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Digital Outreach Tactics That Actually Work – Rand Fishkin
The Agents of Change

Digital Outreach Tactics That Actually Work – Rand Fishkin

As marketers and business people, we’ve all struggled with outreach and figuring out how to start that initial relationship. Should we go email or try for an introduction? We certainly don’t want to come off as too salesy or overstep our bounds. But at the same time, you need to remember that taking a one size fits all approach is a recipe for failure.

If you want to be successful in your outreach efforts, follow the advice of Rand Fishkin, CEO of SparkToro, find a way that is novel and unusual, and always put the focus on them and not yourself. Make sure you’re offering value to them, backed up by research. In other words, do your homework and put in the effort, as opposed to just asking for a favor. You’ll find you’ll have much greater success.

Rich: My guest today is the co-founder and CEO of SparkToro, and the author of Lost and Founder – A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.

You may also recognize him as the co-founder of Moz, the guy who made Whiteboard Friday’s a thing. Or the guy who would give Tony Stark and Dr. Strange a run for their money for having excellent facial hair.

A guest I wanted to bring on the show for quite some time and finally got the courage to just ask them, Rand Fishkin. Rand, welcome to The Agents of Change.

Rand: Thanks for having me, Rich. Great to be here.

Rich: So I remember reading something you said a couple of few years ago back, and you referenced Dungeons and Dragons. And in looking for the quote today, I noticed there are currently 45,000 results for “Rand Fishkin Dungeons and Dragons”, according to Google. My question is, what’s your favorite Dungeons and Dragons character, or do you prefer to DM?

Rand: Oh, man. Gosh, that’s a hard one. I mean, first off, I feel like we should take a quick side journey into the Google’s result count numbers haven’t been accurate since 2006, when they deprecated the accuracy of those numbers. And it’s kind of infuriating because reporters still seem to quote it.

Rich: It’s an easy, meaningless metric to grab.

Rand: Oh God, let’s see, I do like to play. I have mostly, I’ve done much more DM-ing recently. I think that’s mostly because my friend group assigned it to me. I play with like a bunch of other entrepreneurs and tech folks and that kind of thing, and I guess they decided I was the least busy of them or the best at time management. I’m not sure. But yeah, if I have to play, oh I know! A friend of mine, Ian Lurie, who you might know who’s in the web marketing world. He’s the person who got me into Dungeons and Dragons a couple of years ago. I think he’s been playing his whole life, and Ian offered to DM, which for folks who might be listening, D& D is sort of like a board game but there’s one person who’s sort of in charge of crafting the story and then the rest are players. So the narrator or storyteller person is Ian in this game. And so I get to be one of the players and I am playing a pair of sisters who are ex-gladiators. Usually in D&D there’s like a whole system of beliefs and all this kind of thing. And I decided instead of these sisters believing in some distant God and that’s how they get their power, they believe in each other. And that’s how they get their power, from each other.

Rich: Excellent. All right. Well, I didn’t even know you could play two at the same time. So I’ve learned something new today.

Rand: Ian said he was going to kill one early. So far he’s been unsuccessful

Rich: All right. So getting to business. You left Moz, a company you co-founded, to found SparkToro.

Can you just tell us briefly what does SparkToro do and how would an owner or marketer use the SparkToro tools?

Rand: Sure. So in brief, SparkToro is an audience research tool. And basically the problem that Casey, my co-founder, and I saw with the world of market and audience research was that if you wanted to learn certain facts about your customers or potential customers – things like what podcasts do they listen to, and which YouTube channels they subscribe to, and what sources of influence do they follow on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Instagram and Medium and Quora and which websites they visit – that information was very difficult to come by.

Many folks would run market research surveys that took 6+ months and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Casey and I thought that’s bonkers. We should create a product that is far more accurate and valuable, where you can find that information just by typing in a search. So now you can go to SparkToro and say, “I want to reach interior designers in Canada”, and we can tell you what podcasts they listen to and which websites they visited and what social sources they pay attention to. You could say, “I want to reach chief technology officers”, or, “I want to reach people who follow the Dungeons & Dragons Twitter account”, and see what else, maybe I’m making products for that gaming group and I want to reach them.

