Today, we’re going to hear from one of the most well-known and respected marketers in the B2B SaaS space. Our guest speaker, Hiten Shah is the founder of marketing, analytics, collaboration and visualization companies like KISSmetrics, Crazy Egg and FYI.
The TrendSpotting Podcast arms executives with the insights they need to understand where to invest their marketing dollars. Driven by deep learning insights and extensive consultations with experts in your field, TrendSpotting discusses how to use data to navigate the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing.
Ben: Welcome to the TrendSpotting Podcast by Searchmetrics. In this podcast, we dive deep into the ways innovative marketers use expertise and data to identify the macro trends that influence where you should be investing your marketing budget. This podcast is brought to you by Searchmetrics. At our core, the Searchmetrics team is a collection of SEOs, content marketers and data scientists who help sophisticated organizations leverage their data to improve their organic traffic volume, maximize the visibility of their online content, and gain insights into their business, competition, and industry’s performance. Today, we’re going to hear from one of the most well-known and respected marketers in the B2B SaaS space. Hiten Shah is a serial entrepreneur, who has founded marketing, analytics, collaboration and visualization companies like KISSmetrics, Crazy Egg and FYI.
Ben: In addition to his operating roles, Hiten is also the creator of the Quick Sprout marketing blog and the Startup Chat podcast and is an advisor to over 50 startups. And we’re excited to welcome Hiten to the Trend Spotting podcast to discuss his views on how data and technology are shaping today’s marketing landscape. Here is our interview with Hiten Shah, the founder of FYI. Hiten, welcome to the Trend Spotting podcast.
Hiten: Thanks for having me.
Ben: It’s an honor to have a multiple time founder … I’ve been a user of a few of your products throughout the years. I’ve followed your content, so it’s great to meet you and have you on the podcast.
Hiten: Well, I’m sorry that you got to use my products. They weren’t always the best, and we were always working on making them better until we couldn’t, so yeah it’s great to be here. And also I’m excited to talk about what we’re going to talk about today, because one of my first companies before all the software stuff was actually an SEO agency.
Ben: Oh, great.
Hiten: Yeah, so I’m super familiar with what Searchmetrics does and I’m excited to talk about how I think about trends in marketing and all that stuff.
Ben: Wonderful. Well, we’re excited to have you. Normally, I start off these podcasts by asking our guests to talk about their current role, but you have your hands in so many pots at once I think I’m better served to ask you what are your top priorities these days?
Hiten: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’ve started a bunch of stuff, as you mentioned. The first company I started as a software company is called Crazy Egg and it still exists today. It was started in 2005, so now that’s 13 years later and it’s still there. And so I spend a little bit of my time there just because there’s a lot of other folks running it. And it’s basically an analytics tool that helps you see where people click on your website. And we were one of the first to do that, and now that sort of feature is called a heat map, and it’s in a lot of different tools that exist. But specifically Crazy Egg is still known for our heat mapping technology to let you see exactly where are people are clicking on your website, on your web pages.
Hiten: And we’ve expanded a little bit beyond that, but at the end of the day that’s really what our core is. And that’s what we’ve been growing. And so that’s one.
Hiten: Then I’ve actually made now over 120 investments for advisory roles just because I’m in the Bay Area. I moved here about ten years ago, a little over ten years ago, about 11 years ago, and just started meeting with lots of founders and lots of people. Some of them I invested in, some of them I advised, some of them I just helped out. And so I get to see a lot of stuff as a result of that. And that’s on top of the thousands of conversations I’ve had with different founders.
Hiten: I actually used to have a specific thing which I don’t do any more, just to get back to your priorities question. I used to spend about five days a week every week meeting at least one new entrepreneur or person who worked at a company, usually a tech company, that I didn’t know before. And I did that for about five years, maybe a little bit longer. And I stopped doing that a couple of years ago to focus on kind of what I’m focused on now. So I’ve taken a much more advisory as well as a little bit of operational role at Crazy Egg where I spend a couple hours a week at most.
Hiten: Then I started a new business that actually started with my newsletter, speaking of content. I had a personal newsletter, and recently about a year ago, I joined up with another person and her and I started to rebrand it. And now it’s called Product Habits, producthabits.com, where I talk a lot about product development. And have an email list there that has actually helped us. Great content that people love, according to them, and also helped us find the opportunity for the next things that we’re working on.
