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Will your next startup be a success? The truth is, you can never be 100% certain until you test your idea — but you can save yourself 12 months of time by talking to your customers first.

In this episode, Rob Fitzpatrick joins us on the podcast to share how you can validate your business idea by getting better feedback.

Listen to this Episode:

We discussed:

  • Why you shouldn’t sell to customers you don’t understand
  • The brilliant payoff of going out into the real world to talk to people
  • How to ask intriguing questions that get your customers to open up
  • Why your personal network is far more valuable than you realize
  • The surprising reason your breakthrough idea isn’t about profitability
  • Exactly what type of customers you should go after to build quickly
  • How to identify your core skills and monetize your top strengths
  • Why beginning conversations with your pitch is a major mistake


Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! And welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders and tech people who are out to seek shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.

In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to learn more and send more from your customer conversations. But you’ll probably also learn how to start a business from my expert on the show today. And you see, I’ll give you a bit more details in the next few minutes.

So, my guest today has been running both bootstrap and VC backed companies for the last 10+ years. He’s a YCombinator alumni. He’s raised funding in the US and the UK. He’s been, products used globally by brands like Sony and MTV.

So, he’s quite a veteran when it comes to entrepreneurship and marketing in general. Interestingly enough, he was a programmer who was forced to actually talk to customers. And when he knew he was supposed to talk to them, none of the books or none of the resources he stumbled upon were helpful.

So, that’s why he wrote the book, The Mom Test. Which is really about how to get more learnings and more sales out of your customer conversations. Rob Fitzpatrick, welcome aboard.

Rob: Thank you very much for having me.

Louis: I know you’ve been talking about your book The Mom Test, maybe 100, thousands of time on podcasts. I want you to spin things a bit differently together. I mentioned in the intro you have a lot of experience when it comes to starting businesses.

And it’s interesting because a few times on the podcast, I like to ask a very specific question to my quest when I know they have what it takes to start companies. ‘Cause they’ve done it in the past multiple times. So, I’ve asked the question that I’m gonna ask you to guests including Seth Godin or Rob Walling — I’m sure you know both.

I want to ask you this question as well. Which is kind of a challenge and it might be a bit tricky to answer, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to do that.

Imagine for a second that you are an anonymous person. Nobody knows about Rob Fitzpatrick, you haven’t written a book, you don’t have a network per se. You just have yourself and your knowledge that you have right now.

And imagine I give you the challenge to create a successful company in six months or less with just $1,000 roughly in the bank. And trying to generate maybe 10x that or 10,000 plus in the next six months, right?

Based on the experience and expertise you have right now, how would you do it? And step by step, starting with step one.

Rob: I think the most overlooked thing is to choose customers that you already understand and who you have access to. By access to, I mean you can pick up the phone and start calling them. And they will at least answer the phone call and answer some of your questions.

It takes so much time to break into a customer group that you don’t understand. ‘Cause you’re like, “Okay, well I’m starting from zero. How do I even get them to take a meeting with me? How do I even have this conversation?”

There’s so much. My first company, we were trying to break into the advertising industry. And it took us two years just to understand enough to get taken seriously. Whereas, if it’s a group that you already have some sort of credibility, understanding, and expertise with, at least you speak their language.

And that makes it really quick. Even if you don’t actually know the individual people. So, step one would be choosing a customer group that I already understand. Then step two would be, looking for either potential partners or co-founders who already have some of the assets that I would need to build a business.

For example, if it was for my customers. Maybe I need a retail space. It’s a pain in the ass to go out, get your own retail space, set it up and renovate it. But, if you can find someone who’s already got it and who isn’t using it fully, then you can figure out some sort of partnership.

And save yourself 12 months and 25 grand or whatever. And you can do that both digitally and in the real world. People always try to build everything from scratch themselves. But, there’s usually a way, if you’re credible, if you’re thoughtful, and if you understand what the partners are scared of.

There’s usually some way to partner with people who already have what you need. And then you’re able to hit the ground running a lot faster.

Louis: So, let’s go back to step one. First of all, I enjoyed the fact that you weren’t very scared of the question I asked you. Which, it’s a good sign.

Rob: I’ve done it before. I’ve been dead broke and like, “Okay, I have one month’s worth of money. How am I gonna pay my rent next month? Where can I start that will pay my bills in 30 days?” I’ve been through that a couple times.

Louis: That’s why you’re talking from experience. Which is fantastic. Let’s go back to step one and drill down a bit more. Basically, talk to customers who could be close to you. So, let’s take an actual real example.

From your personal experience. Tell me about a time where you had to do that and what were the type of customers you had to reach out to?

Rob: Let me make a comparison so that it’s clearer. In my first company, we went through YCombinator, we raised VC funding, really good investors. Some of the guys behind Index like good top-tier global investors. We had a lot of cash in our bank account.

We were trying to break into the ad industry. We were trying to talk to movie studios and music labels and creative agencies and all this. And every meeting I wanted to get, I had to get a warm intro. And that was difficult. Just figuring out who do I wanna talk to?

How do I get the intro? Then you go through the whole calendar dance. Then you sit down with them and you start asking stupid questions. Because you don’t even know the basics. Right? So, they’re like, “Whose this idiot asking me dumb stuff?”

You’ve done all this work to talk to a VP at Sony or something. And now you’ve kind of wasted it ’cause you don’t even know the basics. Then my next company, I was like, “Okay, well I’m not gonna do that again.” That was a huge disadvantage to have to start all that from scratch.

I’d spent a lot of time in academia before I got into startups. I wanted to be a professor. So, I was going through a Ph.D. program. I didn’t finish it because I dropped out to start my business. But I kind of understood that world.

I liked hanging out with professors. I knew how they thought. I liked being around universities. I’d done some casual teaching work with a few universities. Just as a guest lecturer. I had people I could call. I was like, okay, I wanna build something for universities.

All I had to do was literally walk onto universities. You know, you can go to a physical location like at UCL, I would hang out at the professors’ bar. They have a private bar just for Ph.D. students and professors.

I would just post up at the bar. And when someone came up to order a beer I’d be like, “Hey, weird question. But, how do you guys handle blah, blah, blah?” I would just ask them. Really quickly, you’re able to talk to people instantly ’cause you kind of have access. And you know their language.

Louis: Yep, that makes sense. But you’re talking about something that is quite scary I think, for a lot of people. The fact to go right out of the building and actually talk to people, right?

How would you convince people who like to program stuff in front of the computer and just post things in forums and ask questions in forum and social media? But don’t really tend to go out into the real world and talk to people.

Rob: I’ve got so many thoughts on this. I’m a programmer, right? I would much rather be programming. But it sucks a lot to program things that nobody uses. You spend like six months, or 12 months pouring your heart and soul into a piece of software.

And then it has zero users. You don’t even wanna use it yourself. It’s just terrible, it’s heartbreaking. Once you realize that by talking to people you can build the correct software. And by talking to people, you can launch the correct marketing campaigns.

You can phrase it in the correct way. And you can target it correctly. Suddenly you’re like, “Oh wow. I had two conversations which weren’t all that bad. I just saved $100,000 worth of development time or marketing budget.” Or whatever.

Suddenly, it gets really exciting. ‘Cause it’s not like some tedious, busy work. It’s like, “Oh wow, this is really enabling me. This is a superpower.” And being able to do both, talking to customers and then also being able to program.

Or talking to customers and also being able to directly turn that into a marketing campaign. There’s so few people who have both sets of skills. If you do, you’re automatically a superhero in both entrepreneurship and in traditional careers.

So, that’s part of it. It’s like the pay off is worth it. Another part of it is that people have the wrong thing in their head when they think of talking to customers. They tend to think of when you’re walking down the street and some charity mugger stops you.

And is like, “Hey, can I ask you a few questions? It’ll only take a minute.” People hate that. They hate being stopped and interrupted. But that’s the only kind of interview they’re familiar with. So, they think it’s gonna be like that.

But that is not it. If you’re doing your customer interviews like that, you are doing them wrong. And you’re wasting the opportunity. Think about it like the way you try to talk to and understand your close friends. Like, you wouldn’t sit down with a close friend who just had a breakup.

And go, “Okay, so on a scale of one to five, how upset are you that you just got dumped? On a scale of one to five, how likely are you to have a regrettable rebound?” People don’t talk to people like that. If you talk to your customers like that, you’re an asshole.

You’re not gonna learn very much. ‘Cause you’re treating them like a test subject, not like a human. The way we talk to our friends is we go, “Wow, you just got dumped. That sucks. Tell me everything.” And you kind of want to talk to your customers the same way.

Because ultimately they have a problem, right? The reason they’re using your product is you create joy or you remove pain. You are trying to make their life better. You’re doing that because you care about their lives, you care about them.

And if you can engage with them on that level, it’s like, “Wow, you’re a professor. You don’t have big enough budgets. You’re asked to do a million things. You’re trying to help your students and you can’t ’cause all this bureaucracy. That must suck. Tell me everything.”

They’re just gonna open up to you. People love having that conversation. It’s not like you’re exploiting them or tricking them, or making them talk about something they don’t wanna talk about. It’s like a human conversation. It’s good stuff. People love doing it and if you see it that way, it’s nowhere near so scary.

Louis: People love talking about themselves, don’t they?

Rob: They do.

Louis: Step one, to summarize, is really about understanding the type of people you gravitate towards. Even if you think it’s normal. I think this is one of the key things I’ve learned. Is people take for granted the network they currently have.

And they always try to look beyond it because it’s not sexy enough. The fact that they know all of those people. They wanna go beyond as you said, talking to a VP of Sony, VP of marketing at Sony or whatnot. But your own network has so much value, you don’t realize it.

Your uncle works in this company. Or your aunt that works in this one. Your cousin that you’re close to. Your friends. If you create a spreadsheet of all those people that you know, you’ll be probably blown away by the amount of people you know.

And the amount of introduction you can get. Then as you said, the second thing is, you’re probably interested in a lot of topics. What is one topic that is really close to your heart and you feel passionate about? And you might know a lot of people there.

You might be part of a community there. A group, social events, or whatnot. Those are the people you wanna maybe focus on to create your first business or second business, right?

Rob: Yeah, it helps a lot. It like immediately saves you one to two years worth of work by just beginning with customers you already understand. It makes everything else so much easier. They have to also have money, right? And they also have to have problems.

And there’s other criteria. Like making a new kind of hacky sack for people who like to play hacky sack is not gonna be a breakthrough business probably. No matter how well you understand them.

Louis: Should it be step two then? Once you know the type of people that you gravitate towards, maybe the step two should be to understand whether they have money. Whether they suffer from the problem.

Rob: No, I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s self-evident as soon as you think about it. You don’t even need to call it a step. It’s just like when you look at your list of potential customers, you can very quickly rank them. And you can do some ranking based on —

It’s not just about the profitability. It’s like, do they have problems that cost them money? Would be probably one of my criteria. Another one would be how much do I like spending time with them? ‘Cause you’re gonna end up spending a lot of time thinking about and being with people like your customers.

If you don’t actually like them, that’s gonna suck. And then another one might how actually easy are they to access? If you’ve already got a mailing list with 1,000 of them on them, then I would consider that a pretty big headstart.

Those 1,000 people are really easy for you to access. Or if one of your buddies runs an industry event. Or if a company that you’re friends with sponsors an industry event. All of those things give you a big headstart in ease of access.

For me, it’s how much do I like them? How profitable could they be? Or generally their problems. That sort of thing. And how easy is my access?

Louis: Right. I think this is gonna be important for listeners to remember. So, how easy of access you have. How painful is the problem they suffer from? And do they have access to money? And do you like to hang out with them?

Rob: Yeah, it’s fun if you have customers you like. It’s just like, “Hey, let’s meet at the bar and talk about your problems.” It’s like, “Alright, that’s not such a painful way to spend an hour.”

Louis: It doesn’t feel like customer interviews or customer development. There’s a lot of lingo around this concept of talking to people.

Rob: I always try to call them conversations. There’s so much baggage tied up in the word interview. It’s not like that at all. It’s like … “Hey, you guys are losing money. Tell me about it. That must suck. Maybe I can help.” You just talk to them.

Louis: That’s step two, right? That’s what you mentioned. You go where they hang out and talk to them, right?

