Episode 95 – Coffee N5 – How to Reach Your Audience with Rand Fishkin

On this episode of Coffee N° 5, Lara sits down with analytics expert Rand Fishkin. Rand is the CEO of SparkToro and a leader in the world of search engine optimization. He and Lara enjoy a conversation in which they discuss the importance of knowing your audience on a deeper level, how to use competitor research to your company’s advantage, and why raising venture capital was surprisingly not a good idea for his business.

What you’ll learn:

  • Rand explains that when it comes to SEO, keywords are just the beginning. SEO is about truly knowing your audience, understanding their behavior, and recognizing their diversity.
  • Rand explains why Google is not the only source of information that users will search. He tells Lara that marketers might be limiting themselves if they think SEO is just about ranking on Google.
  • Rand tells Lara the one marketing tool that was extremely powerful 25 years ago and is still powerful and valuable to entrepreneurs today.

Rand Fishkin is cofounder and CEO of audience research software startup SparkToro. He’s dedicated his professional life to helping people do better marketing through his writing, videos, speaking, and his book Lost and Founder. When Rand’s not working, he’s usually cooking a fancy meal for the love of his life author Geraldine DeRuiter. If you bribe him with great pasta or fancy cocktails, he’ll happily pull back the curtain on big tech’s dark secrets.

For more information, don’t forget to follow Rand on Instagram and LinkedIn. You can also visit Rand’s business SparkToro.

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Lara Schmoisman  0:04  

Hi, everyone, welcome back to coffee number five today. I was thinking actually, I hate math. I hate math, and I hate math. I’m not a math person, I was a torture for me to have to go through school. And I always wonder why I need to do math is terrible and why so many years, I never gonna do this in my life. I’m a creative person. And that actually not having math made the decision of what career I will do in my life. I, I’m from Argentina, as everyone knows. And in Argentina, there are some careers that actually do not have math, not even one class. So that’s why I decided to go into production and direction, and screenwriting and all that that you guys know I did. But I think I created that hate relationship with math. And anything that it was like, even a little bit related to math, it was panic attack, I will start eating was an allergic reaction even. But over the years, when I started in this digital world, I realized that there was a huge part of it that it was analytic. So there was about, it sounded really matterI and dead. But it was not. I found out that after it had to do a deep dive on. He was about more logic and being able to put together finally my creative side with another analytic part. And both together, they can do wonders. So today, I invited someone that I truly admire. And I think that he not only had an amazing career gonna let himself Tell, tell us about his background. But also, he is helping companies out there to understand their audience through analytics. So welcome, Rand Fishkin. I hope I said it. Well. Welcome to Coffee number five.


Rand Fishkin  1:59  

Oh, thank you so much for having me, Lara. Good to be here.


Lara Schmoisman  2:01  

And So Rand, before we we go and dive into the analytics world and statistics and all the things that we need to know. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get here and how did you get to be the founder of and, you say it, it so I can say it right. So Spark, Toro? Toro? Yeah. Toro, Tara like in Spanish Toto? Yeah, how? Well you’re gonna tell us how you came up with that name. But so tell us a little bit your story. And how did you get to spark Toro?


Rand Fishkin  2:38  

Yeah, so I, Laura, like yourself, I was I was never great at math.


Lara Schmoisman  2:45  

say great. Like, yeah,


Rand Fishkin  2:48  

much, much more of a, I don’t know, creative person. So when I when I dropped out of college, I did not finish school, and became a web designer, because I love the artistry and the visual design side and making pretty things for the internet. I did a lot of flash animation back in early.


Lara Schmoisman  3:07  

Oh, yeah. Those were fancy.


Rand Fishkin  3:09  

Yeah. So I love that stuff. But over time that that business did not go well. And we, my mom and I were actually running it together. So I was working with my mother Gillian. The web design business didn’t go so well. And so we got into SEO, which is, which is search engine optimization, you know, trying to rank things in Google.


Lara Schmoisman  3:31  

And that’s one of my geeky part of me now thrives on SEO.


Rand Fishkin  3:35  

Yeah. Lovely. So you know, I, in the early 2000s, there were not very many resources for SEO out there. And so I started this company called Moz, originally SEO Moz. And it was it was like a blog and a website, had a popular video series, all that kind of stuff to try and teach people SEO, because I was very frustrated with Google in particular, but but all the search engines that they were so obscure with how they described how they worked, right, I thought that


Lara Schmoisman  4:06  

was always one of my favorite places to go for data, because I really think that you were telling us it was an easy to get at. I mean, I was from the same boat. My first website was 1999. 


