Stop Marketing Blind. An Exclusive Conversation with Rand Fishkin & Casey Henry.

Exceptions

How do we divide up our time as marketers to build a great brand? Do we know? Do we have a PLAN to do so? In the Season 2 premiere of Exceptions, host Jay Acunzo goes inside SparkToro, the audience intelligence search engine, cofounded by former Moz co-founder and CEO, Rand Fishkin, and Casey Henry, formerly of Moz, HubSpot, and Wistia.

The duo explains where brand fits in the earliest days of building a company, and they expose the issues with how most marketers spend time, especially when it comes to audience development and customer research.

You can get #Exceptions on Apple PodcastsSoundCloudSpotifyStitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Or listen to the full audio version below 👇

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends! You can connect on Twitter with @jayacunzo@randfish @caseyhen @Drift @seekingwisdomio.

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In This Episode

3:08 – SparkToro – a company that wants marketers to spend their time on the most important things

3:39 – Audience intelligence – the difference-making concept

5:14 – The origin of the SparkToro name

7:09 – How are ideas like brand and customer experience explored during the pre-market phase of a company

8:43 – How others feel about your brand

11:10 – The biggest decisions around building your business

14:44 – SparkToro aims to be a zebra company

17:02 – Casey’s differing idea on the SparkToro brand

18:35 – Tension between co-founders can be very healthy

21:21 – The fundamental problem that a business should strive to solve if it wants to be special—has to be a human one

23:43 – Today’s Big Idea: Invest your time, don’t just spend it

24:21 – How we spend our time

24:31 – We prioritize the best practice that carries weight in our mind

26:05 – We prioritize practices that feel newest, and ignore the best ones

27:24 – We make decisions based on no plan at all

31:50 – Things that capture attention and earn investment are truly creative, inventive, and exciting

32:15 – The ‘Tyranny of optimizing for amplification’

36:08 – Branding is also defining how you don’t want to be perceived

Full Transcript

Jay Acunzo: As marketers, we seem to have a best practice for everything. If we don’t have an idea or an answer, we can just follow everyone else’s. Tips and tricks for growing followers, fans, leads, customers, you name it. Blueprints and playbooks to advertise everywhere that accepts advertising. There are even 10s of thousands of resources outlining exactly how to make a podcast.

So, okay, let’s see. This says to create an outline for the episode first. Okay. So, Exceptions: Season Two Episode One: Cold Open. Three minutes in run time. Let’s see. The goal is to intrigue the audience so they’ll continue to listen. Write a brief narrated piece about something they care about, and then leave something open-ended for later. Okay.

The point is that endless lists exist, and just as many ultimate guides. All of which means that we can stop learning and start checking boxes, right? I mean, that’s what ultimate means. Final. Nothing further. No need to find any new information or keep learning. As marketers, we even have blog post idea generators at our disposal. Have you heard of these things? You just punch in a bunch of keywords, and out comes an endless list of exactly what headlines you should write. It’s like our brains are broken. This one generator I found even admits that seemingly, because they say as a tag line, “For when your brain is out of service.” Come on.

Look. We can do better, by having a plan for the one thing we don’t seem to have a plan for. Spending time wisely. We have a process and a playbook to do all kinds of marketing stuff, but rarely, if ever, do we stop to wonder, should we do that stuff?

This is Exceptions. Season two, my friend, season two. Welcome back to, well, I guess to me, but also to you, I hope. If you’re new to the show this series is an exploration about why certain B2B brands are betting so heavily and so proactively on building brands. They care about great customer experience after decades of B2B marketers overlooking brand, or even considering it a dirty word. Some things in season two are going to stay the same. But some things will be the opposite of the same.

One of the things that is not changing is me. I’m your host, Jay Acunzo, author of the book about questioning conventional thinking Break The Wheel. This show is still presented by Drift. Drift offers conversational marketing tools to help improve the experience of how businesses buy from other businesses. So that’s why they care so much about this topic. We have a special episode planned with Drift for season two. Just wait for that, that’s coming. But, in terms of the things that we need to keep experimenting on, keep improving and change for season two we’re going to throw some new types of companies at you. This are sort of experimental episodes. Some atypical choices, I would say, that can teach us something powerful in their own way. Few companies out of that bunch represent that idea of experimentation like today’s. So, let’s get to it.

