For the last 20 years, Rand Fishkin has made the world of marketing a better place for both businesses and the customers they serve. He’s the co-founder of SparkToro, a tool that does the heavy lifting of market research so brands of all sizes can discover their customers’ spheres of influence.
This interview was packed with both personal and professional wisdom, so we split it up into two episodes for you.
In part one, we explore Rand’s thoughts on issues that impact our human experience beyond the world of business. In part two, we discuss Rand’s ideas for business growth strategies—specifically, which approaches have the biggest payoffs and which channels may be cannibalizing your profits.
- Take action when your situation isn’t serving you. You don’t need to be beholden to an arbitrary obligation.
- Gendered roles are obsolete. Everyday life—from domestic responsibilities, topics of discussion, and entertainment choices—is an opportunity for seeking and practicing equality.
- Look out for each other. Our society strengthens with a safety net provided by a combination of government and personal giving.
- Pay attention to the effects of zero-click content. Platforms increasingly want their users to remain on their platform—how are you getting visibility in the future?
- Arbitrary channel definitions may not apply. It’s more important to look at your results holistically than to worry about specific definitions of earned, paid, and owned media.
- Email remains your best channel. Acquiring an email address opens up more doors with a connection than social media or other channels.
- The paid media duopoly is draining your profits. Marketers have fallen victim to Google and Facebook’s attribution models taking credit for work you’ve done elsewhere.
- The payoff is worth the leap. Breaking our addiction to advertising platforms requires a leap of faith, patience, and creativity—and it’s totally worth the jump.
- Serendipitous belief can win over obsessing over granular metrics. Look more at the overall health of your business, and don’t bother wasting meeting time and headspace on metrics that are hard to trust.
- Treat your customers like you treat your personal relationships. Do the work for the long-term partnership, not scorekeeping the mundane.
- Find your customers’ spheres of influence. Use SparkToro or similar tools to discover where your customers are spending their time and paying attention—and get visibility there.
- Rand Fishkin on LinkedIn
- SparkToro Market Research Platform
- Give Directly
- Donors Choose
- Amanda Natividad
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Part One: Thoughts on Our Human Experience
Who is Rand Fishkin?
Bob Sparkins: Rand, it is truly a pleasure to have you on our episode of The Lead Generation today. How are you?
Rand Fishkin: Doing well. Thanks for having me, Bob.
Bob: Well, I’m really looking forward to a really fun conversation, talking about a lot of things around digital marketing, of course. But the first question I love to ask the guests of The Lead Generation is, how are the lives of the people you serve transformed by the work that you’re doing specifically with SparkToro?
Rand: Man, that’s a big, heavy question, my friend. My God, let’s see.
So, I really hope that SparkToro is doing things from a number of perspectives. So at the very most tactical level, we have customers and free users who, by using SparkToro, get audience research data that probably they never would’ve gotten, or they would’ve paid a small fortune to do it manually, or have someone in-house or a contractor build a manual crawler to go crawl all the social media profiles of everyone that they thought was a match for their audience, and then try and figure out what they post about and read, and watch and listen to and what hashtags they use and which accounts they follow. Very few people do that or did that, but SparkToro makes it really easy, you can do it for free or pay as little as 50 bucks a month.
I think then, kind of one level up, I’m really hoping that SparkToro opens the marketing universe’s eyes to more breadth of where and how to do marketing. So for the last 15 years, I think a ton of marketing and advertising spend has been essentially, “I can’t really figure out where my customers are, I can’t figure out where to reach my audience or how. I’m just going to throw all my money at Google and Facebook and let them sort out the targeting.”
I really hope, even if you never use SparkToro, that you hear or see content from myself and Amanda and SparkToro’s brand, or people in our orbit and universe who are helping to amplify the message of, you don’t have to be exclusively reliant on the big duopoly. You can go do your own marketing. You can go do your own targeting and research. You can go find the podcast that your audience listens to and the webinars that they watch and the YouTube channels they’re subscribed to, and the social accounts that they follow, and the websites that they read. You can be in those places and you can get better results by doing that.
And then third and finally, kind of at the entrepreneurial level, I think SparkToro is trying to… I mean, I’m certainly trying to break down the idea that venture capital is the only way to go, that these sort of rapid-growth tech startups are the best or only thing that founders can do. So SparkToro has a very unique business model and a very unique structure, a very unique funding structure. If we’re successful—and so far it’s going well, but at a relatively small scale—I think if we have further success and get sort of a bigger brand footprint and presence in the tech universe, a lot of founders and entrepreneurs and journalists and media will point to SparkToro and say, “Oh, look at this really interesting thing that’s an alternative to classic VC, to classic company building. Maybe other companies can do that.”
And we’ve actually open-sourced our funding documents so anyone can use them. A few other startups have actually used our docs to fill in the blanks and raise money on their own terms. That would make me extremely proud and happy, as a human being, to contribute in this broader way. I think you can feel that a lot of my ethos around this is small, indie, doing things yourself can be a better way than sticking to the classic path of monopolies and trying to build a monopoly in a space, and taking venture dollars and just all that stuff.