And so it’s very useful. About half our audience is B2B, the other half is B2C, so it’s not one or the other. And yeah, the product’s been really fun to build and we just in December crossed 500 paying customers, so that’s nice.

Rich: Congratulations. That’s awesome. Now today the topic is going to be, well you gave me a few things that you might feel good talking about. And the one that really resonated with me was outreach steps that don’t suck. That might be my language, not yours. And this has been an ongoing issue for me ever since I started my company, both coming and going. Before we jump into specific tactics that might help people, how do you define outreach and what should our objectives be when we’re actively engaged in doing outreach?

Rand: So your outreach goals should depend on your overall business strategy goals. So I remember there were years at Moz where almost all of my marketing and biz-dev focus was not on acquiring customers, because that was kind of going along great and just growing on its own. It was trying to find and recruit employees. That was strategically what I was trying to figure out how I do that all, let’s hire a PR firm and do a bunch of campaigning that way and I’ll participate in a bunch of local events and blah, blah, blah.

So you need to know what your business goals are, and from that can flow your marketing tactics. And outreach might be one of those marketing tactics. The way I think about it is outreach is a phenomenal tool if you reach the right people in the right places with a message that resonates and a value add that is a creative good for both parties. And if you remove any of those elements, outreach tends not to work so well. “Hey, Rich. I noticed you have website X. I would like to pay you for ‘do follow’ link on website X.”

Rand: Get outta here, man. Like, just stop.

Rich: So what you’re saying is, if you want to do successful outreach, it can’t be about the direct sales, it’s really about building your network. It could be a lot of different objectives, but the bottom line is if you’re going for the hard sell, you’re probably not going to succeed right now without outreach.

Rand: I’m not sure I would even argue that necessarily. I have been direct outreach. I don’t know if they’re hard sells, but they’re very direct sales, right? It’s, “Hey, Rand! SparkToro looks like an amazing product. We tried it out, it seems like maybe you could benefit from some click stream data or some data crawling. Is that of interest? Do you wanna chat about it?” Great. Yeah. I’m happy to talk with people who are data aggregators and collectors for the right prices and the right service. That’s in fact how I think.

So we’ve been using a service provider called Sprious, and they reached out. Actually, you know how they reached out? They became a customer, they bought SparkToro, then they emailed me and were like, “Hey, we love this product. It seems like it’s getting this kind of data. We do this kind of data gathering. Do you want to chat?” And we did. And now we’re using them for some data aggregation.

Rich: It sounds like it was thoughtful.

Rand: It’s thoughtful. It is both strategic and tactical. It’s helpful to them, right? We’re a customer now. And it’s helpful to me. That’s the product I needed so I don’t see any problem necessarily with a hard sell. That’s not one of the rules I’d put in place.

What I would say is, you cannot be successful with outreach if you do not take the time to understand each of the people that you are reaching out to, and why. And you have a great value proposition that, like I said before, a creative for both parties.

Rich: Why do you think it’s so difficult for so many of us? Why are we so bad at it as a species when it comes to outreach?

Rand: I think it is because the digital world has trained us to think in two fashions.  One of those – and I would largely blame the rise of email marketing – is one to many broad, low conversion rate, big pond, one fishing pole mentality. And that is pretty bad, right? It’s not a great way to think about outreach, but it’s how almost everyone thinks about it. And so it’s become the default and the norm. Sort of like how advertising is this game of, “Hey, let’s just reach as broad a swath of the right kinds of demographics as possible, and hope that some women between 25 and 35 with these characteristics by our clothing product”, or whatever it is. I don’t think that’s the most sensible, thoughtful, strategic way of going about it, but it is the default. And defaults are extraordinarily powerful in human psychology. They influence us far more than thoughtful process.