Rand Fishkin  4:22  

So there you go. Yeah, almost exactly the same. Yeah. So we, you know, we tried to make initially, we tried to make money as a consulting business, right, helping people with services, and then got into software, made some tools which, you know, lots of folks in the SEO world are familiar with and have used and Moz grew very, very fast. We raised venture capital, you know, was was sort of a traditional, like, tech company in that way. Got to around, you know, 40 $50 million in revenue and 10s of 1000s of customers and hundreds of employees and I was very unhappy, as the CEO, I just it didn’t, didn’t work for me as as a wonderful place to sort of be fulfilled and happy. And I had a serious bout with depression in 2014 and stepped down as CEO. And then I left the company about four years later. And started spark Toro the next day.


Lara Schmoisman  5:23  

What shows that sometimes being the CEO or being on top or doing something that is very popular, and it works? Well, it doesn’t match with your level of happiness?


Rand Fishkin  5:34  

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, I definitely was struggling and Moz was struggling to, you know, those those last four years have stepped down growth. Didn’t didn’t stop, but it was much slower. And of course, when you’re venture backed, you’ve got to show very high very fast growth, but


Lara Schmoisman  5:48  

also you got a lot more competition.


Rand Fishkin  5:51  

That’s true, too. Yes. I mean, certainly. So you know, in those in those probably the last like, five years that I was at Moz, competition started ramping up very quickly, you know, players like SEMrush and Ahrefs, and other other tool suites became very popular. And, and Moz, which, you know, probably was the market leader in maybe 2011 12. Their team by 2020. I don’t think, you know, it was barely in the top five. So, you know, very frustrating times for obviously, a lot of folks at the company and myself too. And thankfully, you know, I was able to find happiness with with a new with a new job. And so spark Toro is a tiny little company, we help folks, as you mentioned, do audience research. So understand groups of people online and their behaviors and demographics. And there’s only three of us. It’s just myself, my co founder, and Amanda Natividad, who’s down in down in California in the LA area. And we like me. Yeah, exactly. And we have a really great time running this company, you know, it is it’s serving, you know, a few, maybe about I think 13 1400 customers at this point. And we have a, you know, a really lovely balance of work and personal lives. And we get to help a ton of people every day, understand the things that their audiences do, so they can do better marketing for them. And we get to use both our creative and our math skills, which is a great thing.


Lara Schmoisman  7:29  

I’ll call it mark, and don’t call it anyway. Since we’re both back, let’s go back to the 90s a little bit for us. Because we were neither you or me, we worked on this. I ended up even teaching this in college, I was teaching digital marketing, because there wasn’t anyone better than me. But nobody took either location, we had to learn as we go and find out what Google was telling us or MSN or Yahoo that back then they were very strong. And let’s not forget about NAT Netscape and a few others that were telling us about this new world of SEO, and to understand our audience. Even at some point, we were measuring some metrics that there weren’t really the good metrics to measure. And we had to switch things as we were, we were all learning, even Google was learning. Yeah. But we find out that our this is something that I’m trying always to come across with my clients. And it’s something that it’s hard to understand sometimes that people are not looking for the keywords that you think that you’re working for. People look for problems, and they want solutions.


Rand Fishkin  8:47  

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s exactly what a search is, right? That that people are saying, Hey, I have this problem. I have it right now. And I want a solution of that problem. And yeah, I mean, this was this was the goldmine of, of SEO back in the late 90s. And early 2000s. You know, there was just so few people who believed in it as a practice so few people who were investing in it, that, you know, if you put in a little bit of effort and some knowledge, and you ranked number one for some keyword, you can transform your business, it was magical, right. And I think it made a lot of made a lot of people into very successful businesses and entrepreneurs, just by getting that one channel, right.


Lara Schmoisman  9:29  

Absolutely. My question is because you are you created a company all based on understanding your audience, and I want you to explain to our audience, what are the benefits of understanding and getting this data because a lot of people’s I don’t need to understand in such a deep level, I just want to know if they want to buy my product or not. Or just tell me keywords and it doesn’t work like that.


Rand Fishkin  9:55  

Yeah, this is such a it’s such a funny irony really that that for all the years that I was, you know, building Moz, and trying to get people to invest in SEO, it was like pulling teeth, you know, trying to get marketers and companies to even believe in SEO as a practice. And now now.


Lara Schmoisman  10:14  

And now it’s like a common keyword. Anyone wants to say, just put keywords?


