What's Working In Marketing: Untapping the Power of Audience Research with Rand Fishkin, Co-Founder & CEO of SparkToro

Brand & Positioning Strategy
Content & Messaging
October 27, 2021

What's Working in Marketing is a podcast where we uncover what’s working across the digital landscape by tapping into the world’s best data-backed research and through candid conversations with industry experts. Join us if you're ready to learn what's working when it comes to your marketing efforts.

On this episode, we spoke with Rand Fishkin who is the Co-Founder & CEO of SparkToro, an audience research platform that helps organizations of all kinds to quickly and accurately identify where their audience spends time and pays attention, so marketing efforts can be better targeted and more effective. In this episode, Rand discusses the importance of audience research, why you need to deeply understand your audience, where audience research fits into a marketing strategy, the difference between being data-driven and data-informed, the benefits of episodic content, and much more.

You can listen to What's Working in Marketing – A Podcast by RightMetric wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, iHeartRadio, and Pocket Casts.

Here's a full transcript of our conversation with Rand:

Charlie Grinnell: On this episode, I'm joined with Rand Fishkin, co-founder and CEO of SparkToro. Thanks for joining me today, Rand.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, thanks for having me, Charlie.

Charlie Grinnell: I'm really excited for this episode as someone who's been a marketing nerd and worked in organizations previously that have been very focused on audiences and as someone who has used SparkToro, the tool that you guys have built, I'm really looking forward to this. And so I think I want to kind of start by going back to the beginning. And could you take me back to the beginning of when you were coming up with SparkToro, what kind of prompted that in your guys' minds, you obviously have a big background with Moz and marketing and all that side of things. Why audience research and why SparkToro?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. Fair question. So, I like to think about things from a opportunity, skills and passion perspective. I think those three really connect up for me how I want to contribute in the world. And actually a lot of the times how I recommend other people contribute in the world. Do you have something you like to do? Are you uniquely good at that thing? And is there opportunity in that sector? And if the answer to all three of those things can be, yes. Wow, you have a beautiful opportunity ahead of you. In my case, obviously I had a background in marketing software, so I've built and developed marketing software. I've made every mistake in the book. Well, maybe not everyone, but so many that I'll never be able to count them all. And I had a significant presence in the sort of universe of marketers seeking out software to solve their problems.

Rand Fishkin: So, people generally have an association of Rand Fishkin, either he's the SEO person, which I've been trying to get away from the last four years, or he knows his stuff when it comes to marketing software. And if he's building something new in marketing software world, maybe I should go check it out. And then I also had and continue to have some strong passion around what I'd essentially call breaking away from the historic pattern that dominates the marketing and advertising industry of throwing money at Google and Facebook and to a lesser extent, Amazon, if you're in eCommerce and just letting them sort out all your targeting. And I think this is, look, this is where hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year in the marketing world. Almost every other marketing channel combined doesn't equal it. It's sort of sad to me that these two, three corporations who are monopolies in their space control so much of our online attention and then monetize that through online advertising.

Rand Fishkin: And I feel like two things are true. One, that's not good for individuals or society or businesses or the world. And two, it's a terrible way to get a competitive advantage in marketing. So, the first one sort of appeals to the broad, big picture, what kind of change do I want to make in the world? Look, I mean, I'm not fighting disease or helping folks get vaccinated or those kinds of things. But I'm trying to make a difference in the world that I can participate in, which is marketing and advertising. And then that second one is my passion for helping individuals, marketers like yourself, like me when I was at Moz and helping us to understand our online audience's behaviors and attributes so that we can go reach them directly. Let me imagine a SparkToro 20 years in the future where it's made a huge impact in the marketing universe.

Rand Fishkin: And what I hope that it's done is redirect a significant amount of spend away from Google, Facebook, Amazon, toward niche blogs and industry sources of influence and conferences and events and YouTube channels that individual people have created. And sources of influence of all kinds, news publications, anything you can imagine. Podcasts like this one. What I want is a universe where there are millions of creators who are doing a great job of providing value in their industry. And they're being rewarded for that value through advertisers who can actually find them and say, I want to do something with you, Charlie. Not, well, I'll throw another million at Facebook.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. Totally fair. Interesting. I definitely did not think that that was the type of answer to that question. So, I'm fascinated and you've definitely like, my mind is going a million miles a minute with other topics. And I want to kind of come back to a couple of things that you mentioned there, but maybe just to kind of follow that up. For those who aren't kind of familiar with the topic, what is audience research and kind of at a high level, why is it important? You kind of talked about funneling stuff away from the duopoly or triopoly, whatever we want to call it. But how do you think, kind of what is audience for research and why is it important and why should marketers care about it?

