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All right, let’s get started.
Hey there freedom fighters, my name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Almost 700 interviews with entrepreneurs who come here to tell you the stories behind how they built up their businesses so that you can learn from them, build up your own company, and come back here and share your own success story so you can teach others.
In this interview my big question is how do you build a strong online community? Rand Fishkin did it so I invited him here to teach what he learned. Rand is the founder of SEOmoz which has 310,000 community members who help each other learn search engine optimization. I want to learn how he did it with SEOmoz. I’m sure that this is an issue that’s at the top of his mind because he recently launched a new community site called Inbound.org which offers community curated marketing news. I love this site. I’m already a member. I want to find out what you’ve learned about community building and how you’re going to implement it here.
Rand: Thanks very much. I’m thrilled to join you again, Andrew.
Rand, one of the things that I’ve noticed about guys like you who have big communities already is that when you launch something you have an advantage over someone who doesn’t have a community. You had this big community at SEOmoz. What happened when you launched Inbound.org? How did it impact you?
Rand: Well, actually I was a little religious about trying not to leverage the community, specifically, at least, of the website of SEOmoz. SEOmoz community members didn’t get an email. There was no blog post about it on the site. There’s nothing in Q&A or in the forums or those kinds of things. There’s no message in your software for those users who are paying members of SEOmoz.
Instead, I actually leveraged the social connections that I had. This is primarily through three channels. That’s Twitter, where I have about 50,000 followers, Facebook, where I’ve got about 2,000 followers, and Google+ where I’ve got about 35,000 followers. Those three places are where I posted about Inbound.org. I’d actually been posting about it, and we can talk about the value of doing this as well. I seeded it in the minds of people that I was going to be building this back in November. I released regular updates about how the progress was going. We actually had a beta, a private beta, of it at the end of January for about 100 folks. Those folks ended up helping us spread the message about Inbound.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience that I had over years and years building up the community at SEOmoz was absolutely a factor, and a huge one, in helping with this. But that network actually extended itself outside the pure brand of SEOmoz and into the world of social media which I think is a very powerful channel these days for community building.
Andrew: OK, I didn’t realize that. I just assumed that you went to the 310 community members and said hey, new site and some fraction of them came over. You’re saying that you don’t even have to do that at this point and you have a strong launch. Can you give me an indication of how big the launch was at Inbound? By the way, for the audience, we have specific tactics that Rand learned as he was building SEOmoz. And some of them he’ll be using at Inbound. And my goal here in this interview is not just to promote Inbound, but I love the site and I hope that you go on it.
My goal is to have you learn how to build your own community, so that when it’s time for you to build your own version of Inbound.org, you’ll have a head start. You’ll understand how to do it right. And frankly, when I build a community for Mixergy, I want to come back to this interview and learn from it all over again. But, can you give me an idea of how big the launch was for Inbound?
Rand: Yeah. In the first seven hours, we had four minutes of up time. [laughter] We had one of those classic thoughts that everything’s fine, the beta has been going great. We’ve tested everything, let’s launch. You know, it’s Friday night, so it will be a soft launch because Friday night we know not a lot of people are not online. And we had about 10,000 people, probably more than that, attempt to visit the site. It was one of the top items on Hacker news, Inbound.org was after it launched. I submitted it, but nobody voted on my submission. It had already been up-voted somewhere else. And, we had some problems with the Twitter authentication, and so it was down for a good amount of time.
Over the next two days, Saturday and Sunday, we had just under 1000 people register for the site. We had just over 12,000 visits to the site, and we had about 600 or so submissions of content in there. Since then, the visit numbers is in the 30,000’ish range. The registered members are around 1,500. I tweeted some stats about it a day ago, and it continues to impress me. What’s nice is it’s growing very organically. I still have not touched the 300,000 plus members on SEOmoz to attempt to get them involved, specifically. And that’s actually for another reason, too, which is that Inbound is not an SEOmoz project.
This is a private project between Dharmesh Shah, one of the founders at HubSpot, and myself. Like yourself, Andrew, we love marketing content. We love this idea of how do I drive traffic to my site? How do I build visits? How do I get better at SEO? How do I get better at social media? How do I get better at community? How do I get better at content? How do I get better at analytics? Conversion rate optimization? And all of those things are in the inbound marketing world, so we launched Inbound.org, which is a domain Dharmesh owned. I found some designers, I got a developer. It’s been great.
Andrew: All right. I’m going to ask you a few questions later on, about the building of the site. Why you need Dharmesh. I love Dharmesh, but, I don’t know why you need him. I’m going to ask about that. I want to ask about putting a dollar sign here, to ask about the cost of building the site.
Rand: Everyone needs a Dharmesh in their life. [laughter]
Andrew: I would actually, I wonder. I might even build a site, just to partner up with Dharmesh, because having Dharmesh in my life would be that helpful. The guy’s freakin’ fantastic, but . . .
Rand: Not a bad idea.
Andrew: I want to find out about your motivation in a bit also. What else? I think that’s everything. Let’s go into specific tactics, and then we’ll touch on the ideas behind Inbound in a moment. I asked you before you started, what specifically, the person who is listening to us, should learn from your experience about building communities. And one of the first things you said is Andrew, they need to find a cause. Why?
Rand: People are driven by their passions and their interests. They tend not to be driven by some artificial or implanted goal that doesn’t touch on, either strongly on their interest graph personally, or their professional graph, from I want to make more money perspective. I want to advance my career. I want to get better at what I do. If you can’t find something that overlaps with one of those two, you’re going to have a very hard time attracting an audience. It is absolutely the case that less interesting, or more kind of boring professions, more boring industries, have a tough time doing this.
You can imagine that it would be tough to build up a great community of dental implant specialists. There’s not quite the technology and social media excitement. There’s not quite the acceleration in the field. Now, it’s possible, certainly possible to build something. But, I would be aiming towards something where you can build a passionate group. And for most entrepreneurs in the technology field, which is primarily your audience from my experience folks who are watching Mixergy, they have something that people are excited about. They have something that they got excited about. And there are more people like them. Maybe it’s only dozens. Probably it’s hundreds. Possibly it’s thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. And when that’s the case you can build phenomenal communities. I look at the community of something like an air B and B, where they have passionate people who love to travel, but cannot afford hotels, or don’t like them or want to travel with kids, or have special needs. I look at the communities behind something like SEOmoz where people have just a desperate desire to understand how search engine work, how community works, how to drive more traffic and sales and acquire customers.