Rand Fishkin  10:20  

And yeah, nowadays, right? Everybody does SEO, right? Every company has an SEO division. Every marketing team has an SEO person, every consultant, an agency does it. And so now, what’s interesting is that a big part of my challenge is to say, SEO isn’t everything, right there is there is a broad set of behaviors that people have around any given topic. And very, very often, it is not the case that ranking for a keyword in Google is the best way to grow your business, the best way to reach your audience. So you know, the the way that I think about audience research is essentially, the absolute best marketing that you can possibly do in the whole world is tell the right people who need your product and have your problem about your solution, and why it’s right for them in places that they trust, had exactly the time that they need it.


Lara Schmoisman  11:15  

Exactly. That’s it. Right. That’s simple. If that seems


Rand Fishkin  11:19  

that’s the whole marketing equation, executing on that very difficult, right?


Lara Schmoisman  11:25  

Like I always tried to say marketing is about two things authority and relevance show that you’re the best at what you do. people to find you. That’s it.


Rand Fishkin  11:34  

Yeah. And I think that, that, you know, the job of audience research is to say, is to answer hard questions about those those particular tactics, which, which is, who is the right audience for this and who’s not? And which one should we go after? What are the sources that they pay attention to?


Lara Schmoisman  11:54  

What are they out?


Rand Fishkin  11:56  

Yeah. Do they listen to podcasts that sort of tell them about the topic? Do they watch YouTube videos, maybe they’re subscribed to YouTube channels? Maybe they follow people or publications on social media? Maybe they subscribe to email newsletters, or they go to conferences and events, or they read trade publications, maybe they follow certain blogs and websites? You don’t know until you do research, right? You can make assumptions like well, I read this. So probably everybody in the field reads this. That’s not a good assumption to make. Right? Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So what you want to do is you want to understand your audience’s real behaviors. And you want to understand the variety and diversity of that audience. So, you know, you could say, oh, my most of my audience are, whatever, 50 to 75 year old women. And then and then when you do your audience research, like, there’s a lot of younger men and women and non binary folks. And, gosh, the age ranges are kind of all over the place. And the geography is much more diverse than I expected. Maybe, maybe, maybe I didn’t quite understand the audience the way I should have. And, and I think that happens to marketers, and product creators and entrepreneurs all the time. They think they know their audience, I’ve done it. I think I know who I’m supposed to reach out when I actually have some, do some interviews, and run a survey, and go dig into the audience research data, you know, in Sparta or other tools like that, I suddenly get this much broader picture about who these people are and what they do.


Lara Schmoisman  13:25  

Yeah, we always talk about that persona, that is really important to know, I always say, who you think of when we work on estimates or things that we believe is true. But nowadays, we have all this data. That’s all time marketing.


Rand Fishkin  13:40  

Yeah, yeah. So my, you know,


Lara Schmoisman  13:42  

yeah, when I say you guys, always we talk about resources. For me, resources is a big word. And resources means your time, your money, your team, and your knowledge. And those are resources that you need to know in bass to do whatever you do in your life. And if you have in a business, I mean, your money, you have a budget, you need to decide where you are located, if he’s have a smaller budget even more. So you need to decide where you can afford a handout and where your money will make the difference.


Rand Fishkin  14:14  

Absolutely true. Right. And, you know, which, which tactics Can I get an invest in? If if I think that, you know, my audience is mostly just searching on Google, I’m probably going to spend a lot of money on paid search and SEO. Absolutely. But if I find out later, oh, man, actually a ton of my audience pays attention to these these sources of influence in their field. And then they go directly to the people in publications and places that are recommended. And they never really search Google for, you know, the the non branded keywords.


Rand Fishkin  15:15  

Yeah. And, and we have a very successful business, right. And the reason is because my belief was very few people are going out and searching for audience research software or I want to understand my customers better or those kinds of things. What I believed fundamentally and I think the market is showing you that is that people in the in our universe, don’t go to Google to understand and solve the problem that we help them with. And because of that, SEO, we could do a lot of investment, we could rank number one for you know, audience research software, or whatever it is, we could we could buy those top spots with PPC. And you know, this many people per month search for that. But tons of people go to LinkedIn and Twitter, they listen to podcasts like yours, they follow YouTube channels in the marketing space. They go to webinars and events and conferences, and they look to learn more about what they can do in digital marketing to better know their audiences. And that’s where we’re present. 


Lara Schmoisman  16:18  

Well, very different. You’re a very different product that most that my clients will come to me because you’re an expert in the field. Like, for example, I don’t do I do very either little SEO for my agency to AI for many things, you need to decide what you do. But I think always buddy cannot just throw a page away and not set it up. Right for SEO? I’m sure your page is you have a nice metatags they are.