Rand Fishkin: In my opinion, if you don't understand your audience at a deep level, you are always going to be at a disadvantage against those who do. So, if I, let's say I'm competing in the, I don't know, the world of cookware. And if I deeply understand why people buy, who buys, how they buy, where they learn about new products, where they're getting their information from, what sources of influence they trust and don't. What causes what their buyer journey looks like? What causes them to go from, hey, I'm interested in this to, I'm going to think about spending money on this. I'm going to win. I'm going to win on product. I'm going to win on marketing, because my knowledge of my customer is greater than anyone else. I saw a, I don't know Charlie, if you've been following the OnlyFans saga.

Charlie Grinnell: Oh yeah.

Rand Fishkin: This last couple weeks. A product that I have not personally used, although-

Charlie Grinnell: Same, for the record. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Rand Fishkin: I actually, I have a lot of strong feelings about making sex work legal and reducing the stigma that's attached to sex work and all those kinds of things. Doesn't necessarily mean that I personally need to participate in that universe, but you can support something that you don't personally use. And I was very interested to see this sort of conversation around the OnlyFans saga, which was essentially, for folks who are not familiar, OnlyFans is a website for creators, similar to YouTube, but almost exclusively, at least historically, geared toward adult content creators. So, people who post pictures and videos of themselves doing adult theme things and then selling access to that via some sort of subscription. And essentially OnlyFans was trying to raise their next round of funding and they learned that they could not, because of all these bank rules and regulations around adult content, et cetera.

Rand Fishkin: And so they announced that they were now going to be like, you can put your cooking videos here and learn how to do skincare on our site. Which of course, no one in their right mind would reasonably use them for that. And there was all this chatter online of, they don't understand their users. They don't understand the core of why people use them and how people view their brand and what they are about and how to sell and all these kinds of things. And I just saw all the tweets that were like, talk to your users. And this is what audience research is about. Not exclusively for adult content subscription sites, but for understanding people's motivations, who they are, how they behave and getting that data at scale so that you can make intelligent decisions about your product, your marketing, your strategy, individual tactics you want to invest in, individual places where you want to do PR or place an ad or pitch to be on a webinar. That's all audience research.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. And it's funny, one of the things that kind of came to mind that you just said there is at scale, by being able to do things at scale. Because I think historically we probably think about audience research as like polling, focus groups, that sort of thing. Whereas that's, it has value.

Rand Fishkin: That's one aspect. Yeah, that sort of micro research for your specific users. The people who've already become customers. That is one kind of audience research. But for example, this is true for virtually every small and medium business. And I'm sure you've encountered this Charlie, where essentially you go in and you say, oh, okay, we're currently selling to whatever. These 1,000 people have purchased our product, they have these kind of demographics and here's their email addresses and we'll try and study them and do some surveys with them. And what that will get you is an understanding of roughly who's bought from you already. But it will not tell you where your biggest opportunities lie necessarily.

Rand Fishkin: And it will not tell you at scale, do a large number of people who match the criteria of your customers behave the same way your customers behave. It won't even tell you how your customers behave online and what they pay attention to. You can ask questions like how did you find us? But there's no amount of customer data that will give you great answers to the question, what do they passively subscribe and listen to. That's what SparkToro is really trying to solve.

Charlie Grinnell: Totally. And I think the immediate thing that pops up in my mind is what people say versus what people do are two very different things. And then that's not even kind of diving into okay, the sample size or bias or all these different things. When I was working on the brand side, we'd get these things from a Nielsen or Comscore like whatever. And it would be like okay, I'm in Canada, they'd be like 38% of Canadians like video games. And then you kind of like, look at the, number one, that's not actionable, but number two, the second thing there was when you actually go and look, they're like based on a survey with 750 people. And so I'm like, okay, the population of Canada is almost 40 million and we're going to say this many Canadians actually like it based on this sample size. For me, I was always like, that doesn't make me feel confident. That just wasn't good enough.

Rand Fishkin: Now, granted, this is purely the online audience that SparkToro has. So, that's, we have 12,243 people who've talked about video games in the last four months on their social profile and are located in Canada. Our total coverage of Canada is about a couple million. So, you can get a percent of people who not necessarily liked video games, but have actively talked about them. And then you can see what they did. For example, what video games did they talk about? Well, frequently use phrases are 5.8% Resident Evil, 5.1% Smash Brothers, 4.2% Assassins Creed, 3.8%, APEX Legends. I think those are all video games.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, those are games. Yeah, you're right.