Mixergy itself, right? How do I succeed as an entrepreneur? These types of passions become a cause, and they can build great community. If you don’t have that, you’ve got to find that angle before you can be successful with this.
Andrew: How do you find that angle? I imagine that a lot of people coming at this say: hey, you know what? I’m tired of driving all the traffic to my site on my own. It’s be better if the community was both producing content and bringing their friends in and competitors and associates into the site to look at their content so that I don’t have to do all the lifting myself. Or I imagine people saying I need more pages on my site, more page views so that I can generate more revenue, or I need to build a closer bond so that people eventually buy from me.
A lot of business motivation starts first from a selfish place, to be honest, and then you have to go out and say: think outside of yourself. What does everyone else want? And when we’re ready to think outside of ourselves and find that cause, how do we even do it? How do we find a cause that’s that galvanizing?
Rand: I think that oftentimes it comes from a very internal place when you personally have a problem that you’re passionate about, you will find that other people have that problem. And that is nearly universally true. I don’t think that it’s actually as challenging from the leap you’re describing. OK, I know I want to build a community now. What is the cause?
I think the challenge for most entrepreneurs, quite honestly, is thinking: if I build it, they will come, and that mindset is dangerous. And it ruins companies all the time. I was talking to a friend of mine here in Seattle. He’s an entrepreneur and started a great startup, but he said, “It made me realize, Rand, after the last three years that startups are not a technology problem, they’re partially a team problem and they’re mostly a marketing problem.
How do I get people to know about me and my site? How do I acquire customers? He said, “I can do ten things wrong, but as long as I have a customer base, I’m probably fine, I’m going to survive. It’s when I don’t have customers that things like, getting funding and making business development contacts and turning up the conversion rate and all of these other things seem hard.
Andrew: I’m going to come back to that in a moment. I want to find out about how to bring people to the site because you’re right, just having the cause is not enough, just having good software is not enough, which is why I’m saving the software cost for later on in this interview.
Going back to cause, if I understand you right, you’re saying I should ask myself: what’s really frustrating me in my life and look for that big frustration that I have related to my business. It might be something like, hey, you know what, there’s some days where I just lack all confidence in myself and my business, and I just want to give up, but I know I need to keep myself going.
Maybe, that’s where I build a community. Maybe, there are some days where I feel like there’s this whole world of cool people in my industry, and I’m completely scooted from it. As a result, I miss out on all of these things. I’m going to take all of the people that feel equally excluded, and then I’m going to bring this community just for us. That’s what you’re looking for, that level of depth, or am I…
Rand: Yeah. Andrew, if I put myself in your shoes, I can imagine you must have one of the worst – I don’t know what the syndrome is called – but keeping up with the Joneses mentality. You talk to entrepreneurs far more successful than I all day long, right? These guys have millions of dollars, and they have everything that all of the rest of us in the entrepreneurial field aspire to. It must be almost partially humbling and partially frustrating. I can imagine going home to my wife and being like, talked to a great guy today, another one. What am I doing with my life, right?
I think that’s a mentality that a lot of people can get behind, but it’s not the only one. I think that causes can come in such varied ways. I was talking too about a guy who runs a site called Noahsdad.com. And Noahsdad is phenomenal. The story behind it is tear jerking and incredible. So, this guy and his wife – his wife’s a doctor. They’re having a child. They run all the tests. Everything is great, and then they have this baby boy, Noah, and when he’s born they find out that he has Down’s syndrome.
This is kind of a heartbreaking thing. Normally, it’s detected during the pregnancy, and you get to prepare for it. You get to understand the risks and the challenges and all these kinds of things, and they were sort of surprised by this. It pulled a fast one on them. Of course, his wife being a doctor, it’s even more frustrating for her because she knows all of the things that she should have been looking for, etc. etc.
He goes on the web. He starts looking for information. He just pours through Google. He pours through all the social networks, he pores through all these social networks, he’s poring through Q&A sites, and he can’t find anything. He’s frustrated and a lot of the stuff is, a lot of the stuff that earns links and gets traffic is stuff that makes fun of people with Downs Syndrome which is tragic and horrifying and of course really scary for him and his wife who are having this new baby. And a lot of the stuff is classic medical information, but not particularly “how do I cope with this? How do I do the things that I need to do?” And so he starts up his own site. And he’s working with some experts and some doctors, he’s posting videos every day. Don’t get me wrong, this guy is not a genius writer.
You know, he has his own challenges learning to do this. But he has a phenomenal cause. And the cause is so great and it carries so many people with him that it’s featured on, I think he was on The Today Show, he was on CNN, he was on all these radio programs and television programs just because this is the kind of thing that brings people together. That brings people with them. And if you can find that in your business. I don’t care if you’re building, you know, I’m building software to help big data platforms scale on AC2. Well, you know what? There’s a shit ton of engineers who think about nothing else in their day other then how do I get my big data clusters on AC2 to scale? Right? And there is a community I guarantee it. There’s stuff they’re interested in. There’s forums and communities where they already start. There’s social media where they already congregate. And by levering those, if we’re talking about tactics, leveraging those existing channels to pull people to your community is a phenomenal way to go.
Andrew: All right. Find a cause, one big idea, one big tactic. One of the other ones that you gave me was. You said, Andrew, you’ve got to start by either having someone in house or bring someone else into the fold who can create good content. How do you, why good content? I thought I’d build the community, I’d create the software, I have the cause. The community’s supposed to build the content. You told me before the interview started, Andrew, you have to have someone internally who does it. Why is that so important?
Rand: Have you ever been to one of these forums that’s, you know, it’s trafficbuildingforum.info or whatever it. I hope that’s not someone’s site.
Andrew: You’re making it up but who knows, it’s probably alive.
Rand: I know, it’s probably there. But you go to this site and it’s, here’s twelve different forums and a blogs. And there’s zero comments on six different posts. And there’s, you know, twelve threads that have been started with one comment each from the person who runs the site. It feels like you’re going into the Old West and the tumbleweeds are blowing and the town is empty, you know. Clint Eastwood already rode in and killed everyone. It’s empty, there’s nothing there. That is why you need that start, that seed of content creators. And when I say great content, great content is a phenomenal way to do this. But if it’s great community or great discussion or great people or just fascinating stuff. Even just controversial stuff, which I don’t personally like but I’ve seen work many, many times. I’m sure you have as well. That kind of thing draws in an audience. But it has to be seeded, it has to be started someway. It can’t just be empty, blowing on its own. You can’t start a blog and have no posts and say, hey, guests post for me.
