Marketing Lessons Learned from 16 Years of Building Moz – Whiteboard Friday
The lessons Rand has learned from building and growing Moz are almost old enough to drive. From marketing flywheels versus growth hacks, to product launch timing, to knowing your audience intimately, Rand shares his best advice from a decade and a half of marketing Moz in today’s edition of Whiteboard Friday.
Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we are going to chat about some of the big lessons learned for me personally building this company, building Moz over the last 16, 17 years.
Back in February, I left the company full-time. I’m still the Chairman of the Board and contribute in some ways, including an occasional Whiteboard Friday here and there. But what I wanted to do as part of this book that I’ve written, that’s just coming out April 24th, Lost and Founder, is talk about some of the elements in there, maybe even give you a sneak peek.
If you’re thinking, “Well, what are the two or three chapters that are super relevant to me?” let me try and walk you through a little bit of what I feel like I’ve taken away and what I’m going to change going forward, especially stuff that’s applicable to those of us in web marketing, in SEO, and in broader marketing.
Marketing flywheels > growth hacks
First off, marketing flywheels, in my experience, almost always beat growth hacks. I know that growth hacks are trendy in the last few years, especially in the startup and technology worlds. There’s been this sort of search for the next big growth hack that’s going to transform our business. But I’ve got to be honest with you. Not just here at Moz, but in all of the companies that I’ve had experience with as a marketer, this tends to be what that looks like when it’s implemented.
So folks will find a hack. They’ll find some trick that works for a little while, and it results in this type of a spike in their traffic, their conversions, their success metrics of whatever kind. So they’ve discovered a way to game Facebook or they found this new black hat trick or they found this great conversion device. Whatever it is, it’s short term and short lasting. Why is this? It tends to be because of something Andrew Chen calls — and I’ll use his euphemism here — it’s called the “Law of Shitty Click-through Rates,” which essentially says that over time, as people get experienced with a sort of marketing trend, they become immune to its effects.
You can see this in anything that sort of tries to hack at consciousness or take advantage of psychological biases. So you get this pattern of hack, hack, hack, hack, and then none of the hacks you’re doing work anymore. Even if you have a tremendously successful one, even if this is six months in length, it tends to be the case that, over time, those diminish and decline.
Conversely, a marketing flywheel is something that you build that generates inertia and energy, such that each effort and piece of energy that you put into it helps it spin faster and faster, and it carries through. It takes less energy to turn it around again and again in the future after you’ve got it up and spinning. This is how a lot of great marketing works. You build a brand. You build your audience. They come to you. They help it amplify. They bring more and more people back. In the web marketing world, this works really well too.
So most of you are familiar with Moz’s flywheel, but I’ll try and give it a rough explanation here. We start down here with content ideas that we get from spending lots of time with SEOs. We do keyword research, and we optimize these posts, including look at Whiteboard Friday itself.
What do we do with Whiteboard Friday? You’re watching this video, but you’ll also see the transcript below. You’ll see the podcast version from SoundCloud so that you can listen to the text rather than watch me if you can do audio only for some reason. Each of these little images have been cut out and placed into the text below so that someone who’s searching in Google images might find some of these and find their way to Whiteboard Friday. A few months after it goes up here, hosted with Wistia on Moz, it will be put up on YouTube.com so that people can find it there.
So we’ve done all these sorts of things to optimize these posts. We publish them, and then we earn amplification through all the channels that we have — email, social media, certainly search engines are a big one for us. Then we grow our reach for next time.
Early in the days, early in Moz’s history, when I was first publishing, I was writing every blog post myself for many, many years. This was tremendously difficult. We weren’t getting much reach. Now, it’s an engine that turns on its own. So each time we do it, we earn more SEO ranking ability, more links, more other positive ranking signals. The next time we publish content, it has an even better chance of doing well. So Moz’s flywheel keeps spinning, keeps getting faster and faster, and it’s easier and easier. Each time I film Whiteboard Friday, I’m a little more experienced. I’ve gotten a little better at it.
Flywheels come in many different forms
Flywheels come in a lot of forms. It’s not just the classic content and SEO one that we’re describing here, although I know many of you who watch Whiteboard Friday probably use something similar. But press and PR is a big one that many folks use. I know companies that are built on primarily event marketing, and they have that same flywheel going for them. In advertising, folks have found these, in influencer-focused marketing flywheels, and community and user-generated content to build flywheels. All of these are ways to do that.