Bob: I love it. I can also tell you’re super passionate about this. I can’t wait to dig in more with your ideas around building a better mousetrap when it comes to marketing. And I think a lot of the members of The Lead Generation listening, certainly, will echo your sentiment, that doing things in a way that is more fulfilling, not just profitably, but for the betterment of our humanity is actually a good way to go and can be even more successful. So looking forward to more about that.
On Being in the Wrong Place (and Doing Something About It)
I do think that it might be cool to step back for a minute before we dig into those topics around market research, and just get to know you a little bit better. I know that you’ve been in this space for a long time, but for some people, Rand Fishkin is a completely unknown entity. Though, I’d love to know… Well, first of all, I just wanted to mention, I noticed a little bit of trivia that is going to be the origin of my next question, which is that you and I both, despite our appearances, happened to play football for our respective colleges. You, at the University of Washington and me, at Florida State. So I’m wondering about your role as team captain of your intramural football life.
Rand: Oh my God.
Bob: What kind of wisdom did you take from your time in the gridiron there? And just tell us a bit about the story behind that.
Rand: Sure. I think… What was it? I think my roommate at the time, this was maybe sophomore, junior year of college, convinced me to sign up for a flag football team. So flag football, touch only, right?
Rand: Which, thank God, because I have no… I am the furthest thing from someone who plays sports or has any physical instrument of any kind. And yeah, I don’t even know- How did you discover this, Bob? I don’t…. I had no idea that this information was public anywhere, but that’s incredible. Your research team must be crack, just A-grade.
Bob: It was me, and you must had a moment of weakness, had put it on your LinkedIn at the very, very bottom of your college experience.
Rand: Oh man.
Bob: So that’s where I found it.
Rand: Wild, incredible. All right. Well, going to have to go edit that later, I don’t need that in my past. No, so let’s see.
We lost every game that we played. I became team captain by default when, after the first game it was so embarrassing that the only really talented person on our team, who was also the team captain, left. Never came back. And so I became team captain because nobody else wanted to do it. We barely had enough players to actually field a team. I think we just barely hit the minimum, which I think… I want to say was seven, six or seven of us. Like I said, we lost every game that we played. I got threatened to be beat up a couple of times by opposing team members, that was not fun. I don’t recommend any of that, not a great experience.
Bob: I can echo pretty much 98% of that. As the quarterback of the Florida State Landis Hall Big Sticks, it was also, likewise, not my cup of tea. And certainly made me understand I should stick into a lane that I can excel at a bit more. Right?
Rand: No, I’m really, really glad that that was my only experience playing. I think it was only five games in total, because then we didn’t make it to whatever…the tournament thing. So blessedly short.
Bob: Awesome. Speaking of University of Washington, you also were close to a degree, decided to jump ship and do entrepreneurial pursuits. I’m curious about what catalyzed that decision for you, because I know for some folks, they feel the pressure to go one way and obviously you chose a different path and I’m interested in unpacking that a little bit with you.
Rand: Yeah, so I was in a very lucky timeframe. So this was just before college tuition’s sort of skyrocketed to their current, completely unreasonable, abusive levels, and the sort of student loan incentive problem that I think we can mostly blame Newt Gingrich and, a little bit, Bill Clinton for, became super painful.
But I dropped out of school in 2001. I was still able to pay my tuition with a minimum wage job, part-time minimum wage job. So this was in-state tuition, University of Washington, state school, all that kind of stuff. But yeah. Frankly, a bunch of reasons. But I think the biggest ones were, I did not feel like the degree or the college experience was doing a whole lot for me. I was not really enjoying my classes, I didn’t feel like I was learning as much as I did at my job, sort of building websites on the side for my mom’s small business. Dropped out to do that full-time. Plus, I think that probably the biggest thing was that I only had two more classes to go to graduate, but they weren’t offered the next quarter so I would’ve had to wait three quarters to graduate. One was offered two quarters in, and one was offered three quarters away. I was like, “Nope, I’m not sticking around another six months to get this done.”
Bob: That’s amazing. And the rest is not quite history. Obviously there’s a lot of other steps along the way that we could get into.
On Feminism and Being a Better Partner
Bob: But another commonality I wanted to check in with you about is that we’re both feminists, married to amazing entrepreneurial women. And I’m curious, what has been a key to success in your relationship with Geraldine and anything of wisdom that you’ve learned with your time together.
Rand: Yeah, gosh. So we met in college actually, on a bus coming back from a Weezer concert, which I think is the traditional Gen X way. We have been together, it’ll be 21 years in December. So a long, long time. Married for 14 years in September. So yeah, long, long time and yeah, we’ve had a phenomenal relationship. I credit that to a lot of empathy and growth on both our parts. I don’t think we were the right perfect people for each other when we met, when we were 22. But I think that, over time, we evolved into great partners for each other and we still have a really phenomenal relationship that’s very close.