Andrew: I see.
Rand: I don’t, you know, I don’t have anything to say but hopefully you do and you’ll draw in an audience for me. That’s not a practical way to go about this.
Andrew: So, if I were going to start a forum on my site, or the person listening to us we’re going to do it on their site. They should be prepared to write a ton of the content at first, or to have someone in house be one of the most prolific content creators on the site at first. And people will come to read their stuff, and then eventually feel comfortable enough to leave new articles.
Rand: I think that’s one of the best ways to go, absolutely, is to have someone who’s phenomenal at blogging, at discussions, at creating video, at whatever content format. Maybe it’s infographics, maybe it’s data visualization, maybe it’s comics, I mean, comics are huge on the web right now. But it can also start in another way. So inbound no one is actually creating content there. Right? We’re just linking to other content. Inbound is very much a place where Dharmesh and I reached out to about a hundred people, who, you know, we posted some stuff on Google Plus actually about how we were going to be starting this community and asked for Beta folks. Told them they could e-mail us. And we have about 150 folks e-mail. We e-mailed them back and said, hey, here’s a beta invite to the community, here’s a user name and password. You can start submitting, start participating and contributing. And it’s that seed group that did it.
If you don’t have a large seed group, you don’t have a large social following, I don’t care. Get you and four other friends of yours who have the same problem. Get you and twenty other friends. You don’t have any friends? Go to some meet-ups. Join some online forums, start a blog. Start tweeting, start connecting with people. Go on Linked in and find the people you know. All of these things will build up small community. It doesn’t take many. Honestly, when SEOmoz started, it was me and maybe, two or three other people commenting.
My wife started a travel blog because we travel around the world a lot together. I speak at a lot of conferences, and she comes with me, and Geraldine started her travel blog, and for the first six months it was me, one of my friends and one of her friends commenting on every post. That was it, nothing else. And then, eventually… Now, it’s featured in Time’s best blogs of 2011. It won all of these awards. Now she’s getting 20, 30, 40 comments a post and thousands of visits each day, but it has to start somewhere. It has to start small.
Andrew: You know what? That gives me two thoughts. The first is I would be embarrassed to do that, to comment on my own blog, or to have my wife do it. But, when I hear that you’ve done that, and I understand that you’re coming from a good place and you’ve obviously built up several sites to a place where I’d like to build my sites, it’s reassuring. And that’s one of the reasons why I like having these kinds of conversations.
When I hear that you had that kind of problem, that you solved it in a way that I can solve it, I feel less like a loser if I comment on my own stuff in the future when I launch it. I say less like a loser because I still would have some internal doubt.
Rand: If you go to Inbound.org right now, you’ll see that, I don’t know, probably one in ten submissions comes from me and maybe, one in ten comments is also me. So, it’s…
Andrew: You know, that’s also a really good thing to remember because when I see you do it, I figure in my mind. Rand is really active on his site. One of the things that I admire about Rand is that he doesn’t just put things out there, he participates. It’s so cool, too, to see you and Dharmesh on there where if I were to see my own face on my own site there, I would think nobody loves me; nobody wants to be a part of my community. You know what, I don’t have all this negative self-talk, but there’s some that comes to play when you launch a business. You put yourself out there in the world, and you’re bound to feel insecurities pop up, and I want to address them.
Rand: Some day you’ll have to do a meta interview where it’s you on both sides of the camera.
Andrew: Just on the self-talk.
Rand: I don’t know. It’ll be good to watch.
Andrew: The other thing that I realized is that one of the things that drew me to HackerNews, this big community where I first found out about Inbound and other sites is Paul Graham’s articles. I wanted to read Paul Graham’s articles, and then I wanted to see what people thought about Paul Graham’s articles. And I think he linked instead of to comments on his own site, he linked to his submissions on HackerNews, and that’s what drew me in. You’re right. Having him be that strong first writer kept me going.
All right. So, we’ve got two big ideas. First, find that big cause. Second, have that great content that you’re creating internally, whether it’s literally you internally creating it every day or maybe, you’ll expand a little bit to your wife or to your friends or to the hundred plus who found you on Google+ or maybe, on offline events. It doesn’t matter, just be prepared to generate a lot of it at first.
Next thing you told me in our pre-interview conversation is you want to master one of several things, and you’ve mastered them all. So, let’s go through all of them. You said master search engine optimization.
Rand: Yeah, so.
Andrew: It’s a little intimidating for me to ask you about this because you’ve mastered search engine optimization in my head. I almost don’t listen to your answer because I think I can never do with Rand has done. He’s…
Rand: Oh, yeah. You can totally do it.
Andrew: Can you bring it down to our level, inexperienced SEO people. What can we as a community do to use search engine optimization to bring people in?
Rand: If you do nothing else, just a few principles will make a huge amount of difference. Number one, an accessible website. So, I see a lot of entrepreneurs getting very interested in sort of fancy, new technologies around… I want to program this and go. We want to make it all Ajax and that kind of thing. Just think about, can Google access this site’s content? If they can’t, you’re going to be in big trouble. If the only way to get through… Air BnB was like this for a long time. Faircast was like this for a long time.
A bunch of really good sites have had all of their content kind of hidden from search engines because you just couldn’t access it. Making it accessible is the first principle of good SEO. The second one is – for goodness sake, you know what your topic is. Go to Google’s AdWords tool and run some campaigns and see what people are searching for and do some cured (?) research Find those words and phrases that are being used by your audience and make sure that you have content that answers them.
Now, that content might be the home page of your software. The content might be an about page. It might be a features page. It might be a blog post that you write if it’s more ancillary related. It could be something on the forum, whatever it is. But know that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of things that people are probably searching for around your topic that could lead to customers and target those terms and phrases with content that answers what you think the question is being asked when someone types that phrase in. If I search for dealing with Down syndrome baby, or new parents with Down syndrome baby, Rick knows exactly what I’m going though. He’s felt that same pain; he has a video about that.
