I'm excited to have interviewed Rand Fishkin, Co-founder of SparkToro (who previously founded Moz). I'm sure he has been busy preparing for the launch of SparkToro this week, so I'm grateful to him for answering a few questions from me. You can find the interview below.

What is SparkToro

Before we dive into the interview, I'd love to discuss Fishkin's marketing strategy for SparkToro. And to do that, we first need to understand the product[1].

From SparkToro's website:

We think it sucks that so much of web marketing today is “buy ads on Facebook and Google.”

...

The alternative is to help identify other places that deserve marketing investment — not just advertising, but partnerships and outreach, guest editorials and content contributions, authentic endorsements and organic references.

I agree with Fishkin that many businesses often focus on the most popular marketing channels. For e-commerce, it's usually Facebook and Instagram ads. For software, content marketing. Of course, these channels became popular because they work. Buffer's early growth (and to some extent, current growth) was dependent on content marketing. But once these channels become saturated, like now, it's much harder to make it work for your business quickly.

It is harder, though not impossible. If you have studied the market and determined it is the best marketing channel for you, then go ahead and invest in it. Otherwise, there are many other things you could do, like Fishkin explained above.

Here's where SparkToro comes into the picture:

SparkToro is a market research and audience intelligence tool for marketers who do content, social media, SEO, or PR.

It aggregates information about and from all public social media profiles, websites, YouTube channels, and podcasts so that you can understand your audience. For example, imagine I have built an app for triathletes and I want to market it to them.

I can pop into SparkToro and search: My audience (i.e. triathletes) frequently talks about "triathlon".

If I want to focus on triathletes in Singapore, I could add that location. But SparkToro's data current focuses on the US, UK, Canada, and Australia.

Besides "frequently talks about", I can use the following search criteria: "uses these words in their profile", "follows the social account", "frequently visits the website", and "frequently uses the hashtag".

And besides "triathlon", I could search for related topics such as "nutrition", "endurance training", "recovery", etc.

SparkToro will then tell me the following information about my audience:

  • The social media profiles they follow
  • The websites they visit or share on social
  • The podcasts they follow or share
  • The YouTube channels they subscribe to
  • The cities they are based in
  • Common words or phrases on their online bio

Now I have a better understanding of triathletes' online behavior and how to reach them. I can also come up with more creative marketing tactics that maybe my competitors aren't doing.

Here are a few examples:

  • Twenty-five percent of triathletes listen to TrainingPeaks CoachCast. Maybe I could see if the podcast accepts sponsorships. Or maybe I could create a podcast. The top podcasts have fewer than 50 episodes so they might be relatively new.
  • At least 10 percent of triathletes are watching videos from the top 13 YouTube channels. The channels are a mix of brands and professional triathletes. Instead of starting a new YouTube channel, maybe I could first try to reach out to these channels about partnerships.
  • I could reach out to social media profiles with high SparkScore (i.e. high reach-to-following ratio) and seek authentic endorsements rather than paid sponsorships.

But there are some limitations with SparkToro.

The longer I am in the industry, the more I already know about my audience and SparkToro doesn't tell me much more. I already know the top websites, YouTube channels, and social media profiles that triathletes visit or follow. (I did learn something new about podcasts, though.)

Another example, when I search for: My audience frequently talks about "marketing", most of the intelligence shown are what I have expected, familiar names in the marketing world. Marketers follow and talk about HubSpot, Moz, Google Analytics, Search Engine Land, etc.

To its credit, SparkToro does have a "Hidden Gems" feature to let you find social media profiles with high engagement and reasonable following but are not commonly known yet. This is great for finding brands and individuals that are up and coming and might be up for partnerships. I wish SparkToro would also allow me to find websites, podcasts, and YouTube channels that are gaining traction but not popular yet. For now, a workaround is to scroll further down the list to find slightly less popular ones.

SparkToro's Distribution

The distribution challenge for any new startups is to build an audience to market to.

Rand Fishkin already has the audience that would want SparkToro.

Besides having more than 430,000 followers on Twitter, he has gained a strong reputation in the marketing world with his work at Moz, regular speaking engagements, and his book Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World (a great read if you are into startups).