Today we’re talking to a company who wants marketers to spend their time on the most important things, the most creative this, the most impactful things rather than just the most things. This company is SparkToro. Co-founded by Rand Fishkin, the former founder of Moz and Casey Henry, formerly of Moz, Wistia and HubSpot. SparkToro is a search engine for audience intelligence. Their mission is to make it easier to discover the websites, blogs, podcasts, social accounts and publications that reach your audience.

Now, audience intelligence is not a buzzy phrase in marketing. You don’t hear that phrase a ton. Not as much as I think it deserves to be spoken. But after 10 years in content marketing I can personally tell you audience intelligence is the difference between teams who truly resonate with others and those who just ship commodity stuff. Who frenetically trend hop and seek hacks and shortcuts. In other words, when you intimately know your audience you can be proactive instead of reactive. Rand and Casey know that better than almost anybody. They want to usher in a better era for marketers to achieve that.

But, before we talk to them, both about that topic and about the rather atypical, but refreshing way they’re building their company we first need to start where we always begin on Exceptions. With the voice of an actually customer.

Right. Okay. So, SparkToro doesn’t have any customers. Not yet, they’re actually pre-launch which is a big reason I wanted to talk to them on this show when we’re talking to them. They’re nine months into working on the product and building towards their favorite future as entrepreneurs. I thought that highlighting their work now and getting inside their minds today would give us a unique chance to hear from two of the smartest people in marketing and tech as they slog through, and also celebrate, their earliest days of building a brand. As you’ll hear, while the two co-founders share strong points of view on many things they also differ quite a bit.

So, SparkToro. It’s a very unconventional name. What’s the deal with that?

Rand Fishkin: It basically was a list of criteria that fit. So, those criteria included no other associations. If, for example, our initial idea didn’t work at all and we came up with something totally different SparkToro can mean anything. It can be branded to whatever we want it to be branded to. It is not stuck in a particular place, which I think was appealing to us. One of our big requirements was if you say it once to a hotel desk clerk, or someone behind the counter at a coffee place. “What’s your email address, I’ll put it in here.” If I say, rand@sparktoro.com can they type it in correctly the first time? SparkToro fit that, sort of, once you hear it you can spell it, you can say it. It is not confusing how it’s pronounced. I had so much of that with Moz.

In the early days it was SEO Moz. You can imagine, right, people saying all kinds of variations of that and not being able to put it easily into computers. I think that affects the memorability of a brand. How easy is it to remember and recall. That affects brand association and how strongly and quickly you can build those things too.

Then, to be honest, the inspiration from the name came from Totoro, which I’m a big fan of. The Japanese cartoon.

Jay: Oh, nice. I can see that, yeah. What is it about that, that you’re such a fan of?

Rand: I love the innocence and the creativity and the sort of imaginative alternative world. It’s somehow both very simple, and very complex at the same time. Just a lot to love there.

Jay: When you’re this early and, you know, where do ideas like brand and customer experience fit? Are those phrases entering your mind at all? How proactive are you being about those things when you’re this soon in the companies journey?

Rand: Yeah. So, the customer experience drives a ton of how we think about the product and the data and the systems behind it. So, for example, Casey is very speed obsessed. So the way he builds the databases, and the way he stores the data, and how he structured which machines are on demand at AWS for us to call up and grow, easily tap into, those technology issues certainly play a role. So too does the interface. So we’re working with a designer, a contractor, and she is actually very on board. The design team I think we’re going with is actually kind of Totoro inspired, which is fun. The way that we’re planning that customer experience, user experience inside the product is also centered on this idea of how do we quickly show people this sort of wondrous new data that they haven’t been able to access before in a way that makes sense to them.

Jay: I just want to make sure you and I are on the same page, my listener friend. I asked Rand where brand fits this early on. He immediately talked about product. He didn’t talk about marketing, he talked about product. That, historically, has not been the view of many marketing leaders or CEOs, which is Rand’s role. Brand was always this idea of Mad Men and Don Draper and all those tactics. It’s the big idea, the key message, the promotional language plastered everywhere.

But on this show we’ve defined brand as something else. Pulled from all those lessons in season one. From companies like Envision, and Gusto, and Wistia, and First Round Capital, and Zoom and many more. The way we define brand here is that it’s how others feel about the behavior of their people. How others feel as in the experience they have of you. Everyone has an experience of your company, so now it’s on you to decide are we going to be proactive about creating that experience.