He has a video about the surprise, the shock, the frustration that comes from the anger, and all the emotions that flood up around a couple’s relationship around that. Fantastic, describe that, give people that same sense that you and I were just talking about of you’re not alone; this is a problem others face, here’s how they got through it. That content can be phenomenal and that is sort of the third pillar of great SEO, is content that answers the question that people will want to link to. The fourth and final thing that I worry about is spread that, spread that content, and that could be through social media, whatever you’ve got if you’re big on Facebook, you’re big on Twitter, you like using Google+.
Maybe you’re a Tumblr and you love doing reblogging, maybe you’re using StumbeUpon very heavily and you’ve got a bunch of followers there, fine, fantastic. Use that stuff. Maybe you are simply participating in a broader web community and so you’re going to try to get links from your friends, you’re going to launch press releases, you’re going to talk to the press, you’ve got exciting investors, you’re going to leverage their connections. Whatever it is, get some distribution of that content. SEO is really, really not that hard and there’s one that Google has made it very easy to cheat recently.
What I am about to tell you, historically, would have been Black Hat, totally Black Hat, but now if you go and you build a following on Google+ and you share your content there, you will rank number one all over the place, first page for everything that you share to everyone who’s following you. You barely even need to do keyword targeting anymore [Andrew].
Andrew: If they follow you and you’ve posted it, it’s going to show up first
Rand: That’s right. It’ll show up in the top two to three spots. Google’s bias toward Google+ content right now is at a level I’ve never seen from any search engine before on any platform. It’s like the federal government in the 1930’s deciding that every American needed to be a homeowner and suddenly, 20 years later all of us wanted to own homes desperately and it became part of our culture. It’s remarkable what Google is doing with Google+, so for goodness sake get on there. I think a lot of people ignore it because they think, “Eh, it’s not that popular yet”, and “I don’t know if it’s really going to take off”. It is so powerful for SEO right now.
Andrew: Driving me nuts that it’s true, but it’s true. You said make it accessible, use AdWord tools to find the right keywords that you want to go after, create content that answers the questions that you understand people are asking with those keywords that they’re searching for, and spread the content using Google+. Buy into their whole worldview that search everywhere, search your world is the future.
Rand: Not just Google+, but any channel you can and also Google Plus.
Andrew: By the way, before I go into the next thing that you told me before we started, that we should master, I’m wondering if we should maybe talk a little bit about the format of the community. One of the reasons that I go to SEOmoz is because I love your question and answer community. What is it, SEOmoz.com/q?
Andrew: That’s one way to build a community, with questions and answers. Another way is to use the Hacker News Inbound.org format, which is where people submit links to articles and then they vote on those articles and comment on them. Another is an old-fashioned message group. You guys have a forum.
Rand: We don’t have a forum.
Andrew: What do I use? How do I know which one to use?
Rand: For 90% of the people who are starting out, kind of new, I recommend beginning with a blog. A blog is a very easy format to start with. If the community participation isn’t heavy the content can still be great even if a blog is only earning one comment, two comments, no comments; you can turn comments off, it’s just fine. You don’t have to sweat it.
However, if you already have an existing community maybe through a blog or through a content or you know you’re earning articles and you can see that there’s an interest in sharing in different ways and a community, it being able to open discussions with each other, those kinds of things. A forum or a message board could be really helpful. I’d only really go Q & A route or something like the vote and social news voting route, like a Reddit, Hacker News, Digg, Inbound.org, I would only choose those routes if you already have a strong community who you know cares about external content, where there’s a lot of sharing going on. Otherwise, those are very hard to take off. I’ll be totally honest. With Inbound.org it’s a toss up as to whether that community is going to fly. Neither Dharmesh nor I have our whole business lives to contribute to it. We’ve got full time, very, very demanding other jobs.
I think it’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. I’m hopeful. The first week has been great so far. But we’ll have to see what happens with it. Those are high risk types of models, so is the Q&A forum, or a Q&A format in my opinion. Because if you don’t have that critical mass of people asking and answering questions it becomes this graveyard. People become frustrated once they’ve asked their question and no one has replied. People get frustrated when they’ve answered and they don’t get any points from it or don’t get any recognition or don’t get a thank you. I’d watch that.
Andrew: What about, then, and I’ve noticed that too that question and answer sites don’t tend to take off. Of course Joel Bolsky [SP] who created the platform for question and answer sites came on here to talk about why it failed. There aren’t a lot of sites like Reddit, like Inbound.org, like HackerNews. I understand that if I submit something there and I don’t get any votes I’m not going to be as interested in submitting in the future.
But wouldn’t the same thing happen in forums? Or why doesn’t it happen in forums? Why is it that forums have less pressure on creating community, and getting people’s questions answered, and their conversation to continue? What have you found?
Rand: I think it’s actually something to do with the way that we are accustomed to that format and also the way that the information bubbles up. In a Q&A site you frequently see the most recently asked questions in a section or you see the ones that are being voted up. You see the ones where people are contributing heavily.
In a forum you can almost hide the desert and only show the village. Right? By which I mean the content that is getting ignored and that no one’s talking about kind of dies very quickly. The content that’s being talked about makes its way to the top. I think people are also accustomed to forum threads, you know, oh, yeah, four days a week the forum threads are kind of dead but then something exciting happens and everybody’s talking about it on this forum again. They’re used to that lull and that hills and valleys.
Blogs are really similar. You can write a blog post every day for months and months and then suddenly you’ll have one that just goes huge. That will bring up your content. The traffic graph is really interesting. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s something we used to call the link bait bump. You get the spike, the traffic spike, from a very popular article going hot on the web, on the social web, on the link graph, on the SEO, people emailing it to each other. But then the traffic never falls back down to its original level. It stays at like this new, slightly higher average. That can build on itself and build on itself. A blog is a great way for someone who’s just starting out to get rolling with this.
Andrew: How do you hide the desert in a forum? If you have a few forum comments, or threads I should say, that aren’t being responded to what do you do to hide them?
Rand: Well, so there are two things. Number one, you as the founder, creator can go jump in there and create a conversation with just two threads, right? Two comments in a forum thread are often perceived as enough. Right? That’s a village right there. Now maybe you want 20 and you want a full city and you want a metropolis but a desert can be very easily hidden. The other way is if new threads are being submitted the old ones fall off really, really quickly. The home page of most forums is the most recent, active discussion in every given section. Even if a place only has one comment or one thread it’s fine because it looks like oh, well that’s the most recent one where there’s discussion and it’s new.