And gosh, I think that every relationship is different. It’s hard to know a relationship that you’re not in, but certainly part of the… I think that, frustratingly, most men have the wrong impression of what feminist means. The definition of feminism is seeking to achieve equality and balance between genders, that everyone is treated equally, and deserves equal treatment. And that is certainly something that I believe in the core of my being, and that I work hard to do. So that’s not in a performative way, but in a very pragmatic way inside my marriage. I think that I don’t love gendered roles and the idea that there’s certain work that is for men or certain work that is for women. And I just try and work really hard to fight against those stereotypes.
So I believe that cooking and cleaning is as much my responsibility as my partners. I believe that I can care just as much about interior design or skincare or being supportive during a menstrual cycle as any woman could be. And that I try not to shy away from topics and discussions that men usually aren’t a part of. I try and learn a lot about women’s bodies and health and the issues that affect gender inequality and what causes that, root causes of that. I try and be more feminine myself. I like to wear flowery shirts, I like to watch TV shows where women are the protagonist, I like to throw out all of the patriarchal history bullshit that pervades our society. I hate it. I’m not interested in it, don’t want to participate. I hope that this makes me a better feminist, but also a better partner.
Bob: All those things, I would agree with wholeheartedly.
On Social Contracts and Giving
Bob: My last personal question, and like I mentioned, I do want to dig into the business side of things, but you are an avid proponent of charities. You had an opportunity, or we had the opportunity to have you come up to Victoria to join us with Leadpages and the other software companies of the Redbrick team. I’d love to know about the charity that you support, what its mission is. How can we just let other people know about the causes that you really love to support?
Rand: Yeah. So this is one of those interesting things, Bob, where I am big proponent and supporter of GiveDirectly, which is the charity that you folks made a very kind donation to when I came up to Victoria, which was awesome.
But in general, broadly speaking, I would say I am still on the fence as to whether the concept of charity overall is the best use of, sort of, dollars and the best societal structure for distribution of services and sort of a social safety net.
My general belief is that some charities probably should exist and are a good idea. And many are, unfortunately, filling gaps that should be filled by government and society, that people should be contributing more of their income toward a social safety net that precludes the need for a lot of the charitable giving and services that exist. And also that many wealthy individuals abuse charities as a way to launder their persona and their perception, and a way to make themselves appear to be good people and to get connections in society that they wouldn’t otherwise get and to hide income and manipulate tax structures.
So I’m not… I would say I’m a skeptical proponent of some charity, not a broad fan. But I like GiveDirectly a lot. They have very, very low overhead, it’s an extremely efficient charity. What they do is they just give directly to individuals, to folks in need, dollars. And those people can do whatever they want with that money. If they wanted to engage in things that a lot of listeners might think are evil uses of money and bad, like, “Oh, well couldn’t they just go gamble with that money? Couldn’t they go, whatever, buy lottery tickets or alcohol or cigarettes?” Or whatever it is. The answer is, yes, they could. The only thing GiveDirectly does is they research and watch the follow-up and then report on results. So they’ll say, “Oh, okay. We distributed $5 million to these 5,000 people or 50,000 people,” Whatever it is. “And here are the results in the neighborhood, town, region, county, state, that we gave. And here’s the use of those dollars over the, whatever, 12 weeks after we gave it.”
And you can see that the results are fairly extraordinary. I think they really bolster the case for a guaranteed basic income, which many people across the political spectrum are actually supportive of. If you’re generally a right-leaning person, you’d like the idea of guaranteed basic income, often because it means that you don’t need to set up government organizations. The private sector can essentially be the ones who benefit from the state’s giving. And if you’re on the left, you’re generally supportive of it because it creates a social safety net that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
So maybe sometime in our lifetime, maybe sometime right after our lifetime, this’ll be an idea that gets embraced more. And I hope that GiveDirectly’s work can actually impact that.
Bob: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love charities that are closer to the ground level of helping people out. DonorsChoose is one that I support a lot because of my history in the classroom. So good to hear more about GiveDirectly. It’s great.
Part Two: Grow Your Spheres of Influence
The Emergence of Zero-Click Content
Bob: So let’s change gears now toward your zone of entrepreneurial genius which is around the areas of developing better marketing, being a better marketer, being smarter about audience research, things like that. You started up at SEOmoz over 20 years ago now, or about that timeframe. And you’ve now been with SparkToro a few years with Casey Henry. What would you say has been some of those really seismic or maybe minor but significant shifts in the digital marketing landscape that maybe have surprised you or maybe has just caught your attention that you think our listeners should be paying attention to today?
Rand: Yeah. Let’s see. So some recent ones I think are … Well we talked about a few together in Victoria. But yeah, one of the ones that I think is particularly salient, this was commented on and written about by my colleague Amanda Natividad. But she coined this phrase, Zero-Click Content. Essentially, that all of the major platforms that control most of our time spent online— YouTube, Google, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, you name it—the overwhelming majority of content that performs well on those platforms is platform native.
So essentially, if you want to do well on LinkedIn, you need to post something that keeps people on LinkedIn and keeps them engaged there. Gets lots of comments and shares and likes and reactions. The same is true on Facebook. The same is true on Instagram. In fact, Instagram and TikTok, it’s nearly impossible to get someone to even leave the site. The same is becoming true on Google. That Google’s instant answers and featured snippets and putting results right in the answer box before you get to the search results. All of that stuff is designed to keep you on Google, to get your answer from Google, rather than getting it from the third-party website where Google scraped it from.