As for that second half, how others feel about your people. Why do I say it like that? Well, because a company is merely an empty legal shell. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist until people start doing the work. All the processes, the IP, the products, the content, the precedent and the new stuff, the new ideas. It’s all a result of people. No people, no company.

We can hide behind stuffier terminology all we want like brand or customer experience or company. Maybe that tries to protect ourselves against exposure to the outside world, I have no idea. But, the fact remains it’s how our people behave, or the people our people hire that really creates the brand. Rand has a very clear vision for how he wants his company, sorry his people to behave.

For example, Rand firmly believes in choosing the small local coffee shop over the giant corporation.

Rand: That’s both a personal preference, and also a, I guess, socially driven belief, right. So at the macro level I believe that it is healthier for economies and human beings and the wealth of countries in the world to have many small businesses, rather than a few large ones dominating any given space. I don’t think the monopoly sort of end game of late stage capitalism, which I believe we’re sort of experiencing now and I think many of the world’s citizen’s and the United States citizens are worried about I don’t think that’s healthy. I think the data would suggest that it is not healthy.

Jay: The type of business Rand wants to build isn’t totally aligned with what most of us picture when we picture tech entrepreneurship, especially since its gone sort of mainstream in a way.

Rand: So, SparToro, remember, is very early it’s just me and Casey working on building essentially an alpha prototype, not even a beta yet. The business has been around since, I guess technically I started it March of last year. But, Casey didn’t come aboard until May. We didn’t raise our round until June. So, we’re six to nine months in, right.

I think the biggest decisions were around how we wanted to start and build this business. Those included some strange things. I think especially for a tech start up which have a very grow fast mentality. Even if you don’t raise venture. I think a lot of tech companies are encouraged to show progress in a venture style way. Meaning, “Hey, let’s hire a team. It might be a small team, but let’s hire a team right away.” We opted not to do that. We decided, hey, we want to stay … It’s a very old school small business approach. But we want to stay just the two of us until we’re profitable. Once we’re profitable and we can afford to bring on another employee then we will. But we’re taking this incredibly throw back approach to building a business, rather than spending a lot of money ahead of our growth path.

Traditionally one of the things that you do in tech world is you want your investors, and yourselves, to be able to get the capital gains tax exemption, right. A lot of the tech world is structured around … Tech financing world anyway, is structured around being a tax dodge vehicle. I mean, the only reason venture capital is an asset class is because, I can’t remember if it’s the 60s or 70s, but basically a bunch of rich people lobbied the government to get this capital gains exception. So, instead of paying ordinary income rates you get to pay this 15 or 20% on capital gains and save a bunch of money, which is why all these funds put billions of dollars into vehicles to invest in a way such that they get capital gains.

We thought that’s kind of chitty. We weren’t particularly excited about it. Saving 25 or 30% on our taxes is not our driving motivation. There’s a lot of things that you can do in really cool ways if you don’t care about that. For example, you can do this thing called profit share. So, SparkToro is an LLC. It is not a C-corp or an S-corp. As such we can distribute our profits to our investors in years where we feel like we can healthily do so and don’t need to reinvest the money entirely back into growth. Our structure is such that once we repay our investors their initial sum, you know the 1.3 million that we raised we get to raise our salaries and Casey and I also participate in the profit sharing. Until then, our salaries are sort of capped at a Seattle Software Engineer average and we don’t participate in that profit sharing.

So there’s sort of this incentive model that we built in for ourselves that also helps our investors be able to trust that we’re going to get them their money back. Then participate with them in the growth and profitability of the business.

Jay: SparkToro is aiming to be, not a unicorn company. That popular notion of a start up that explodes to a billion dollar plus business. But a zebra company.

Rand: Yeah, so Jennifer Randal and Mara Zopeta, and the other folks behind zebra’s movement, which you can find more about on, I think it’s zebrasunite.com. They have this whole sort of framework of what is a zebra versus unicorn. There’s a number of, I think, good and helpful comparisons. But the basic concept is that rather than chasing exclusively and a wealth extraction focused billion or multi-billion dollar valuation company that is backed by institutional investors who have LPs you are instead seeking an independent, more creative, more individual and employee and customer focused type of business.