Andrew: I see. Right.
Rand: The format itself lends to hiding the desert.
Andrew: OK. Master social. You said master SEO, master social, master content marketing, master referral. Let’s talk a little bit about master social. Now what should we, beyond posting everything to Google+ because we know that Google is aggressively promoting it, what should we be doing to get high impact in social?
Rand: Social is one of those places where authentic contribution is absolutely essential but there’s a few really good tricks. Dharmesh, obviously, is the founder, one of the co-founders at Hub Spot. Hub Spot has this great guy named Dan Zarrella who does the science of social media marketing projects. He investigates huge data sets of Tweets and looks at what gets retweeted. What gets shared. What times of day are best for sharing? What types of words go into a tweet that gets shared more often than not? Some of his findings are fascinating and relatively obvious. Things, like sharing at the times of day when your followers are online, much, much harder than sharing at times of day they’re not because Twitter is a very temporal media.
It’s also the case that sharing links is much more interesting than sharing just text. So, if you can say: hey, here’s something exciting that’s going on, and here’s a link about it, that has a much better chance of getting retweeted. The way you title things, the way you interact with others. So, if you’re retweeting things from other people, particularly if you’re using the RT or this came via Andrew Warner, if you see me mention you four or five times, you’re going to start recognizing my icon, recognizing my user name and being like, that Rand Fishkin guy is really cool to me.
Next time he shares something, I’m going to be more likely to reshare it. It’s a community process. The same is true on Facebook, the same is true on LinkedIn, same is true on Google+. It’s that process of connecting with people you already know and then extending that network, having that authentic contribution. If I start following you and you don’t know me from Adam, you’re unlikely to be interacting and engaging. But if you then see, oh hey, actually we’re connected to the same people on LinkedIn and huh, he’s sharing stuff that I’m interested in.
Oh, this is kind of interesting. He was retweeted by a guy I already know. Now, suddenly I’m in your interest graph. I’ve earned more of your trust. And so, social is great for that, but it’s a slough, it’s a process.
Andrew: It really is a slough. I was on the phone with a Mixergy Premium member who told me that he was doing social media just like everyone said. He was tweeting at the people who he admired who had an audience. He was sharing something not even every day, as often as someone told him. He was really following through and still not getting any traffic to his website. I thought maybe he needed to move on past social media, and we found other approaches to potentially get traffic for him.
What do you say to someone like that who is putting his time into social media and not getting a result? What advice would you give them?
Rand: So, a few things. Number one is make sure that your assumption is correct, that your audience, the audience that’s interested in you, is on social media. I’ll give you a good example of this. I have been helping out a company down in San Francisco. I don’t do consulting, but this is sort of a friend.
Andrew: What’s the company?
Rand: The company is called Minted. It’s minted.com. They do essentially holiday cards and wedding cards and journals and all this.
Andrew: The founder was on here to do an interview. She had a huge story about the past, the days before the Internet bubble burst and what her business was like.
Rand: She started Eve Online.
Rand: And Miriam, she’s just a phenomenal person. Absolutely incredible; love her to death. I’m thrilled that you had her on.
Andrew: I really liked talking to her, uh-huh.
Rand: Minted is one of those where it found… You know what, the demographic is like 95% women who are affluent, who are bi-coastal, who have graduated college, oftentimes have a master’s degree. Their audience is not on Google+. It’s not really on LinkedIn. It’s not on a lot of discussion forums, but there’s a few blogs.
In fact, Pinterest is a phenomenal portal for them. If people are pinning their designs onto their Pinterest boards, the referral traffic from that is phenomenal. It stays on the site. It registers. That traffic comes back around the holidays and gets engaged. It’s amazing. You have to know where your audience is.
This Mixergy Premium member that you’re talking about, I wonder if he’s talking to people on Twitter who are not on Twitter. I wonder if he’s talking to people on LinkedIn who are not on LinkedIn, and he has to go and find those groups. Another thing that I would suggest, there’s a couple of tools that are really, really good One of the ones that I would strongly suggest to your audience is FollowerWonk.
Andrew: What is it called? FollowerWalk?
Rand: FollowerWonk, like political wonk but a follower wonk. Essentially, you can go to FollowerWonk and perform a search. Let’s say that I’m looking for dental assistants. So, I’m going to type in “dental”, and I’m going to see all the people on Twitter ordered by follower count who have put the word dental in their profile. Now, I know who the people are on there and how many and who are the people who have a high following who are in that world. I do this all the time.
When I go to a city, I think to myself: hey, I’m going to go to the city. We’re throwing an event or we’re speaking at something. Who should I be connecting with in that town? I’ll go to FollowerWonk sometimes. I’ll type in the city name, and I’ll be like, oh, that guy has 50,000 followers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Who is that? Oh man, I’m going to shoot him an email. I know a guy who knows him. That kind of relationship building and targeting is a great way to figure out your audience. There’s a tool for this for Google+ as well, called findpeopleonplus.com. So follower on can find people on plus, two great ways to do your research and target the right people on those networks and figure out whether they’re there in the first place.
Andrew: I take a lot of notes when you and I talk. And I should say too that in the pre-interview you didn’t say you have to master SEO, and master social, and master content marketing, and master referral. You just listed them as things you can master. You said master SEO or social or etc. And I just thought let’s talk about how you could do all of them. Not because the person listening is going to have to master all four of these and then everything else that we talk about. But, I wanted to give them options and let them understand them. Content marketing? How do we master content marketing?
Rand: So content marketing is really the practice of finding, not necessarily like SEO where you’re looking at cured research and see what people are searching for, although that’s certainly a way to go about it. But understanding what are the desires, and really, the missing elements of content from this particular field. I love what, we were talking about Noah’s dad did before, he sort of recognized, hey, there’s a lot of medical advice and there’s a lot of people who are being assholes to people with downs syndrome.
But there are not a lot of human supportive, storytelling. What’s it like to live with this? What’s it like to be surprised by this? Here’s a video of my son Noah and we’re walking on a treadmill. Walking on a treadmill is great for him at a really early age, even before he can actually walk, because it helps accelerate his development so that he can stay up to date to where other kids would be in their development cycle. That kind of stuff, it’s amazing. It’s amazing content. And that content itself is what has done so, so well to build up the community, to build up the traffic, to build up the excitement around the brand of that website.