Rand Fishkin: How in the world would you know that? I cannot fathom before SparkToro existed. If you had told me, hey, I need to find out what are the most talked about video games online in Canada. Oh God. I mean, that project would be months of work. A couple engineers to go build me some crawlers and then a profile filtering system and some-

Charlie Grinnell: Or social listening, but the APIs are [crosstalk 00:11:47] and yeah, it's just a mess. And on top of that, it didn't have the robustness in terms of the data sets or the relevance or there was bias in it. There's so many different pieces. So, that's something that came to my mind that was just like that ability to do it at scale and also observing behaviors. Because again, what people say versus what people do are two very different things. There's a book that I love.

Charlie Grinnell: It's called Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and it's Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. This book I read it absolutely blew my mind, because basically what he's doing is it's like digital kind of economics where he's taking different data sets and mashing them together and finding similarities and differences, and basically I think he did his PhD thesis on this and his whole thing is like everybody lies and here's the facts kind of behind it of what people are doing and what people are saying on the internet.

Charlie Grinnell: And it was just like a very fascinating thing. And so that's something that obviously with the world becoming more and more noisy and competitive, cutting through that noise to just understand what are they actually doing and how can I potentially insert my brand there in incredible way that isn't just like slapping an ad on Facebook and trying to ram it down someone's throat. Just seems like a smart strategy.

Rand Fishkin: Absolutely. I think that this is one of the things that I love about being able to collect audience data at scale, is you can say in our Canadian video game example here, we're not trying to determine, hey, let's go poll a bunch of Canadians who talked about video games and ask them what they read or what podcasts they listen to. We're not going to do that. We're just going to look at their public social profiles. And if they have a public social profile and they follow Kotaku, we're going to count them as following that source.

Rand Fishkin: And, hey, maybe they scroll past it in their feed when they, whatever, get a Facebook page, updating their feed or when they see a tweet from them or whatever. But we know that they're subscribing to it so we can give you that number. We can say like, well, 9.3% have followed or engaged with content from Kotaku's online presence. And 7.8% have engaged with The Game Informer podcast. So, if you're asking like, okay, well where am I going to reach Canadian video gamers? I've got a, I don't know, Mounty and politeness themed video game where you attack people with hockey sticks and Molson Ice. Well, we can tell where to go do marketing for that.

Charlie Grinnell: That was such a Canadian stereotype. I love it. I love it. We are very polite. We do say sorry a lot.

Rand Fishkin: In fact, every time you hit someone with or hockey stick, sorry, aye.

Charlie Grinnell: Well you actually have to say it. It's a law here in Canada. Whenever you slash someone, you got to actually say sorry after. It's part of the law, otherwise the guys in the red suits come after you.

Rand Fishkin: It's one of the few nations on earth where as an American, you are technically allowed to talk about stereotypes.

Charlie Grinnell: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rand Fishkin: But this kind of data would be nearly impossible to get at scale without passive collection. Because to your point, it's not that necessarily, I mean, I think Everybody Lies is a very memeable phrase. What's really going on is people don't recall exactly where they heard about something. They have recency bias. So, they're going to talk about the things that they heard about most. There's some embarrassment of, well, I guess I technically listened to, I don't know, the BioWare podcast, but I've heard some negative stuff about BioWare's brand recently. So, I don't want to say that I listen, whatever it is. And I think those things are really tough to work around unless you are collecting data at scale passively.

Charlie Grinnell: Absolutely. And I want to touch a bit on strategy? Because I feel like audience research is such an important, just research in general, is such an important piece of strategy. I feel like a lot of the listeners of this podcast and clients that I've worked with, brands that I've worked with, customers of SparkToro, they're trying to build strategy. And can you kind of talk about like, just first, where does audience research and maybe research in general fit into marketing strategy? I'm kind of on the side of the fence where without research you don't really have a strategy. You're just going on gut.

Charlie Grinnell: How can you do strategy without research? And I always find it interesting when I people they're like, yeah, we're building strategy. I'm like, cool. So, what kind of research are you doing? Or what kind of analysis are you doing? They're like, oh, we're just building. What do you mean you're just building? Building on what, based on your own opinion? So, I'd love to get your kind of take, where do you sit in that and how does research fit into that?