And no surprise, SparkToro is a tool for marketers.

This is an advantage that most competitors don't have. Hence, the best way to market and grow SparkToro is to leverage his existing audience (and their trust for him). Fishkin mentioned this in his interview below:

SparkToro's flywheel has been around content marketing, press+PR, conferences/events, and social media marketing (mostly from my personal accounts)...

Cofounders Rand Fishkin and Casey Henry have written articles and created free tools for SparkToro. But the articles and free tools were all shared through Fishkin's Twitter account and not SparkToro's. This makes sense because Fishkin has a strong following on Twitter already while SparkToro is a new brand. By doing so, Fishkin not only leverages his existing audience but also helps grow SparkToro's brand and following.

Almost 200 people retweeted Fishkin's launch tweet!

Picking Twitter over other social media channels feels wise. First, SparkToro's target audience is mostly on Twitter. According to SparkToro, Twitter is the most active network for marketers (SparkToro's target audience). Second, SparkToro seems to get much of its data from Twitter, where people are still sharing the articles they have read, videos they have watched, and podcasts they have listened to. So SparkToro feels most attractive to marketers who are already using Twitter to do research.

Most active networks for people who frequently talk about marketing.

Of the 4 Ps, we have covered product, promotion, and place. The last P is pricing, which also can have a big impact on SparkToro's distribution. If it's priced too high, fewer people will try and talk about it. Too low, and money is left on the table.

The Basic plan, ideal for solo consultants and individual in-house marketers, is priced at $150 per month. The Premium plan, ideal for small agencies and in-house marketing teams, costs $300 per month.

The pricing feels on the higher end for me. My hunch is that most solo consultants or in-house marketers will not be able to afford this, on top of the current tools they are paying for. The closest product I can think of is BuzzSumo, which charges $99 per month for a somewhat similar tier. (They are quite different products so it is not fair to compare them directly.)  

That being said, SparkToro is creating a new category for audience intelligence tool for small businesses because most of such tools are built for enterprises and cost several thousand dollars every month. According to Patrick Campbell, Founder of ProfitWell, customers are more willing to pay for something that isn't widely available (emphasis mine):

The less something is available, the more valuable it will become. The same is true for WTP [Willingness To Pay]. If your customers perceive the product or service that you're selling as rare, or scarce, it will raise their willingness to pay.

While this can be used to your advantage, increasing the rareness of a product too much can make it seem unattainable for some customers. Always consider your individual buyer personas to make sure you're not pricing too far outside their grasp.

I'm curious to hear what other marketers think about the pricing.

Now, let's jump into my interview with Rand Fishkin:


An interview with Rand Fishkin, Co-founder of SparkToro

From Rand Fishkin's LinkedIn profile:

In 2004, I co-founded the SEO software company, Moz, where I served as CEO until 2014. In 2018, I left and founded SparkToro, making software to put audience intelligence at every marketer's fingertips. I'm the author of Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World (2018) and a frequent keynote speaker on marketing and entrepreneurship topics around the world. In my spare time, I like to hang out with my wife, renowned author Geraldine DeRuiter, travel, and eat pasta.

Fishkin and I chatted about what's broken in market research, his strategy for launching SparkToro, and SparkToro's marketing flywheel.

My questions are in bold.

Hey, Rand. Thanks for joining me in this interview. And congrats on launching SparkToro this week. I had the chance to try SparkToro (thanks for the press review access), and I have not seen such audience behavior insights before. Why did you and Casey decide to build SparkToro? Is there something that felt broken in market research or marketing in general that made you want to build SparkToro?

RF: Oh yeah, very, very broken :-) I spent the first ~6 months of my SparkToro adventure talking to hundreds of folks in the marketing, market research, product strategy, and entrepreneurship worlds. And what I found was... somewhere between shocking and scary. Long story short, a ton of folks pay tens of thousands of dollars to market research firms or to big survey companies in an attempt to get quality data about what their audiences read, watch, listen-to, follow, and pay-attention-to. The results of that work is usually pretty disappointing because (no surprise) surveys and interviews are poor substitutes for actual behavior data.