Hiten: So we’ve been working on a few different products in the document space, and after a couple of iterations and different products, landed on this one called useFYI. It’s at usefyi.com and it helps you basically search and organize all your documents across all the services you use, whether it’s Dropbox, G Suite, Box, Asana, Trello, your desktop actually, and everything. And you can see all the documents in one interface. It’s not just a search tool. You also are able to find documents just by what’s been changed recently, who created it or who shared it, as well as exactly what tool it’s in so that you don’t have to go across all these tools to find your stuff.
Hiten: So that’s the latest thing I’m working on. That’s why you called me the founder of FYI.
Ben: So before we get into the details of marketing trends, I just want to ask you how, as someone who is a content creator, I’m a marketing consultant, Searchmetrics is one of my clients and I spend a fair amount of time working on sort of my operational role, content creation, business development. You’re also doing advisory for multiple different companies. Talk to me a little bit about your prioritization. How do you assess how much time you should be investing in the various tasks that you have at hand between your operating, your advising, and your content production?
Hiten: I don’t focus on time. That’s my trick. I just focus on having energy for doing these things. For example, on product habits, we’re going to be building software soon. I am going to do … My co-founder’s actually on a little vacation right now, so I’m going to do 11 interviews tomorrow. And that’s going to start at 9:00 a.m. and end at 10:00 p.m. They’re about 45 minute interviews. I’m actually doing a coaching call as well as interviewing these people at the same time, and learning about their problems with product development.
Hiten: I’ve got 53, I believe, interviews between now and next Friday. And I just do it. I have this motto that trips people out a lot. Especially people around me, but then they repeat it back to me so I guess it works. But it’s basically the only way to do more is do more. And so I have that attitude. I don’t worry about time as much as I worry about having energy to do things, and making sure that I’m working on the most important things right now.
Hiten: So for example, I couldn’t do that many interviews if my co-founder was around because we’d usually be jamming on product stuff or marketing stuff or growth stuff; writing emails and things like that. But I’ve set up the time to do that just because it’s good leverage. It’s great for me to be able to do that many interviews while she’s gone. At the same time, we spent a lot of time before she left to make sure that all the other priorities we had were taken care of.
Hiten: And at the same time we have Slack. I run fully remote teams except for my co-founder and I right now. And that helps a lot too. And so we do things like daily updates, where people are listing out what they did yesterday and what they’re going to do today. And that happens five days a week. And so that’s really helpful. It’s in a Slack channel; it’s called Daily Updates. Everyone on the team has to do it. And it’s basically one of the only mandatory things in the company, and that’s actually tremendously helpful. We do that at Crazy Egg as well.
Hiten: To me, I think this idea that we only have limited time is obviously true from a physical time standpoint, but there’s so many ways to accomplish things that I really think about what are the most efficient ways to accomplish things, as well as what’s my priority. And am I making sure that the team is able to do what they need to do, regardless of what’s going on.
Ben: You mentioned energy. This podcast is targeted towards marketing executives. Obviously that group of marketers are in high demand, probably a lot of direct reports. A fair amount of them are in enterprise-level companies. Are there any tricks that you have for maintaining the amount of energy? I have no idea how you do 11 interviews in a day. As a podcaster, I max out at like five or six.
Hiten: Yeah, I just used to do it, so I have a lot of practice doing it. Plus people don’t drain me. So I think the biggest tip I’d have for everyone listening is really … And a lot of executives are good at this … Some of them are just so busy so to speak, and I never consider myself busy. So I guess I’m going to digress for a second and say I don’t consider myself busy. Even if someone tries to say you’re busy, I’m always like well, I’m making time for you right now or for this right now, so there’s no reason to worry about how busy or not busy I am. Right? That’s my problem.
Hiten: So to me I think the tip that I have, the biggest tip that I actually have is know yourself. Know if you can do those 11 interviews in a day, that’s great, that’s knowing something about yourself. Like for me, people give me energy, being able to speak is a big thing for me. Speak to people, educate people, things like that. Number two for me is writing. So the way I advise a bunch of companies is, they all know they can email me any time. And I will respond within … If it’s really urgent, I’ll respond pretty fast. If it’s something not so urgent, it’s within 24 hours. On the dot. If I have some responsibility to you and your company. That’s the way I think about it.
Hiten: So really, I just know myself. I know that I like to do that via email, and I know that I can handle a lot of different people and context switching really easily, while other people can’t do that as well. And so it’s really just about knowing yourself and knowing what gives you energy, versus what takes it away. So if I were to not be surrounded by people to some extent, whether it’s having one or two conversations or even being in a coffee shop, even I don’t know anyone there it just helps me a lot. And being able to do that once a day, if not more … Obviously 11 times tomorrow … But just being able to do that gives me energy. It makes me motivated. It keeps me going.
