Marketing for Tech Products: Interview with Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz

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Rand FishkinRand Fishkin is the CEO and Co-founder of SEOmoz, one of the most well-known and respected internet marketing companies. He’s been in Businessweek’s 30 under 30, and has got tons of press coverage for himself and SEOmoz.

He talked to us about community-building, products vs. services, and more! Read on.

SEOmoz got started after you joined your mom’s (Gillian Muessig, Co-founder of SEOmoz) marketing business… How did you decide to focus on SEO?

We didn’t have much of a choice. Our clients were no longer willing to pay simply for web development and design – they wanted traffic. We couldn’t afford to spend money on advertising or paid methods of bringing traffic, so organic search became the only option. As we learned more, blogged and shared, and eventually got good at it, our reputation brought in clients that let the business stay afloat and, eventually, grow.

If you look back to those early days, what’s been the biggest change? What surprises did you meet along the way?

There have been so many changes, it’s hard to list just one. Perhaps one of the most surprising has been the change from focusing on SEO for our own marketing to a vast array of broader tactics (that just so happen to help SEO, too). I remember struggling internally because, like many of our clients had back in our consulting days, I was prioritizing our engineering team to work on projects ahead of SEO upgrades — even neglecting SEO for 12+ months so we could build and refine our software! It made me feel like a hypocrite, but it also gave me a lot more empathy for why organizations sometimes fail to get this critical practice right.

What’s the professional accomplishment you’re most proud of?

Hiring and building/maintaining a great company culture that attracts amazing people has been incredibly challenging, but I think if I’m proud of anything, it’s the people who work at Moz today. You can’t help but be amazed when you walk around that building. I love going in to the office. I love having 1:1s with my team. I love to see their careers take off and to see them positive and excited about what we’re doing.

Normally, I’m not a fan of pride — I think it deserves the reputation it has as the deadliest of the sins, but I admit to taking a little pride in the 102 people on the Moz team today.

SEOmoz moved from providing services to offering products: what’s the biggest difference between services and products businesses? How should a startup choose which to focus on?

Startups should DEFINITELY focus on products – they’re scalable, they have high margins, they can command investment, and they can grow to something far greater than the sum of their parts. Consulting is a far easier initial model because revenue correlates directly to work (assuming you can get clients), but scale and growth are much harder.

Right now, there are so many social media platforms and tools, and there is so much expert advice on what marketing activities a small business should be doing. What do you think is the most important marketing activity a small business should focus on?

The checklist for great small business marketing hasn’t changed much — it’s just the channels that have. The process I’d use is this:

  • Who are your customers and potential customers, and who are their influencers?
  • Where are these people, on and off the web?
  • How can you best reach them in a scalable, low acquistion-cost, high value way?
  • Which of those acquisition channels haven’t yet been saturated by your competition?

Do those.

Small businesses often struggle to make sense of their data… what’s the one metric they should keep an eye on?

It can’t just be one metric. At the very least, small businesses need to have some idea of:

  • Which channels produce customers (and which ones influence those who lead you to customers – sometimes the process is indirect)?
  • What’s your cost structure to provide product/services?
  • What’s your average customer lifetime value, and how can you increase that?

If you don’t maintain at least those (and probably many other metrics that lead to them), you’ll almost certainly lose out to a competitor who is data-driven.

What sites do you recommend for small-business marketing advice (apart from the SEOmoz blog, of course)?

There’s a few good ones I like a lot:

Rand Fishkin at arts festival

SEOmoz has done an amazing job of building a community around SEO: is this something you consciously set out to do?

Not initially, but I did launch the blog with the original intent of sharing my experiences and learnings with SEO. I guess I just never knew how much that content would build community and loyalty.

What are the ways in which you nurture your community? Give our readers a tip or two!

We try very hard to be active on multiple platforms, so no matter whether you’re interacting with SEOmoz on our site, on Quora, on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or some other forum, we’re there to chip in. We also prioritize community very heavily — we’ve got three full time folks who do nothing but think about our on and off-site communities, and we have a lot of both paid and volunteer contributors, too. The first time someone interacts with you, if they receive no response back, it’s likely to be the last time. Those first interactions that show you’re listening and care go such a long way.

What are your favorite online tools – social media, productivity, or anything else?

I actually love email :-) I run 99% of my life, personal and professional, through email, and try not to let any other channels or mediums be “musts” so I can focus on getting through everything.

That said, I do like Quora a lot – both for contributing and to consume. I’ve also become a FourSquare addict in the last couple years — it’s great for remembering where I’ve been, and to see where my friends are.

What social media platform do you personally like best?

Probably Twitter. It’s just the right mix for me.

For small businesses, which platform do you think works best, if they had to focus on one?

There’s no one right answer. Facebook is often a good choice, but depending on your business type, it may be far less pragmatic than others. I’d use the process of identifying where your customers and their influencers are, and where you competitors aren’t to figure this out.

What’s the one thing you hate doing but still force yourself to do every week?

Honestly, this question took me by surprise. I can’t think of anything that I do in my life with any regularity that I really hate strongly. I have a few less-than-enjoyable tasks, but I think I’m just a happy person who loves my job, and life outside of work, too.

That’s great to hear! Having said that… What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a business-owner?

Building a technical engineering team at Moz. Because I’m not technical and because the importance of our software engineering talent is the biggest challenge we face in growing the product and company, this has been overwhelmingly hard. I think we’re on the right track today, but still have a lot of work to do to make our product among the top 10% of software products on the web.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give a new entrepreneur?

A great product does not sell itself. Unless you build strength in both your marketing and your product, you’ll have an impossible time competing in the real world. Sadly, this mythology of “build it and they will come” is still strong in the Silicon Valley culture of web startups, but it’s starting to come around.

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