And then the second problem that I think is driving that mentality as well is a lack of clarity around how valuable any one given source might be, versus sort of throwing your fishing pole in the pond and seeing what comes back.

Rich: That is a really interesting point because the longer I’ve been doing this the more I noticed. So when I was younger I’d walk into a South x Southwest with 500 business cards in my hand and hope to get rid of all of them. And like now, well not now, because COVID – but before COVID I would walk into something about the same size and maybe bring 10 cards with me and plan on still having five on me at the end of the night, and instead just have a few key conversations. And you know, at my company we’ve noticed that some of our best lead sources just came from a very natural connection that we made with somebody or that they made with us.

And your point about quantity versus quality, I think, is really a key one. I’ve been doing this, I don’t have your notoriety, I’ve been doing this for over 23 years and I’m overwhelmed by the daily deluge of requests I get. Most of which don’t even make it past my spam filter. Do you have certain phrases that when you see them come into your email, you’re just hitting delete before you even see them? Like, have you built up your own scar tissue, so to speak, when it comes to outreach questions?

Rand: Yeah. Yeah, of course. I think we all have. I think that the bigger danger in my mind to these sorts of techniques is every time you see one get popularized on the web. I don’t know if you remember this Rich, but back in my Moz days there was a time – I think it was around 2007, 2008 – where we sent out an email to all of our tens of thousands of subscribers at the time, free users are our tool and of our blog. We sent out a big email that had a promotion for our software product. It had a mistake in the email, and the next day I sent out, “Oh, I made a mistake with the $1 offer”, and that email got a huge amount of response. And unfortunately, I think kicked off in the digital marketing world, this whole idea of what if we intentionally make a mistake and then send it out. And a whole bunch of blog posts were written in email spam world about how you can do this, and they referenced that email that I wrote. You can still find a bunch of them through Google.

And I think what happens with any technique, I really like, gosh, there’s a graph. I can’t remember the name of the guy who came up with it, but the principle is called “the law of shitty click-through rates”. And it’s essentially that when any tactic is entirely new, the first popups on the internet got a very high click through rate. The first animated ads, the first video, the first auto play audio, the first, full page takeover, the first in CSS overlays, the first whatever it is, that tactic started with 2% engagement, 1 ½% engagement. And then over time as people saw it more and more, it dropped down to a 10th of a percent, fifth of a percent, .0005%. And email marketing messaging works the same way. If you have seen something or many people have seen something many times, they become immunized to it. And more powerfully than that, the email spam filters and the relatively new tab systems and things like Hotmail and Gmail, will automatically filter that stuff into promotions. And so folks generally won’t even see those, even if they’re completely legitimate one-to-one outreach.

Rich: So it sounds like, and I don’t want to get too much in the psychology things but I love this, is you need to stand out. Because the bottom line is there’s a novelty factor here, and when it’s novel, it’s still interesting. But after a while, like if anybody sends me an email that says “quick question”, I delete it immediately because I know that that is the go-to language of spammers these days. So I just kind of leave it alone.

Rand: Yeah, and you probably won’t even have to for very long because the machine learning algorithms will pick up on that and automatically filter it to your spam or promotions tab.

Rich: And most of them are ending up there now, too.

Rand: Yeah, exactly. So I think this is one of the reasons that you have to not only be novel, but you have to be conscientious about how machine learning works as a marketer these days and consider what words, phrases, headlines of email, subject lines, opening paragraphs that are very likely to look like to a machine learning system, very likely to look like the kinds of emails that people regularly respond to. They hit the reply tab, they keep it in their primary tab. When it’s in promotions, they move to primary. They have a conversation back and forth. They don’t hit ‘report spam’ on, they don’t hit ‘archive’, they don’t hit ‘delete’. What do those emails look like? How do I mimic that when I send an email to someone?

Rich: So we’ve talked a lot about email, but I know that you don’t think email is necessarily the best way to make initial outreach.

Rand: I don’t think it’s the right way to start a relationship.