So, content marketing is this practice of understanding the niche, finding the missing pieces, and creating them. It means you have to be good at a bunch of things. You’ve got to be intuitive and empathetic. And you also have to be great at content execution.
Andrew: Mastering referral. What does that mean? How do we do that well?
Rand: So referring traffic, is basically, sources that come from all over the rest of the web that are not necessarily search and social. These things all work together in concert. You know, Inbound.org, right? The whole idea of inbound marketing is that SEO on its own is not as good as SEO in social, and SEO in social on its own is not as good as SEO social in content. If you add those with referral traffic, you add that with content marketing. It’s great. A big portion of this is going out to sites that you suspect would link to you, talk about you, be interested in what you’re doing. Some of that is press and journalism, some of that is bloggers, some of that is finding forums and other niche communities, some of that is finding business development partners who could send you traffic. That whole world of referrals. Some of it might even be things like directory lists. For a lot of restaurants: Yelp. Yelp is absolutely critical.
Andrew: What is a good referral for SEOmoz?
Rand: Great referral for us is Search Engine Land. When Search Engine Land writes and article about us it send high quality, hyper targeted, just fantastic traffic. Another great one is Web Master World. It’s a forum they write about SEO issues all the time It’s great. Another good one is The Next Web. When The Next Web writes about us it’s entrepreneur people, technology people. I mean Andrew, when Mixergy… Mixergy is a great referral for us.
Andrew: I hope so. People better go over to inbound.org, Frankly, I would even suggest. inbound.org/incoming. And I’m going to say two reasons why people need to go there. First, it’s one think to come back a year after a company has made it and say, I wonder how it got here? It’s a lot more useful to look as it’s building up and say, oh, he changed that, oh, I see what he’s doing over here. And really learn from the trial, the error, the successes along the way. If you watch it in real time you can learn from it a lot more than if you just look back afterwards and try to figure out how they got here.
And that’s why, as soon as I saw inbound, I keep saying inbound.org because I want to make sure people know not to go to .com. I don’t know what’s on .com. Probably another one of [sp] domains. They own such great domains. He owns, I think, upstart.com, which is the way that he and I first met, I think. He owns a bunch of them. As soon as I saw you launched. I dragged the URL to my bookmark bar so that I could just keep hitting on it on a daily basis and just follow up and see what’s going on. To see how you’re developing it. To see, do the categories on the right disappear, and why would they disappear? Do the categories on the right get, you know, some of them end up showing up more than others. And that gives me an indication of the direction…
Rand: What gets voted on, what earns comments? Like, what it is that makes the tight take off? What, I suspect and if you, if the site does really well, if you come back a year from now and the site’s kicking ass and taking names it’s going to be because there’s a few articles that just did phenomenally well. And the discussion and the comments were amazing. And everyone on the web linked to that as the source of it, and you know, it brought up things that nobody was seeing before.
I was going to say I love this tactic of yours in general of watching a site. I recently, there’s a company up in Vancouver called unbounce. And I was e-mailing with the CEO, Rick, and I said, hey Rick you got to, I want to fly you down to Seattle and put you up in a hotel because I’m seeing the success that unbounce is having. And they’re not at SEOmoz size yet in terms of customers or revenue, but I want to talk about all the metrics that we built, all the metrics you’re building, what you’re seeing in terms of subscription revenue and customer growth and what’s working and not working for acquisition and retention. I’m fascinated by that. I think that that process of understanding a company, not once it’s successful.
You look at Apple today and you say, oh I need to be an asshole who’s amazing at design. That’s not what you need. That’s absolutely not what you need. But watching it in process, that’s what’s going to be helpful. Hindsight is 20/20. You think that you can see the whole thing from behind the scenes, you cannot. I would try to describe to you what made SEOmoz a success, but if you were watching it day by day, as you said, you would see so much more. You would learn so much more about how a community’s built, how a company is a built, how a start up is built. I wish, I hope I can do that with lots of companies, the way you’ve been doing.
Andrew: Do you actually. You fly entrepreneurs to your office so that you can exchange numbers with them, find out. How often do you do this?
Rand: This is only the second time actually. But, so the story of Dharmesh and I getting together is actually a fascinating one. We, Dharmesh and I started having phone calls earlier in the life of SEOmoz and HubSpot. For exactly this reason. We’d be like, yeah, our revenue’s going to be this, we’ve got this many customers, they’re staying this long. I’m seeing this in the cycle. July seems to be a slower month than most other months for us, yeah, us too. Here’s what the venture market’s doing. Like, all of those kinds of discussions. We’d have them late at night. I remember I’d be on my phone talking to Dharmesh like, how are things going with.
Andrew: How do you get something like that going? Where you and Dharmesh Shaw are on the phone. This is Dharmesh, a guy that had two huge successes behind him. Now HubSpot is killing it to the point where I can’t even ask him to do an interview and talk about it because from what I understand a lot of the good stuff he’s not going to talk about publicly.
Rand: I would argue against that.
Andrew: You think he would talk publicly about that?
Rand: Yeah, HubSpot has a big core value around transparency. They try to share all their numbers. So you should pester him again. He’s busy but, you should pester him.
Andrew: You think he’ll tell me about the, what do I hear about? I hear he’s got a warehouse of salespeople who call up everyone who signed up for one of their webinars, and, you’re nodding. So I could get him to talk about that?
Rand: I’m sure you could. And I would say, it is kind of funny. Because I think he recognizes the continuity between inbound marketing and sort of earning all this stuff. But they do. They earn all of those leads and then they reach out to them and sort of pre-qualify them and that kind of thing.
Andrew: I’m not saying he’s doing anything bad. I’m just saying that, I remember even having a conversation with Heaton Shaw about him, about Dharmesh at a conference. And Heaton started telling me stuff that he does, but he holds back. And Heaton, why’s Heaton holding back? It’s not his business. They both happen to have the same last name, but they’re not connected to each other in any way. Heaton should be spilling the beans on him, hoping that I will reciprocate and spill the beans on I don’t know who, maybe Rand Fishkin, and what Rand told me before an interview started recording. I don’t know. I notice that the video camera actually got good quality when you were doing that gesture.
Rand: Yeah, that’s right. I turned it on, you need to see this.
Andrew: Andrew, make sure you understand. So actually, how do you get something going like that with someone as big as Dharmesh and other people too?