Rob: Well, I’m gonna resist putting it into steps. ‘Cause I don’t think you can put this stuff into steps. But you get a headstart if you already understand and have access to your customers. And then, what I mentioned as my second criteria was that you need customers you can access.

Then you need to create some way to serve them, right? You need to build the business, build the product. So, the other half of it, which gives you a big headstart is if you can find business partners who already have some of the stuff that you would otherwise need to build yourself.

And if there’s some way to partner or collaborate with them as opposed to starting it all from scratch. Everyone does their own content marketing. It’s so hard and it takes so long. But, I once had a great business. It was doing a million dollars a year within a few months. And we ended up having problems.

But it was really good for two years. The way it worked is I just partnered with someone who already had a mailing list with 300,000 people. I was like, “Hey, I’ve got a service that I think your mailing list would like.

You’ve got a mailing list but no way to monetize. Boom. Let’s make a million dollars a year out of thin air.” And it was super simple. We were up and running in a matter of weeks. If you can do that, customers you understand, partners who already have the resources you need.

I think based on your original question which was how do you do it quickly? That would be my answer.

Louis: Right. And is it the way you’ve done it for the second business you mentioned? The one after the ad business?

Rob: No. There’s a big bias towards doing everything yourself. In that one, we were surfing universities and basically helping them handle the IP transfer when they spun out student businesses. It’s like they have all this research inside the university.

It’s a lot of legal overhead and bureaucratic overhead for them to spin it out into external businesses. So, we gave them a software suite and a smoother process and all that. And it was cool. We got a couple thousand student businesses spun out into standalone things.

But we ran into some other issues like the universities didn’t have the budgets to make it scalable. And for our particular use case. But in that case, we did most of it ourselves. I was writing the software and kind of leading the sales.

And then the guy I chose as a co-founder was getting his Ph.D. Kind of in this domain with a top tier university. With him onboard, he provided the easy access to customers.

Louis: Right and that makes sense. As you said, if you wanna do it quickly to repeat, it’s about making sure that you get close to the customers you can have access to. That you have good knowledge of. That you like to hang out with and have problems worth solving that have money to solve those problems.

They are losing money from those problems. And then the second thing is, look at partners. Don’t try to do stuff on your own. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel for everything possible, right? Starting content marketing some scratch. Or starting Facebook advertising from scratch if you can have people can help you. Right?

Rob: It’s worth adding that, in the end, partnerships tend to be unstable. And in the end, your partners will inevitably screw you over. You have to be prepared to screw them over faster. Basically, what happens in a partnership is you both start making a lot of money.

It’s great for both of you. And then you both realize that the other one is probably gonna realize that they could make twice as much money if they cut you out. And so, you’re both sort of defensively forced into aggressively cutting each other out.

So, if you partner with someone who has their own list and you’re providing a service, you have to assume that they’re immediately tying to replicate your service. You have to start trying to replicate their list. Just because it’s really difficult for the partnership to last long term. But it can be a great way to run the first year or two years to get a quick headstart.

Louis: You get one million in revenue after a year. Then you can think of not necessarily partnering and investing in your own channels to grow.

I’m curious to hear of an example from your own life right now. Based on those two steps, even though you don’t really call them steps. But let’s say you have zero, nothing in your bank account right now. But you still have the knowledge and the network you have.

I’m just curious, who would you go after? What type of customers based on what you just talked about would you go after straightaway?

Rob: Okay, if you look at the resources that you have as a person, you’ve basically got your skills. You’ve got the groups of customers that you have insight about. And you’ve got, let’s say, potential partners. Both businesses and individuals.

You’ve got people you know, stuff you can do. And potential business partners. So, one of the skills that I have that’s valuable is teaching. I’m pretty good with a crowd. Both designing educational material or running events. Or acting as an MC or a host. That’s a skill I bring to the table.

The other skills I’ve got is programming and writing. So, I would basically be listing down my skills. And then I’d go, “Okay, so these are the things I can bring to the table.” And if I have other assets, I would list them. Like I have a blog with a few thousand email subscribers.

Cool, that’s an asset. I’ve got various code bases that I’ve built. Okay, those are assets. I’m like, “Okay, so these are all my assets and my skills.” That stuff. Then I would look at the people I can..

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Is keyword research still relevant to SEO? Do backlinks matter anymore?

Find out the answer in today’s episode. My guest is Tim Soulo, the CMO and the Head of Product Strategy at Ahrefs. Listen in as we deep dive into the technical side of ranking higher on Google — and exactly how to approach keyword research right now.

Listen to this Episode:

We discussed:

  • Why keyword research is still important for SEO campaigns
  • The major disadvantage of using free tools for keyword research
  • What “seed keywords” are and how to find them for your niche
  • Why Google ranks nearly identical pages for multiple relevant queries
  • The absolute best thing you can do during the keyword research phase
  • When the keyword difficulty metric won’t help you rank #1 in Google
  • Why unique linking websites add more value than the volume linking pages
  • The truth about building backlinks in an ethical and nonaggressive manner

Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarkteters.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.

In today’s episode, you’ll learn about keyword research. How to do it right, where it comes from, and where this data comes from. And hopefully, why it’s so important in your business. Why it’s not just about SEO, it’s also about reading people’s mind. So, my guest today is the CMO and the Head of Product Strategy at Ahrefs.

Which is, in my opinion, one of probably the best SEO tool in the market right now, and I am not paid to say that. I’ve tried a few, and I can tell you that this, Ahrefs is probably the best right now. Then we never know in the next few years.

But anyway, my guest with seven years of experience in SEO and digital marketing, has been sharing a lot of super interesting studies on the Ahrefs blogs. I’ve been following that for a while as well. And he also runs a very successful YouTube channel for Ahrefs, which has more than one million views at this stage, and I think more than that right now.

So, as you can see, my guest knows a thing about SEO. A thing or two about growing businesses and growing an audience, so I’m very happy to have you on board, Tim Soulo.

Tim: Thanks a lot for inviting me.

Louis: Let’s take a step back, because we can talk about SEO and technical stuff all day long and keyword research. But, let’s take a step back and understand. Why is it so important in the context of growing a business, and understanding customers?

Tim: You’re asking why SEO is important?

Louis: Keyword research in particular.

Tim: Because I think keyword research is actually where SEO actually starts. Because if you’re moving your business online, or you want to create some kind of new business online, there are two ways to reach customers.

First is get on their radar. By what Seth Godin calls — interruption marketing. It is when you display them all sorts of banners, pre-rolls when they’re watching YouTube videos, and all that stuff.

Or permission marketing. This is when they give you their permission to kind of talk to them, to communicate with them. And this is usually done when they are searching for something. People have all sorts of problems, and they usually use a search engine — mostly Google– to find solutions to their problems, concerns, issues, and whatever.

You have a chance of being the search result that they will click and that they will use to get some advice. If your business, your tool, your service, your product can help them with whatever issues they have. And if they think that they are willing to spend money, you’ve got yourself a customer.

So, keyword research is all about knowing what people search for and being able to estimate what kind of search demand there is for whatever you have. If your product is not something that you can only promote via interruption marketing, like ad’s pre-rolls and stuff.

If your product is something that people are actively searching for, if they have a certain problem and then they search for it, you might want to know what they are searching for. And create a website around the searches so that you will get all the traffic to you.

Louis: But I thought SEO was dead?

Tim: Yeah, probably. I wish more people would think so. It will be so much easier for all the others who don’t think so.

Louis: Yeah, it’s a fascinating topic. In my opinion, this is really the closest we can get to reading people’s minds. When you talk to people face to face, and ask them about their problems. We like to sugar coat stuff, we’re not going to be very honest with ourselves and with others.

While when you’re on your own in front of your computer or your mobile phone, there’s a lot of things that you admit about the concerns you have, the problems you have, the type of articles you read that you need doing like market research and all of that.

And it’s such a powerful tool, it’s just absolutely amazing. As well as a bit creepy when you think of the power that it has, right? This is why today, what we’re going to try to do is: do it the nonaggressive, non-sleazy way, and truly identify problems, concerns. And answer that in the right way for people, without being sleazy.

So, let’s take a step back. So, I’m pretty sure most of the listeners have tried Ahrefs or Moz or other SEO tools out there. At least, some try to understand okay, what type of keywords should we rank for? But I’m curious to know, from the perspective of Ahrefs, like where is this data even coming from? How are you able to know what people are searching for?

Tim: Yes. So, there are tool sources for this data. The first source, and it was the only source up until I think two years ago or something. It was Google AdWords. So, Google has this platform where you can buy ad’s for specific keywords.

So, if you want your ad to pop up whenever people are searching for, I don’t know, cute kittens. You want to see your paid ad there, you have a tool called AdWords. And within AdWords, you were able –and you are able — to do some keyword research to find the search queries that you want to pay money for to advertise whatever you have.

For a very long time, this was the only source of this data. And basically, Google was showing the actual searches that happen within their platform. That people are putting into Google. And it was letting people research them.

Maybe someone will later correct me on Twitter if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Google ever gave API to their query data. So, that people could pull search queries via API, and not just by using the web interface of AdWords tool.

So, yeah. A lot of different tools were scraping AdWords to get a lot of keyword data, because AdWords is targeted at advertisers. And they are not interested to show you kind of the depth and breadth of real search queries that people are putting into Google. They try to kind of generalize stuff.

They try to group search queries together so that it would be easier for advertisers to pick the keywords that they want to go for. But for SEO, they want some granularity. They want to know the actual search queries. They want to know the variety of the search queries.

There’s also a second source of keyword data that appeared not that long ago, and it is called Clickstream. Basically, Clickstream data is data that is being collected by all sorts of publications. Mostly free, that you install on your computer. In your browser.

When you agree to the terms of service, they say that they will collect anonymized — and this is a very important word — anonymized data on what you’re doing online. And they have the right to resell it to other companies.

You don’t have to worry about these things. Because like I said, they’re anonymized. If anyone would collect kind of personalized data, someone will notice it and there will be a great scandal with this company. So, everyone is playing the safe game and making this stuff anonymized.

Basically, there are some companies that buy this data from everyone they can buy it from. To aggregate it in one single place. Because for example, if you have only a single plugin for Chrome, and this plugin is being used by one million people, that’s only like a little bit of the whole internet popularity. You cannot collect a lot of data from just one million people. You need more.

This is why those Clickstream data providers, they try to buy clicks and data through all the sources they can. And then they resell it to other companies like Ahrefs, so we’re not collecting this data ourselves. We do have our own plugin for Chrome, but we don’t collect data because we don’t have enough users.

If we had like, I don’t know, maybe ten million people using our toolbar, maybe we would start collecting data. But it just doesn’t make sense for us. We buy Clickstream data from those who aggregate it. And we use it to create a database of search queries that people are putting into Google. That all those various applications and software are kind of tracking. I hope that makes sense.

Louis: It does. I actually heard of Clickstream before but I had no clue that’s actually the way it worked. So, it’s simple anonymized data from search queries like what people are actually searching for, clicking on, that’s being resold to you guys. So, you use two main sources, right? You use this source, and the one from Google directly, right?

Tim: Yeah, but like I said, Google doesn’t give API. Basically, to collect this data you need to scrape them, which is against their Terms of Service. So, we’re not scraping them and our database of Google search queries is not updated very often. As far as I know. I may be wrong so don’t take my word for it. But as far as I know, we also buy it from third parties.

But Clickstream data. Because there’s no kind of harm in the collecting it, we’re not breaking anyone’s Terms of Service, we update it every single month. So, every month we buy a new package of a huge package from Clickstream data and we update query database with new search queries.

Whenever some trend appears, like I think it was last year, Pokemon Go. We were able to pick it up pretty much the next month when we purchased the data. And other tools were lagging behind because they don’t update their database this often.

Clickstream has a lot of advantages over trying to scrape Google AdWords. But it is also super expensive. It’s a lot of people saying “Why don’t you just use free tools, they have enough data.” I’m afraid there’s no way for free tools to work with Clickstream data because of how expensive it is.

So, with free tools, you’re getting kind of a small amount of real search queries that people input into Google. I’m not saying it is bad.