Rich: So how would you start a relationship or how do you recommend people start a relationship?

Rand: I am a huge fan and I can’t tell you how few people do this, which is again, why it’s so valuable, but I’m a huge fan of starting with social. So I go to Twitter. I find you on Twitter. Rich, I can’t remember, what’s your username there?

Rich: @therichbrooks.

Rand: So we were tweeting this morning, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Rand: And so I’m like, “Oh, Hey, I listened to your podcast last week. I loved it. We should chat sometime.” You might not know who I am at that time. But you might be like, “Well, who is this person? Oh, interesting. I wonder what this company is. Yeah. All right.” And then over the next six months maybe we have three or four more exchanges. And when I send you an email, I’m like, “Hey, it’s been fun chatting on Twitter”, and that’s my subject line. And then I have my, “Hey Rich, the last few months have been cool catching up. And I really liked that podcast you did. Do you take sponsors for your podcasts?” The answer might be yes or no, but the relationship has started. You’re going to reply to that. You recognize my name, you’ve seen me in there a few times. That starting point on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, depending on the source it could be YouTube comments, it could be Instagram.

Rich: It’s gaining that visibility. And we haven’t asked anything. It’s building familiarity.

Rand: Exactly. Exactly. It’s like following up after a conference or an event.

Rich: So if we can’t build that familiarity on our own, what else can we do to make that connection with people?

Rand: I mean, what is the scenario where you can’t build it on your own?

Rich: Well, I know that you will often use introductions. So how might we use introductions? Like what tools would you use if you want to get on my show, right? Or you want to sponsor my show and you don’t have any connection with me. Maybe I didn’t respond on Twitter, maybe I don’t have a Twitter account. Would you go to LinkedIn? Like, are those the kinds of tools that you use to make those connections and get those introductions?

Rand: I mean, I like LinkedIn for this. I think that other social sources can also be valuable. The reason that I like introductions is because it’s social proof from a trusted source. So this is sort of an end around if the social outreach process is heavy or feels not quite right for you. Or maybe you just don’t like social media and you’re like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, I hate them all, I don’t want to deal with any of that. The opt-in intro is the way to go.

If you get an email from me and I say “Rich, it was really great being on your Agents of Change podcast, you should talk to my friend Areej AbuAli.” I don’t know if you know her, but she runs Women in Tech SEO.

Rich: No, but I’d love an introduction, quite honestly.

Rand: She’s amazing. Then you should have her on the show. She’s fantastic. I think you’d get along like a house on fire. But so if I send you that email and I’m like, “Is it cool to make an intro?” Well, you know me, you’ve had me as a guest on your show, right? Dah, dah, dah, dah. So if you find that connection, it can be between person I want to reach, and company I want to reach, and person I already know who knows me, likes me, trusts me. That is an incredibly powerful source of getting those right. I have worked with many, many people over the last couple of decades because someone I know, like, and trust told me, “Hey Rand, you should talk to this person.”

Rich: All right. So one thing you mentioned, because this all came from a blog post which I found fascinating, we’ll link to it in the show notes, is that you don’t think a lot of these ideas can or should scale. And yet so many of us are investing in CRMs. In fact, my company right now is in the process of moving from one basically a more basic CRM, to a marketing automation system. Not so we can dilute people with automated emails, but we just want to have a better understanding of the sales process. Are we going in the wrong direction? Is marketing automation the wrong way we should be thinking about this if we’re talking about doing outreach? Or is that just a different approach?

Rand: I think that they are really different buckets of tactics and strategy. So marketing automation is great. We do marketing automation for SparkToro, where we built it. In-house we don’t use a PR tool or product, but basically when you sign up and run the tool for the first time and you do your searches, 24 hours later you get an automated marketing automation outreach email from me that’s sort of like a, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help with your account, and do you want to keep getting some email onboarding and some tips and tricks for how to use SparkToro and get better at it?” And there’s like a six or maybe seven email series that’ll come to you. Fantastic. It works great. A lot of people opt into it. Small number of people, I think 10% of people don’t opt into it, they don’t get those emails. That’s fine. But it is 100% different, not at all similar in terms of strategy or tactic or goal that you’re trying to accomplish from outreach.