Rand: Well, so I think that one of the mythologies in this world is that people are so big, right? That, you know, they wouldn’t take time out to be with you. But one of the things I would say is identify people who are relatively early stage but will have the time and energy to contribute, right? So I’m talking about, you know, you call me up today and do this. Ahhh, it’s going to be tough, it might be tough to get me. But you call me up two years ago, it’s going to be great. You know, I look at a company like Unbounce. They’re doing really well but I don’t think Rick’s time yet is at the point where, you know, if someone reaches out to him and has some interesting stuff to share, that he’s not going to want to do that. That, I think identifying those people early on is much, much better than, like I said, going and looking at well, what did Apple do?
Andrew: It sounds like you also, not you necessarily but the person who’s making the phone call, who’s reaching out needs to have something going on and something worth sharing, right? Rick is at a point where he’s trying to learn himself, too. He’s not looking to just do charity and tell people about his business. He’s trying to find out what have you learned today? What can you teach me?
Rand: He’s, I mean, Rick has an exciting business, right? I’m speculating on this but he knows that, given what Unbounce does, it’s not competitive with SEOmoz but it could eventually have some overlap. There might be similar customer targets. You could imagine that we might want to do some work together. There’s business developments types of things, all of that.
Andrew: All right. We talked about mastering SEO, social, content, marketing, referral. I’ve got two other big ideas I want to talk to you about. Email based on participation. I brought this up to you in the pre-interview in relation to Dharmesh’s site Answersonstartups.com where, as soon as I asked a question or joined, someone reached out to me and said hey, Andrew, good to see you on the site. I thought you might want to see this question over here, and that question over there, and I’m looking forward to your participation.
You do something similar on SEOmoz. I’m taking my time with the question because it seems like you’ve got to answer an email or something in the background. I want to help you out there.
Rand: Sorry, sorry.
Andrew: No, no. If you need to finish.
Rand: No, it’s just someone keeps calling me on my phone. I’m like OK, I need to shut off the ring function, shut off the texts.
Andrew: No, that’s what video is there for. I want to pick up on these things and give you time to finish up. It’s better for me than it is even necessarily for the audience.
Rand: I apologize.
Andrew: Talk about what you do in a community to keep people participating with email?
Rand: Yeah. Well, so, I think the email, there are two kinds of email that can be successful here. One is the marketing automation types of email where you’re, based on what’s kind of, what the user is doing. The user filled out this but they didn’t fill out that. They went through this step but they didn’t go through this step. There was a problem with their account here but they took care of this. You send them emails based on that behavior. Those are automated emails but they have sort of a personalization aspect.
Then the other way that I really like is something actually happened. There was some interaction. You sign up for Google Alerts you get an alert when Google finds stuff about you. You are on Facebook; you’ll get an email when someone commented on a photo you were tagged in. It’s those types of emails that, personally, I think are a little more exciting.
Andrew: I see. I actually see those, of course, with sites like Quora who have a million, it feels like, check boxes in their email options. On Quora when someone asks a question related to one of my topics of interest I get an email. When someone answers one of my questions I get an email. You’re looking for those points where it’s important for people to be connected to the site and you trigger an email.
Rand: Yeah, I think this is how a lot of services that otherwise would not have taken off, Quora’s a great example. Another one’s like Connect.me. They’re sort of an upstart. I don’t know whether it’s going to take off. It’s sort of this vouching service where I say yeah, I vouch for this person’s authority in this. I think they’re trying to build up some competition, maybe, to things like Clout or the Google+ Author Authority, that type of stuff. Their real success is I don’t go visit the site unless I’m updated on something that’s happening there that I’m interested in that I want to check out.
Marketing automation emails, to me, are useful in some ways. I’m sure we could find better uses for them at Moz but I really like that interaction. Like hey, Andrew, did you know this page on Mixergy started 404’ing? It used to send you 200 search visits a day. You really should fix that. That’s a great email to get, right?
Andrew: I’d jump on that email.
Rand: My SEOmoz subscription just paid for itself, right? I really appreciate that. We send those emails like every week when we crawl your site of hey, here’s all the new errors we found. That kind of stuff. I like that. I’m a little less into the world of oh, you triggered this action now we’re going to send you this email. You triggered that action, we’ll send you this.
Andrew: OK. All right, I was going to ask you how we can figure out where the right times are to send emails but there is no hard and fast rule. Is there any advice (inaudible) thinking I need to trigger emails? What do you think?
Rand: The best advice I can give you is test.
Rand: Honest, if you AB test this stuff you will see this has a high open rate. This has a high click through rate. This keeps people around longer. This promotes higher retention which means higher customer lifetime value. This one doesn’t. Test.
Andrew: All right. I would probably…
Rand: That’s a relatively sophisticated kind of marketing form. You would want to be up to speed and sort of optimize a lot of other things in your business before you go tackle that route. Because you have to have a lot of data and a lot of collections.
Andrew: Right, a lot of people participating in order to do that. The final big idea we talked about in our pre-interview is conversion rate optimization which I was surprised about. I don’t think of conversion rate optimization in relationship to communities at all.
Rand: But think about this: If I get 1,000 visits to Inbound and ten of them register and one of them submits a piece of content, that’s nice, but would I rather get another 1,000 visits and do the work to earn them or would I like to find a way to increase that conversion rate to registering and to voting by 10%. Meaning every subsequent 1,000 visitors I get is that much more valuable. And this is why CRO is such an incredibly critical practice for community building, for customer acquisition, I mean, you and I know it, it’s a ton of work to get people to come to your site and be interested in it and find you and care about what you’re doing. And yet 90% of them, 95% of them oftentimes are leaving without taking any action.
Andrew: What did you do to make it easier for people to convert on Inbound?
Rand: So one of the things was, make the registration system just use Twitter. So essentially if you want to register, it’s two clicks. It register; sign in with Twitter.
Andrew: I see.
Rand: And then it just goes through the OS [SP] process with Twitter and you have to say, “OK” on Twitter site and you’re back, your done. You didn’t need to fill out your name, I don’t need an email, you don’t need to remember a password. I don’t need s**t from you, right? Like, you just need to click and it does a bunch of other good things. Actually I can talk about these too, but Twitter means that we don’t have to do spam control because Twitter is banning spamming accounts, anyway so, “Great! Let Twitter handle all the spam accounts they’ll ban them before we have to worry about them.” But the other things that we did are, make it incredibly easy to vote. What do you do when you vote? You just…
Andrew: Press a button. The big button on the far left.
