Rand Fishkin is the co-founder of SparkToro, an audience intelligence platform. Here, we dig deep into why he created SparkToro, and how he built his list of beta users ready for launch day. We also talk about his content strategy, why he creates content for conversations instead of algorithms, and a compelling argument for watching Steven Universe.
As the co-founder Moz, Rand Fishkin needs little introduction. In his role as CEO of the company, he grew (the artist formally known as) SEOMoz from a blog into the world’s most popular community and content resource for search engine marketers, with 30 million annual visitors and revenues over $29 million.
In addition, his popular blog posts and regular Whiteboard Friday series racked up tens of thousands of hits each week, making Rand one of the world’s leading authorities on SEO.
Naturally then, stepping away from Moz in 2018 to start audience intelligence platform SparkToro was a move that attracted a lot of attention.
When you’ve had undoubted success in a previous role, there’s pressure to keep the momentum going. But what we learned from chatting to Rand for Maker Mixtapes is that you shouldn’t rush things.
Whether you’re launching your first startup or tenth, it’s important to build an audience and give them a product they love from the get-go—however long that takes.
In this post, we’ll share the key takeaways from our chat with Rand, including why he kept SparkToro in beta for two years, his tips for generating interest in a product, and why he advocates using agencies.
In May of 2018, Rand and SparkToro co-founder Casey Henry began building their platform. It was a year before the beta version was ready and another year after that before SparkToro launched, in April 2020.
When startups are in their infancy, many opt for getting a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to market as quickly as possible. But Rand and Casey decided to work on SparkToro under closed beta for two years:
“The reason we had a very long beta period; the reason we did so much, you know, R&D and testing and UI and UX fiddling is because we wanted to have a really exceptional product at launch.
“We wanted people to not look at it and say, ‘Oh, that's kind of a nice first stab.’ But to give it a spin and be like, ‘Whoa! This is really clean, this is really smooth, this is a great experience.’”
When Rand emailed SparkToro’s list for the first time he knew that around 20% to 50% of recipients would try out the product:
“And based on that first experience, that will be what they remember for the next five to 10 years.”
If your product makes a poor first impression on a customer, getting them to come back is going to be difficult:
“If you're a tiny startup and you don't have a list, and you're launching to 20 customers, fine — go with the MVP. But if you have a lot of people paying attention, you’ve got to put out an exceptional product.”
Think about the first impression you want to make with your product experience. If people are expecting something great, spending extra time now to research, test, and tweak rather than launch might benefit your product and reputation in the long run.
According to Content Marketing Institute, 87% of marketers use email to distribute content organically.
This makes email the third most popular marketing channel behind social media and a company blog. But it’s the number one channel when it comes to keeping your business going, with every £1 spent giving an average return of £42.
And it’s been a huge driver of business for SparkToro. Before launch, the company spent 18 months building a list of people who wanted access to the platform when it went live:
“That [email] list is how we got our first 150 customers and how we continue to get customers today. [It’s] a huge driver for the business.
“I highly recommend [email] for every startup and entrepreneur or founder doing anything.”
To get people to sign up and then build anticipation for the launch, Rand did three things:
In the 18 months he spent building his list, Rand published roughly 30 pieces of content centred around the problems that SparkToro was solving for customers:
“I was writing about, for example, the decline in Google's click-through rate and challenges around getting traffic from Facebook, and some of the problems with influencer marketing.”
Speaking at events and conferences—whether in-person or virtually—gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your expertise to an audience with direct interest in the topic, enhancing your own reputation and that of your brand.:
“I'd get on stages and give presentations and talk about where the market is going and what the opportunities are, what's shrinking and what's still growing.
“That was a big way that a lot of people became familiar with me and SparkToro outside of pure SEO.”
Digital PR focuses on contributing to other people’s platforms such as podcasts, webinars, online events, live streams, and YouTube channels.
These things combined helped give SparkToro exposure, without any hard-selling of the product. It's an activity you can execute no matter what size your marketing budget is. If you’re already known in your industry, explore opportunities to use your expertise as a way to educate audiences and raise brand awareness through blogging and guest appearances.
If you’re not so well known, concentrate on building your authority through blogging on your own website and sharing posts on social media.
This will help to grow your reputation as a thought leader and establish credibility that can be used as leverage to secure guest spots. Concentrate on providing value and let your knowledge shine a light on your product.
For a piece of content to be successful, there has to be demand.
A tried and trusted way for establishing this need is by looking at the data—finding the keywords people are searching for and creating content that serves the searcher intent. It’s a tactic that Rand himself used with great success at Moz.