For many, many, many people free tools is a great start. So they can get a lot of value and they can start getting traffic just by using free keyword research tools. This will be enough to build some pages to understand what people are searching for. But eventually, you’re going to hit the ceiling, and then you will have to refer to paid tools, to go deeper and to find search queries that you won’t find in those free tools.

Louis: Let’s talk about a fictional business that is about helping people from Europe or the U.S. to create a business in Singapore. You guys are based in Singapore. So, let’s take this fictional example. It probably exists, but let’s take this fictional example. Let’s say we don’t have a lot of visibility online, we want to say more, we want to attract more people to do that.

How do you go about knowing this is what we need to do? To knowing the type of topics, the type of keywords that are likely going to move the needle for you?

Tim: Yeah. So, what you just said is, you provided me with the so-called seed keywords. And these are Singapore business, and maybe things like establish or create or setup. So, these are the seed keywords. And the seed keywords are used to query our database of search queries to find some relevant keywords.

Basically, you can find all search queries from our database. Which is pretty huge. I think it’s over five billion, or something. I don’t remember exactly, but it is like super huge. What you can do is you can put keywords like, business Singapore, and we’ll show you all search queries that contain both words, business Singapore in any order.

It could be established business in Singapore. What kind of business you can establish in Singapore. So, all the search queries that contain those seed keywords, business in Singapore. We’ll show them to you, along with the so-called monthly search volume. This is how many times this specific search query is being entered into Google, per month.

This is where keyword research starts. If you know your seed keywords, kind of the general way to search for something. Which is, in this case, creates business in Singapore or establish business in Singapore. You can find so many other search queries that contain these words. And this kickstarts your keyword research, you’re starting to understand what kind of things people are searching for.

Louis: Now you have your seed keywords, you have a few ideas. What other core metrics do you look at? You mentioned, the so-called search volume for specific keywords. There’s also another one that is important. Which is the difficulty, or the likelihood, that you’re going to rank in the first page, right? What should you look for when you do this type of research?

Tim: Well, this is a very tricky question about metrics. Because the single best way to do keyword research is to actually look at what kind of pages rank at the top of Google — for the keyword that seems interesting to you.

If you find a certain search query that you think you want to target with a page on your website, first thing you need to do is to put it in Google and see what currently ranks there. And if your kind of intent of creating a page matches the page that’s already ranked there.

This is very important. You first need to see if the page you’re about to create is similar to the page that’s already ranked there. In terms of metrics, the two metrics that I pay attention to the most are the total search traffic to those top ranking pages.

This is number one metric. It is very interesting because like I said, for any individual keyword that you’ll be seeing in those reports that Ahrefs — or other keyword tools will give you — will show you monthly search volume for this specific keyword. But the pages that will rank for this keyword to Google, they will rank for many, many, many more other similar search queries.

Just right now, when we were discussing the search queries of establishing a business in Singapore, there are so many ways to search for the same thing. How to establish business in Singapore. How to establish business in Singapore in 2018. What are the steps to establishing business in Singapore?

Different people will use different search queries. But in essence, they’re looking for the same thing and Google is able to understand it. This is why Google will rank almost the same pages for a variety of relevant search queries.

Other than looking at the search volume of an individual keyword that seems interesting to you. That you kind of want to pursue, you need to look at the total search traffic to the top ranking pages. In Ahrefs you can do this quite easily. Because basically within our keywords explorer tool we will pull the top ten ranking results for the keyword that you’re researching. We will show you the total search traffic, as estimated by Ahrefs, to those pages.

And what’s interesting is that you might notice that sometimes keywords that don’t have particularly big monthly search volume, the pages that rank at the top for this keyword get a lot of traffic. That is because there are so many other ways to search for this same thing and they all accumulate into total traffic.

This is the first thing that I look at, and I do it all the time right now when I do keyword research for our own blog, to create content for our own company. And the second metric, like you said, is keyword difficulty. But-

Louis: So, before we go into difficulty, I’m going to cut you there-

Tim: Yeah.

Louis: Because you said so many interesting things that I think we need to dive into a bit more. I always thought that looking at search volume for specific keyword was the only to go about doing keyword research. Only recently, thanks to you, and of course the Blogging for Business course you did, and a few stuff I read of your blog I’m starting to use Ahrefs way more.

Did I understand that? Actually, that’s a stupid way to think about it. Because, exactly as you said, people are going to search for very different, a variety of things, that mean the same thing. Google is smart enough to know that, right?

To be clear, in 2018 the date we’re recording this episode, Google is way smarter than you think it is. And so don’t try to hack it by thinking that if you say, how to start a company in Singapore versus how to start a business in Singapore, you can create two pages with the same content. All that kind of stuff, right? This is the stupider stuff.

I’m not trying to repeat to explain it better, I’m just trying to repeat so that people remember that. Instead of looking at search keywords, you look at the top ranking pages for this keyword, and you basically reverse engineer. This page, top one, is getting X%. This one is getting X.

What is funny is, when you look at the page and what keyword it ranks for … Let’s say we talk about how to start a business Singapore, it could be literally thousands of keywords and topics it ranks for. This is truly the power of understanding the cementing behind how people think, not how to hack Google, right?

Tim: Yeah. Another, actually interesting observation, I want to study it soon. I didn’t have a chance to study it yet. But what I’ve noticed by researching many keywords is that the top ranking page for the keyword is not necessarily the page that gets the most traffic.

Sometimes the pages that rank lower, they may be getting more traffic just because they cover the topic better. That is why Google ranks them for more relevant keywords. And the top ranking page, it might be super focused on a specific topic, so it ranks high. But it doesn’t have any additional information so it doesn’t generate any additional traffic.

This is why I’m saying that the best thing you could do while doing keyword research is actually to research the pages that rank for the keyword that you want to rank for. See like what kind of content they have, see what kind of keywords they rank for, how many keywords they rank for, and how much traffic they’re getting in total.

Yeah, but I was transitioning to keyword difficulty. From my experience, I can tell that people when they first see our keyword difficulty metric, they consider it a Holy Grail of SEO. They think that this simple two digit number will now solve all their problems, and show them the keywords where they will be able to rank at position number one. Without any effort at all.

But of course, that is not true. You just mentioned yourself that Google is pretty sophisticated. There’s a lot of technology, there are billions of dollars behind Google. There’s no way for us, or anyone else, to capture the whole complexity of Google algorithm in the single two digit number. 25, yeah I can rank for those. Like, 64, no I cannot rank for this. No, this is not possible.

In our case, keyword difficulty is a very straightforward metric. It only shows you how many backlinks the top ranking pages have on average. It’s just a proxy to the link popularity of the top ranking results. If you see keyword difficulty zero, it means that all top ten pages that ranking Google for your keyword, they have little to no backlinks. Maybe one backlink or two, but most of them-

Louis: Can you define a backlink for us?

Tim: Yeah. Usually, backlink is defined by how many kind of unique pages are linking to a given page. But when I talk about backlinks in the context of keyword difficulty, what I actually mean is how many unique websites are linking to a specific page.

Because once you start digging into SEO, you quickly realize that unique linking website has more value than linking page. Because otherwise, to rank high in Google all you have to do is create a second website, create one million pages on that website, and create one million links to your website.

But this doesn’t work like that. A link from a unique website will not always, but in general, it has kind of more value than getting second, third, fourth, tenth link from the same website. It is more complicated than that. But still, when researching the top ranking pages and determining your chances of outranking them, you should look at how many links from unique websites they have.

This metric, over the years, it has proven to correlate really well with the Google position. So, keyword difficulty is basically a proxy to how many backlinks the top ranking pages have. If you see keyword difficulty zero, it means they don’t have any backlinks. Which needs that your page won’t also need any backlinks to rank there. Or like, you will be able to outrank them just by getting a few backlinks.

But if you see keyword difficulty, let’s say 40. I don’t remember exactly what it refers to, but let’s say it refers to 200 unique domains on average. We say it in our kind of hint, we explain each number. Like, how it translates into referring domains into unique linking websites.

But yeah, the higher the keyword difficulty, the more websites you have to persuade to link to your page, in order to rank in top ten.

Louis: I want to go back to the first point, not keyword difficulty because I think it’s a bit easier to understand than the first one. Recently I’ve met some research about the topic of website optimization.

Tim: Yeah.

Louis: I wanted to know whether we could create a page around the topic of website optimization and already had an idea in mind. So, we already had content for it. For many different pages. And we say okay,..

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What is marketing, really?
When it comes to digital marketing it’s easy to drown ourselves in endless data analytics, campaign results, and market research.
But marketing boils down to one thing only–humans.
That’s why understanding behavioral science and how people make decisions is a must. My guest today is Richard Shotton, the author of The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases That Influence What We Buy. In this episode, he digs into consumer psychology and the science of persuasion.
Listen to this Episode:

We covered:
  • Why understanding behavioral science is crucial for marketers
  • The surprising reason why consumers don’t trust perfect brands or products
  • What’s really going on inside our brains when we become open to new ideas
  • How to break your potential audience into three targeting approaches
  • Why you should avoid trying to persuade your brand’s detractors
  • How our habits become destabilized right after we undergo a life event
  • The #1 reason why people don’t change (and what to do about it)


Full Transcript: 
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com — the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people all who are just sick of shady aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.

In today’s episode, you will learn how findings from psychology can be applied to advertising and how you can become a better marketer thanks to those findings. My guest today is the author of a really good book The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases That Influence What We Buy. He’s the head of behavioral science for MG OMD (Manning Gottlieb OMD). Which I’m gonna admit, I didn’t know about until I read more about you.

But apparently it’s #1 advertising agency in Europe, so it’s kind of a big deal. But he’s doing it part-time because the rest of the time he’s freelancing — meaning he can say a lot of swear words during the podcast.

I’m super happy to have you onboard, Richard Shotton. Let’s hear what you’ve got.

Richard: Very nice to meet you. Looking forward to chatting.

Louis: Let me tell you a little story. When I was 18 or 19, I went to visit my brother in Paris. My brother being older than I am, he was reading a lot of books and one of those books was a French book. I’m gonna say it in French and then I’ll try to translate. Which was called Le petit traité de manipulation à l’usage des honnêtes gens — which basically reads as “The Little Manual of Manipulation for Honest People”. And it’s basically a psychology book. A behavioral science book.

All the principals about foot in the door and all those basic behavioral principles. I fell in love with this book. I also fell in love with marketing, thanks to that read, and so that read led to reading more about marketing and basically led me to where I am today.

I’m quite happy to have a guest who knows all about behavioral science because this is really something I love talking about — and there’s a good reason for that but I’m not gonna say that now. Instead, I want you to say it. Why is it so important for marketers and people who are interested in marketing to understand how people think and how they behave?

Richard: Okay, so I think there’s three big reasons. The first is relevance. Everything we are trying to do on a day-to-day basis as marketers is persuade people. We’re trying to persuade them to buy our product more often, pay a premium, switch from a competitive brand. Frankly, what could be more relevant than the science or the study of why people make decisions?

I think the first big reason is relevance. The second big reason is range or variety. There’s a really worrying trend in marketing at the moment that people are increasingly trying to find a single way of answering briefs.

Now, because the problems that you’re listeners will face or different brand marketers face or owners face. Because those problems are so varied, it’s frankly ridiculous to try and have one solution. What you end up doing is force feeding the problem you have at hand, the tool that you believe in and you end up with the wrong approach.

Louis: Can you give me an example on that before you go to the third one?

Richard: Well, I would say something like brand purpose. Brand purpose, this idea that has been first suggested in that companies should have a higher order, a purpose beyond the profit. That would be one of those theories. That it may be right in certain circumstances but it’s not right all the time. And if you approach every brief with that as your key theory I think you end up going wrong.

Louis: Can you give me an example of a company that went wrong with this purpose or an example of –maybe not a real example — a fictional example of where you probably shouldn’t use a purpose-driven marketing campaign for example.

Richard: There are lots that have gone wrong. I’d argue in the UK, McDonald’s. Where they tried to create an ad all around the death of a boy’s father and try and use, I think it was a Filet-o-Fish as the way they were linked.

There’s obviously the very famous Pepsi example. But my attack on brand purpose would never be on individual case studies because I think there are always hundreds of thousands of brands in the world.

There are always case studies you can find to support or dismiss a theory. What I would look at is more some of these larger broader analyses which try and prove that there is a predictable value of using this and those tend to be overblown.