Hiten: Like today I was in a coffee shop before I came here, because it’s unlikely I’m going to see a lot of people today. I’ve got a bunch of work to do that I need to do before I get into this interview mode for the next week and a half. And so again, you have to know what impacts you in a positive and negative way in terms of your energy. And once you figure that out, I think that things change for how you operate. And how you honestly tell other people to work with you. That’s the key to it as well.
Hiten: It’s not because you’re trying to understand yourself, you’re trying to make it so that the people around you understand you and understand what your basically equivalent of standard operating procedures are for you, the human. That’s how do you deal with me. What is the most efficient best way to deal with me is kind of what you’re trying to answer for other people constantly.
Ben: That’s a very introspective approach to understanding project management and your limitations. That said, let’s turn the page and start talking about some marketing trends. You’ve been focused on supporting what I would consider relatively early stage startups with B2B products. Let’s start off by A, did I get that right? Is that what you consider to be your core market across the products that you’ve created?
Hiten: Actually, we deal with really large Fortune 500 companies as well as mom & pop shops that are e-commerce shops across most of my companies. Crazy Egg especially. I think when I was working on KISSmetrics we were a little confused about exactly what market except we targeted marketers primarily, but it was all kinds of sizes. And then with FYI, it’s much more like a freemium business where we’ll take anybody, including an individual all the way up to large corporations.
Hiten: So to me actually it’s a wide spread. I also have a ton of companies that I advise that are consumer internet companies, as well as enterprise-focused companies. So my breadth is pretty wide. In fact, that’s something about me that is important that I know about myself. Which is I like breadth, I like variety and I don’t mind context switching and getting up to speed really fast on something.
Hiten: So I guess the way I would say it is like I’ve been in marketing for now 15 years, since 2003, starting with an agency focused on SEO. And then we expanded in to other things. And then before stopping that, we actually started KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg as well, and learned a lot about software and how marketers work with software and how to sell to them. And this was before there were as of right now almost 6000 marketers can use. This was when there was a hundred, if even.
Ben: So you bring up an interesting point. That there is a tremendous amount of product offerings for marketers today. I want to talk to you a little bit about the landscape of tools for marketers and how you think about prioritizing what software a marketer should invest in. Tell me what you think are some of the tools that are innovative, interesting, that marketers, specifically the executive-level marketer, should be considering or is interesting.
Hiten: I’m going to talk more about categories. The main reason is I think tools are a dime a dozen now. No offense to anybody on here that loves a specific tool or has built one. I have built many, and will continue to do so. What it’s really about is as an executive, as a marketer, assessing what your needs are. And I see so many people focused so much on tools. For example, right now conversational marketing is becoming a thing. What that means is that you’re doing marketing by talking to people in a chat box. Whether that’s a bot doing that for you and then handing it over to you, or you actually replying back.
Hiten: Well, this is like live chat customer support, customer success. That’s the original category that this was in, and now the marketers have gotten hold of this. And it’s called conversational marketing. And there is a category being developed. And there’s a few companies that are targeting that category. To me, I could look at it like oh, I need to go use one of those tools, right? And say okay, I’m going to go find the best tool for conversational marketing. What I tend to do when I have these discussions is why are you looking for that kind of tool? And I get into that.
Hiten: And then people start basically being able to describe things like well, we have a lot of traffic coming to our website and we’re not engaging with them. I’m like okay, great. So let’s talk about what you’re not doing today and what your needs are. What are your requirements? I don’t need to get super formal like get into a whole RFP, you know? But literally every time my companies were looking to either buy from a vendor or sell to a company, we’re always starting with something similar to a one-pager that describes what we need.
Hiten: So when we’re working with a customer we actually try to focus on needs, just like they tell you to do in sales. Like go find their problem and then sell them a solution to their problem. I’m very much of that mindset, because then you’re focused on what they want and what they need, not trying to sell them something they don’t even understand or they don’t think they need.
Hiten: And so finding problems is really important. So even when I look for a solution for my own company, I’m always thinking about and pushing the company and the teams to think through what are we looking to accomplish? And is that really a problem right now? And once we figure that out, then we have some kind of checklist, even if it’s not exact, like features. Because I’m not really into that either. It’s more, I think of it as a problem checklist. These are problems that we have that we want to solve.