And that is frustrating for a lot of marketers, especially marketers who over the last 15, 20 years, have been trained that the way we’re supposed to use platforms is to draw traffic to our sites and then be able to see it in our analytics, look at the referral string, attribute that to a platform that we participated in. Hey, boss, look. We did a lot of LinkedIn investments over the last quarter. You can see that we got this many signups, we got this many visits, all that kind of stuff.
What’s much tougher is saying, hey, we did a lot over the last quarter, boss. But I can’t show you any traffic that came from LinkedIn even though we know that a lot of people saw something and they probably searched for us in Google and then they came to our website. But yeah, I guess Google’s going to get all the credit for that and probably our paid ads are going to get credit because we buy the paid ads for our own brand name so that no one else can rank in there. It’s all this kind of BS.
So I think this whole shift to zero-click content and away from attribution is a huge, huge change that’s going to take at least another five or six years to really settle in. And my suspicion is that for some people it never will. They’re always going to be addicted to paying the ad platforms to be able to get that traffic so that they can measure and attribute more perfectly.
Two Possible Futures for Marketers in Search
Bob: Awesome. I was going to ask you how do you think this answer of yours would change in five years but it sounds like that’s what’s going to continue to happen. Do you have other thoughts around that?
Rand: Yeah. In five years … I mean it’s tough to say, Bob. Five years is both a short time and a lifetime in internet marketing. So my suspicion is there’s one of two possibilities that happen.
One is something like a senator, Amy Klobuchar’s bill passes Congress. It looks unlikely right now but it is possible if the Dems don’t lose seats in November that it would come back on the table. So this is the bill that prevents platform self-preferencing for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple. And if a bill like that, that one or anything like it, it’s also sponsored by Chuck Grassley from the Republicans. So it’s one of the few things where Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress agrees.
It massively changes what might happen where essentially Google couldn’t put Google Maps at the top of all the Google local results and local searches. They couldn’t put Google Flights whenever you search for flights. They couldn’t put the Google Play Store at the top when you search for applications. Apple would have the same thing in their App Store. Amazon would have the same thing in Amazon’s results. They couldn’t put Amazon-made products above everyone else’s.
And that could significantly shift the zero-click content, zero-click searches problem and open that backup. I mean you can imagine the amount of economic activity that reopens for society is just massive.
Content creators, marketers, digital marketing folks, would just have an incredible opportunity over the next few years to go execute in all these spaces that are essentially being closed off. I mean lyrics, videos, weather, even recommended TV shows. Google has these answers that they scrape. I just think there’s a ton of opportunity there.
But if we don’t see something like that, probably this zero-click trend continues. And the problem likely gets more pervasive over time, not less. I think there’s varying opinions about whether government action is warranted or a good thing here.
I personally think that it is. I think that we should be trying to fairly apply anti-trust laws. But I think reasonable people can disagree. I think there are some arguments to be made that this is convenient for consumers and so who cares if it stifles innovation. I think that’s the crux of whether in five years this is still a huge thing or whether it’s dissipated.
Bob: It is a very fascinating time that we’re in where those things can go in either direction and they might even go forward and backward and forward and backward in fits and starts over that same time period. It’s a very strange time in the world of tech. Privacy and what’s efficient and convenient versus monopolistic and costly in the long run. So I think we can probably spend a whole hour just on that topic by itself.
The Challenge of Defining Marketing Channels
Bob: Now you mentioned a few things that I think the terminology of which would be helpful to break down for our listeners, some of whom might be new to the three categories that you talk a lot about which is paid media, earned media, and owned media. Can you talk about what those three things are and what’s your view on the trends of which is increasingly more important for our audience to be paying attention to?
Rand: Sure. I mean I think the frustrating part, Bob, when it comes to this, and I don’t often use this terminology because I think that the Venn diagram of what it means when who is talking about it can vary.
So for example, some people would say that when they say paid media, usually you mean all types of advertising that you might pay for. But some people are like, “Oh, well I really think of paid media more like my performance advertising and I think brand advertising is a different thing and I classify that differently.”
So for example, let’s say you want to sponsor a conference or event. Is that fundamentally quite different in your goal and how you’re going to measure it and the value that you get from spending $50,000 on your Google Ads Campaign?
I’d argue it is. Probably very different in terms of how you measure it, what you consider success metrics, what you’re trying to accomplish with those two things. They’re pretty darn different. They get looped in. Are they both technically paid media? Yes. Is the distinction, the umbrella distinction of paid media helpful? Maybe? I don’t know. Depends on who you are.
Earned media, so this is the same sort of thing. PR usually is the one that people mention the most in earned media because essentially hey, the newspaper wrote about us, CNN had a thing on us. We got coverage in an industry trade journal, a blog wrote about us.
Oh, wait a minute. Are blogs earned media? I don’t really think of them as media. They’re more like niche media. I don’t know if I count that. I think we should call that organic. Let’s put that in the SEO bucket. What?
Again, it bleeds over into different places.
Measurement is totally different.