The contrast of behavioral science is stark. Behavioral science isn’t really one big grand theory. It’s a collection of lots of biases — or occasion seemingly contradictory messy biases — but the brilliance is that whatever brief you have there will be a useful bias but it does put the onus on the marketer.

It’s not a simple tool which you can just apply randomly. You have to use your nous, you have to use your intelligence to pick the right bias for the particular problem you face.

Louis: And then the third element.

Richard: Ah, the third. Good point. I’d forgotten about the third. The third is robustness. So, again another danger in marketing. We’ve all been in these meetings where people defer to the most eloquent person in the room — or normally the most highly paid person in the room. That is not a good basis for making multi-million-pound decisions. Someone’s gut feeling.

What is far better is behavioral science which is based on the peer-reviewed evidence of some of the leading scientist around the world. People like Kahneman and Thaler acting today and BF Skinner and Aronson in the past.

Best of all it’s not a case of we just have to defer to these famous academics. All their research is in the public domain. We can take that research. We can re-run it and make sure it works for our particular band in our particular market.

Louis: I’m gonna ask a very leading question.

Richard: Okay.

Louis: I’m sure as a behavioral scientist you’ll appreciate it.

Richard: I like leading questions.

Louis: Do you think behavioral science would make marketers better? Or at least practice what I would call the good marketing. Not the aggressive, shady type.

Richard: Yes, absolutely. Two reasons. Firstly, you’ve got that science behind it. That robustness. But secondly, I think the strength of that is I’ve talked about there’s this range that is relevant to all the different problems you face. It’s not taking a bias or psychological quirk from behavioral science will solve all your problems but it will often give you a different angle to solving a problem.

It gives you a different place to start. And I think the second part is often those approaches can be really counter-intuitive. They can allow you the luxury of considering things that I think just logical rational thought alone might cause you to reject.

Louis: You and I had a brief chat before going into this interview. I’ve asked you to basically pick out of the 25 behavioral facts from your book to pick your favorite, your three favorites and to drill down.

I’m very happy because the first one, I never heard of it. I feel ashamed but I feel super interested as well. I’m literally a beginner for this one, but I have a few examples by the way that I read. But anyway, what we’re gonna do together for this episode we’re gonna run through those three behavioral biases.

And we’re gonna try to not only look at the theory but also the practice. How can you actually use this bias at your advantage as a good marketer and how can you be aware of it in the future?

Richard: Excellent.

Louis: So without further adieu. What is the first of the three you’d like to talk about first?

Richard: Well, one I think that you mentioned is less well known is the pratfall effect which is a fascinating one. The pratfall effect was an idea that was first discussed by Eliott Aronson, a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 60s.

It’s the idea that if you admit a weakness or you exhibit a flaw you become more appealing. So, it’s quite a counter-intuitive one. What Aronson did in 1966 with his colleague — I think it was Floyd and Willowman his colleagues.

He recruited someone to take part in a quiz. He gave that contestant the answers to the quiz. The guy does amazingly well, gets 92% of the questions right and wins the quiz by miles. But then as the contestant is finishing he makes what Americans will call a pratfall, a small blunder.

He stands up and he spills a cup of coffee down himself. So, Arronson takes that recording and he plays it to participants in his experiment in one of two ways.

Either they hear the entire episode or they just hear the great quiz performance and then Aronson asks everyone, “How appealing do you find this guy?” And people find the contestant when they’ve heard the mistake significantly more appealing. As I said, Aronson calls this the Pratfall effect and argues that people and products who exhibit a flaw become more appealing.

Louis: This is fascinating on so many levels. I don’t even know where to start.

Richard: Yeah.

Louis: There are a few things. First, I work for a company called Hotjar and one of the core things that we are very proud of is transparency. What we would do from time to time is publish a blog post with all the mistakes we’ve made in the last 12 months about a certain topic and what we’ve learnt from them.

Or our CEO will go speak at conferences, admit mistakes, and being very transparent about it. That alone brought us a lot of brand equity. People really appreciated the fact that we shared stuff that people wouldn’t share and that I felt very strongly that falls really into this effect, right?

Richard: Absolutely, absolutely. And just as a small side relevant tangent. If you like that approach I would recommend there’s a paper by Paul Feldwick about Barclay card. A hugely successful ad campaign in the 1980s. What he says is, “I hate all these award entries. They’re a post-rationalized version of the truth. Here’s what actually happened.”

He mentions all the luck, the mistakes, and the serendipity. And the other blog that regularly does that is a wonderful one called “Stuff From The Loft” by Dave Dye. I think in marketing, they’re the two ones that I think exhibit that brilliantly.

I think they work really well for a couple of reasons. I think if you exhibit … if you admit a flaw … so let’s say as a brand it’s VW. They went out and said, “Ugly is skin deep.” So, admit they’re ugly. Listerine, the taste you hate twice a day. They admitted they taste awful. Guinness, good things come to those who wait. They admitted they were slow.

Once you’ve admitted a flaw it’s a tangible demonstration of your honesty and all your other claims become that much more believable. Now considering one of the biggest issues we face as brands is that people, probably quite rightly, don’t trust brands. That alone gets you I think a helluva lot of benefits.

Louis: Let’s say someone listening right now wondering, “How can I apply that to my daily job?” They might not manage brands that are massive. Some of them do but some of them don’t. What can they start right now today to use this effect to their advantage and potentially bring more people to them?

Richard: You don’t have to be a massive brand. One of the very well studied areas by Northwestern University was about applying this tactic on your reviews. Northwestern University did a study in 2015, they scraped a 111,000 product reviews and they graphed them up showing the number of the review.

The kind of rating on the review from one to five. Five being brilliant, one being awful and then the likelihood to purchase and what they found was that for every one of the 22 categories they looked at:

As the product review gets better, likelihood to purchase increases until it hits a tipping point. So ,somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 out of five. And then after that point, if the review gets any better then likelihood to purchase declines.

So they argued perfection was not trusted. It was seen as too good to be true. Consumers didn’t trust perfection. If you are running a brand, whatever size. If you have negative reviews don’t be ashamed of them. Don’t be one of these websites that just put up the perfect reviews. Put some of the poor ones up and explain, answer them. Explain why maybe they had a poor service in that very rare individual case.

Louis: It also reminds me of a book about leadership. I think “The 22 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” maybe I’m mixing it up but I remember reading about this concept in leadership that if you wanna be a good leader you also need to be showing your weaknesses, and be able to admit them right?

Richard: Yes. Because paradoxically you don’t come across as weak. You come across as strong. There’s a lovely study, I don’t mention this in the book I think I might’ve read it afterward, called the Red Sneaker Effect. And it’s by, I think it’s either Francesca or Francesco Dino, and what the psychologist did was go to academic conferences in the early 2000s. When there was a very strong norm for wearing formal clothes. Most people would wear suit and shirt.

What Dino did was categorize how well-dressed they were from formal to informal. Once he’d done that — categorized individuals — he would go and ask them how many citations they had. Citations are a good quantitative measure of how successful you are as an academic.

And what he found is there was an inverse correlation between formality of dress and number of citations. What he then argued is this idea called the Red Sneaker Effect. Which is, essentially, it is only people who have high status or are confident in their abilities that can break a norm and one of the biggest norms you can have is pretending to be perfect.

The argument from that would be don’t try and hide your flaws. If you tell people about them, if you admit a weakness, people will find you more appealing and a higher status probably.

Louis: One thing that I do, obviously I don’t have a choice. My accent is my accent right?

Richard: Yeah.

Louis: One thing that I play on now is I have decided a few years ago I’m not gonna try to remove it. I’m just gonna try to make sure that people understand me. A bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger. he’s been living in the U.S. for 40, 50 years at this stage. I understood now in admitting, “Yeah, I do have French accent and I’m not gonna remove it.”

Actually is something that is kind of a sort of a weakness because yeah, I could be a podcaster with the perfect American accent like everyone else, but I’m more than happy with my French one.

Richard: And the other bit there because you know, debatable. I would not argue a French accent was a weakness, but what it probably is is distinctive and that’s the other massive benefit of the Pratfall Effect. That all your competition will be going out and bragging.

The great thing is, if you go out and admit a flaw you become distinctive, and if there’s one thing we know about advertising it’s that what is distinctive is memorable. I saw a great example in the pub a few days ago. I went to The Brew Dock pub and on the back of their t-shirts, they have comments from customers who came in and thought — overpriced tosh or tasted awful.

They’ve got comments from people who hated their products and to me that shows an amazing confidence in what you have. You’re not trying to appeal to everyone and the other bit is, could you ever imagine and industrialized lager like Molson Coors or Foster’s or whoever making that same call? It’s amazing.

Louis: Yeah, it’s really amazing to see that it also connects very well with the fact that when you take risks,  when you show who you are, you said very well that you don’t appeal to anyone anymore. And I think one of the key reasons for marketing to be successful if to make sure that you don’t appeal to everyone because then you appeal to no one.

So, admitting your flaws and also they will probably some people that won’t like that. But the ones who will probably love it more and therefore be a promote of your business and be more willing to buy from you.

Richard: Absolutely. I think that’s it’s a potentially great advantage. There’s some lovely ones. I saw an American ski resort where they had taken a bad customer review and put it on their double page and it was something along the lines of, I think it was called Snowbird.

Greg from California and what he’d written was, “These slopes are frankly dangerous. People should not be allowed on them.” They ran that and said, “Look, it’s not for everyone. This is for the hardcore skier.”

Louis: I could talk about the Pratfall Effect for ages with you but we have two other biases to go through and I’m mindful of your time as well. I know the listeners are eager to know the two others. I think we’ve cornered this one pretty well.

I think people are quite convinced now that they should probably try it out about more, admitting their mistakes a bit more and that’s very beneficial. So now what’s the second bias you’d like to go through.

Richard: The second bias is confirmation bias. It’s the idea that people are very good at maintaining their existing point of view. For example, if you dislike a brand and you hear a message from them. Your brain can generate counter argument after counter argument which maintains it’s existing point of view. It just doesn’t agree with the new information.

Now, what’s interesting here is that behavioral science just doesn’t identify a problem. It also identifies the solution. There’s a wonderful Stanford psychologist called Festinger. What Festinger did was look at moments when people were more open to persuasion, more open to changing their point of view about a deeply held belief.

What he does, in 1964 he recruits people who are members of college fraternities and he plays them an audio argument. An audio argument on why college fraternities are morally wrong. Now, half of them just listened to the audio argument. The other half also had to watch a silent film.

Then after they’ve done this they answer questions about how much their beliefs have changed, and what Festinger found was that if people were also watching the silent film they were more likely to have changed their views.

This, I think, a fascinating experiment because the argument would be: Look if you want to persuade someone who dislikes your brand, that it’s actually decent. What you shouldn’t do is the strategy that 99.9% of media planners would advise you to do which is put your ad in a high attention environment. They’re things like though cinema or point if view programming.

What Festinger argues is if you do that you’re just drawing, the brain will just create these counter arguments and nothing will change. What you should do is reach people at moments of distraction because at least they’re potentially persuadable. So, it might be you run on an auxiliary medium that people are doing something else while they’re listening to you. Like radio.

Or you forget about the media argument and you take this as a creative suggestion. Therefore, for creative, what you should consider is not making just factual arguments. Don’t just list a long group of reason about why your brand’s great.

What you need to do is think about the body language and the tone of your ads. Perhaps the best example of this is back in the late-80s British Airways were struggling with perceptions of quality.

What they didn’t just do is talk about how they had amazing stewards and stewardesses, great big seats. What they did was always accompany their ads with this wonderfully evocative piece of classical music. Now there is no logical argument about quality. Therefore the brain doesn’t come up with a list of counter-arguments. I think that’s an interesting one.

Louis: I..

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In this episode, you will learn how to set up a one-year strategic marketing plan and lead your team to success. My guest today is Kevan Lee, the Director of Marketing at Buffer.

Tune in to hear us discuss your big picture gameplan, how to lead a team effectively, and Kevan’s personal career path. He reveals insight into the transition from content writing to strategy and what happened when he tried to take marketing shortcuts in the past.