Hiten: And then you’re able to measure up any tool that you’re going to use against that. And I think that that really changes the conversation into what are our problems, not hey there’s this shiny new category or shiny new tool out there.
Ben: I understand the process that you’re talking about for doing vendor selection and picking specific tools and there’s a process to understand what your needs are based on what your customer’s needs are. I’m interested to hear, having worked with multiple different early stage SaaS, B2B, sort of a wide gamut of products, what are some of the other categories that you’re seeing that are emerging that marketers should be aware of and should be considering, assuming that they have an appropriate need.
Ben: You mentioned conversational marketing, right? The sort of merging of marketing and customer success. What are some other emerging trends that you see?
Hiten: I think that we are looking … I mean, the conversational marketing one is probably the most interesting in my mind, just because it’s new and it’s shiny and not enough companies are using it yet.
Ben: Is that new? I mean, I had live chat built into a guitar lesson startup I launched seven years ago. And to me there’s the sort of integration of the bot technology and artificial intelligence, but is conversation marketing really a new trend or is it just the spotlight has been turned to it?
Hiten: It’s new because we’re tying ROI to it.
Ben: Okay, all right.
Hiten: It would be old if we’re just saying oh, we’re going to go talk to our customers and help them succeed, or just chat with them. Now basically these products are tying exact ROI. They’re connecting into software. They’re actually driving lead volume. And I don’t think from a productization standpoint we were thinking of that back when you implemented it. We might have been doing it, you’re totally right, it’s nothing new from a technology standpoint. And I think the second thing that I’m finding really valuable is not just artificial intelligence and machine learning, but more like just basic level automation. Sometimes you get more advanced. That is where the bots come in in terms of conversational marketing.
Hiten: But another aspect of this is just data. I see companies using their data in much smarter ways. As simple as changing the home page based on the refer that comes to the site. I see things like that really picking up steam. Being able to understand anonymous visitors better and provide them with contextual, whether it’s contextual messages on chat, or even changing the message that they see, or the next page that they click on.
Ben: So I think that’s an interesting … I would actually separate that as a separate category of … you know, there is the conversational marketing which you mentioned, which is essentially marketers moving the ability for customers to have live chat into their purview using data to tie it into customer acquisition and then revenue or ROI. And then to me, there’s a line in between that and marketing automation, which is changing your message around and sort of dynamically shifting your marketing assets to provide the right message to the right person based on their experience, whether they’ve been to the site or not.
Ben: You also mentioned the idea of using data to dynamically change the experience that someone has when they land on a website before you actually know who they are. Talk to me a little bit about some of the trends that you’re seeing in that space.
Hiten: I think there’s simple stuff like knowing whether the visitor is from a large company or small company, right? Even being able to do an IP lookup and understand what exact company they might be from, if you can get a hit on that. So there’s a lot of things you can do with that. I think another trend related to that is also like the idea of sending way more personalized email once they are actually in your funnel and have given you their email. So to me it’s a combination of these things.
Ben: You mentioned before understanding a little bit more about visitors who are visiting your site but are anonymous. How are you collecting that data or what tools do you have to understand who is coming to your site when you don’t already have, let’s say, an email address or they haven’t submitted a form.
Hiten: Yeah, there’s a product called Clearbit, and I’m not saying this because I’m an investor, but I am an investor in the company, but they have something called Reveal. And they say it turns anonymous web traffic into full company profiles.
Hiten: Yeah, so it’s able to take an IP address and then let you know where the person’s coming from, what company. And then it tells you more about the company. And I think that as a B2B marketer, that’s pure gold.
Ben: Who do you think is doing a good job in the marketing automation space? Is there anybody that sticks out to you that has a best practice that marketers can look at as a template for marketing automation and email copy automation?
Hiten: Yeah, I’d probably look at Segment.com which is a tool that allows you to basically integrate with a whole bunch of tools that are on your website or your mobile app with just one sort of SDK, one implementation. And it’s a tool that’s used on product teams, engineering teams, as well as marketing teams. And it just makes it easier to just basically get your data to where you want it regardless of what tools you’re using. So they are this intermediary.
Hiten: And if you go to their website and even try to sign up with an email and all that, they’re very good at sending you very contextual email when it comes to like starting with knowing who you are or who you might be.
Ben: You know how you can tell Segment.com is doing well? They’re no longer Segment.io.
Hiten: That’s right. I’m in full agreement with that.