Find friction in your flywheels
If and when you find friction in your flywheel, like I did back in my early days, that’s when a hack is really helpful. If you can get a hack going to grow reach for next time, for example, in my early days, this was all about doing outreach to folks in the SEO space who were already influential, getting them to pay attention and help amplify Moz’s content. That was the hack that I needed. Essentially, it was a combination of the Beginner’s Guide to SEO and the Search Ranking Factors document, which I’ve described here. But that really helped grow reach for next time and made this flywheel start spinning in the way that we wanted. So I would urge you to favor flywheels over hacks.
Marketing an MVP is hard
Second one, marketing an MVP kind of sucks. It’s just awful. Great products are rarely minimum viable products. The MVP is a wonderful way to build. I really, really like what Eric Ries has done with that movement, where he’s taken this concept of build the smallest possible thing you can that still solves the user’s problem, the customer’s problem and launch that so that you can learn and iterate from it.
I just have one complaint, which is if you do that publicly, if you launch your MVP publicly and you’re already a brand that’s well known, you really hurt your reputation. No one ever thinks this. No one ever thinks, “Gosh, you know, Moz launched their first version of new tool X. It’s pretty terrible, but I can see how, with a few years of work, it’s going to be an amazing product. I really believe in them.” No one thinks that way.
What do you think? You think, “Moz launched this product. Why did they launch it? It’s kind of terrible. Are they going downhill? Do they suck now? Maybe I should I trust their other tools less.” That’s how most people think when it comes to an MVP, and that’s why it’s so dangerous.
So I made this silly chart here. But if the quality goes from crap to best in class and the amplification worthiness goes from zero to viral, it tends to be the case that most MVPs are launching way down here, when they’re barely good enough and thus have almost no amplification potential and really can’t do much for your marketing other than harm it.
If you instead build it internally, build that MVP internally, test with your beta group, and wait until it gets all the way up to this quality level of, “Wow, that’s really good,” and lots of people who are using it say, “Gosh, I couldn’t live without this. I want to share it with my friends. I want to tell everyone about this. Is it okay to tell people yet?” Maybe it’s starting to leak. Now, you’re up here. Now, your launch can really do something. We have seen exactly that happen many, many times here at Moz with both MVPs and MVPs where we sat on them and waited. I talk about some of these in the book.
MVPs, great to test internally with a private group. They’re also fine if you’re really early stage and no one has heard of you. But MVPs can seriously drag down reputation and perception of a brand’s quality and equity, which is why I generally recommend against them, especially for marketing.
Living the lives of your customer/audience is a startup + marketing cheat code
Last, but not least, living the lives of your customers or your audience is a cheat code. It is a marketing and startup cheat code. One of the best things that I have ever done is to say, “You know what? I am not going to sequester myself in my office dreaming up this great thing I think we should build or I think that we should do. Instead, I’m going to spend real time with our customers.”
So you might remember, at the end of 2013, I did this crazy project with my friend, Wil Reynolds, who runs Seer Interactive. They’re an SEO agency based here in the United States, in Philadelphia and San Diego. They do a lot more than SEO. Wil and I traded houses. We traded lives. We traded email accounts. I can’t tell you how weird it is answering somebody’s email, replying to Wil’s mom and being like, “Oh, Mrs. Reynolds, this is actually Rand. Your son, Wil, is answering my email off in Seattle and living in my apartment.”
That experience was transformational for me, especially after having gone through the pain of building something that I had conceptualized myself but hadn’t validated and hadn’t even come up with the idea from real problems that real people were facing. I had come up with it based on what I thought could grow the company. I seriously dislike ideas that come from that perspective now.
So since then, I just try not to assume. I try not to assume that I know what people want. When we film a Whiteboard Friday, it is almost always on a topic that someone I have met and talked to either over email or over Twitter or in person at an event or a conference, we’ve had a conversation in person. They’ve said, “I’m struggling with this.” I go, “I can make a Whiteboard Friday to help them with that.” That’s where these content ideas come from.
When I spend time with people doing their job, I was just in San Diego a little while ago meeting with a couple of agencies down there, spending time in their offices showing off a new links tool, getting all their feedback, seeing what they do with Open Site Explorer and Ahrefs and Majestic and doing their work with them, trying to go through the process that they go through and actually experiencing their pain points. I think this right here is the product and marketing cheat code. If you spend time with your audience, experiencing their pain points, the copy you write, what you design, where you place it, who you try and get to influence and amplify it, how you serve them, whether that’s through content or through advertising or through events, or whatever kind of marketing you’re doing, will improve if you live the lives of your customers and their influencers.
All right, everyone. Hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. If you have feedback on this or if you’ve read the book and checked that out and you liked it or didn’t like it, please, I would love to hear from you. I look forward to your comments. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.