Rand Fishkin: I think there are two ways to be great at strategy. One is to have phenomenal intuition and a great deal of luck. And there are absolutely people who do that? I'm not going to say that there aren't. But you can't just have one of those. You have to have both. So, tons of intuition from doing lots of work in the field and having a deep understanding of your audience and probably having lots of conversations with them and getting really, really lucky. And the only other way to do it other than intuition and luck is to do your homework. To have the research and to be able to back it up and say, all right, you know what? It turns out that women gamers in Canada are significantly underserved and we have, through surveys and interviews and passively collective data at scale, found some of the most popular games with women in Canada. And we also looked at similar populations in the United States and the UK and Australia where there are more women gamers. I don't actually know if this is the case.

Charlie Grinnell: But as a proxy.

Rand Fishkin: But let's let assume it is. And so we can see that it's probable that if we hit kind of these vectors, we will be able to have a successful video game in Canada with women audiences. And that's an underserved sector. So, our competition is going to be lighter. And so that's the strategy. The strategy is we are going to build a product that appeals to this group of people in this region through these ways that we've seen people like them in other similar regions come to a product like this and we're going to do it because we know the competition is lower.

Rand Fishkin: And then we're going to do lots of tactical things like market to them through the sources of influence that they uniquely pay attention to. Like whatever it is. What do I see here? Okay, YouTube gaming channel, Fan Expo Canada, Ubisoft Toronto, a social media gamer named Jessica Blevins, who apparently is big with women gamers in Canada. So, all these kinds of things. That's strategy and its tactics. And I think that I would rather bet on a data informed, not necessarily data driven, but a data informed plus strong intuition and skills versus luck and intuition.

Charlie Grinnell: For sure. Well, it's so funny. The thing that you just reminded me of a quote that I forget who said it to me, but the short version of the quote is, "Without data you're guessing, or you're lucky and eventually everybody's luck runs out." That was kind of the thing. And I think the word data, I like what you just said about data driven versus data informed. I think there's a piece of that. Marketing is a balance of art and science. They're both aspects. And I was able to participate in a conference, in a workshop where a guy named Stefan Olander, who he used to, he was at Nike for 20 years in digital.

Charlie Grinnell: And he talked about this concept of informed intuition. So, using that phrase informed intuition, that is kind of the holy grail of modern marketing is like, how are we taking the data backed research, so whether it be stuff with SparkToro or benchmarking with competitors, looking at strategy tear downs, like whatever all the different things are, how can we take that, mix that with our intuition that we have of being a marketer in a specific industry or working at a business or whatever, and pulling out the aspects of both of those that we need to then inform building strategy?

Rand Fishkin: I think that is truly smart and the very best way you can go. The reason I don't love being data driven is that I think it does not leave room for creativity and executing on opportunities that you can't prove. And I actually think that in many cases, the non provable, but intuition plus some data information behind the scenes that informed intuition, as you say, is what leads to the best outcomes. And also the most fun ones. I just got to be real. I don't find it super fun to analyze treasure troves of data and build an entire strategic roadmap or tactical plan from that exclusively.

Rand Fishkin: I like starting from a place of, hey, this is what I'm excited about and passionate about and where I have skills and now I'm going to go inform myself what are all the data points that can help tell me what to do in those spaces that I am excited about. And I'm going to do those things. I'm going to focus on that and I'm going to try and learn from my mistakes. So, data informed rather than purely data driven, I think purely data driven maybe works if you've got a huge team of machine learning builders and you're trying to beat the stock market or something.

Charlie Grinnell: Sure. But I think when it comes to digital marketing, there are a lot of things that data analysis and modeling and yeah, that can help. But I think to your point, if we looked at probably a lot of the most successful marketing campaigns to date, they pull from both sides. It had to have really great insight from based on how an audience is behaving or what's working in a specific vertical combined with kickass creatives. And I think like that's something that just comes to mind that that kind of came up is this divide between brand and performance or like marketers and creatives within marketing organizations.

Charlie Grinnell: Where you have like the creative team being like, I don't care about that. I'm going to make something that's cool and creative and whatever. And then the vice versa with the brand person or the more marketing person being like, but I have to drive a business outcome here. And there often is like those kind of two different sides within marketing orgs. And I think that delicate balance of like, how can we kind of use this research or these insights to fuel great creative ideas? Here are the kind of guardrails I need. We need something. These are some behaviors. These are some things. Now take that and go build something that is a creative masterpiece and let's go test it.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. I mean, so I help a lot of people all day every day with a lot of what I'd call outreach or co-marketing, or influence. Our marketing campaigns. So, essentially it'll be, hey, here are the sources of influence in my field. How can I do something with them where they will promote me without me having to spend a fortune? And which is a great question to ask yourself. If you know that a bunch of sources are paid attention to and loved and trusted by your audience, having them amplify you, having them write about you, tweet about you, do a video about you, feature you on their podcast, have you present at their webinar, whatever it is, that that is a massively powerful way to have an impact on the audience that you want to reach. But coming up with that creative is almost never a purely data driven process.