Outreach is, “Hey, this reporter for Bloomberg Tech News is covering the market research space, and I would really like to be covered by them. How do I start building a relationship with that reporter?” Marketing automation is not, that has nothing to do with it other than the fact that the protocol is email for both. There’s no relationship. Right? So the way that I think about outreach is one-to-one, extremely human, very research-driven, intentional with every email sent, you’re composing them personally every time. And marketing automation or promotional email marketing, totally different story.

Rich: So it almost feels like you’re going the artists know farm to table approach versus say the McDonald’s approach of the same thing for everybody, and just hoping that volume makes up for a lack of humanity.

Rand: So unlike the real world where McDonald’s is one of the most financially successful restaurant businesses, when it comes to outreach and marketing, if you choose to take a one size fits all scale approach, you will fail. I don’t even have to say you’ll probably fail. Because it’s not 99% of people who try it that way fail, it’s 99.999999999% of people fail. I’ve never actually talked to someone whose outreach emails for this type of thing were automated at scale, impersonalized without research, and they worked. Not in my whole career have I talked to someone who’s done it that way and had success.

Rich: You’re getting much better results when you’re really taking that time to do the research, customizing your message, making sure that you’re offering something of interest and of value to that person.

Rand: Yeah. And doing it in a way that is novel and unusual. Getting in email intros, building the relationship on social first, doing creative things like having a message that is not just you focused, but valuable to them and interesting to them. I think a lot of folks have mistaken the idea of outreach as how do I get this person to pay attention to me so I can get what I want from them.

Rich: Right.

Rand: And if that is the way you think about outreach, look, I get it. Late stage capitalism biases us all to be incredibly selfish just so we can get through. But that is a foolish way to think, and it is far less successful than a, “I wonder what is a thing that me and this person could do together that would be fun and interesting and valuable for both of us.”

Rich: So how much time do you think you put into this, Rand, over the course of a week or a month? Because it seems like it could be time intensive. And it may be really well worth, it may be the best investment you can make in your professional career, your business, but it does seem like it takes time. Do you budget time in your own calendar for doing outreach, you know, two hours a day or two hours a week or something?

Rand: No, it’s nothing nearly like that. My approach to it is almost always with a very specific goal in mind and a very intentional time distinct and goal distinct operation. So it’s not, “Hey, I should put in two hours every week doing outreach in order to build my network or get links, or get people to cover SparkToro”, or something like that. I don’t think about it that way. The way I do think about it is, “Someone from this company reached out to us and they are interested in using SparkToro in this way. I wonder if there are other people who are like that. I think these three other people are like that. Let me talk to Casey. Yeah. Okay. We think that this is a worthwhile goal to pursue. Let’s validate whether we should build an API. Let me talk to four or five folks out there in the world. I think these are going to be some of them.” Hey, similar web team. You know, blah, blah, blah. We, I use some of your research, uh, w who would I talk to there about like some biz dev stuff and API APIs and that sort of thing. Oh, great. It’s this person. Fantastic. Hey, let’s jump on the phone in a couple of weeks.

Okay. Right. So that’s me doing some outreach, leveraging some network, getting an introduction, using past relationships, et cetera, et cetera. You know, maybe I’ll reach out to one of my investors and ask them for an introduction, that kind of thing. But it’s always with a very specific goal. It’s not a, “Oh, I should have an ongoing two hour thing.”

I’ll be honest, Rich. My personal approach is I don’t see a lot of value in those like, “let’s build a habit to have the habit to be doing marketing on an ongoing basis”. I think that is okay when you have a great goal and a strategy behind that goal and things you want to accomplish. I don’t think it’s so wise. And honestly, I think a lot of people who work in the professional world get really demoralized by having that like, “Oh, my boss says I’m supposed to do two hours of outreach a week”.