Rand: The big “up” button on the article that votes. What do I do if I want to submit? I can submit but I can even…there’s a little bookmark I can just drag up to my bar at any page I’m on the Internet I can click that and it automatically submits it. The title automatically fills itself out from the URL. I don’t need to go create a title if I don’t want to. So just things that save time and energy and effort from users to get that better conversion rate.
Andrew: I see. And I’m noticing that because you’re using Twitter you don’t end up with the email addresses of the people who are registering but it seems like that’s a trade off. You’re giving up the ability to use email to encourage participation, but you’re increasing your conversion rate.
Rand: Yeah, and in fact it’s been kind of funny so we had a few people early on who were kind of abusing the system, submitting what I call “crap”. And I tweeted at them and I said, “Hey, dude, not cool man you are not…the guideline at inbound.org is “be cool,” right? And I’m, like, “You are not being cool, this stuff is crap.” And they were, like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And because it’s public, because it’s right out there on the Web, I think it actually encourages other people, who are using it to sort of be like, “Oh, I got to be cool.” If I’m going to use Inbound, I got to be cool.” I don’t want Rand and Dharmesh giving me a hard time on Twitter. That doesn’t look good.” So it’s been a nice almost like a social proof kind of reinforcement thing.
Andrew: What’s the goal with the site? Is it to make…is it to generate revenue? Is it to raise your profiles, which are already high, both of you guys?
Rand: So really the goal — it’s twofold. I would say the most obvious goal and the one that we care about the most is, there’s a lot of good content about marketing out there, we don’t always get to see it. It would be awesome if there was a Hacker News for marketers. No one’s built it in the last five years, even though we keep thinking someone would and so finally we bit the bullet and we’re, like, “All right, you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself, I guess?” And so we made this.
And then the secondary goal I think is actually to expose more and more people to this idea of Inbound Marketing, right? I think right now there’s not a good catchall phrase that encompasses, like, and this is more about the naming convention than anything else, but “What does it mean when I do SEO and social media marketing and content marketing and try to earn more referral traffic and combine that with community and conversion rate optimization?” And all these sort of free traffic or earned media methods or organic traffic.
There’s no good, like, word or phrase for that so we decided to call the site, “Inbound” because I like what HubSpot has done around inbound marketing, making sure to call it something where you earn your visits instead of buying them. That’s the kind of marketing that I really believe in, and I always believe in that. That’s why I loved SEO but didn’t love PPC, that’s why I love building community, but I don’t love advertising. Just, instead of interrupting people in their day, I’m trying to earn their interest by doing cool s**t and getting them to come to me.
Andrew: That’s the best description that I’ve heard yet of what inbound marketing is, it’s when you earn your traffic, earn your customers instead of buying them, and it’s by using things like SEO to draw people in, social to draw people in, great content that brings people in, white papers are seen, webinars Dharmesh does. Let me just quickly thank someone here and then I want to ask you about the dollars and cents because everyone is waiting for me to do that. The person I want to thank is… Tracy Simmons sent me an email. She works with Clay Collins, who came on to do an interview and then did a course on Mixergy and he emailed his people and said, “Go check out my interview on Mixergy, go check out the course.” Tracy, who works with him said, “Andrew, I thought you’d want to see some of the emails that we’ve gotten back when we recommended that people check out Mixergy for Clay’s interview and course.”
Let me read two of the emails that she sent me. Here’s one person, three days ago I watched your interview on Mixergy, loved it. I signed up for Mixergy Premium on the spot, just so I could get [Kim’s] case study and tutorial that you put up there. He took a case study from [Kim] and he put it up there as part of his course. This person says, “it’s gold, I’m watching video each night and making copious notes as I go using [Kim’s] passages to trigger my thinking about what the equivalent is for me.
One of the things that I like about that is, the person is taking notes just like I am. I take notes all the time. I feel like when you stop and say, “how does this apply to me”, “what did I just learn here”, what’s the point of this conversation?” “What’s the point of what I just learned”, oh right, and then you write it down. Even if you never go back and look at your notes, you’re going to remember it and it’s going to be available to you when you’re ready for it. By the way, what I do is, I will, at the end of this interview Rand, I keep every note that I made on our conversation, I’ll take it and I’ll put it in a scanner that I have right at the side.
Rand: Wow. Nice.
Andrew: Snapscan. So if I ever say, “why did I ask him this” or “what did he say about that”, I’ll have it written down. Here’s another email.
Rand: Andrew, I apologize. Apparently, I’m supposed to be at a studio for an interview down the street.
Andrew: OK. Then let me let you go. In fact, let me just say this, I won’t read this last email. I’m going to say to people, go to Mixergypremium.com if you want to sign up for what this person is excited about. Last question is this: What did it cost you to put up the website and what did you build it in?
Rand: We actually built it in WordPress using a modified version of the “nominate” theme. We customized it with a developer, Casey Henry, who’s an awesome guy. We also paid for design; we actually spent a lot of money on the design of the site with Fixel, which is a Portland based firm. I actually just found them on the web, loved their stuff, reached out over email and they replied that same night. It was like the night before Christmas, and they replied. I’m like, these guys are on it; we’re using them. I think the total, all in cost, is going to be somewhere around $7000 or $8000.
Rand: Luckily, most of that is Dharmesh’s money. [laughter] I’m a little more broke than he is.
Andrew: You’re not broke at all, not from what I’ve been seeing. My people here are telling me your revenue for 2011, according to Venture Beat is between $11 million and $12 million. The year before was $5.7 million. Here’s the bottom line though, don’t just check it out, go to inbound.org, drag the little icon that you have in your address bar to your bookmark bar and just keep an eye on what’s going on with the site. If you want to learn how to do great marketing, watch these guys who are great marketers themselves as they do it on their website, And there’s a little bit of drama there. Maybe, inbound.org will be dead in a year as Rand said or maybe it’ll be one of these sites that drives a ton of traffic to everyone else and we all bow in front of it. I’m getting on their good side and I’m learning along the way. Rand, thank you for doing this interview and I’m going to let you go do your next one
Rand: Thank you very much, Andrew, great to see you again man. Take care.
Andrew: Thank you all for watching, bye.