Rand Fishkin: It's a data informed process. You make your list of, hey, here's the sources we want to be in front of. Here are the people we believe, people in publications we believe can amplify us successfully to the audience we want to reach. What could we do to get in front of them? What would make them write about us, talk about us, pitch us to their audiences? And answering that question is a creative process. It's not a, oh, well, you know what? We're going to look at the last 50 campaigns that they've all ... Or the last 50 people they've all amplified. And then we're going to see that the most likely reason was controversial news story about them. So, let's create some ... No, that's bad. Don't do that.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. It's funny. The thing that comes to mind there is this analogy in my head of like fish where the fish are. That's like an old, I think like Charlie Munger, Warren buffet quote, or whatever. But when just thinking about marketing in general, this is something that I often talk to our customers about. And friends of mine who are still working on the marketing side is, if we use that fishing analogy, fish where the fish are. So, figure out where are people spending time, what influences them, that sort of thing. And then to continue on the fishing analogy is like, that's where you can get creative about what bait should you put on the line and what type of rod should you use? And that's something that we're constantly hammering on is like, even with the recent, this is a bit of a rabbit hole, but like the iOS 14.5 changes.

Charlie Grinnell: And like advertising, advertisers are freaking out. And I have investment analysts calling me, asking me what I think about that. I have marketers being like oh my gosh, what are we going to do about this? And my kind of whole take on it is the fish are still in the same pond. They made a change. It's just, you used to be allowed to use the hook with three different hooks in it. And now you're only allowed to use one. And so it's still early days to figure out what's going to work there. But I think that analogy of fishing where the fish are, that's what we're doing as marketers. That's ultimately what we're doing and to be a great fisher person, you have to be creative.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. Yeah, you do. Absolutely.

Charlie Grinnell: I want to switch gears a little bit here, because I think this is something that is obviously top of mind for people, marketers specifically going through the pandemic, how has the importance of audience research kind of shifted in the past 18 months with the COVID pandemic? We kind of had, marketing was chug it along and then COVID happened. I remember you did a whiteboard session about here are some tips, just to keep in mind, as you kind of pivot your strategy. And one of the things that I thought was really, really smart that you said was use a scalpel, not a chainsaw if you're going to cut things. Be strategic about it. Over the last 18 months, do you think it's become more important? Where do you kind of sit with that?

Rand Fishkin: It's pretty interesting. So, a ton of economic activity has obviously shifted online and is probably never going back. Some of those in sectors and geographies where it never had before. So, you look at a number of late adopting European countries, for example. Italy's a great example of this. Where there just was not a lot of online commerce. People really did not shop online. Even buying plane tickets online was I think still under half of plane tickets were sold that way, which is remarkable to think that you're still in travel agent world, or like go to the ticket counter world, but this is something that the pandemic dramatically changed. So, there's that aspect. And when that happens, you get two things. You get massive behavior shift, meaning people change what they pay attention to, where they participate, where they go. Unfortunately, we didn't have SparkToro pre pandemic. We launched it kind of right as the pandemic was-

Charlie Grinnell: Perfect timing.

Rand Fishkin: ... hitting its apex in May of last year. If we had, I'm certain we would've observed what almost every other trend monitoring system did, which is essentially you had this C change of how behavior shifted. And the other thing that changed in addition to all those behaviors is you have a new audience of online users. Essentially people who never really joined social networks all that actively and didn't post about content the way that they do now. And didn't connect with their friends and family and coworkers in the way that they do now.

Rand Fishkin: And now that they are, they are giving whole new troves of data to these online platforms. And so you're just seeing behavior change, new audience, new sources of influence, all of those rise up. And so in terms of doing your audience research, if you had solid research prior to the pandemic, it's not that you have to throw it out, but you better update it. If you had a marketing plan and strategy that really worked well pre pandemic, ooh, I don't know if it's going to work so great after or during.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. And one of the things that when the pandemic hit just personally that was top of mind was it's one thing for us to, yeah, went into lockdown, all that sort of stuff. I think the big thing that I kept kind of reminding myself is that like now we're just building habits. It's one thing if we were locked down for a month, but you're talking about that behavior change. It's now it's not just behavior change, it's prolonged behavior change. And that's just becomes, as time goes on, that becomes a habit. And so I'm not saying, like I think about to your point, obviously there's been some behavior changes. People who weren't necessarily the most digitally savvy are now doing delivery groceries or like click and collect or pick up. That's a big step change.