Jay: Rand was quick to point out that he doesn’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with venture capital. He raised 29 million at Moz after all. However-

Rand: I don’t get excited in the morning going to work and saying, “Man, I am going to make this multi-billion dollar pension fund another $200 million.” It’s like, it’s just not an interesting way to spend your life. That’s what you’re doing with venture, right. You’re essentially making extraordinarily right people and friends richer and richer.

Now, I think that’s … You know, that okay, right. They have money so they’re the ones who can afford to invest in you. But, for SparkToro, for example, I think with a couple of exceptions most of the Angel investors are all people that I know, that my wife and I know personally and relatively well. They’re people who come over for dinner. Thankfully they have enough money to be able to invest. We’re lucky to have a network like that, but they’re not 10s or 100s of millions of dollars of wealth, even. Nevermind billions.

I’m excited to help them and their portfolios do better. I’m excited to help our employees, which we hope to have someday, do better. I’m excited to help our customers, right. Those things make me interested.

Jay: Did you catch what Rand said about employees? He said, “Which we hope to have someday.” As of when we spoke in January 2019 there was just one other person working with Rand. His co-founder, Casey Henry. Casey has a much different view on the topic we explore on this series, brand.

Casey Henry: Rand really wants to create a brand that’s really memorable, and somebody sees it and your instantly like, “Oh, that’s SparkToro.” I agree with him in that sentiment. The portion where I struggle with is I ultimately am the one that has to build it.

So, when we were talking to our designer and Rand’s like, “Oh, we really want to be bold and beautiful. Have great interactives, and do these things.” I’m on the other end like, “Yeah, not so much on my end.” I want things that are subtle, and nice to build and I don’t want to have to create a million things from scratch that ultimately in six months we could throw away because we find that our users do build it. So it’s kind of one of those moments where our designer was like, “Okay, you guys are both saying very different things. What direction should we go?”

So, we ultimately had to have a conversation separate from our designer of, “All right, are we both thinking the same thing?” We came to a compromise of where we’re going and she made different iterations where I think we’re both happy with what’s coming our direction. So, it’s always me on the other end being like, “Oh, man. I got to build that crazy thing that he’s thinking of? Woo, I don’t know about that.”

Jay: The tension between what Casey cares about and what Rand cares about is healthy. I believe that, and so do these guys. They know how it makes them better.

Rand: I mean, so Casey is very curmudgeonly about a lot of things and in a super healthy way, right. Meaning that he’s not curmudgeonly about I don’t know you or people, or care about those types of things, right. He’s curmudgeonly in terms of, “Hey, are we sure that this is the right thing to be doing? Is the right next thing to be doing? Do we absolutely have to build this?”

Casey: I think it’s one of those things where when you’re a two person company it’s different than a 40 person company, or even a 12 person company, or even a 10 person company. I understand a lot of what he’s thinking. So, I see it but at the same time we’re only two people. I don’t want us to get bogged down into this crazy spend six months iterating on something where we might not know how that’s ultimately going to be taken in the end. So, sometimes I see it. But at the other end it’s like, oh, with two people that’s a real struggle for me to spend large quantities of time doing some of that.

Rand: I mean, you know it’s the little things. Casey is a very … You know, he’s from the mid-West so he’s a very all American meat and potatoes kind of guy. So when Geraldine and I go out to eat we’re like, “Okay, what’s the most interesting place that we can find? Oh, there’s the really well rated Chinese restaurant in China Town in Boston, let’s go there.” We’ll hike through the cold and we’ll order [Foreign Language 00:20:17], and be like, “Casey, come on try it.” It’s like, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” But it’s fun. I think those kinds of life experiences are the ones that we’ll look back on.

Casey: A lot of, I think, my best memories so far have just been when our families have gotten together to just hang out. That sounds weird, but oh, man. There’s a lot of the stories and the good times come from when we’re together.

Rand: You know, we get to see Casey and Lindsay, Casey’s wife, and their girls probably every other week. We’ll do brunch together, or get together for something and it’s great. I’ve gotten to see these kids grow up and formed real relationships with them. They know where the toy bin is at our house. It’s cool.

Casey: It’s something about when we’re together that really is exciting to me.

Rand: I think in 10 years we’ll look back on the human aspects.