Ben: It’s funny, I wasn’t sure if it was the same tool and as we were talking I had to go to Segment.com. I was like oh, they must have bought their domain. Segment.com, integrating one API, 200 tools, no more integrations. So they lower the threshold to be able to integrate multiple pieces of software. And you’re saying that they have basically changing around their marketing copy and their website is dynamic based on what information they have about you.
Hiten: They’re specifically good at the automation piece of this, yes.
Ben: Okay, great. Talk to me about some of the other trends that you’re seeing outside of marketing automation. We talked a little bit about the use of chat bots, conversational marketing. What other trends do you see in the B2B SaaS landscape?
Hiten: I mean I think for B2B SaaS this trend is a little bit tougher from a marketing standpoint but basically I’ve seen more companies be successful when they focus on time to value. So what I’ve noticed and just the way I look at trends is I actually start with what am I noticing about the closest people to my business, which tends to be my customers. And really think through how has that evolved and changed. Because over the last 15 years, it’s changed quite a bit.
Hiten: People have less time or energy to really spend a ton of time trying to figure your product out, or trying to figure out what problem you’re actually solving for them. So when you are giving people a demo, if your product requires a demo, getting right to the point, focusing in on what problems they have is super critical. Because they don’t have any patience. So I think a big trend I’m seeing right now that’s impacting all businesses, especially B2B businesses, is that the buyer has gotten used to kind of what we used to think the user was more used to.
Hiten: Which is just being able to sign up and try something. Or being able to, when they’re on a demo, after the first call get to something that they can use or see that’s for them. So I’m seeing that as something really important regardless of who the buys is or what size company you’re targeting. Even enterprise companies tend to want to see value pretty fast.
Ben: That’s interesting. You would think that B2B and enterprise-level companies, those would be larger purchases, more stakeholders, longer sales cycle. And like with everything else these days, it seems like people want instant gratification. Do you see there being a trend to people focusing on time to sale on some of the larger purchases? Or is this more some of the entry level price points? How much does price effect the trend that you’re seeing with how much people are focusing on their time to value?
Hiten: So to me time to value and time to purchase are different things. So the time to purchase might not actually have changed in some cases because of procurement and legal and things like that. And like you said, like getting multiple people on board, etc. But the time to value in every little meeting having a ton of value for people is really what’s critical. Before we could draw out the whole sales cycle, have step-by-step processes that you learn one week and then two or three weeks later you talk to them again, etc.
Hiten: Now it’s like after the first call they want to see what you can do for them. And those are the deals that are not even just closing the fastest, but are most successful. So if you don’t have a strong and quick time to value during the sales process, what ends up happening is you don’t get the sale.
Ben: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting trend. And it’s honestly, in my work with Searchmetrics one of the things that we’ve focused on a fair amount is being able to provide content, to be able to provide companies with information about what we’re seeing using our tools so they understand the power of them. And it’s one of the reasons why we started focusing on the trend spotting data as being able to show the power of the data that search can provide, how it is applicable beyond just SEO optimization.
Ben: And I think that makes a good segue into talking about how people are using data. We’ve talked about some of the trends in marketing. What do you see in terms of people getting access to using data, the applications. Talk to me a little bit about any trends that you might see, specifically anything that relates to the few trends that you’ve mentioned. How are people getting access to data and applying it in a way that’s new and innovative?
Hiten: Yeah, I think that what you end up seeing is that data is becoming more commoditized, meaning in every tool you use there’s a ton of data. They all have reporting. A lot of them are talking about reporting about your visitors or your customers, and the sources are all disparate. So what I’m seeing today is that companies that are most successful are able to find ways to combine that data and get a more holistic view on an experience, a customer experience.
Hiten: And I know that that sounds funny because like this should have been happening years ago. This has been the dream, which is all your data in one place or whatever. I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about the fact that if you’re a marketer, you might be going into Zendesk, into the support tool, to understand your audience better and your customers better. Because there’s a ton of rich data in there, because the customer support team’s been tagging everything that comes in for people that are in a trial, for example.
Hiten: And so as a marketer, you might also be going into Salesforce. And this is literally specifically to understand each of those customers. Well, this Salesforce and Zendesk aren’t really connected the best. So you end up looking at these disparate places to get the data. And yeah, there’s this whole idea of a single view of a customer and all these other coo things that we’ve been talking about, I want to say, since I started in marketing. But they haven’t been achieved.