Listen to this Episode:

We covered:

  • The difference between your company vision vs. strategy
  • How Kevan created Buffer’s one-year strategic marketing plan
  • Why step one of a marketing strategy starts with your purpose
  • The powerful vision framework exercise for creating goals
  • Which marketing channel is the number one driver for new signups
  • How to determine which projects are your first priority
  • Why marketers today should become multiskilled generalists


Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier. In today’s episode, you will learn how to set up a one-year strategic marketing plan, so you can get shit done with your team and lead your team effectively as well. We are not necessarily only going to talk about a one-year strategic marketing plan. We’ll also talk about marketing strategy in general and how to lead a team with this.

My guest today comes from a company I really deeply admire. I don’t say that lightly. Buffer, which is the social scheduling platform who are very well-known for their transparency. They are the reason why I actually started a remote consulting company a few years ago that failed–but that’s for another story–and why I’m working remotely right now actually with Hotjar. That’s when I discovered that companies like Buffer were working remotely.

My guest started as a content writer and have worn many hats since then, product marketer, partnerships, social copywriter, and manager. He’s now the director of marketing for Buffer, managing a team of 10 people. Buffer is a company receiving more than a million visits a month on their blog which is quite an impressive feat.

Kevan Lee, welcome aboard.

Kevan: Thank you, Louis, great to be here.

Louis: Everyone talks about strategy. I read it almost on every single blog post, or blog I visit. People talk about this one strategy you should use to growth hack your success, or three strategies you should use tomorrow to do X, Y, and Z.

Without giving too much about my opinion about the word strategy, and what it actually means, I’d like to hear from you. What does it mean to you, strategy?

Kevan: Yeah, one of my teammates put it quite succinctly for me once in this analogy. We were trying to decide the difference between vision and strategy and tactics, because, oftentimes, we use these words interchangeably, or people assume one thing and someone else does another.

The analogy she used is that the vision is where you’re going. The strategy is how you’re going to get there, and the tactics are the turn-by-turn directions. That was very clarifying for me. I’m able to now filter those words into a nice, tidy box.

Strategy for me is: If you’ve already figured out where you’re going to go, strategy is how you’re going to get there. As part of my role, I both need to figure out where we’re going, and how we’re getting there. Then, I like to pass along the tactics, the what to the team itself.

Yeah, strategy’s the car we’re driving or the route we’re taking to get to our destination.

Louis: It’s as much as where you’re going, it’s also where you’re not going, and what you’re not going to do, right?

Kevan: Exactly. Yes, exactly.

Louis: When we think of marketing strategies, you summarize it quite well and quite simply. Vision is where you’re planning to go. Strategy is how you’re going to get there.

Kevan: Correct.

Louis: Tactics are, repeat, so that’s–

Kevan: The turn-by-turn directions, yes.

Louis: The turn-by-turn directions, exactly. When we think about it, it’s an empty word to a lot of people. It’s like, why is it needed? Why do we even need to set up a marketing strategy? Why do we need a marketing team or a strategy when you lead a business? Why is it important for you in your role to have a marketing strategy?

Kevan: Yeah, that’s a good one. I came up through the tactics. I started as a writer for a blog. I was very much in the day-to-day details. Having been in that world for many years, and how easy it is to get tunnel vision and just to be very consumed by the work and not be able to pick your head up and see, oh, where did we actually end up?

I picture like you’re tunneling through the ground. You could be the world’s best tunneler, but if you never stick your head out of the tunnel, then you might not know if you’re actually headed in the right direction or not.

Strategy is having this. It’s how we’re going to get there. Vision is where we’re going. Having these components, it helps make the work feel more purposeful, makes the work feel like you’re headed on the right track.

Ideally, there are these outcomes that you want to achieve. On a day-to-day basis, they could be an outcome of a blog post or write this email. But, bigger picture, a vision could be to change the world for remote workers or teach someone a skill they didn’t have before. Then, how to get there is maybe choosing which channels to go into, these bigger decisions. It all trickles down into the work that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

Without that strategy, without that vision, I guess some of the work feels a bit aimless. I didn’t realize that until I was figuring out strategy and vision, the actual importance of that kind of stuff.

Louis: Tell me more about this, because I can feel there is a turning point in your career, where you switched from being very tactical to having to think strategically, right? Especially as a writer, I don’t want to insult you, but I know from experience thinking about a lot of writers, they probably don’t have a lot of time to think strategy.

They have to deliver a blog post every single day, right? When did you discover that setting up strategy, setting up vision was really important?

Kevan: Oh, I think I’m still in the process of reminding myself that it’s important. To a degree, strategy feels like one of those, I guess strategy feels somewhat a bit more art than science which I struggle with. I struggle with both art and science. I prefer very tangible things. Though science is a bit more tangible to me I guess. You can quantify it. You can measure it.

Yeah, so strategy it’s an ongoing debate within myself. It’s like, what impact is this strategy actually having? Spending time thinking about strategy is so hard to prioritize when there’s so much other work to be done.

That’s a huge struggle that I have. It’s like, “Oh, how can I spend a week talking and thinking about strategy? When I could have been spending a week writing this or putting this campaign together or measuring this or that or the other thing.”

I have to remind myself that one week of strategy setting makes a huge difference for the 10 people I manage. It makes a huge difference for the work they do for the whole year. It’s a different way of measuring productivity I guess, when you are at the strategic level, because you don’t get the feedback right away. You don’t get that feeling, that dopamine rush of hitting send or publish on something.

I get that it’s important. It’s still very hard to prioritize and feel good about actually spending the time doing it.

Louis: When did you start actually, when was the first time you went through this exercise of setting up a strategy for your team?

Kevan: Let’s see. I’ve been directing the team for a couple years now. Honestly, when I started leading the team, I don’t think I did strategy for several months. I think I looked to other people in the company to set marketing strategy for me, or I just stayed on the same marketing strategy that we had before and just stayed on that same path.

It probably took me maybe even a year into the lead role to actually sit down and think, “Oh, I need to actually be thinking about the strategy that we have.” Does it make sense for us still to be doing content marketing after so many years? I didn’t even realize you could reach a ceiling on content marketing. Should I even be considering this kind of thing?

All these questions I didn’t even know to ask and, obviously, didn’t know the answers to at the time. Yeah, I’d say it took about a year before I was fully on board with strategy. I’m not on board with it yet. A year to start getting on board, to buy my ticket for it.

Louis: What was the process for you? What was the way you set out to say, “Okay, you know what? We’re going to have a strategy for Buffer in 2017-2018, and we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” How did you do that?

Kevan: Like you said at the opening, you can hear a lot of advice out there for, you should do this strategy, or you should try this thing, and you should be doing this type of work. That’s absolutely true. There are so many different templates out there to look at and companies to emulate.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my life and career, it’s a parenting philosophy that I’ve adapted to a marketing philosophy. It’s that you never should on your kids, and you never should on your marketers or your plans.

Whenever I hear that word should it’s always a trigger for me. I don’t ever want to feel like I should have to do anything. It should be a choice. It should be me figuring out on my own.

That was how I went the strategy route. There’s a lot of different templates to follow. I looked at many of them. Some of them were like, “This is the way that you should be doing it.” I challenge that notion a little bit. Maybe, immaturely, I push back at being told what to do in some ways. I wasn’t going to go that route.

Then I stumbled across this one, it’s one that’s been pretty useful for us. It’s a one-year strategic marketing plan. It was originally from a guy named David Cummings and just took his template and ran with it.

I’d say it was useful for someone who hadn’t had a background in strategy to have a template to follow. I think that made it more, it felt like I was shipping something at the end. I could follow a blueprint and feel like I had done something by the end of it, rather than just sitting there and thinking, “Oh, maybe this is a strategy.” The template helped a lot especially the first time around.

Louis: I think in the next few minutes, what we’re going to do is we’re going to go through this template and trying to look back at the time where you set up a strategy for Buffer. How you went about it, maybe the mistakes you learned from it, and how you would tell listeners how to do the same exercise, trying to really go about it step-by-step. What should you do first?

Maybe you can run through the template you use in terms of the different items that are there, briefly. Then we can dive into how you actually agreed on each of them. Because I suppose it’s not chronological, you don’t follow each one-by-one. You don’t do them one-by-one.

Kevan: Exactly. The marketing plan, it has a few different sections. It starts with a purpose, and this is the company-team purpose: Why are you doing what you’re doing? I guess it’s a bit of vision in that sense.

There’s a core value section: What values guide the work that you do? The target demographic for your product, the promise of your brand, 200 words on what the brand is, an elevator pitch which is a bit longer, so it lets you go into a bit more detail. Basically, the pitch you give someone if you only have an elevator ride to convince them to use your product.

Then some numbers. So, a three-year target, where you want to be in three years, where you want to be at in the current year. Then goals and priorities, so you can break it down, based on cycles or quarters, however, you work with your team.

Louis: Perhaps, could you give us an example from Buffer? Maybe not all the ones, but at least, I would say the purpose, core values, target demographic. I think people would, because most listeners I know, know of Buffer. It probably would be nice to put that in perspective. What’s Buffer’s purpose at the minute?

Kevan: Yeah, so the purpose is to give people a greater voice on social media. At the minute, the purpose has shifted a little bit to help small businesses grow. It’s somewhat of an aspirational idea that you want to get at, a bit bigger than maybe the exact benefit of using the product. We try to zoom out a little bit when it comes to the purpose setting.

Louis: Then your values I suppose. I remember you updated your values recently. You even posted it on your blog. What are your top three values would you say?

Kevan: Yeah, for the values exercise we’re lucky that the company has a set of values too, so we could have just cribbed off of those. That would have been nice and fast and easy.

But, basically, we took those, and we said, “Well, what is, given this template, this foundation of values, how do we conduct our work? What difference does it look like within our marketing team?”

We ended up with a few. We had high-quality work. We had honest, authentic, a few others, and then a big key for us is, “Always do the right thing for our customers and community.” Maybe, an overall guide would be empathy is probably the theme of the values there.

Louis: Then your target demographic, because you said, yeah, you’re switching a bit from to help small businesses grow. Recently, you expanded your offering with Buffer Reply or Respond, was it? Which one-

Kevan: Yes. It used to be called Respond, now it’s called Reply, yup.

Louis: Oh, okay, that’s why I’m confused.

Kevan: Does a little bit of both.

Louis: What target demographic did you pick just for your own strategy?

Kevan: We ended up with small businesses. We also cater a bit to personal brands, so we’re in the midst of choosing a target customer company-wide at the moment. For the most part, it’s small businesses. Then, we’re going to be more specific in the coming months about what we mean when we say small businesses.

Louis: Right. I’m just going to go and run through the items again, and then, we’ll try to go through the exercise of filling those out together, step-by-step: the purpose, the core values, target demographic, the brand promise, the elevator pitch, the three-year target, the annual goals, the quarterly, monthly, and cycle goals, and the priority projects.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t sound like we fill this one-pager one item at a time. It sounds more like you fill the gaps here and there together. There might be some steps that are not that simple when you’re starting out.

How would you advise listeners to actually fill this page and potentially using your own experience? Where do you start? What is step number one?

Kevan: Yes. Well, the very first time I did this, I did go top to bottom and just filled it in like a Mad Libs. It was maybe not the easiest or the best way to go about it. I would say step one is to figure out the purpose, figure out the vision, purpose-vision, that bigger idea.

Louis: How do you go about it?

Kevan: That’s an excellent question. It typically comes from the company itself. This purpose that is on our sheet is basically our company vision. Very easily, I just copied it from our company vision.

If you’re leading a marketing team, hopefully, you’re part of those conversations and can shape it at the company level. Then, it’s basically fill-in-the-blank when it comes to the marketing.

Louis: Let’s say, you’re not the marketer, the marketing director. You’re actually the CEO or C-suite, and you need to figure out a purpose that doesn’t sound fluffy, yet, that is inspirational enough. Do you have any tips to help people figure that out?

Kevan: Yeah, I can give you another exercise. We do use this marketing one-pager still, and we’ve also added what’s called a vision framework. It comes from Jim Collins, and it has a bunch of different elements to it. It has core purpose, core values, so, some of the similarities to our one-pager.

It also has something called vivid description and BHAG, and the BHAG stands for big, hairy, audacious goals. In the course of going through this vision framework, there’s questions to get you thinking about, okay, what gets you excited in the morning?