Charlie Grinnell: And now they've done that and they've had to do that for months and months or a year at a time. That's now their kind of new normal, and that's a habit and that's a big change that presents a commercial opportunity or whatever it is. Or there are other things where connected fitness was a big one. Everyone's like, oh, now that I bought a Peloton, will I ever go back to the gym? Yeah, maybe, but there are also some people that didn't necessarily know how much they would actually enjoy doing that exercise in the privacy of their own home. And that might be a big draw. So, do we know where that's going to end up? Not necessarily, but I think it's important to recognize, hey, there has been a behavior change here and it's not just, oh, this is a temporary behavior change.

Charlie Grinnell: When we're talking 18 months maybe going on two years, by the time that this happens, we probably are going to see those behavior shifts. And so from my side hearing everything that you said, that just made a ton of sense, because the game has fundamentally shifted and sure, there will be probably some things that kind of roll back just because we probably miss getting together for concerts and sporting events and that sort of stuff. But at the same time, there are things that I do even in my day to day where I'm like, yeah, I don't miss necessarily walking around the grocery store and I wasn't necessarily, I'm a digital guy, and I wasn't necessarily using click and collect or delivery and now I do it. I'm like, dang, I like this.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. I think a lot of that is true. I mean, certainly for me personally, I think I will be far pickier about the flights that I take and the in-person conferences that I go to. I haven't been sick in 20 months.

Charlie Grinnell: That's interesting.

Rand Fishkin: I mean, I used to get sick-

Charlie Grinnell: A lot.

Rand Fishkin: ... six times a year, seven times a year, at least. And just have a week where I felt terrible and my immune system was hit and I just am very susceptible to colds and flus. And wow, it's kind of great not having that by not flying on planes or flying with a mask on, which I'm not sure I'll ever change that again. Why do I want to be around all those germs?

Charlie Grinnell: Well, yeah. I [crosstalk 00:30:59] about that-

Rand Fishkin: Wait, you tell me I can just wear this thing on my face and then I don't have to about getting sick. Oh, my God, amazing.

Charlie Grinnell: I haven't thought about when I was sick. I had a big smile, because I was thinking back, when was the last time I had a cold. And especially I was traveling a lot for work, obviously you were traveling for work as well. And I'd noticed like, you'd have those times. I wouldn't get sick, like laid out on my back, but I'd be like, oh yeah, I have the sniffles and I'm kind of gross to be around probably.

Rand Fishkin: Just dragging feeling awful.

Charlie Grinnell: But to your point, I haven't necessarily got it.

Rand Fishkin: And then that's a ton of money to spend. It's not great for the environment to have all those flights. Part of me is like, man, I probably, I bet I will go down to three or four conferences a year, even after it all returns. Instead of 20 or 30.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, for sure. I want to kind of pivot here a little bit to content marketing. You said on Twitter a while back that the future of content marketing is episodic content. How do you think marketers should be thinking just about content marketing in general right now? And where does audience research fit into that?

Rand Fishkin: The reason I'm so passionate about episodic content in particular is because it gives you a chance to build up a catalog of useful, entertaining, subscription worthy stuff that will bring benefit to your brand and your creation for a long time to come. And I think that, that is actually more valuable than single hit sort of viral pieces. If your goal is build up my brand or grow my number of subscribers or rank better in search engines or perform better in social media algorithms or get more people checking out our product who might become customers of it. I think in all of those cases, episodic content is going to perform much better than one off content, even if the one off content is technically earning more traffic. And that is why I urge content marketers to think about how do I get something that turns into a branded series of pieces about a topic or that someone wants to go to again and again? And podcasts are part of this.

Rand Fishkin: YouTube channels are part of this. If you think about a blog series or a blog that consistently covers a topic and you can kind of rely on it for news and updates and analysis around that topic. I think those are all part of it. Amanda and I at SparkToro started doing this new series called Office Hours. Where we will cover a topic as it relates to audience research and generally SparkToro. And we do those every two weeks and the first two have been very, very well attended. And then we turn them into video series that you can watch on the website. There's a lot of advantages to that. One of the things that I love about them is you can stumble into an episode two years after it started. And if you really like it, you're going to go back and check out that back catalog.

Charlie Grinnell: Absolutely.