But with SparkToro, he decided to adopt a different approach—creating content for conversations rather than algorithms. Rand looks for conversations of interest (or topics people are talking about) and publishes content around them.
He’s also not afraid to voice his own opinions around talking points, even if those opinions prove controversial. A case point being his recent post on ‘Outreach Tips (better than anything you’ll find searching Google)’, which received a large number of polarizing comments:
“I want to elicit strong emotions. I want to lean into controversy and discomfort, so long as I'm being emotionally and logically honest.
“If it's coming from a place of honesty, generally speaking, I want to share [that] I feel that way.”
In an ocean of content clones, sharing an honest opinion helps work stand out. In this instance, it also helps it rank number one search results. Which, given the title, is a nice slice of irony.
What are people talking about in your niche? What hot takes do you have whirling around your head? Let these talking points inform your content.
In business, when demand for your product or service increases, you have to grow to meet demand. For many companies, this means hiring employees.
While this is the natural route to follow, Rand argues that—in the early days especially—using agencies may be a better solution for startups.
He has several compelling reasons why:
While a full-time employee may look on paper like they cost less, it’s way more cost infrastructure than you’d expect. There’s also the variability of that cost:
“You don't realise the psychological challenge of letting someone go. Invariably, you know, no matter how tough a boss you think you are, you will keep someone on three, six, nine, or 12 months after it's been proven that it's probably not a good fit.”
An agency's experience in working with different clients and learning from how they work gives them a unique perspective that employees may not have:
"You cannot acquire [that perspective] exclusively internally working on one thing all the time.
“If you exclusively are working on SparkToro’s funnel and SparkToro’s conversion rate optimization as opposed to ‘Oh, we work with SparkToro and [we’ve worked with] two dozen other people over the last six months. We can see the patterns. We can see what works and doesn't and we can apply those’.
“You will get so much more value out of one hour of that person's time who's seen all those experiences than you will over someone who's only seen your own internally.”
Many agencies use per-project pricing. You tell them what you need, they tell you how much it will cost. These upfront terms mean you know where you stand:
"You pay for the work and not the time. If it takes [them] two months to do [the work], or an extra month and you’re behind, you’ll email me and be like, ‘Hey, sorry we’re behind. But we’re not going to charge you any more. We’ll do the work we agreed to do.”
“If it takes more or less time, [I’m] paying the same.”
“If your agency is not performing for you, it’s so easy to let them go.
“But if an employee is not performing for you, the process of letting them go and the process of recruiting and hiring a new person is an incredibly intense amount of work.”
“Are there advantages to full-time employees? Absolutely. Are they critical eventually to our growth? Absolutely. Do I have a strong preference to being agency and consultant focused and reliant in the short term? Absolutely, I do.”
To read more on Rand’s thoughts on the pros and cons on using agencies, check out his blog post on why you should hire agencies and consultants (for everything you can).
In a time where customers are closer than ever to the brands they care about, people are more discerning about who they buy from and where they work.
Edelman’s global trust report shows that 74% of people believe that company CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it, while three-quarters of employees say it’s important that their CEO speaks out on issues like climate change, diversity, income equality, and ethical use of tech.
A great example of a CEO stepping up is David Darmanin at behaviour analysis platform, Hotjar, which was used by the Trump-Pence campaign merchandise website in the run up to the 2020 presidential election.
The story around this is a fascinating one:
“So Hotjar basically had a conversation internally and said, ‘we don't want these guys on our platform. We don't want them using it. And we know it'll cost us business. We know, obviously we're not just going to lose the Trump campaign, it would probably be a bunch of other business owners who are like, 'Oh, you're taking the Trump campaign off of there. I don't want to touch her either.’ And they still did it. They still did it. They went public with it.
“And I think that if you are someone who supports applying those sorts of metrics and leaning into that ethics over, you know, greed, you should support them. So I wrote about it, or I tweeted about it and shared it.”
For Rand, standing up for what’s right and sticking to your values as a CEO is also key to being a good leader:
“The job of leadership is to build great culture, build a great team, and then free them from structural friction so that they can execute on a good strategy.”
And the benefits of strong leadership? Employee and customer alignment:
“You will recruit and build your brand with people with whom your values really resonate. And I think that is a really positive thing.”
Maker Mixtapes is a podcast about the entrepreneurs, creators, and marketers building impressive things in their field. From content marketing to YouTube and growth, agency life to e-commerce and SaaS, this podcast aims to dissect and share lessons from their success.
Founder & CEO, Grizzle