If your company gets mentioned on Last Week Tonight. Most of the time when companies get mentioned on Last Week Tonight it’s in a negative way but maybe you got mentioned in a positive way. Happened to us once. And in that case, that’s earned media, right? Would you measure that the same way that you’d measure, oh G2 reviews said something nice about our software in their market segmentation? Yeah, I guess those are both earned media but again, it’s so, so different.
And then the same with owned. Owned media would be your email newsletter or your social media. Some people would argue that your social media maybe doesn’t constitute owned because you don’t technically own the platform, blah, blah, blah. I mean it’s earned media. So this is why these distinctions are really, really funny.
But the way I think about it is depending on who you are, your job is to build a great marketing flywheel. It can involve a combination of techniques that overlap owned, earned, and paid. You don’t need to make the distinction if you don’t want to, if it’s not valuable to you.
I think maybe it’s more a tool for marketing professors and teachers to show what channels are possible than it is a marketing practitioner’s playbook obligation to put different things into these specific buckets and categorize them. I’m not really sure what the value of labeling things into these is for a practitioner.
Bob: That clarifies it zero percent but it does give us a lot of things to think about. And I love it because it’s real. It’s the practical opportunity for people to not feel like they have to choose one or the other but to be measuring, to be executing, and paying attention to what’s working for them, right?
Rand: Yeah, yeah. You go find the combination of tactics and channels that reaches your audience, that resonates with them, that helps you share your message in the right kind of ways, and that has results. And if that is a combination of things that overlap into these multiple buckets, great. That sounds pretty good to me.
Do you need to tag them? I don’t know. Does your boss make you tag them? Maybe you do. But I certainly don’t.
When SparkToro does what one person would call earned and what another person would call owned and maybe falls into paid, I don’t even bother. I don’t think about that. I just think about okay, is this reaching our audience in the places where they pay attention with the message that’s going to resonate in a way that maybe has serendipitous measurement or is impossible to measure but I can show lift over time. Great. Fantastic. I’m going to do it.
The Best Marketing Channel to Grow
Bob: Cool. We’re going to talk about more of that measuring idea in just a second I think to dig into that. But one area that is traditionally called owned media is that email list that you mentioned. Obviously here at Leadpages, we’re huge fans of building up an email list otherwise we wouldn’t exist. Tell us a little bit about your view on email list building, where is it ranked in your mind for the average entrepreneur or small business owner?
Rand: It’s the best one. You don’t have to try and convince anyone. Leadpages, it doesn’t matter who you are. Email is the best, the absolute best thing that you can do. It’s better than even a website visit.
If someone has given you, has opted into saying I want to give you my email address and I would like you to send me your content, oh. That’s the absolute pinnacle of marketing before the conversion happens. No doubt about it, there’s just nothing else compares.
Look at the open rates of emails over the last 20 years. You can go to MailChimp. They’ve got a nice breakdown where they show email open rates and click-through rates. And they have barely changed in 20 years which is absolutely incredible because if you look at Facebook engagement rate per post, for example, which was at seven or eight percent in 2010. And then it fell by 2013 or ’14, it fell to about two percent and then one percent. And today, it is 0.09 percent is what Rival IQ calculated in 2022.
So you’re telling me that less than one in a thousand people who I could possibly send my Facebook post to will engage with it? But 22 percent of people who receive my email are likely to open it? I’d rather have one email address than a thousand more Facebook followers. Or Twitter followers where the rates are just as low. Or Instagram followers where they’re a little bit higher but nothing close. They’re still less than a fiftieth of email. Or TikTok fans or whatever it is. Email is superior to all of them.
It’s superior because you can do so much with an email address that you can’t do with any other social platform. So you can take an email address and you can reach out directly, individually to a person. You can take an email address and you can put it into FullContact or ClearBit and you can get all of this rich data about the person behind the email.
You can put an email just into your LinkedIn and you could connect with that person on LinkedIn and you can see their bio and what they do and … Just infinite amount of value from an email versus a social follow or a website visit where you can know less and less and you can’t cookie people anymore and you can’t track them over time anymore. Email is the gold standard.
Bob: Won’t get any disagreement from me on any of that, for sure.
Rand: I think it would be hilarious if you fought with me and you were like, well …
The Parable of the Pizzeria (AKA The Attribution Problem)
Bob: Well speaking of contrarians though, one of the things I love about your presentation you did was this contrarian view that you have developed over the last few years of looking at this pedestal that Google and Facebook happen to be on when it comes to traffic, paid media, et cetera. You called it a duopoly of epic proportions or something of that nature. And I think it would be super helpful for you to share your parable of the pizzeria story that I’m sure you picked up from somewhere. But tell us a little bit about why that’s an important story to understand when it comes to the over-reliance on paid media in regards to Google and Facebook particularly.
Rand: Sure, sure. So the pizzeria story fits in around this idea of incremental lift versus attribution. So for example, Bob, I’ll tell the story and then we can talk about it a little more. So story in brief, short, short version is that the pizzeria owner decides that she wants to get more business for a pizzeria so she hires three local neighborhood scamps and they come to the store. She gives them fliers, a green one, a red one, and a white one. The fliers have the pizzeria’s menu and its location and a discount code, a unique discount code so she can track, okay, the kid with the white flier is doing great. Or the kid with the red flier is doing great.