What kind of work could you be doing that even if you weren’t paid for it, you’d still be doing? Once this job goes away, what kind of work will you still be doing after this job?

It really gets at the things that you’re personally passionate about. I think at that CEO, founder, personal brand level, entrepreneur level a lot of the work that you do probably has to have some element of that in order for it to be work that you can be excited about and be excited about why you’re putting in all the work to make the thing work.

We use that vision framework exercise. We did it earlier this year, and it was super useful. Especially, the vivid description part, where you describe what your company is going to look like in five, 10, 15 years. We wrote a press release. Well, actually, I wrote a New York Times article–a fake New York Times article–just to see what life would be like if all of our dreams come true. Then, you work backward from there.

Louis: Yeah, and that’s something I discovered from you actually a few months ago when I stumbled upon your profile again. That really was a nice thing to see.

This exercise is basically, as you said, it could be a press release set in the future, it could be an article in The New York Times. But, it’s really about the things you’ve accomplished. The things you want to accomplish in the next five, 10, 20 years. It might sound fluffy but, actually, works really well to focus on what matters the most. It’s quite interesting.

I never worked on the vivid description thing, but I did work on my purpose quite a lot for the podcast, and why I’m doing it. I finally managed to go through a purpose that is simple enough I can say it in three words. I love to say it every time I can, which is, “I fight marketing bullshit.”

I love it, and it doesn’t really say where I’m going. But, I think there’s going to be enough marketing bullshit out there for the next 50 years that I think I’ll still be trying to fight it.

But to go back to the exercise then, how did you go about doing this vivid description? You said you wrote it, but how did you … Did you meet with your team? Did you have three calls with your team? How did you go about understanding that this is actually where I want to go as a team?

Kevan: I did zero calls with my team, which, in hindsight, might have been the wrong move.

Basically, my approach to it was, I feel like I have a very strong intuition of knowing what Buffer is about, what my team values, historically, what we have done, what’s worked for us. Given that information, I felt pretty solid about moving forward with it.

I went through the vision framework exercise all by myself, and, after I had done it, I shared it with our CEO. He and I spent, we probably spent a couple weeks on it, but, truly, it was asynchronous. It was, he would look at it one day, and I would look at it the next day for 15 minutes each, so a total maybe a couple hours together on it.

The reason why I went, so I did it and, then, went up to the CEO with it is because it needs to be aligned with our company, our overall company direction. If marketing is headed off in one direction, and products are headed off in a different direction, things aren’t going to work. We had to be pointed in the same direction.

I feel like I’m close enough to my team that I know–this sounds super egotistical–but I know what they think and where their hearts at, so it was a pretty easy sell once I was done with it from the higher level, and then I shared it with them and got their thoughts and not much changed there, because it was all pretty good to go.

Louis: From someone who probably doesn’t have the intuition that you have, because that’s not a trait that a lot of people have. Or someone who maybe works on their business on their own or has a small team–how do you advise people to actually come up with this vivid description about where you’re going to go as a company? What you’re going to accomplish?

Kevan: I think in the way that the framework works, you start with your purpose and your values, and then, from there, the vivid description fills out. Definitely, start by understanding where you want to go, and what’s going to guide you, what values are going to guide you to get there.

A lot of it for me was, what would be exciting for us as a team? What would make a real difference in the world? What would making good on this purpose look like if we were..

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If you’ve ever wondered how to grow your business when nobody has an idea who you are, this episode is for you.

Here’s the thing: I know what it’s like to start a business and have to market yourself on a small budget.

What steps do you take when you don’t have the money to spend on advertising and nobody cares about you yet? Ryan Kulp explains his strategy and more inside today’s episode.

Listen to this Episode:

We covered:

  • Why Ryan really writes all of his emails in lowercase
  • The truth about customer profiles (and why your ideal client doesn’t exist)
  • How to develop a gut feeling about your potential customers
  • Why writing daily can help you discover your biggest strengths
  • What happens when you look at what your competitors aren’t doing
  • Why your mindset matters when it comes to getting more done
  • How to become a better marketer by creating


Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour. And welcome to another piece out of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com. The marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.

In today’s episode, you will learn how to grow your business steadily, without ads, and especially when nobody cares about you. So, my guest today is the founder of the social proof marketing company Fomo. They have 13 employees so far. They recently launched an ad network, actually, which just reached 1,000,000 impressions.

What’s interesting about my guest today is that he has a very, very similar vision than this podcast. Which is, to give back marketing its good name. He’s also an investor in bootstrap startups. And I’m not going to lie, today’s guest is quite a character and not your typical Silicon Valley founder. He lives in New York City to start with.

He starts every single sentence with a lower case, which drives me absolutely insane. He does not reply to emails unless you donate to a charity. He doesn’t use LinkedIn or Facebook. And finally, he openly shares his political views for everyone to see. Ryan Cope, thanks so much for being on the show. Let’s hear what you’ve got.

Ryan: Thank you for having me Louis, appreciate it.

Louis: Do you like the intro? Was it okay?

Ryan: That was, wow, fantastic. I like knowing that it drives you crazy to write in lowercase. I think now I’m gonna try to write in small caps lowercase, to make it even worse.

Louis: Exactly what I was expecting of you. ‘Cause I know you do it for a reason and I know many Grammar Nazi are probably like emailing you every day, so why the fuck are you doing this to me?”.

Ryan: Yeah, they do. Well, people wanna understand: Why are you breaking these rules? These societal rules. They’re actually all arbitrary rules. But people forget that qualifier about them and they say, “Well, how can you do this if you do that?” Right, how can you grow a startup if you don’t pay for advertising?

“How can you hire team members if you don’t raise venture funding? How can you get customers if you don’t use shady influence tactics? How do you do that without this thing?” And they’re failing to recognize that the premise is wrong. The premise is actually created by those industries, right?

So, the idea that a lot of us have ingrained in us as tech founders, that we have to raise money: If I only raise money I could do this. That idea didn’t come with us when we came out of our mother’s womb. That idea has been taught to us by Silicon Valley investors. Right? Similar to that idea that we should all buy a house and never rent apartments. That we’re throwing away money if we rent.

Look, I’m open to buying houses. One day I will buy a house. But we have to acknowledge that the premise there is funded by billions and billions of dollars. Of banks getting together and saying, “Hey, we ought to convince the populace that people should own houses. Or else, they’re throwing their money away.”

So, this phrase we hear ourselves say out loud; and many of these phrases, they’ve just been kind of programmed into us. “Oh, you’re not buying? You’re throwing money away.” Well, that sentence was given to us, was delegated to us, by a bank.

And we didn’t realize it because they used shady marketing tactics to embed that sentence in us. But we do the same thing in tack. We do the same thing when we think about marketing maxims. We do the same thing when we think about how we construct sentences in our emails.

And so, one small point that I make daily with anyone that I speak with, as you’ve brought up, is I write in all lower case. I still use pronouns because I want to demonstrate respect for people, places, landmarks, ideas, whatever.

But I write everything else in lower case because it demonstrates that this premise of sentence case is something that was taught to us in elementary school. And it doesn’t actually mean anything. It doesn’t actually matter. People actually prefer to talk to other people. Which means we prefer being casual, which means we prefer things like lower case. If that’s how we send text messages, why can’t that be how we send contracts?

Louis: Right, I knew that behind this behavior was lying a very contrarian view of the world. I’ve read a lot of your articles and a lot of your tweets as well. To get a sense of who you are as a person. It’s pretty clear that you like to challenge the status quo and all of that. And that’s pretty cool because I’m the same. This is why the podcast started.

Before I ask you more about who you are, why are you such a contrarian person? What made you this way? Towards the end of this episode, let’s drill down to the nitty-gritty. Let’s read down to the actionable part that everyone wants to know. Because growing steadily your business, without using any ads, and especially when nobody gives a shit about who you are. And you in particular, how do you do that? And that’s a problem that all people suffer from.

Let me describe a situation for you, alright? Ryan, you have all the knowledge that you have accumulated through the years and throughout the multiple projects you’ve started. And some of them sold, acquired other companies and all that. I have formal experience that you’re ready right now.

But let’s say, I challenge you to forget about not your knowledge, but to forget about you as a person and credibility. And starting from scratch when it comes to you. So, let’s imagine that you have no credibility. That nobody knows you and nobody cares.

Let’s also imagine that I give you six months to change you. To use the knowledge you have and to grow a business from zero to a business with a decent revenue. Something that we can define that together. What we mean by decent revenue. But trying within this six months time frame to grow this business without using your network. Without using your credibility. And starting really from scratch.

And to add to that, that last part of the challenge is: to do this $1,000 or less. Right? Now, that’s a big premise. And maybe you’ll say, “No, I can’t do that at all.” But let’s see what you’ve got. So, if I give you this challenge – six months, $1,000, without using your name. How would you go about creating a business, without these ads, and starting to generate revenue? What would be step number one?

Ryan: Sure, well I actually kind of like when you say that there’s a budget constraint. I think it starts there. Because I think, ultimately, when someone says you need to do this or you need to do that. Let’s say, the show the Apprentice, or something. And you only have $100 to spend. What they’re really saying is: You have no money to spend. Right? Because what’s the difference between $100 and $1,000? What’s the difference between zero and 1,000?

If you have six months, the largest resource you’re putting forth there is your time, your know-how, your resourcefulness. Really, Google. Google spreadsheets and documents are going to be the output. And hopefully some users in revenue from six months of work.

Let’s just say I don’t even have $1,000 budget, right? So, that means I’m not gonna do any advertisements. My process? This is if I have to change my name and I had no network. And all the things you mentioned, those constraints. My process is very simple. It’s who is your customer and where is your customer.

And the way I derive there is I look at the product I have that moment to sell. The product incorporates not only, let’s say, it’s a SaaS app. Not only the actual product, the thing you log into. But also, the level of service, the pricing, the expectations, the downtime, the uptime, the knowledge base. All of this support. All of the entire ecosystem surrounding that product.

You look at what you have today to sell. You figure out, not your ICP, which is your ideal customer profile. And that’s a lie. Everyone’s ICP is the same. Everyone’s ICP is Google, right? Because Google has unlimited money. They pay on time. They book in advance. They never bother you. Everyone’s ICP is the same. So, ICP’s don’t exist. What I instead think about is our RCP. The realistic customer profile. And that’s the person, or the entity, or the business that I can sell to today, with my current product.

Not the company that might start a free trial next week, or next month, or after this one feature’s done, or ready, or after we do a big pricing discount. Who would look at my product today and say, “This is a no-brainer”? That is my RCP. And my RCP can change every single day. That’s fine. And so, once I’ve identified my RCP, that’s who is my customer. I then ask where is my customer. Specifically, where do they hang out online?

So, if we’re in the context of a tech business, where do they hang out online? If you’d have asked me, if the prompt was, “Hey, you walk into a struggling bakery in South Carolina. A small town with a population of 15,000 people. How do you help them grow in six months?” Well, then it would be where do my potential customers hang out physically in person. Are they at cafe’s? Right? Something like that.

Right, supposing we’re still in a tech context, it starts where figuring out where they hang out online. And then I go there. I go to those places. Maybe that’s a forum. Maybe that’s Reddit. Maybe they’re reading blogs. Maybe they are actually clicking ads. Maybe they’re on Facebook and Facebook Groups.

Wherever the customer is, I go there. I get to know them. I talk to them. An as Gary Vee says, “Add value, add value, add value. And then, ask for their business”. I’ve done this for years. So, it doesn’t matter if some people might know Ryan Cope. Or, my acknowledged FOMO. Or might’ve heard some of these things.

That process is the same. And as you grow your network and as you do these things, you actually just develop a gut feeling for who the customer is. You develop a gut feeling for where the customer is. But the process doesn’t change. I think if I were to take everything I know now and throw it in the trash, what you ultimately then do, as a marketer, as an entrepreneur, you go full circle in that process.

When you’re just getting started you say, “Look, I know nothing. I assume nothing. I know nothing”. So, you read books by Eric Ries and you look at blog posts that say: test everything, lean startup, do customer development surveys, launch an MVP without any code, do a landing page, take money before you build a product.

