How is Rand Fishkin using influence and relationships to grow SparkToro?

Strategies that win the long game are the ones that don't scale. See how Rand Fishkin is using influence and relationships to grow SparkToro.

How is Rand Fishkin using influence and relationships to grow SparkToro?

In this part of different SaaS Growth case studies, we will see the two best-performing growth channels for SparkToro.

The content of this case study is taken from the podcast episode I recorded with Rand Fishkin a few weeks ago.

Rand Fishkin is the co-founder of SparkToro, previously founder of Moz, and author of the book Lost and Founder.

Let's dive deep.

First 100 customers

SparkToro's first 100 customers were not paid customers. The company did some beta tests and started with invitations to folks running marketing agencies and people working in either digital marketing or market research.

This led to a cohort of 200 beta testers in July 2019. Two more cohorts of beta testers followed this before the software officially launched in May 2020.

Most beta testers joined after hearing about SparkToro through:

  • 👥 Rand's Twitter account, LinkedIn, and Facebook presence
  • 😻  Rand’s talk at events and conferences
  • ✍️ SparkToro informative blogs
  • ❤️ SparkToro’s free tools

What kind of content did Rand produce at the initial stages of SparkToro?

SparkToro's content looked a lot like what they're making today.

Rand would go on people's podcasts and talk about the problems of finding sources of influence and audience research challenges.

Essentially, they created a lot of content around the problems they're trying to solve with SparkToro.

Blog posts, podcasts, conferences - name it. Rand was everywhere.

On the other hand, Rand's influence (we'll talk more about it later) and background with Moz played another huge role in getting the first beta users.

Learning #1 - Identify the burning problems of your potential customers and create a bunch of content around them.

Make people aware of their problems and your solution with different forms of content.

Distribute that content on different channels where your audience hangs out.

First 50 paid customers

Around 50 out of the 600 cohort members opted for the paid version of SparkToro.

Learning #2 - Make the product for your users. Not for yourself.

Assumptions are the #1 company killer in the early stage. Don't build your product around assumptions.

Instead, actively seek feedback from your ideal customers. At the end of the beta process, since you built a product by their needs, they will probably opt-in for your paid plans

How does SparkToro retain its users?

By the nature of its' product, SparkToro has a large churn rate.

If you're about to use SparkToro, you're going to do that only when doing audience research.

And as you know, you're not doing that every week, right?

So many companies, especially in-house marketers need only once in 6-12 months.

So, how does SparkToro retain its users? How do they fight churn?

The short answer: They don't.

They don't worry too much about keeping users around.

In fact, SparkToro also "subtly" encourages people to opt-out by constantly reminding them about the billing date three days prior.

This way, they can cancel their subscription if they want to (or in case they forgot about it).

The cancellation process is straightforward, keeping the users' convenience in mind.

When I asked Rand why are they doing this, his answer was:

We're focusing on successful experience rather than retention - so users keep coming back to SparkToro whenever they need to do audience research.
- Rand Fishkin
Learning #3 - As Patrick Campbell, CEO of ProfitWell once mentioned on his LinkedIn profile - 40% of the customers that churn are not churning because of you or your product.

You have nothing to do with that.

Life happens. Because of that, don't try to keep them with you at any cost - because that way you'll only ruin your relationship with them.

Instead, play the fair game. Be their friend. When the time comes - they'll come back to you again.

What are the two main channels of growth for SparkToro right now?

The two main channels of growth for SparkToro are PR and influence marketing.

The team does a lot of webinars, events, and podcasts.

As ListenNotes tells us, Rand Fishkin recorded over 1.100+ podcast episodes in his career:

Add conferences, virtual summits, and events to that, and we probably have over 2000+ public appearances over the last 19 years.

That's around one event every 3 days.

Learning #4 - Step outside the building. Hang out with your audience on the places they visit.

Speak on podcasts. Speak on events. Write on industry blogs. Share your expertise and build your influence. 

The company also tries to be where people are already paying attention by getting featured on relevant websites.

Rand also reaches out to networks of marketing agencies to build deeper relationships with prospects.

The company also follows a product and email-driven growth method.

All free users of SparkToro are sent out customized monthly emails depending on their industry, including new content that serves agencies, consultants, and PR consultants.

Learning #5 - Companies that win the long game are the ones that educate their audience the most.

Ask yourself, how can you make your customers more successful each day?

How did Rand become a thought leader in his field?

Rand started by publishing his content through blogs for Moz.

He also gave a lot of presentations and talks at conferences/events both in person and over webinars.

These days Rand focuses on Twitter and LinkedIn as the cornerstone pillars for his brand.

He doesn't create many Youtube videos, but he has seen that channel work well for many B2B folks.

The case is similar for Instagram and Tiktok, but he believes nobody needs to publish content on all channels.

Staying consistent on 2-3 growth channels will do the trick.

According to him, finding people with platforms or publications and contributing to those can also go a long way to building one's influence.