Rand Fishkin: I think that is invaluable versus a, oh, I read this one off blog post, I guess that was what they produce. Cool. I'm done. I'm gone. I never think about that brand again. I don't even remember where I found that blog post six months from now.

Charlie Grinnell: That's the one night stand versus dating or marriage.

Rand Fishkin: I don't love dating analogies and marketing, but yes. There's sort of a single impact. It's like seeing an ad once as you're driving down the highway versus I'm an email subscriber to that brand and I get their emails all the time. One is obviously much more valuable to the brand and a much more valuable connection for that person to your brand.

Charlie Grinnell: Makes a lot of sense. Just thinking about looking forward for you. I feel like you're a very contrarian thinker. I feel like when everybody zigs, you zag. And so I've been fascinated just chatting with you and kind of hearing your take on things. I've definitely learned a few things just in the last 40 minutes here. When you think about marketing today, what are you most excited about? What gets you fired up? You've obviously seen and done a lot across the software side of things. You've seen kind of the rise of the duopoly, triopoly, whatever we want to call it. Now you're kind of focused on audience research and building out SparkToro. What gets you fired up when you're thinking about just marketing in general?

Rand Fishkin: I mean, there's sort of macro level stuff and then micro level stuff. So, macro level stuff, I get really excited about the potential. And I think it's a bipartisan potential for the first time in the United States for some serious regulation and some antitrust activity. I think it would be so exciting to imagine a future where Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp are three different companies, where Google and YouTube and Google Maps are three different companies. And the playing field of technology and digital space becomes much bigger and there's way more opportunities for a startup to have a chance. So, that excites me.

Rand Fishkin: I'm also more excited about that, because I think that if you break up monopolies and disincentivize monopolies intentionally or not, you incentivize small and medium businesses to get investment. And so in my fantastical 10 years from now worldview, I get really excited at the macro level of, oh man, what if ordinary income tax rates and capital gains tax rates are very close to each other, which is something that this administration has talked about and maybe the venture capital field switches to start investing in businesses that are small to medium size, but have a high profitability and rate of return and can survive for a long time.

Rand Fishkin: And so we get an economy that instead of filled with a few winners and everybody else is a loser, we get tons of small and medium winners. That truly excites me. Because I hate the trends around incoming inequality and wealth disparity. I think those are really negative. At the small scale. At the micro level end of things, Charlie, what gets me very excited is helping individual companies and people and creators and advertisers to do their work better in a way that returns to them, that pays dividends very quickly. And this has been one of the super fun things about SparkToro is just all day, every day, a lot of my work day is just helping people find their audiences and then showing them, oh my gosh, here's all these hidden gems that you never knew about where you could reach your audience and things that you could do.

Rand Fishkin: And it's sort of awesome, because it's like, I don't know, in the SEO world, whenever I was doing this, it was always like, well, we're all at the beck and call of Google. We're all under their foot. They could trample you anytime. If they decide to put something in the search results or they decide to change your title tag, you're screwed. They decide to change your SERP so that four ads show above your page. You're just at their mercy. And in this world, you're not. In this world it's really relationship building. If you're an awesome person with a cool product and a cool company, and you find a publication that reaches your audience, you can make something work. That gets me really excited. I love making those connections, showing people those connections. It's just fun.

Charlie Grinnell: And I think also hearing you, it kind of just sounds like undertones and I don't necessarily know, but I feel like this word has been overused, but like democratizing access to things that can actually give them an advantage, a competitive advantage to go against bigger companies. Whether it be the big giants or even just in their space, like, hey, I'm a bakery in this town and I'm trying to, I'm a startup and there's the kind of incumbent and I want to go after them, because we different way of doing things.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, yeah. If you're a local bakery and you do bread delivery and you want to compete against, I don't know, GrubHub and Caviar and all of them, awesome. Oh my God, I want to help you. And one of the best ways to do that is to say GrubHub can't go find in every town, what people pay attention to and then have their founder get on the local podcast. It's not going to work. But you can. That is your competitive advantage as a small, unique local business. I love that.

Charlie Grinnell: I want to continue this line of questioning here just about you, everyone kind of zigging when you zag. I feel like a lot of people, obviously you have a large audience, a lot of people look to you for your take on things. I think for me, how I got my start in marketing, I didn't go to university. I was self-taught. I dropped out and I kind of just like immersed myself in it, reading, talking to people, whatever. Reading is a big thing of consuming information, following people like you, following others. How do you kind of stay up to date on business and marketing? Who are you following? What are you reading? What are you listening to, because I feel like a lot of people are obviously following you, but I'm like, how do we go up the street, up a level, upstream to be like, who is Rand listening to and thinking, learning from?