Rich: Right. So it sounds like its more needs-based for you. You have an objective and then you identify the people who you can collaborate with on that. And that really does sound, from the language that you’re using, is it’s much more, uh, an approach for collaboration rather than what can I get out of this relationship.

Rand: Exactly. I’ll tell you, I’ve worked with lots of marketing agencies and tons of agencies use SparkToro to do exactly this. I think almost half of our customers are agencies right now, and they basically are identifying for their client, “Here’s a bunch of research that shows our audiences paying attention to all these places. 13% of the target customers that we want to reach are paying attention to this YouTube channel, so let’s go figure out a way to build a relationship with this YouTube channel, whether that’s paid or co-marketing. We’ll get you as a guest on their show.” And so then they go do the targeted outreach. It’s not a two hours of outreach every week. It’s we’ve identified why and who we want to reach, because we know that these are potential customers for us and this is what we’re trying to do with them.

Rich: Sounds good. As you look forward into 2021, are there any trends that you see when it comes to outreach that you think these are going to be novel or interesting ways that people might be able to stand out, break through the ice, and make a true connection. Or are there certain things that you see companies continuing to do, maybe that we haven’t mentioned that are just wrongheaded and are going to end up getting them nowhere?

Rand: Let’s see. I think one of the truly foolish things that a lot of folks do in outreach today is overweight, prestige publications, and big brand publications. So instead of thinking how do I go reach my audience in the places where they pay attention, they think, how do I get a piece in the New York Times and The Wall Street journal? Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

It’s really, that is not strategic thinking. And I know plenty of businesses who will spend tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR people and agencies and pitch processes to try and get into those big publications. And then if they do, if and when they actually do get that coverage, “Oh, here’s an article about you” or “Here’s an article that mentions you.” They’re kind of, “Aw, man, it didn’t do anything for us.” Except it does do one thing. CEOs and CXOs really like showing the rest of their executive team and their family and friends The New York Times piece with their business mentioned, and it’s sort of meaningful because of the prestige of the publication, right?

So it feels good, even though it has no business impact. I think that is a practice. We should probably retire. It’s not going to be retired, but at the very least, if you are in marketing or PR or whatever, you should have a conversation. Rich, I know you said that you really want to be in The New York Times. I just want to let you know it will do nothing for your business, but it is a prestigious publication and your parents are going to be really proud of you. How much money do you want to pay me so that your parents are proud of you? Right? And then we can have a real conversation. But you have to open up to that honesty. And that is tough, right? Marketers do not like bringing it to a board of directors, “Hey, so you’re idiots, but if you’d like to pay me, I will do the idiotic work you want me to do?” Yes,

Rich: Absolutely. Well, that’s good advice to stay away from. I’m going to stop hiring my PR firm to try and get me to The New York Times and maybe just work on the Portland Press Herald instead.

This has been great advice and for people who want to learn more about SparkToro or want to learn more about you or connect with you, where can we send them online?

Rand: Sure, sure. So you can try SparkToro for free. We have a forever free account. You can run a bunch of searches every month. It is sparktoro.com, easy-peasy. And if you want to follow me and hear me ranting about bad outreach practices and digital marketing of all kinds, I am most active on Twitter where I’m @RandFish. And I also blog at SparkToro, SparkToro.com/blog.

Rich: Cool. And we’ll have all those links, obviously, in the show notes, Rand. Thank you so much for stopping by today, I really appreciate it.

Rand: Yeah, my pleasure, Rich. Thanks for having me.

Show Notes:

Rand Fishkin has spent his career helping people be better marketers. If you’re not following his advice, you’re not doing it right. Follow him on Twitter, and read all his latest blog posts at SparkToro.  And don’t miss out on a chance to try SparkToro for free!

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing. 

Here’s a link to the blog post referenced in this episode – Outreach Tips that Are Better Than Anything You’ll Find Searching Google.