Learning #6 - Don't ruin yourself by trying to be active on all channels at once.

Focus on providing value on one channel at once. Once you nail it, try to systemize it as much as possible - so your teammates might take it from there and continue getting great results.

Then move to the next channel.
Learning #7 - Find the channels and publications your dream customers are following the most.

Who are the most influential persons in your field?
What are the most influential blogs/magazines/platforms in your niche?

Follow your dream audience there, learn about their problems and desires and create content for them.

Once you build some credibility, reach out to relevant thought leaders in your industry and do a content collaboration with them.

In this way, you'll get a lot of eyeballs on your name and brand.

It's unscalable, but worth gold in the long-term game.

How does Rand come up with topics to write about?

When Rand started writing about SEO in 2003, he didn't know much about the space.

So his early blogs are random writing of him encountering a problem with Google and discussing that with his audience.

He researched those problems, discussed them with people in his field, and shared his findings with his audience.

He takes a similar approach for SparkToro's content too.

He spends an incredible amount of effort serving, interviewing, talking to people, and doing audience research.

He dives deep to learn their golden nuggets, how they accomplished certain things, and what are they attempting to learn,

He doesn't consider himself an expert.

Rather, he continuously learns from his customers and peers and shares the knowledge with the world.

When you break it down, he's actually a "journalist".

Learning #8 - At the end of the day, everything you do, you're doing it for your customers.

You build a product for them. You create content for them. They're in the epicenter of everything you do.

So listen to them all the time. Take their feedback. Ask them questions.

Curate your content based on their needs and desires.

Rand also feels episodic content is a vast underinvested opportunity, and marketers haven't figured out how to apply that formula to practice yet.

He feels search volume is a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator.

It takes six months to a year after a substantial search volume around something for tools like Google Trends to report it.

The real opportunity lies in trending topics in social media, news, and the minds of a community or a niche.

Learning #9 - Another perk of actively speaking with your customers and contributing to the communities, is that you have a chance to ride the waves of new trends.

Sometimes, the best content we create is not optimized for SEO - but rather for people and their needs.

How does Rand approach building relationships with people of influence?

Rand interacts with influencers and their work on whatever channels they participate in.

So if they're heavy on Twitter, he participates in those conversations, follows them, tweets at them, amplifies their stuff, and finds which parts resonate with him and shares them.

Having a controversial opinion about their work and sharing that opinion also works.

The same approach works for LinkedIn, Facebook, Subreddits, and other channels.

Rand urges everyone to invest in one's online presence and network as it might go a long way in grabbing people's attention.

Learning #10 - Start producing things of value, help other people when they have questions, participate in communities and start building out your network before pitching to influencers and thought leaders.
Note #1 - When I want to invite industry leaders or busy CEOs on my podcast, I first religiously follow them on social and engage with their content for 2-3 weeks before pitching my show.

In this way, when I send a message to them, they're already aware of me and more likely to answer or say yes.

Remember, things that don't scale are the things worth doing.

Once you nail certain processes, you'll easily systemize or outsource them.

How does Rand go about engaging with users?

Are the emails sent through an automated drip campaign, or does he personally write each one of them?

All automated emails come from Rand itself. It is not something that scales particularly well. But it does work.

So if users hit reply, they land up in Rand's inbox. Rand has used this approach to build deeper relationships with thousands of users.

Social media is another way of community building, specifically Twitter and LinkedIn because that's where most marketers are.

There's also a lot of community activity around SparkToro that Rand is not part of; it happens in Facebook groups, private communities, and subreddits that the team is not even involved in, as the community members help each other.

There is also a "New office hours" event organized by Amanda Natividad (SparkToro's CMO) where people share their work in the chats and help each other.

Learning #11 - Try building relationships with your customers whenever and however you can.

Remember, people buy from people they trust. That's why building influence and relationships is important.

How did Rand's experience from Moz help him build and run SparkToro?

Rand and Casey both worked at Moz. Apart from meeting his founder at Moz, he also learned a tremendous amount about the technical side of running an online business, customer service execution, and product building.

He learned how to make things more intuitive and the structural incentives of the company itself.

His lessons from Moz motivated him to think about long-term customer value rather than short-term profits. He essentially wants SparkToro to grow slowly and sustainably and exist for many decades.

SparkToro pays out dividends based on its profits back to its investors. So its investors are also incentivized to see it succeed over a long period and be a relatively conservative company in terms of spending to get fast growth versus being profitable, sustainable, and survivable.

Note #2 - This is the similar approach we could see in Converts' case study as well.

You don't need fast growth to build a sustainable company that earns a lot.

By offering genuine value to your customers and caring about them, you're more than halfway there.

Fast growth is not always the best growth. 

The Bottom Line

You don't need to build a business that grows 100-200% YoY. Sometimes slow, sustainable growth over a long period is better than fast growth.

Rand is building a great product and company by focussing on community building and long-term customer satisfaction.

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