Audience Intelligence, Influencer Marketing & Beyond: Rand Fishkin, SparkToro

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When we heard Rand Fishkin’s book, Lost & Founder was up for pre-order last year, we were among the first to purchase the book. As a young marketer growing up in Asia, Whiteboard Friday was the equivalent of Game of Thrones for us. Rand’s ability to break down complex topics into simple concepts makes him one of the world’s sought out marketers. As many of you already know, Rand is the co-founder of Moz, his work at the company has been a source of inspiration for many marketers worldwide.

Rand Fishkin, along with his co-founder & CTO, Casey Henry, launched SparkToro earlier this year. The company is on a mission to deliver high-quality market research and audience intelligence available to everyone. The platform helps brands to identify the online audience’s attributes, behavior, & sources of influence.

When we reached out to Rand for this interview, he was gracious enough to provide his valuable time to share his thought on his new company SparkToro and his perspective on various other topics including influencer marketing. We are deeply grateful for not just this interview but for the work that he has done over the years to help several marketers around the world to demystify SEO and other marketing topics.

1. How did you come up with the idea of SparkToro? Has the idea evolved from the time it was conceived?

In my latter years at Moz, I encountered a lot of companies, products, and ideas for which SEO didn’t really work. Instead of trying to find keywords they could rank for, these organizations needed to go out and *create demand*. That’s a tall task, and it requires knowing who your audience is, what they pay attention to, and where you can reach them. Existing tools couldn’t solve this problem, so we set out to create SparkToro.

The details of the product have evolved quite a bit since then, but we’ve stayed very true to solving this problem of discovering attributes, behaviors, and sources of influence for any audience online. That is, I hope, our mission for the longer-term future, too.

2. How has your journey been so far, and was starting up again easier considering you have already done this before? Did having a co-founder make it smoother?

In some ways, it has been much easier, and in other ways, the challenge is still quite immense. Certainly, our timing was awful — launching in April 2020 was probably the worst time to go live in 80+ years. Having Casey, whose work ethic and skills are truly remarkable, is absolutely a superpower. I couldn’t have done any of this without him.

3. Why do you think selection biases are prevalent among existing techniques used for market research? Why hasn’t anyone tried to solve this problem?

I think surveys and interviews — the classic tools of market research — are the primary problem. Everyone who uses them has been trying to solve the biases and selection issues for a long while, but it’s just really, really hard. You can’t get people to answer behavioral questions with 100% accuracy. Human memory just doesn’t work that way. But changing the toolset and the mindset of those who’ve become accustomed to surveys+interviews is also really challenging.

I wouldn’t say that no one has tried to solve these problems. But, until recently, it’s been very difficult to get the data. It’s only the last 5 or so years that enough of humanity uses publicly-crawlable platforms in enough volume to extract out the crucial information.

4. How do you see the influencer marketing space evolving? What’s your take on brands and influencers buying followers?

I think influencer marketing will continue to be a part of the marketing mix, especially for certain consumer brands that rely on impressions to audiences they can reach through “influencers.” But I think smart marketers will start thinking of “influence” more broadly — focusing less on paying half-naked people on Instagram to pose with their products, and more on reaching audiences through any/all sources of influence: publications, podcasts, videos, blogs, social posts on all sorts of platforms, etc.

As for buying followers… It’s a low ROI tactic that’s likely to keep attracting spam-fighting investment. Much like SEO spam in the early 2000s, it will likely fade to become a very small, low impact part of the industry.

5. With Google’s recent announcement on phasing out third-party cookies, how do you think marketers should prepare for a cookie-less world? As marketers, aren’t we experiencing a time where our sources of collecting data are getting narrower by the day (even clickstream data is difficult to come by these days with JumpShot ceasing its operations)?

Get emails! Seriously, there’s no better investment than doing marketing and producing content that drives folks to your site and gets their email address. With that in hand, you can do so many kinds of powerful marketing, and without it, you’ll be stuck relying on Facebook and Google’s duopoly for all your reach.

6. How do you think Google Search is getting impacted with customers increasingly choosing to search for products on e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Wayfair, and Macy’s?

So far, not too much. And Google is still where many of those searches originate, so I don’t think they’re hurting at all. It would be nice to see much more competition here.

7. What’s your perspective on marketing that’s happening in the Asia-Pacific region? Are there any brands that you like or follow?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of exposure to that geography or the marketing there. Hopefully in the years ahead, as I’ve got more bandwidth, I can start 🙂

8. Has the current pandemic changed your perspective on an aspect of marketing? Do you think we are moving into a contact-less future where digital consumption will increase?

E-Commerce is absolutely growing at a rapid clip, and I don’t think even the pandemic’s end (which could be a long, long time from now) will change that. My guess is that more and more of commerce will go digital, but like the rise of the web and mobile, it’ll be a slow, creeping growth that feels relatively organic.

9. What is your life’s philosophy like (Moz was famous for its TAGFEE Code)? How important do you think it is to have a personal code of conduct to succeed at work or otherwise?

I work hard to be thoughtful about how I operate, what I promote, whom I associate with and amplify, and what I share. It’s less of a “personal code” and more of a broad philosophy — I want to show great kindness, especially to those who have been marginalized, historically disadvantaged, or underestimated.

Codifying what’s important to you and what you want to see more and less of in the world is, I believe, hugely important. None of us can make the changes this world desperately needs alone. We have to take collective action at government and multinational levels, and that means voting with our dollars, our voices, our online amplification, and our actual political votes.

10. What qualities do you look for in potential hires, and how can prospective job seekers prepare for a role in marketing?

I love folks who are great at email — they respond fast, they have solid writing skills, and they can express their points eloquently and efficiently through email threads (even if they get long). I’m also passionate about folks who have good theories for why certain types of marketing does or doesn’t work. Even if I might disagree, that process of showing your thinking in marketing is a wonderfully-valuable skill.

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