Jay: It makes total sense to hear Rand and Casey talk this way because if there is any emergent traits or beliefs supporting this early version of SparkToro it’s that the problem they aim to solve with their product is a fundamentally human one. There is the surface level, the marketing one. They want to create a search engine that helps you see the things on the internet that interests your audience.

Rand: This job that every marketer has to do at some point where we try and figure out, “Hey, where is my audience paying attention, and how can I best reach them?” I think, unfortunately, for a lot of us we’ve thrown up our hands and said, “You know, that’s really hard to do. Let’s just use Facebook and Google’s advertising networks and toss money at them.” But I think as those have become very, very crowded spaces and very expensive people are starting to look outside of that again. So we’re asking questions like, where can I reach them? What YouTube channels do they subscribe to? What websites do they visit? What columns to they read? Who do they follow on Twitter and Instagram and LinkedIn?

You manually research and you take sort of an educated guesstimate of, okay, I think these seem like they’re the five, the 10 big popular podcasts in this sector. Or the influential people in this world. Whatever it is. What we sort of realized, what we figured was it’s crazy that there’s not a search engine where you can just go and you can type in interior designers and it will give you a list of podcasts that interior designers listen to. Events that they attend, and hashtags that they use, and people that they follow. Which publications they read, and what websites they visit. Then you can go do your marketing in all those places with that audience intelligence data. So that’s what we set off to build.

Jay: Okay. So that’s the obvious. The surface level. The marketing problem they’re trying to solve. But their really solving a people problem underneath that. That underpins everything they’re doing and why SparkToro can potentially be a special company. So what is this fundamental people problem? How does SparkToro plan on solving those issues?

They want to help you better invest your time as a marketer. That is today’s big idea.

Today’s big idea, invest your time don’t just spend it. As marketers we spend a lot of our time on things that don’t have the best returns. In other words, aren’t the best use of our time. Rand’s observation has been that we do a ton of manual research to find sites, podcasts, social media accounts, media outlets and more trying to figure out what influences our audience and where they spend time so we can sponsor, collaborate and connect. Then, we dump all of that on a spreadsheet and it’s all based on educated guessing.

But, all of that research only prepares us for the work. Then we have to execute it. Things don’t get much better there either. We tend to choose how we’ll execute, ie how we’ll spend our time, in one of three different ways in marketing today. All of which center on finding the right “best practice”. The first way we make decisions is we prioritize the best practice that carries weight in our minds. This is the conventional wisdom. Whatever is most common in a space, a job, at a company, on a channel, you name it. But, this can be dangerous. For example, in the newspaper business there’s a common convention to print your newspaper on something called broadsheets. That big piece of people we associate with newspapers.

But, in the early 2000’s a British paper, The Independent, decided to shrink their pages and they were criticized by their peers. But what those peers didn’t realize was where broadsheets came from. See, in the early 1700’s, yeah, the British government imposed a tax on newspapers. It was based on the number of pages that they printed. So, being very clever people those publishers you increased the sizes of each page. They could print the same number of words on fewer sheets and avoid the tax.

In the 1800’s that tax was repealed but by then it didn’t matter. Broadsheets had become the conventional approach. So, in the 2000’s when The Independent shrank their pages they were ridiculed. Everybody knows you have to print your paper on broadsheets, that’s the best practice, that’s the conventional thinking. But I’d ask you, isn’t it kind of ridiculous to cling to a best practice born centuries ago based on regulations that no longer exist? The Harvard Business Review later talked to the publishers of The Independent. Not only did that paper save money after the change, they sold more print editions. So, just because we’re spending time doing whatever’s most common doesn’t mean we’re investing our time wisely.

The second way we spend our time is to prioritize, not the best practice that carries weight from the past but the one that feels newest. We love the latest trend. But that can be a bad investment too. For instance, in 2010 the Google Adwords team released the new feature for their search ads called Site Links. You know those extra headlines below the main one on an ad? Those are site links. Google told advertisers back then that when they tested the feature they found that ads with site links got an increase of clicks by around 30% on average. So, more clicks means more traffic, and more traffic means more sales on your companies site. So enable the feature. But, more sales on your site wasn’t a guarantee. However, what was guaranteed is that Google would make a hell of a lot more money on those clicks.

I will never forget site links because I was on the Google sales team at the time. Within months we convinced millions of companies to switch it on. But then thousands of small businesses started calling us and they were pissed off because while they got a lot more clicks, they rarely converted that traffic into business on their websites. Their websites were a mess. Google was laughing all the way to the bank, I sat there sick to my stomach. Just because we spend time doing whatever is newest doesn’t guarantee we’re investing that time wisely.