Rand Fishkin: I mean, the easiest answer to that question is you can click on my Twitter profile and look at who I follow. So, that's the simple one. And it's not a big list. Maybe a 100, 120 people. But I do really love having conversations with people who've built these unique kinds of businesses. So, some folks that in the last few years have been really impactful in my network. Kind of my, my entrepreneurial hero right now is, Peldi from Balsamiq. Italian guy built this business in Bologna, but it's sort of worldwide. I don't know that they have more than three people in a single city. And it's this incredible product, but he is not trying to massively grow it. He's like, hey we have our few tens of thousands of paying subscribers and a few 100,000 people who are using the product. Maybe it's a couple million and we love our business.

Rand Fishkin: We do really well. People recommend us to other folks, we've got this kind of great flywheel marketing engine. In a lot of ways, the product is so straightforward and simple, it's a wire framing tool. And it helps other businesses build their companies. I just love everything about the way that they have designed their business. And I really like him too. It's folks like that I talk to. This is a random one, but speaking of our Canadian games thing. I talked to Ted Gill, who's the CEO at Unknown Worlds. They make a game called Subnautica, which has sold extraordinarily well and been just incredibly well received. And he was telling me about how he became the CEO, because he was running this other company and sort of classic tech startup world.

Rand Fishkin: And they moved into an office space few years ago and he knocked on the door of some game developers next to him. Was like, hey guys, I'm Ted. I just wanted to introduce myself. And eventually they built a friendship and they hired him. And now that company's just wildly successful. Small team, 25 people. Built an incredible product that's loved by millions. It's those kinds of stories. It's those kind of people. So, I would say a little less the publications, I mean one of the ones that I love reading, because it has a lot of these stories, is Indie Hackers from Courtland Allen. Those kinds of things, more so than like, oh I read, I don't know, Search Engine Land or something. Not really anymore.

Charlie Grinnell: So, yeah, what, if you're thinking about the people who are listening to this episode, they're primarily marketing strategists, what would be kind of a piece of advice that you would give them that they should kind of be keeping top of mind over the next six to 12 months or something that might just be a piece of career advice?

Rand Fishkin: Oh man.

Charlie Grinnell: Hard questions here. Hard hitting.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. I think one of the best pieces of career advice I could give someone in marketing is to specialize. I think there's a lot of pressure to oh, well you don't know about email marketing or you don't really understand digital advertising space or you don't get SEO or you're not deep into content, but I actually think you're going to have more success as an individual contributor, generally speaking, if you focus and go deep. And you can do really exciting things with that. You can become an independent consultant.

Rand Fishkin: You can be a high level player at an individual company that desperately needs your services. And that focus is very hard to compete with as a generalist. It's really hard to say, oh, I'm a marketing generalist, but I'm just as good at whatever, programmatic ads as this specialist over here. Generally, no. And if you're a programmatic ad specialist who works with Shopify businesses in e-commerce, Ooh, that's, you know what, that's still a huge sector, billions of dollars being spent there and that level of specialization also incredibly useful. You can build up a great reputation among a small number of people in that field and have a phenomenal career. So, I would urge folks to specialize. I think my specialization for my first 17 years of my career in SEO really helped.

Charlie Grinnell: It's funny you bring that up. I think I was just thinking about times where, when I was sitting on the brand side of things and I was building teams, I was trying to hire and build out a social team. So, the title social media manager is so broad, but I'm like, okay, your background is in social. Are you a content person, a paid person, an analytics person, a community management person? What is that? And so you're not going to be good at everything. So, I kind of always ask people sitting down, I'm like, what's your deep specialty? I know that you know enough to be dangerous probably in all aspects. But what is the thing that you are known as an absolute gangster for.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, man, I like that.

Charlie Grinnell: Okay. Last question for you. I've learned a ton from you. Where's the best place for people to get ahold of you and if they have any questions to ask you?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I am most active on Twitter, as I mentioned, where I'm @RandFish. A also blog, although it's going to slow summer for me on the blogging front at sparktoro.com/blog. And of course if anybody wants to, we have a forever free account, you can just sign up for and play around with and do a bunch of searches every month at sparktoro.com.

Charlie Grinnell: Cool. Well, Rand, thank you so much for taking the time. You're someone who I wanted to chat with for a long time. And I really appreciate it. I learned a lot and I'm sure everybody else did as well.

Rand Fishkin: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Charlie.

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