And over the next month, she watches and like 70 percent of the people coming in with fliers are using the green flier. So she fires the other two kids and she says, okay, green flier kid, keep distributing, you’re doing a great job. Tons of people coming into the pizzeria over the next six months with the green flier.
And then she talks to her accountant and the accountant says, “Well, your pizzeria is doing okay. Sales are up about seven, eight percent. But you got a lot of people using a discount code so your profit margins are coming down and you’re barely breaking even on this thing.” And the pizzeria owner thinks, what? How could this be possible? Well I see at least a third of our customers, maybe even more, are coming in with the green flier. How could it be that business is only up seven or eight percent? Are we losing all of our other customers? I don’t understand.
So what does she do? She puts on her disguise, she follows the kid. He takes his green fliers in the morning. He goes, ducks into the alley behind the pizzeria and any time he sees anyone who looks like they’re coming toward the pizzeria, he jumps out and hands them the flier because why would you work hard to make more sales when you could just take credit for the sales that were already going to happen? AKA: Facebook and Google’s motto.
The problem, the fundamental problem with a ton of paid advertising of all kinds is that the platform’s incentive is to give you proof that you can take to your boss, your team, your client if you’re an agency, that shows, hey, the leads that we got, the sales that we got, you can see that they had view through conversions this many times across Facebook’s ad network, across YouTube’s network, across Google’s ad network, across TikTok’s ad network. And so, they are getting the credit. Are they making a new sale? A sale that would not have existed? There’s no way to know unless you turn off your ads.
And virtually no advertiser is willing to take the risk of losing business over the next quarter or six months because every quarter’s results are so critical and important. My God, what if we shut off our ads and we lose seven percent of our business? Well, if you were spending like you were getting 40 percent of your business from ads, you’ve won. Your profit margins just skyrocketed. You’ve lost seven percent of your business and you have gained a massive amount of margin and a huge amount of profit you’ve been wasting. And you can take that money and put it into other forms of marketing that in my opinion will have a better return but almost no one is willing to take this risk. That’s the fundamental lesson that I take away from the parable.
Breaking Our Addiction to Google and Facebook Ads
Bob: That’s so fascinating to me and I think the challenge that we’ve been hearing within our team as we discuss this, this is probably the most talked about point after your talk in Victoria with us was what do we do with this? How do we turn it off, have the faith that it could work, and so forth.
For the entrepreneur who is going to hear this and think maybe they can do this as an experiment as well, maybe you’ve allocated $500, $1000, towards a paid media budget for the next couple of weeks. In this area of not that, but into how do we get more earned media? How do we get more exposure in different places? How could they better allocate those funds in a way that tests out this theory for themselves?
Rand: This is tough because most of the best ways to invest in digital marketing outside of the ad platforms requires human effort, creativity, thoughtfulness, careful audience research, content creation, social media, PR, email. Channels that very frankly, you can’t just throw money at them and then get a return. The ease, the convenience of I put money into my Google Ads account. I put money into my Facebook ads account. I put money into TikTok. And then they say I got this many visits and this much traffic and this many conversions. Who am I to question these results?
That mindset that people get locked into of pay money, get results, see tracking, is not available in the high-quality areas of marketing that I often espouse and talk about. So if you’re going to go and market through your customer sources of influence and think to yourself, okay, I know that my customers, there’s five publications in our field that are very popular. They are read by 10 percent or more of all of my identifiable potential customer targets. How am I going to do something that gets them to editorially endorse a feature, talk about me and my product? Me and my company?
Well … And now the list is infinitely long. The list of potential ideas is infinitely long. Well, they do have a podcast. Maybe I can get an introduction to them on the podcast. And I’ve got this interesting short-form video that I put on Twitter and maybe if they see that, then they’ll be like, yeah, yeah, come on as a guest and talk about that thing because it really resonated with me. Okay, that’s one idea.
Maybe I could be a guest author for them in their editorial section. Maybe … You know what? They’re running a conference or event. I wonder if I could be a speaker for them. Gosh, I wonder if we could publish some research together or … Whatever.
That list is very long but there’s no amount of money that you can pay to just solve the problem. And I think this is the other holdup that a ton of people have is they are not willing to invest because it is hard to achieve. It is not reliable. You can’t just, hey, we’re going to take this thousand dollars and we’re going to put it toward one-eighth of a creative person’s salary for the month and let’s see what they can do. You can’t do it that way. That’s not a reason … You can’t hire a one-eighth-time Rand Fishkin or Amanda Natividad to go be a creative source of influence marketing for you. It’s a long-term investment. You’re probably going to make a hire or work with an agency and the first three to six months are going to be really frustrating and you’re not going to see results.
And then slowly, you’re going to start … Okay, okay. We’ve found a thing that works for us. It really works when we find … I don’t know, people with YouTube channels because we can do this special thing with YouTube channels and video. Oh, okay. We figured out how to do that with short-form video too so now Instagram and TikTok sources of influence work well for us. Oh and gosh, you know actually we do some Wistia video stuff on our own website and then gosh, we can get that into Google’s results sometimes. Oh, now we’re getting this flywheel going. And that took 18 months.