Then there’s the final third way we spend our time as marketers. We’re not looking to the past. We’re not looking to the future. No, we’re making our decisions based on no plan at all. We’re just doing stuff, just lots and lots and lots of stuff. We’re going to be on Twitter. Great. Well, when should we sent out those tweets? The top result on Google says 3:00 pm so now we’re going to tweet at 3:00 pm. Except, now that that’s out there guess what happens? That is no longer the best time to tweet.

But, we don’t have time to fix that because here comes Snapchat and now our boss is emailing us. They’re like, “Hey, what’s our Snapchat strategy?” We have no idea but we’re going to jump all over Snapchat anyway. But then Instagram keeps copying everything Snapchat is doing so we are also going to be on Instagram at the very same time. Oh, yes we are. But have you heard? It’s the era of video. Yeah, it’s the era of video. Are we making enough video? Marketing that video? Measuring that video? It is the era of video.

And also, podcasts. You can’t forget about podcasts. But podcasts are just a subset of something larger called voice. Voice is eating communications. Did you know that? Yeah, as marketers we have to get ready for a world dominated by voice. What are we going to do in that world? Hey, Alexa, please punch me in the face.

Alexa: Okay.

Jay: As marketers we are so good at spending our time. But rarely, if ever, do we stop to consider whether it’s the best possible investment. Invest your time, don’t just spend it. Few investments return more often, and more lucratively, than intimately understanding your audience.

Casey: The problem we’re trying to solve is something that can take weeks for a team member on a marketing team to do correctly. Our hope is that of weeks to do customer research and really understand what drives your audience is that it can take days. For this first version of our product we ultimately want to save you days and possibly weeks of effort trying to figure out what your audience is interested in.

Rand: In a lot of ways audience intelligence was the problem space that I was excited to tackle because it is totally open. Totally untapped. It’s weird to me, if you and I started a company today and we said, hey, we’re going to go try and target, I don’t know, the dental field. How do we reach dentists? Just that problem alone is so overwhelming. So challenging that it stops many companies and start ups right in their tracks. I think that if SparkToro can achieve its mission and be a very low cost way to literally type in dentists and be able to see all the places where you can go to do whatever kinds of creative paid or organic marketing you want, I think reducing that friction is an awesome thing.

Casey: Time is one of those precious things that we all wish we had more of. I think in the end I would hope that if you’re doing audience research that you can take that time to build more meaningful relationships with those people that you’re trying to reach out to. I think that’s something that you probably see on a daily, influencing your inbox, and I do too is just these canned responses that go out that are … I think of when we raised money I can’t tell you the number of emails that I got from development companies that were, “We saw you raised this amount of money. We know you’re going to hire devs. You should just hire us instead.” The 30 emails I got, they were all just kind of the same. My hope would be that, that time that, that marketer or whoever’s doing this research gets back is that they can build more meaningful response and are an outreach to these potential customers.

Rand: The creative approach that you can have when you talk to a podcast host and say, “Hey, we want to sponsor the show, or work with you in some fashion.” You get to a place where you agree, “Hey, let’s meet up in this random third location because we’re both going to be there for this event. Let’s do a live show and then we’ll also turn it into the podcast. But we’ll do a video segment on it. Hey, let’s have it be more creative and we’ll actually walk around the event.” You know, whatever it is.

Jay: Right. Not non-programmatic. Essentially moving away from all the things programmatic.

Rand: Precisely, yeah. I think that those are the kinds of things that can capture attention and earn return on investment in truly exciting ways. That’s where you venture into new territories and you discover things that work, and things that don’t work. You can get potentially outsized returns by being much more creative and inventive than your competitors.

Jay: I recently, I checked out one of these blogposts that you’ve been writing and it spoke to me. I’m curious if we can unpack one of the key topics within it which was on January 2nd you wrote an article called The Tyranny of Optimizing for Amplification. I just want to start with that word tyranny. What did you mean by that?