Think about this way: you're interviewed on the web or on a phone call and asked which podcasts you listen to. You'll probably name the 2-3 that are top of mind right now, the ones that have a popular brand, or the ones you're most proud to listen-to... even if you rarely do. If instead, someone looked at your Twitter account, your Facebook page, your LinkedIn, your iTunes... They'd have FAR BETTER data about what you actually do. Unfortunately, market research rarely works that way. We saw a few really savvy companies who'd built web+social crawlers to go visit their audience's profiles and extract the follow/following and sharing/linking data from those public accounts, then aggregate them. That process ROCKS. But it's incredibly hard to do, and it sucks that the data's unavailable to 99.9% of smaller companies.

That's how we came up with the idea for SparkToro. We wanted everyone -- not just the biggest, richest, savviest companies -- to have access to high quality market research and audience intelligence data.

As a product marketer myself, I'm curious to learn about your product launch. What is the strategy you have taken to launch SparkToro?

RF: I think we made three unusual but, in retrospect, relatively wise moves.

  1. We raised enough money ($1.3M in a very unusually structured, Zebra > Unicorn, style round) in June 2018 to give us several years of runway to build and launch our idea. That took the pressure off us releasing a subpar product early because we were racing to achieve rapid growth or satisfy venture-style investors or raise another round.
  2. We built up a large community of people via our content, my public speaking, our email invite list, etc. who cared about the problem we were solving and liked/trusted us as individuals. That's a superpower when you're launching something new and need to get attention/eyeballs on it, especially when you don't have a massive budget for paid marketing (we haven't spent even $0.10 on paid marketing yet).
  3. We had a long, iterative process of building the product, releasing it in small waves to small groups, and watching/learning from their feedback. That started with an investors/friends-only version in March of 2019, through to a beta in July and August, a second round of beta access in October/November, then early access in February/March 2020, and now our April launch. Each step of the way, we were able to improve the product and make it more and more interesting, exciting, and useful to our audience BEFORE we ever had our public launch. The best part about that process? Each step built more excitement and interest from folks who didn't yet have access -- the exclusivity and the long tease, like the ever-expanding Hollywood process of trailers for movies that won't come out for a year, created a lot of buzz. It also creates high expectations, so we'd better be able to deliver!

In a previous private letter, I talked about the idea of creating free tools for customer acquisition. I notice SparkToro has a few free tools (Trending, Fake Followers Audit, and Sparkscore). Why did you two build these free tools, especially even before SparkToro is ready?

RF: Those tools were mostly to build buzz about the company, attract an audience, and get folks who used them adding themselves to our early access/beta email list. That said, some of the functionality in those tools also has overlap into what we're building in the product, so it also helped us with technology and product validation.

In your book Lost and Founder, you talked about marketing flywheels for Moz and a few other companies. What is or will be the marketing flywheel for SparkToro?

RF: So far, SparkToro's flywheel has been around content marketing, press+PR, conferences/events, and social media marketing (mostly from my personal accounts) all leading back to an email signup. Post-launch, the last bit of that will switch to a freemium version of the SparkToro tool, but I suspect the remaining components will continue to be valuable contributors. The big missing element from SparkToro vs. my old company (Moz) is SEO. There's still lots of opportunity to get organic traffic from Google, but it's harder than ever, and SparkToro's unique in that people don't tend to search for what we offer -- we need to create demand. As such, while our content will generate some organic search traffic, SEO isn't a primary acquisition channel for us.

Finally, what marketing and distribution lessons did you learn from your time at Moz that you have applied to SparkToro?

RF: The big one is straightforward: before you ever build or launch a product, build an audience that cares deeply about the problem you're working to solve. Earn that audience's attention, trust, and goodwill. From there, every bit of marketing you do will much, much easier. People buy from people and organizations they know, like, and trust. Even if you build the perfect product, at the perfect time, it's still a huge mountain to climb to earn awareness and emotional investment. Thus, SparkToro was a big audience-building project long before it became a software product... Just like Moz!

Thanks for sharing these insights, Rand!


[1]: I was giving press review access to SparkToro and had the opportunity to try it before it was public.