It took 18 months and $180,000 and you’re getting 10 times the payback and the ROI that you were from your Facebook and Google Ad spend but man, so much more valuable. Just took a ton of time and energy and effort to lean into.
Bob: And for those that feel like that timeframe is difficult for them, other than the payoff is the payoff, how else do you work with clients or people that you talk to around events that you go to, to get them to be willing to take that leap?
Rand: I would say there’s two strategies that are sometimes successful for folks. One is we can dip our toe in, we can try a few things, and we can see how they perform by looking at the branded search lift that we see. So for example, let’s say you have a social media strategy. You’re going to go do a lot of content creation, zero-click type of content creation, for social media platforms to get your brand out there and to find a message that resonates with your audience and you do a lot of stuff in the B2B world. That’s mostly Twitter and LinkedIn. In consumer, it might be more TikTok and Instagram and Facebook.
And then you’re going to measure, okay, we expect that branded search traffic given the last years of history would look like this. But instead, we see, oh and it was even higher in June than we expected. Even higher in July than we expected. 26 percent up in August over what we would have predicted year to year based on the trajectory.
Okay. You know what? This social strategy, even though we can’t see any of the clicks, we know that a ton of those people must be coming from Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, whatever, and searching Google and then coming to our website. Okay. We can make this investment.
So that’s the dip your toe in the water, measure, show results, have improvement.
The other way that I’ve seen people convince bosses and teams is with competition. Hey, boss, our competitor is doing this thing. What? Outrageous. Why aren’t we doing that thing? Do that thing. Ta-da. For some reason, there’s this competitive streak in entrepreneurial ventures and business in general, especially in the United States. And so that often is a really good trigger to get people to go after it. I suspect it works a little less well in Canada and probably a little less well in Australia and New Zealand and not nearly as well in Europe. But it’s a cultural thing.
Measuring the Fuzzy Results
Bob: I love this idea of being able to measure the brand lift. I know for many marketers, they have been beaten over the head with ROAS and all these other KPIs. Going a step further, besides the brand lift, are you looking at just overall revenue numbers quarter over quarter? Are you looking at a tabulation of appearances, mentions, and things like that? Obviously, we’re going to talk about SparkToro specifically in just a second but how else would you help convince the folks that it is successful? That what they have been doing has been … So let me step back. They’ve made the choice to do it, now they want to measure the success of it. Besides that brand lift, what else might you and the people that you have advised, measure that they made the right choice?
Rand: Look, if you’re sort of a long-term believer in this stuff, you can be like me and not even bother. I frankly think it is mostly a waste of time to prove to myself that something that I know works, works. I just know it works. I do it. I see the results. I’m not worried about it. I like spending time on this stuff anyway. I know that people get engaged and hear the message and that it resonates. And if they happen to become SparkToro customers, beautiful. And if they don’t, that’s great too. And that philosophy probably is actually more effective than the, gosh, how do I get people to the website to try the free version and then sign up with their email and …
So look, sometimes, weirdly enough, serendipitous belief works better than intentional effort to get a conversion.
But if you don’t have that mental model and you can’t get your boss or team there, my recommendation is you can measure three ways.
So you can measure what are called vanity metrics. So this is essentially how many followers? How many likes? Retweets? Shares? Impressions, across all of the posts, across all the channels where we … Visits, if you’re doing blog posts or content pieces. If you’re working with a third-party and you’re doing impressions on their site, how well does it rank in Google for specific keywords? So vanity, top-level, very, very high top of funnel.
Then the second thing you can look at is branded search visits with no attribution. So dark traffic. Type in, referral, direct, Facebook sent the visit but they don’t want to tell you they sent the visit because it came organically and Facebook would really prefer that you just pay them and Google is the same way. So all of that.
And underneath that one, email subscribers. So if you have an email list that is more content-focused and more middle of funnel, that’s a great one to measure as well. And you look at lift across these or whatever you’re investing in. If you have a podcast series, you could look at listens and downloads. If you have a video series, you could look at the views on YouTube. So it’s all that top-level stuff.
And then you try and track that to, well, did our conversion rate go up? Did our total number of conversions go up? Did our loyalty from existing customers go up? Did our average sale or order size go up?
And those are metrics where the leading metrics tend to map to them. So you can’t see people who came to us from Twitter had this many conversions. Not possible. But you can see oh, we had lots more impressions on Twitter this quarter than last quarter. And we also had quite a bit more email signups this quarter than last quarter. And then three quarters from now, we can see that many of the people who became email subscribers ended up becoming customers. Oh, got it. Long lead cycle, this is the path that we can follow, here’s how we can measure and build a metrics-driven organization around that. Yeah, you can do it.
Bob, frankly I just don’t … I don’t … It’s weird to say. This is possible. Many people have to do it. I think you have even better results if you don’t bother.
You Don’t Have to Keep Score to Win
Bob: Just the mental anguish that it can eliminate. You can help free up-
Rand: I mean because what happens?