These are all really common pieces of advice. But they only really are useful, they only are really necessary if you know nothing. Or if you’re coming from the perspective that you want to know, or assume nothing. But then you start to get a gut feeling about things. Then you start to figure out, “Well, I can kinda look at this business. Spend ten minutes doing either keyboard research, or searching around for competitors, or whatever.”

Suddenly, now, you can size up. “You know what? I don’t think I’m gonna be able to grow this with ads. Because the PPC is 50 bucks.” “You know what? I don’t think I’m gonna be able to grow this content. Because I use XYZ tools. And all the top-ranking posts have a domain authority that would take me two years to achieve.”

Right? You start to size things ups and figure things out. Then you get a head start. So, every venture gives you some lessons. So, that that next venture you can go from zero to something faster. But ultimately, what happens is, in this prompt we’re going through now, where I have six months to grow something from scratch. And I don’t get to use any of my tools. What I’d ultimately do is implement the ultimate wisdom. Which is, back to I know nothing. Right?

So, if I were, let’s say, to one day exit FOMO. And these other projects I’m working on and start a brand new project. I would have the option then to either say, “Well, I’ve spent years developing my gut. And gut is sort of insight, but some people call it bias.” I tweeted the other day. I’m trying to understand what’s the difference between bias and insight. And nobody has an answer yet. So maybe, if someone wants to chime in, I’ll probably retweet that.

But when you acknowledge that you have kind of an idea of what works and why; you can then decide consciously to reject that and start over from scratch. With customer development surveys, with landing pages, with pre-paid accounts before you build technology, with wireframes that you just send to people as attachments. Instead of even building a landing page. So, it all kind of comes full circle.

Who is the customer? I’d figure that out by understanding the product. If marketers don’t understand the product then what are they marketing, right? Anyone can sell anything once. That’s the other piece here. So, how would I grow something? Well, it depends the nature of the thing I’m growing, this business model. If it’s an info product then I could use suave and charm, and influence tactics, and scarcity and urgency.

Because anyone can sell anything once. That’s why there’s a lot of really scummy marketers selling info products. It’s not because info products are bad. It’s because info products, by the nature of their business model, one-time very large ticket item sales; they attract people whose skills sets are suave, charm, scarcity and then they bounce. And then they disappear. They attract people who only want to work one day a week. They attract people who only want to work really hard for two weeks every quarter, right?

The business model attracts the scumminess. It’s kind of like skateboarding, right? Skateboarding’s great. But skateboarding has a culture of being a punk ass. Skateboarding has a culture of being anti-authoritarian, dropping out of high school, and getting tattoo’s. And maybe cracking your head open. Those are separate, but they’re sort of symptoms of part of the skateboarding culture.

There’s something similar going on with business. And when you’re in SaaS. To me, that’s the most honest business model. On one hand, consumers could say they don’t like paying every month. “I want to pay one-time.” But, on the other hand, consumers can stop paying you if you stop delivering on the promise.

Marketing is all about following through on the promise of the product that you’ve shared with someone. And so, in SaaS, you don’t get to just sell something once. If we sold Fomo to thousands of people every month, once, we wouldn’t have a business.

It only works because we followed through on that promise. So, it keeps us honest. Business models, in a way, also dictate how you grow something. And what strategies you use. Without your network, without even looking at the product in detail. Just thinking about the business models makes an impact there. How would I go about doing it? Maybe more specifically, I think I might need a prompt for the type of business. Right?

Louis: Let me stop you there. Because you shared so many things that are very interesting. I feel the need to deconstruct it and go back. Let’s say, exactly as you said, “Let’s agree that we are not gonna talk about the making of the product today, together.” Because that’s not really the point of this episode.

But instead, let’s assume that we do have some sort of a product that is in like version zero point one. Let’s say it’s a subscription business, right? Maybe we can come up with one right now. You mentioned network, you mentioned you did FOMO. What rough idea would you like to pick right now? Just so that we have an idea that we can start to say, “How do we sell this?”.

Ryan: What about milk delivery? To your home.

Louis: Alright. So, milk delivery that you pay online though.

Ryan: Sure.

Louis: Alright. And it’s kind of a tech company in the sense. ‘Cause then you can, very much like SaaS, you pay every month. You get it delivered to your door every day.

Ryan: Sure.

Louis: And you need to keep delivering that, so that person keeps paying you, and gets its milk delivered every day.

Ryan: Totally. So, Instacart for milk. Instacart minus the vegetables.

Louis: Alright, let’s start with that. So, now that you mentioned this ideal customer profile and this realistic customer profile. There’s one thing that you mentioned. If I had to summarize, if I had to sell something that I think people would really like to get know, understand more; is this concept of guts.

I think, this challenge that I started with you, is not about forgetting what you know. It’s just forgetting your name. In a sense that you can just seem to sell easily ’cause you already have a huge network. But, indeed, you can and you should use knowledge and those guts that you’ve developed through the years.

Maybe let’s try to extract those pieces of wisdom that you have. That you naturally kind of go through every time you think of something using SaaS. Then maybe we can make them explicit for everybody else to know.

Ryan: Yeah, sure. We actually do this exercise a lot. On kind of this side of FOMO. I also buy small companies like you mentioned, through an entity or a fund we started, called Fork Equity. And when we’re looking at companies to buy, we have all of these constraints going into it. So, before we look at the code. Before it’s kind of our problem to grow it, we go, “Well, I only have a few hours a week I could dedicate to a new project”. And that’s the lens we now look at those projects with.

Is that the most ideal way to evaluate possible acquisitions? Maybe not, but it works for us, right? For example, if we come across a business, we figure out: how many sign-ups do you get per day? Where do those sign-ups come from? If the source of those sign-ups is one channel over another, that alone could be a deal breaker for whether we buy the company. Some of our businesses–and most of our side project businesses–we really on inbound traffic.

It’s evergreen. It doesn’t require daily maintenance. It actually kind of compounds over time. Whereas, there is a lot of marketing channels that have the opposite effect as compound interest. You actually have to work harder over time to get the same results. I think one good example of that would be something like Facebook Ads. Right? As you exhaust an audience, as you see in your Facebook Ad campaign portal, that your frequency is above three, or a seven, or whatever heuristic marketers are sticking to these days.

Now, suddenly, you need to cycle out a new audience. You have to redo your metrics. Now, you have to compare historicals. And say, “You know what? Should we just keep hitting our old audience? Or should we go after this new market?” If you change your audience too much, now you need to go to your website and change your messaging. Set the handshake for from those new ads to the new audience resonates with them. It’s kind of a mess.

Whereas, you have an inbound kind of primary source of traffic. Or source of clients. Then, you could do things a lit bit differently. And maybe, you can focus on building the product, or outsourcing product development. And just focus on very high level, “Where do I show up?” And Google.

And so, the knowledge you have allows you to look on a per-channel basis. Compare that to your bandwidth, compare that to your interests, and your competence. And now you have this matrix, with a document. With a pen and pad.

You can kind of go through multiple scenarios before you buy a business. Before you join a company. Before you start a company. And you can kind of already model out how the growth may develop. And again, it’s not 100% certain. But, I’ll put it this way. You know a lot of marketers talk about “test everything, test everything”. I don’t know.

Louis: Agreed.

Ryan: It’s cool. But, you could save a lot of time if you have a little bit of conviction.

Louis: Yeah, that’s why I’m struggling to understand the concept of this book. That talks about all those channels that you need to test one-by-one. The Growth Hacking book talks about it. There’s also this, I’m going to forget the name. But, there’s this book that goes through, basically, 19 or 17 channels you can go through.

Ryan: Traction.

Louis: Traction, exactly. And I always followed with for the exact reason: first off, you have knowledge; it’s doesn’t sub channels and you don’t have that in other channels. Also, as you said, the more experience you have, the more guts you can use.

To say, “You know what? These type of channels, for the type of company you are trying to create, it’s not gonna work. We are here for the long-term. We are here for the long haul.” And therefore, only focusing on ads and PPC. Social ads is not gonna create for us and all of that.

So, can you repeat for me, the matrix that you just started to mention? That you can kind of draft on a piece of paper?

Ryan: Sure. Well, I think the process is working backward from some goal...

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How do some companies stay on the top while others go out of business? The answer is change. If you want to move forward in business you have to embrace adaptation. In fact, it’s always been this way. Technology is just advancing at a faster pace than ever now.

In this episode, we’re joined by branding expert Allen Adamson. He explains what steps companies need to take to stay relevant, how to successfully evolve with the times, and why diversity matters when it comes to your team.

Listen to this Episode

We covered:

  • Why most companies fail to stay relevant in today’s world
  • What happens when you stay focused on your competitors
  • How disruptors put major companies out of business
  • The reason why your business should stay in startup mode
  • Why companies who stay ahead tend to have a diverse team
  • How to convince risk-averse leadership to change things
  • Why word of mouth drives the marketing world today
  • How to become a purpose-driven business with authenticity


Full Transcript

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour. Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.In today’s episode, you will learn how to stay relevant in the business world before it’s too late.

My guest today is a branding expert who has worked in industries ranging from packaged goods and technology to healthcare and financial services. Hospitality. Entertainment. As you can see he’s quite an expert. He has appeared on NBC, CNBC, Fox Business Network. He’s often quoted in publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, and plenty of others.

He is the co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce, which is a marketing and product consultancy company designed to help businesses identify the right strategy that would yield the biggest results. Allen Adamson, let’s see what you’ve got.

Allen: I’m ready when you are. Thank you for inviting me.

Louis: You are very welcome. It’s clear that the world is changing very rapidly. I’m not going to teach you that, specifically not you. I’m not going to teach the listeners that either. It’s clear that technology is advancing at a pace that is absolutely insane. It’s very difficult to keep up. I think it’s quite overwhelming for people, marketers in particular.

What are the signs, in your perspective, that the business you’re in, the company you’re in, is starting not to keep up with the changes that are appearing in today’s world?

Allen: The most important sign is to realize that everyone is becoming your father’s Oldsmobile, as we say in the US. Becoming more irrelevant every day. The biggest mistake business leaders make, founders make, is to assume that everything is fine. They’ll just keep on doing it.

We did over a hundred interviews with a hundred companies. Large ones. Small ones. Public. Private. Start-ups. By and large, most of the companies, even though they knew they needed to change to stay relevant, failed to successfully change. Even though everyone knows that the world is changing faster, most companies fail.

One of the number one reasons is realizing that we all live in the old TV show called Frasier: Marty Crane’s chair. We’re all more comfortable with the familiar. One of the most important findings we found is that most people need to realize that they’re already falling behind because they’re more comfortable with yesterday than tomorrow.

Louis: That, I think, is a symptom of human kind. It’s incredibly difficult to fight: to go into the uncomfortable place and to do that. There’s a good reason why there are so many business coaches out there, marketing coaches out there, and all of those people telling you what you know already, but reinforcing it so that you can do it yourself. Right?

Allen: Yeah, everyone is on cruise control. You go into the office. You do what you did yesterday. You open your emails. You check your messages.

Most people operate based on yesterday’s frame of reference. I know I should go to the gym every day. A lot of people tell me that. But I still don’t go every day. The same thing happens in business. You got to realize that every day you’re slipping further behind. As you grow older, you don’t realize it until you look in the mirror one day with fresh eyes.

Louis: I wanted to ask you another question and dive straight away into the problem and dive into the solution that you propose. You’ve interviewed around 100 companies for this book. By the way, what is the title of the book?

Allen: Shift Ahead.

Louis: Shift Ahead. You’ve used your experience and the knowledge that you get throughout those 100 interviews. Right?

Allen: Right.

Louis: And the book is full of all the insight that you got from those conversations?

Allen: Yeah, it’s a combination of “Here’s what happened to Facebook” and “Here’s the lesson learned.” What are the teachable moments? What should you learn from what Facebook went through?

Louis: What other type of companies that you’ve interviewed? You mentioned start-ups and bigger companies. What type of people did you also interview?

Allen: The companies you would expect. P&G. GE. Facebook. Comcast. Maybe ones you wouldn’t expect. A public library in Connecticut. Who goes to a library anymore? A deli in Manhattan that serves pastrami yet is doing very well.