Rand Fishkin  16:46  

I don’t think we have any meta tags. But but but you know, we basically we don’t target any keywords, we don’t, you know, set anything up for SEO because we believe that SEO is a low quality channel for our business. What? For many businesses, it is a high quality channel and they should invest in it. And they should do I don’t think meta tags have been relevant for a long time, but but they should absolutely, you know, good good titles, good meta descriptions, you know, whatever. I haven’t been in


Lara Schmoisman  17:19  

descriptions before meta tags. Oh, no.


Rand Fishkin  17:23  

But you know, like, like, technically, meta description is a type of meta tag, right? So there you go. Yeah. But I, you know, I haven’t been an SEO for four years. So I, I really don’t know what the modern day, you know, SEO is like, if that field moves so fast, you know, six months, everything can change. So yeah, for us. You know, it is really about telling people, Hey, if you are looking to branch outside of paid search, or SEO, or display advertising, those kinds of things, you can directly find the websites that your audience visits, you can find the social accounts they follow, you can find the podcasts that they listen to, you can find the YouTube channels they subscribe to. And then you can be present in those places. And that is a phenomenal way to build up your brand. And to get folks going to Google and searching for your brand. I would much rather you know if you gave me the option, you know, number one, you rank number one for the 50 most important search terms to your business. Number two, you get everyone who is thinking about searching for those things to look for your brand name instead. I would much rather have that one. I would much rather have people know my brand and prefer it. Then search for all the other search terms. You know, you look at, for example, home rentals, right so people you know people look for vacation rentals, home vacation rentals, I want to rent a house and I’m going to trip you know I’m going to Mexico and I want to I want to rent a house. There’s this many searches for that compared to Airbnb Wahaca. Airbnb owns that market. No, people don’t go and type vacation rentals anymore. They search for Airbnb. And that is that is I think the kind of brand marketing that is absolutely incredible and invaluable.


Lara Schmoisman  19:23  

Okay, so people go to your site, people go and is interested. How do you retain that customer? How do you keep those that possible customer entertained in your business and interested in your business?


Rand Fishkin  19:36  

Oh, well for us specifically. Yes. Yeah. So spark Toro is is a free tool, right? So folks can use it for free and try it out. There’s no free trial or anything. It’s just free forever. And then lots of people who who try out the tool, you know, so they basically they might say for example, okay, I’m going to I’m going to search for my audience first and maybe some of my competitors audiences so I’m going to plug in my website or my social handle. And then I want to see my competitors social handle on their website, I want to see the audience that pays attention to me and the audience that pays attention to them. And I want to try and understand, you know, where am I potentially missing out on whatever opportunities for reaching my, my audience that my competitors take advantage of? And lots of data about the people who are in there. So job titles and roles and gender and age and skills and interests and geography and all these other demographic traits, what hashtags are they using when they post to social? What are they following? What what do they talk about, right? What topics are they talking about? And as people use the tool and find value in it, they tend to just sign up, right? So it’s, it’s, we’re very low costs were like 50 bucks, start at 50 bucks a month, lots of people sign up for a month or two, and then they do their, you know, audience research, and they’re done. And they leave, and then they come back six months later, a year later, when they need to, for a lot of agencies, you know, they subscribe for a year or two years or three years, and then they use it for all their clients. And, yeah, that’s, that’s kind


Lara Schmoisman  21:14  

of, do you use any email marketing?


Rand Fishkin  21:17  

To? Oh, absolutely. Yes.


Lara Schmoisman  21:19  

What do you what do you say email marketing for something that I’m super into? And I always say, I think it’s one of our best conversion tools. These days.


Rand Fishkin  21:29  

I completely agree. I mean, I think email is so powerful. It’s one of the it’s the only channel that I know that in the past 25 years, started incredibly powerfully and has stayed super powerful the whole time. Right? It has not waned at all. And for us, yeah, so we use a variety of emails, we have an email newsletter that goes out to I think around about 70,000 people every month. And you know, it’s, it’s called the audience research newsletter, Amanda puts it together, it’s got, you know, sort of a few tips about how to do audience research and a few links that we find that we think folks are interested in. And then we have a, an email onboarding sequence. So you’ve probably, you know, if you’ve used a tool, like Moz, or Ahrefs, or anything like that, right, you get emails from them, and they kind of tell you, Hey, have you tried this feature? Have you tried this function when you searched for this? You know, you can use it this way in your marketing, and spark Toro has the same thing there. We have a blog that is relatively well read. We had, we had a very popular post last week about you know, Twitter’s percentage of real and fake accounts that that got a lot of traffic. Yeah, yeah. And we, we do content series of webinars series that folks subscribe to via email as well. All of those, you know, all of those kind of feed into people better understanding the space, better understanding our tool, and hopefully getting a lot of value out of it. I think that’s why our retention rates on email are quite high, right? We don’t get a lot of unsubscribes.