Bob: Creativity, right?
Rand: Yeah. Like every time you walk into the boardroom and you’re like, well, we didn’t do as well with our LinkedIn impressions this quarter. They’re like, shut it down, throw the money in Facebook. Like it’s just … It’s just silliness, right? To have to make the case all the time and you know, you know that when it comes to creativity and content and social and PR and email and channels that are difficult to measure, that are more serendipitous, the reality is absolutely the case that you will have wins and losses. You will have times when, oh man, I sent this one Tweet, I put up this one video and my God, it just went crazy. It did so well. I never expected it. And then the next 20 times you’re like just beating your head against the wall. Ah, none of these blog posts are working. None of these tweets are working. None of these LinkedIn posts are working. These videos aren’t doing well. I didn’t do a great job on that podcast. It turned out the host didn’t have near the distribution we thought they did. That’s going to happen a ton of times too.
Yeah, this is a long-term, believe in it, investment. You know what it’s more like? It’s more like thinking about the relationship with your customers the way you think about relationships with friends, family, and partners. You don’t … I didn’t stay up late doing all the dishes last night and cleaning the kitchen because I expected a conversion event, however you might define that.
I did it because I am investing long-term. I’m going to clean the kitchen with who knows if Geraldine will even notice that I cleaned the kitchen? Usually she does and she’s very sweet about it. But she did the laundry a couple of days ago. It’s just reciprocal. It’s a relationship that you’re investing in for the long-term and it has extraordinary results and there’s no measurement. When you start to measure it, you start to pollute it. I did the dishes 20 times over the last month. You only did the laundry three times. This relationship isn’t fair. I’m afraid we’re going to have to renegotiate the contract. Screw that. Throw that crap out the window.
And if you view relationships the way you view business, you’re going to have a bad time. But if you view business the way you view relationships, you might have a beautiful time.
Bob: Mm. I just want to let that sink in because that’s really an important takeaway, I think, for people to hear and it’s, again, difficult to convince people of until they see it, right? And then it’s magical.
How SparkToro Reveals Your Customers’ Spheres of Influence
Bob: Yeah. Awesome. My final question to you involves this idea of you mentioned a few minutes ago about customer’s spheres of influence and how important it is to really be looking for that opportunity.
Bob: So I just wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about how does SparkToro take what would normally be the drudgery of market research and scraping the internet for avid places to go and basically hand it to people on a little bit of a shinier platter?
Rand: Yeah, yeah. So a lot of the times when you’re trying to figure out, hey, where should we go amplify this message or tell this story or share our content or whatever it is, that’s a hard problem to solve. You could do surveys and interviews but they often don’t reveal which podcasts do my customers listen to? What YouTube channels do they subscribe to? Which Twitter accounts do they follow? Who do they follow on Instagram? What groups are they part of on LinkedIn? Which subreddits are they subscribed to? All of those kinds of questions. What hashtags do they use? These are frustrating to get answers to through any traditional means.
And so, what we saw some smart businesses doing was they’d have two software engineers build a system to basically crawl all the profiles of their customers and potential customers. So they take an email newsletter list, they’d feed it through ClearBit or FullContact or something like that. And then they would take all the social URLs that they produced, they’d have the engineers crawl all of those, and then they look at everything they followed, everything they shared, everything they liked, everything that they … All the hashtags they used in their posts. And then aggregate that and say, okay, 17 percent of our email list follows this particular account. This website when it was shared got this much engagement from 11 percent of our audience. Let’s go do our marketing there.
And Casey and I were like, dear God, are you kidding me? This is like two six-figure salaries for six months to be able to produce this one report. Let’s just build that for the whole internet and you can get it for like 50 bucks a month, right? We should just make that possible for anyone to do. And so that’s what SparkToro is.
You basically can go and say, my audience follows this hired social account. Or my audience uses the hashtag #flyfishing. Or my audience uses these words in their profile, interior designers, and they’re located in California. Boom. Okay. 17 percent subscribed to [inaudible 00:35:54] sessions podcast. That’s the one. I want to be on that one. And then there’s a big old list of 50 more of them that are potential targets. And for whatever kind of marketing that you’re trying to do, that’s what we’re trying to solve.
SparkToro’s not the only place you can get this. If you have a big budget BrandWatch has got a great product for this. If you are looking for more direct competitors to SparkToro, a service called Audiense with an S, like Audience but with an S instead of a C. And then Helixa.ai. You can use SimilarWeb, even the free version of SimilarWeb does some of these things kind of on the click stream data.
So a little different versus the social web. Even if you just do it manually. Go to Google and look up the top podcasts for architects. What are architects listening to? And you’ll probably find some. The data won’t be as good. You won’t get the percentages. But you can do this. It’s better than doing nothing.
Bob: Awesome. Well Rand, it’s really been a pleasure to have the opportunity to chat with you today. We covered a range of topics. I really enjoyed every bit of it. I’m looking forward to seeing what continues for you and the SparkToro team as well as your family, of course. Thanks so much for being here today.
Rand: Yeah, my pleasure, Bob. Thanks for having me. Take care.
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