We tried to look for different types of nonprofits. It’s not a surprise to people in technology. When you’re out in Silicon Valley, everyone knows that you’re toast if you’re not moving forward. We wanted to see what’s happening across other categories as well.

Louis: How did you identify this public library and this deli? Was there a particular reason? Was it really random?

Allen: To some extent, somewhat random. I was thinking about libraries. “If anything’s obsolete, who goes to a library to get a book today?”

Somebody said “You should check out what’s going on at the Greenwich Library. They’ve shifted ahead from a library to a new business model.” We can talk about that later on.

Louis: Moving back to the actual problem we want to solve today, how to shift ahead, how to keep up with change, if you have to select the top three red flags that a company is serious in danger of becoming relevant, what would they be?

Allen: One of them is they tend to be playing too much tennis and not enough golf. Let me explain what I mean by that. When I was in brand management, I worked at a company called Unilever. We talked a lot about keeping an eye on the consumer. I used to sit in their kitchens and talk to them as they made dinner about what soap they were using. Why their skin felt differently. What shampoo was good.

We were very proud of ourselves for really watching the consumer and doing a ton of research. But at lunch all we talked about, and lots of the conversation in the hall was, “Did you see what P&G did yesterday? Did you see what Colgate” … We became totally fixated on Colgate and Procter, much more than the consumer.

Same when I worked with Pepsi. Pepsi was totally fixated on Coke. The world could be in flames. They were more interested in what’s going on with Coke in what country than how people are changing what beverage they’re drinking.

In tennis … I’m bad at both sports. But when I try to do better at tennis, my main objective is to watch the other guy, or the other person, and try to hit the ball where they’re not. But if you’re always focused on the other person, you get into trouble.

In golf … I’m also bad at that sport. I play with somebody. I want to beat them, but I’m not usually worrying about them. I’m usually worried about, “What’s the wind? What club do I use?” You’re more in touch with reality.

One of the big syndromes of people that fail to shift ahead is that you’re totally focused on what’s right in front of them: their competition. They must know something. They stop to look around. And most disruption, as you know happens not from your competitor, but from somebody on the side or behind you.

Look at what happened in the shaving category: the P&G and Gillette. They were totally fixated on Schick, but some Millennial in a warehouse came up with Dollar Shave Club. Did a video for almost nothing. Got a million views overnight. Is close to being able to put Gillette and Schick out of business.

He may not get the chance because he collected a huge paycheck from Unilever, but most disruption, as everyone knows, happens from around you, yet most people are only watching the other guy in front of them.

Louis: I love the description: the allegory between tennis and golf. That’s actually a very nice way to put it. I never thought about it this way. In golf, you need to focus on yourself. You need to focus on the trajectory you want to go after. You look at the market. You look at the things ahead of you. You don’t really give a shit about what the others are doing. You shouldn’t.

Allen: You made a bet on a hole, you lose that anyway. It’s not going to help your game. In tennis, it does make a difference. If you hit the ball right to the other player, you’re going to lose every time.

Louis: That’s one that a lot of people would definitely nod their head and agree. If you don’t focus on the customer and focus on your competitor, you’re kind of doomed. What would be the second?

Allen: The second one mostly affects companies that are publicly traded or there’s a stock price. Most of those companies, almost all of them, have what we found to be and what we call “golden handcuffs.” They always talk about doing what’s right for the long-term, but the entire business is driven to doing whatever it takes to make this quarter’s number and take some cost out.

It was rampant across every story, even to the point where we spoke to the folks at Campbell’s Soup. Campbell’s Soup is a big US brand. You don’t have to be a marketing genius to know that fewer people are going to a supermarket versus buying food elsewhere. Even fewer are picking up a can and opening it up and having soup.

They were sitting there. They’re saying things are pretty good. They showed us dollar sales volume going up. Of course, they showed their management dollar sales volume. The way they did that, they kept on raising the price of cans of soup. Even though volume was continuing to go down, dollars were going up. So Wall Street said “Good job. Let’s give you guys a bonus.”

At a certain point, no one’s going to pay $40 for a can of soup anymore and the whole bubble is going to burst. That’s an extreme case, but almost everybody was faced with that sense of drive quarter to quarter.

The big poster child for failure, even though it’s a very old brand, is Kodak. They owned photography around the world. They owned pictures. They had a profit margin that was phenomenal. They were swimming in money.

One of the things we found out, I worked with Kodak early in my career, was did they not see the train coming? To our surprise their forecasting people were incredible. They knew the day that the film business would be eclipsed by digital four or five years in advance.

Then the question is if you saw this train coming, why didn’t you get off the track? One of the big reasons was the golden handcuffs. Film was so profitable they couldn’t move $50 million from the film business to put it in a break-even digital business. They had to pay the bonuses to the film salespeople and the chemical people. They couldn’t make what some people refer to as an “asymmetrical bet.” They couldn’t move money from one bucket to the other. That’s a big challenge.

Louis: How can you shift to a new trend that you have identified five years ago and move the juicy profit that you’re making right now to this, even though it’s not going to be super profitable for now, but make a bet in the future? How can you do that when you only focus on the next quarter and shareholders?

Allen: When the research people made this project, the leadership who were into photography said “Digital cameras? Look at how fuzzy they are. They’ll never get–” … But the research people knew what they were talking about. Like electric and self-driving cars, people said “That will never happen. Maybe one day.”

If you look at the numbers, it’s going to happen sooner than you think.

The other one that broadly affects lots of organizations, big and small, is arrogance. Probably the poster child for arrogance, we spoke to people who were at BlackBerry while they were king of the heap. They ended up out of the business.

Same sort of questions. Anyone how was a mover and shaker had a BlackBerry strapped to their belt like a real nerd. Anyone in business seen using a phone. You talk to them and they believed that serious business people would never give up the keyboard. The iPhone was a music player. A toy. That too shall pass.

The number one challenge for the folks inside of BlackBerry was their belief that they were king of the hill. Somebody making a music player, piece of glass, that when you typed on it half the time your fingers were too big, didn’t hit the right letters, they said: “That will remain a niche toy.”

Arrogance, big or small, was a major challenge.

Louis: I was hoping you would mention the data conundrum that leads to absolutely no insights. Maybe you can talk about that a bit as well as a side.

Allen: Part of it is they collect tons of data but no one’s looking at it. I refer to it as a “Jerry Seinfeld.” You ever wonder why that’s happening? Why is that happening?

Early in my career, it was astounding that some people could look at numbers and say here’s why and here’s something interesting, and other people just report all the numbers. I was in a meeting at Unilever. Somebody said, “28% of people’s bathrooms have white tiles.”

I said, “Why are we collecting that data?”

“It’s up 5%.”

“Great. So until somebody clever in the research group said, “You know why that’s interesting, Allen? 95% of people who shop for soap try to match the color of the soap to the color of the tile. If white tile bathrooms are exploding in the US, we better come out with white color bar of soap. Otherwise, our pink bar won’t be” … But you still go to step back and say “Why do I care about it?”

Most people collect data and don’t say “So what?”

Louis: That’s a pretty good introduction to this episode. I think listeners are probably interested to hear your perspective on how to practically avoid all of those mistakes that you’re mentioning. How to practically avoid turning into a company like BlackBerry or Kodak or any of those companies that used to be huge leaders in their field that lost their way.

How do you do that? I know it’s going to be difficult perhaps to distill down to that level, but what is the first step to actually stay relevant and keep up with the changes?

Allen: To add on to your point, of the hundred companies there were a hundred ways you could fall behind and become irrelevant. There were very few, “Here are the three things we do to shift. They all need to do these three things.”

There was not a magic potion. There were a few things. Back to tennis, you had to avoid the unforced error. You had to make sure your pizza tasted good. You had to make sure your product wasn’t killing somebody. There were a lot of ways you could fall behind.

But there were a few things that help companies shift. The first one–where we started with Marty Crane–was attitudinal. The companies that tended to stay ahead of the game had a bit of what the famous founder of Intel said: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The companies that were succeeding and shifting ahead, the attitude was, “Just because we were successful yesterday, so what?”

In fact, we spoke to the folks at Marriott, who is one of the companies that’s tended to stay more relevant than many, many others in the hospitality chain. They just bought another huge chain. One of Bill Marriott’s famous quotes was, “Success is never final.”

The first one is to realize that just because you have a good quarter or a good year, the only thing for sure is that was yesterday. You better have an attitude of trying something new. So attitudinal openness or realizing that, just because you’re top of the heap, the only that means is you’re not going to be top of the heap tomorrow unless you change.

Louis: You’re working with a lot of big brands at the minute. You have worked with many companies in the past as well. From your experience, what does it take for a company to switch their attitude from thinking they’re on top of their game and they don’t have to change anything to thinking, “Shit. We constantly need to make sure that we move and shake things up.”

Allen: Not surprising: leadership. If the CEO was risk-averse, and most CEOs are risk-averse … “What could go wrong? How do I not get fired?”

Any time you shift ahead, the one thing that’s true is that betting on tomorrow is never a sure bet. Even when you think, “Apple knows what they’re doing,” it’s always a crapshoot. You need to have a culture and a leadership that says, “We’re going to try this.”

If you wait till you’re 100% sure, the only thing you’ll be is the number three or number four to market. You’ll lose that way.

When you’re looking at shifting your business … I think the auto business is perfect. You’re still going to make more money selling gasoline combustion engines. You’re still going to make more money building SUVs. The electric car is not going to be a moneymaker for most manufacturers until the convergence happens and a tipping point happens.

By the then, if you said, “Now I’m going to get into it,” forget it. It’s over. Across every category, when we’ve seen that happen, if you wait to see what happens tomorrow, it doesn’t work.

The other dimension is groupthink. Everyone yeses everyone to death. The firms that hire everyone that went to the same school, that grew up in the same neighborhood, that see the world through one lens, tended to more often than not get shifted into the ditch.

Companies that tend to stay ahead have a diverse workforce. Multiple points of view. Everyone looks at the world differently and don’t have a fixed worldview. Having an organization that looks at life differently and having a diverse team around you.

There’s an old book about the forming of the US government back in the 1700s. It was a team of rivals. If you surround yourself with people that see the world just like you and tend to agree with you, that was another massive recipe for it “It won’t be long until you are irrelevant.”

Surrounding yourself with people that see the world differently, and are comfortable speaking up, and a culture that’s comfortable disagreeing, and having good debates and good arguments, tended to lead to organizations that did well.

Louis: There’s a very good resource of the particular aspect, sharing your point of view and sharing your feedback, not being afraid to say what you think, a book called Radical Candor. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

Allen: Yes.

Louis: Very practical. Very interesting on this point of view. Hiring a diverse team seems to be something a bit more practical and–

Allen: It’s practical. Most companies don’t do it. Every company, they recruit from schools. “I went to this school, so we’re going to go there.”

They are all good schools. If you go to a good school, you hire someone who learns how to think and problem solve, not memorize and be wrote. But if you only hire from two universities, you’re going to myopic thinking.

Louis: Yeah. You’re going to get white males coming from middle class or higher. Then you start losing touch with customers, if the customer you’re selling to are not necessarily white males coming from the same background.

Allen: Exactly.

Louis: I want to go back briefly before we move on to step two or the other segment: the leadership side. A lot of listeners would contact me about this issue. They do struggle to change their leader’s mind when they do shady marketing. When they think that the way they do it is fine. They really struggle to change their mind.

From your perspective, when you come into a business where you clearly see leadership to be in a position where they don’t change, they don’t like change, they are uncomfortable with all of the stuff you mentioned before, what do you say? How do you convince them to change?

Allen: It’s difficult on the outside. It’s difficult on the inside. The best strategy is to make tomorrow real in front of them. When we share research, we don’t say, “42% of consumers think you’re irrelevant.”

We go out and film four or five consumers telling them, “I would never buy your pizza. It tastes bad. It tastes like cardboard. I’m online every day telling my friends your pizza tastes like cardboard.”

Making the number come to life is one dimension. The other is to prototype to show what the world is going to look like. Help them see around the corner.

There are a lot of major companies that hire futurists that will predict what life will be like. You don’t have to hire a futurist to really figure it out. You can go watch a 50 year old movie, 2001, or a Star Trek episode. They got most of what’s going to happen pretty right. They’re just sort of off on the “when” part.

When is really important...

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