Rand: I’m really talking about this constraining force that overwhelms your creativity and ability to think about and share, and amplify, and write about, and broadcast all the things that you truly believe in, or care about, or are curious about, or want to be creative about and instead sort of submitting yourself to the whims and perceptions. Your perceived belief in what other people will want. I think marketers have to do this in general. You subsume your own ideas to try and get into the head space of your audience and to have empathy for them. To appeal to a large percentage of them and do that in creative ways, but constrained creative ways.

In your personal life, you don’t have to do that, right. You get to be more yourself. Except now that every person is potentially a brand, and these social media platforms have sort of codified and gamified every type of social interaction. I think Instagram is the most tyrannous of the examples. But you could certainly make the case for Facebook, you can absolutely make the case for Twitter and LinkedIn as well. Sort of the personal and professional crossover. Which is that all these systems work in the same way. If you have done a good job of appealing to the crowd in a way that gets lots of engagement on whatever thing you post, your photo, your story, your video, your update. Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or LinkedIn they will show your content more and more to a broader and broader audience which gets you more likes and hears and engagement, and more followers, et cetera. If you don’t, if you don’t conform to what the algorithm/that people want they will show you to fewer and fewer people until you’re nearly invisible on these networks.

The knowledge of that has made everyone start to think like a constrained marketer. But about everything. Should I take a photo with this friend of mine? Do I look the way that I should look in the photo that will get me the most likes? Is the background right, is the lighting right? Should I post this update about this cause that I care about? No, it probably won’t resonate with that many people. Well, what if I could tell it in a story format so that more people would care about it? It’s all that kind of stuff, right. Suddenly everybody is succumbing to the tyranny of optimizing for amplification.

I can think back to the companies I worked at, Moz, Wistia, HubSpot. Yeah, we were doing some customer research on what influenced them, but we really didn’t know. It was difficult to figure out. So, we’re playing blind a little bit and kind of taking a lot of those, thinking oh, these 50 reporters would br be interested in what we’re doing. When the reality was probably only three or four of them were. If we would have known that only those three or four would have been interested in the first place we probably could have made our approach to those three or four reporters much better than trying to send out 50 contact points to all of those people. Branding is interesting because it is not only defining what you are and what you want to be, and how you want to be perceived. But also how you don’t want to be perceived.

For us, for SparkToro, we have been occasionally misidentified or identified as trying to tackle the space that some people call influencer marketing. We’ve tried intentionally to stay very far away from that. We try not to use those words at all, we try not to be active in that space. I think I’ve blogged about it once. But, I try to stay pretty far away because of what influencer marketing has come to mean, and the fact that we want SparkToro to be much broader audience intelligence than just here’s a half naked person on Instagram that you can pay $500 depose with your product.

When people say, “Oh, it’s having a moment right now and has for the last two years and probably will for a little while to come, and there’s tons of dollars being spend there and a bunch of acquisitions happening in that space. Are you sure you don’t want to be associated with that? Sort of ride that wave while you can?” My answer is no, I really don’t. I am not interesting in wave riding or in seeing the ups and downs. I’m much more passionate about this real problem of discovering sources of influence.

Jay: It’s simple math, really. Everybody has an experience of your company and that shapes your brand. But when we choose to proactively cultivate and build ours to provide great experiences, not as an accident, but with a purpose and on purpose we start to spend our time wisely. We start to invest it. In this era of infinite choice where the buyer has all the power B2B companies can no longer afford to overlook the power of brand. Proactively building your brand is a damn good investment.

This episode was written, hosted, and produced by me, Jay Acunzo, and this series is a Seeking Wisdom original. That’s the name of Drift’s original podcast and it contains all kinds of great knowledge around getting better every day. Hosted by Drift CEO David Cancel and their VP of Marketing Dave Gerhardt. The two of them actually just wrote a book. So between the book and all the interviews and knowledge that they share be sure to go to your podcast player of choice and search for Seeking Wisdom if you’re not there already.

Speaking of Drift, the guys there only want to request six star reviews from listeners. Yeah. Six stars. After an entire season one of me having no idea how that actually works I can finally share with you today that I still have no idea. No idea. You guys, how does somebody leave a six star review? Can we just … I mean, I can’t … I mean, I tried. Okay, if you like the show, hey why not give us the most possible stars and maybe say some nice things. I’d like that. Also, I understand how that’s physically possible. So, yeah.

Anyways, as always thank you for listening to Exceptions. I’m Jay Acunzo, author of the book Break the Wheel. I’ll talk to you on the next episode. See you.

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