He also uses a tool where, when possible, they put a tracking parameter on their content that will tie it back to a source. And the good thing about those tools is you can actually select whether you want first attribution or last attribution or you want to see the whole funnel.
Like Rand, James has been podcasting forever, with the occasional guest spot, and doing a lot of content marketing. When he first started doing short videos again, there was no measurable result for six months. Now his tools show $30,000 a month of revenue coming from those videos.
It all comes down to yes or no. Is it worth making social media videos? Is it worth podcasting? Yes. Hopefully someday Rand will find it was worth coming on our show.
That is true, says Rand. And what’s fascinating to him is thinking about what that customer journey looks like. Because that customer journey is long, it’s nuanced, it’s complex, and trying to boil it down to any one channel or tactic is very difficult.
In short, what’s been most successful for Rand, and sounds like it’s worked for James as well, is investing in channels and tactics that he is personally passionate about and interested in. The authenticity of James being James and Rand being Rand resonates with their core customer groups.
How true is it that anyone can do this?
James wonders why people come online thinking that it’s going to be easy or cheap, because it’s even more competitive than trying to set up a local cafe.
The trouble, says Rand, is that the few individuals who have made it have amplified the message that anyone can do it. And that culture has sort of ingratiated itself into the undercurrent of a lot of subreddits and Facebook groups and Twitter discussions and forums of all kinds online.
For every one person who sort of succeeds, he says, there’s 10,000 who’ve given money and made nothing. And he feels for those folks, because he thinks a lot of them have good intentions, and hope, and they want to break free from their crappy jobs.
Then, too, the people promoting the culture are very charismatic.They build followings based on cultural identity, on tribalism, on behaviors, based on the goal-seeking emotion that all of us have. And Rand wishes people were a little less predatory in that way.
What the essential starter kit was for audience analysis tool SparkToro
James wants to talk about starting Sparktoro. Obviously, Rand went into it with all the experience of running a massive business with a huge team. So what was his grab bag, his starter kit? Of everything he’d learned, what was the essential something that someone in the early stages of their business, gaining momentum, would find useful?
There were big changes from Moz, says Rand. First in how they funded the business, how they thought about profitability versus growth rate. There was no funding, no venture. They raised some angel money and were in a very unique structure, they could pay dividends if they wanted.
Second was their thinking about speed of progress versus sustainability. At Moz, Rand had labored under the Silicon Valley belief that growth rate was everything. At SparkToro, he and his partner Casey have a different philosophy. They want to be sustainable, to be very, very generous to customers and to their community, and the world around them, and to rely on the fact that that goodwill will carry them through and build a great brand over a long period.
Another thing was, Rand totally switched up how he did his marketing. Moz was content that he put on a blog that ranked in search engines in Google primarily, got people to us, and then they signed up for a free trial. SparkToro is led by, number one, the product being free. So lots of people sign up for the free product, and then an email sequence and all that kind of stuff takes over.
Second, SparkToro is a much smaller amount of content that Rand mostly uses, like webinars and podcasts and coverage on other people’s blogs and websites. He knew that the digital marketing universe was tough to break into the SERPs, the Google rankings, but much easier to get covered by all the people who everyone was already paying attention to. So they essentially dog fooded.
When Rand went to SparkToro, he sought out what the digital marketers paid attention to, and strove to be in all those places. That and their email were what really drove the growth over the last 11 months.
Some wisdom to close out with
What worldly wisdom can Rand offer as a final takeaway from this episode?
One of the things that Rand finds most frustrating about being a human being, especially one online and on top of what’s current, is you have a very difficult time not comparing yourself to others. It is just an innate human trait, he says, to be unhappy because someone is more successful than you.
And speaking from experience, having talked to not hundreds but thousands of other CEOs and founders of businesses that he considered vastly more successful than what Moz was, what Rand found was that they were not people he should envy. Rand has an incredibly happy marriage. He has traveled the world extensively for both work and leisure, and made friends all over the planet. That, he says, is worth so much more than the extra $9 million or so he might have made if he’d sold Moz to Hubspot.
You can turn off comparison, he says. And you can make yourself a lot happier that way. And you can build something better that way, too, because you can build it for you, the way you want to build it.
If someone out there listening wants to go for growth over sustainability, that’s great. He and James aren’t against it. But there’s a beauty in being able to remove yourself from a comparison mindset.
Amazing advice, says James.
He’d love to have Rand back in the future for an update on his journey, which he has a feeling isn’t quite finished.
Rand would love that. And if you have a question for Rand, he’s happy to take an email at [email protected].
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