Lara Schmoisman  23:13  

That’s, that’s fantastic. I always say that as long as you don’t get unsubscribe, even if the people they don’t purchase your your product is you never know when they’re gonna need it. Or they can send it to a friend or you never know. But they as long as they stay subscribed, even if they don’t leave, even if they don’t pay it every week. The fact that they don’t unsubscribe is a win.


Rand Fishkin  23:36  

Yes. So I mean, I think it just tells you like, Hey, I maybe I’m not engaging right now. But I’m still interested in this. I want to keep getting it. Tell me what’s going on. And you have an opportunity to engage with them in the future.


Lara Schmoisman  23:50  

Absolutely. Well, before we go around, I want to ask you the same question that I asked absolutely everyone is what was a huge mistake that you made that you were Oh my God, why did I do and but you end up learning so much from it, that instead of making a mistake became that learning experience that gave you so much more value that it was completely okay to have it?


Rand Fishkin  24:16  

Boy, Laura, I to be honest, I’ve made a lot of really big mistakes, but I I’m trying to think of one where I was okay with it after. I mean, you’re right. I always learn a tremendous amount. I think, for example, I think it was a mistake to raise venture capital, especially, you know, after the first round from us, we raised another $18 million in 2012. And then a couple years later, another 10 Both of those rounds, I think were mistakes. I learned a tremendous amount from it, but was it worth it? I don’t know is so much pain and heartache. And so many people I think who You know, would have had a better experience. I just don’t know if I can justify it. It’s you know, it’s great that I learned a lot. But But what about all the employees who whose stock options were underwater? What about all the customers that we didn’t serve? Well, because we took our eye off the ball, what about I don’t know, the community who lost out that so that was hard for me. I also regret I deeply regret stepping down as CEO, I think that I should have played that another way. You know, I had some some serious, you know, depression and mental illness problems at the time. And I wish, I wish that I had taken a step back and given myself permission to be both more vulnerable and more relaxed in my job, just just taken a few months and been chill and let other people take my some of my responsibilities, but remained in the CEO role. Because once I stepped down, I no longer had the, I felt the responsibility to make that company great, but I no longer had the power to do it. And that’s a terrible feeling. You know, it’s awful to feel like you are responsible for something that you can’t own and control you, you don’t get to control the outcome. But you know, everyone’s gonna blame you for it, and you blame yourself for it.


Lara Schmoisman  26:27  

People are always going to blame someone. And always is the one who lives or steps down. It’s not it’s a case. But also, it’s great that you’ve had that experience. And you were able to process all that. And now we’re doing wonderful things with Sparta on giving amazing value because of those experiences.


Rand Fishkin  26:47  

Well, thank you. Yeah, I think, you know, the regrets that I have are really, really around disappointing myself, right. I feel like, you’re right. Other people are always gonna, you know, cast blame, and you can’t control that. But I know that I blame myself and that you can’t get away from your own head. There’s nowhere to escape.


Lara Schmoisman  27:12  

The only thing you can say is accepted and keep going. And though the better. That’s


Rand Fishkin  27:18  

Yes, exactly. I think that’s, you know, that’s the big reason that I started spark Toro was that I wanted to do this, again, I wanted to prove not just to other people, but to myself, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it that I you know, I wasn’t a one and done sort of that was a fluke. And you know, you can’t do it again, I wanted to prove that. I had the ability and fingers crossed in the next few years, you know, Spark Toro turns into something really special. I think it’s already at the start of something quite special.


Lara Schmoisman  27:49  

Yeah. And I’m gonna be there. I am honored to be here to see and follow you and see how this is going to become amazing. And also mean, it’s a decision. I mean, there’s so many people doing things just for the money. It’s amazing to see people out there and I try every day. And just to do something for others, educate others help others. I think that you’re doing wonderful things, educating people about how to connect with their audiences. It’s one of the basics and the fundamentals of running a business.


Rand Fishkin  28:21  

Thank you. Yeah, I certainly, I don’t think that I do nearly enough for other folks. And certainly, you know, financially speaking, we’re doing quite well. So I it’s a good reminder to keep doing more and that there is there is no enough, right. I think that when you’re someone who is kind of benefited in outsize ways from American capitalism. Yeah, you have an obligation to give back. Absolutely. Weiss.


Lara Schmoisman  28:49  

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for being having coffee with us today. And to you guys. I will see y’all next week with more coffee number five


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