Hiten: Today, the coolest part of it is the data exists in all these places. If you just log in and spend five or ten minutes in one of the tools, find the profile of that user and do the same in another tool, you can learn about each user. Now where this gets really troublesome or complicated is when you have tons of users or tons of prospects or tons of customers and you’re trying to do this. Today, though, what I see is companies are actually either plumbing that data into their own data warehouses and actually doing something meaningful with it, or what they’re doing is they’re actually assigning people, sort of the end user of some of these tools, to start doing tagging or logging or whatever. And start really making better sense of what’s happening along the customer [inaudible 00:29:09].
Ben: I was interviewing a marketer for my other podcast, which centers around martech, marketing and technology, and at the end of that podcast each episode I ask for the marketer to give me some advice that they would give to younger marketers. And most of the time it’s do what you love, give yourself time, learn one skill at a time, very sort of qualitative feedback. And last week one of the marketers said go learn SQL. And that’s the most important thing that a marketer can do, which is give themselves access to the data.
Ben: Like being able to get to the root source. And I think that’s something that you were talking about is, there are now hundreds of sources of data for marketers. You can go to Google Analytics, you can go into your database, you can go into your customer support tool, into your CRM and you’re trying to aggregate all this data in your head if you’re not actually creating a single source. Do you know any tools or any advice for the executive-level marketers to be able to consolidate that data? Are there any best practices? Because to me that’s incredibly challenging of looking across multiple different tools and trying to make sense of the different data sets.
Hiten: You know one thing I would do is … Actually we mentioned Segment already, but and I didn’t think of this ’til you asked the question, but Segment is pretty good at, and should be good in my opinion, at being able to do some of this stuff with their kind of either data warehousing or a product that they call Personas that helps you sort of bring that data together. So if your goal is to bring that data together and really combine those identifies and be able to see like identities across tools that are the same people, a tool like that is really valuable.
Hiten: And so I would probably go research that product if this is a problem that you have today. And there are a couple of other products that are out there that do similar things as well.
Ben: You mentioned Segment a couple of times, and before you said talking about categories. How would you describe this category of tool?
Hiten: Unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t know. But they haven’t really coined the term for that category. So I’m even having trouble describing it as a category today.
Ben: I think you described it well, maybe unintentionally. But it’s a data warehousing product to me, where it’s lowering the hurdle, the integration hurdle, so you can have access to multiple tools without having the same sort of … Without requiring the same technical resources to get something implemented. But it also consolidates where all of your data is going and makes it easier for you to visualize it all at once.
Hiten: Yep, pretty much.
Ben: Talk to me about any other trends in data. There’s consolidation. Companies are looking at multiple different data sources. Marketers are getting their hands into customer service, getting their hands into sales data. Are there any other trends and customer acquisition, what are different sources of data that customers are looking at? And what are some of the channels that you see being valuable?
Hiten: You know, I’m seeing … And you’re going to find this funny considering we’ve both been around for a while, but I’m seeing email having a good uptick, believe it or not. Partly because I think we were high on the fact that, for a while, on the fact that content marketing was our savior in marketing. And it was working really well, but now there’s a ton of content out there. A ton of people producing a lot of content on their blogs, etc. And I think as a result, SEO has become a little bit harder and takes a lot more effort to get right. A lot more of the precision around keyword targeting, updating your pages, understanding your competition and things like that is more important than ever.
Hiten: Because there is more competition and I think content is starting to quickly become commoditized in terms of everyone’s ability to create decent content is getting easier, just because there’s more of it. And so I’m seeing people taking their content and actually being more deliberate and specific about how it converts into revenue or leads or whatever it is that the main metric is that you’re focused on.
Hiten: And so I see people just going back to email, and saying okay, our blog needs to collect a ton of email, and our emails need to convert.
Ben: It’s interesting. I feel like the conversation for marketers over the last ten to 15 years, at least since I’ve been a marketer, is what are we going to do to replace email marketing? And it’s gone from social networks to different forms of message delivery to push notifications to content. And the truth is, the inbox is something that just has never left. And people divert their attention from it, but it’s always to me the most efficient way to get in front of your customers.
Ben: If you look at some of the biggest, most successful startups that have launched in Silicon Valley in the last 20 years … Let’s take Facebook for example … Facebook’s primary growth strategy when it was hitting its exponential growth curve was email marketing about peoples’ birthday.
Hiten: That’s right.
Ben: So email is definitely … While it’s a trend, it’s also something that has been a constant for marketers and I feel like something that should never be overlooked.
Hiten: Couldn’t agree more.
Ben: So you mentioned a little bit about search data. Obviously it’s Searchmetrics, that’s something that’s near and dear to our hearts. Talk to me a little bit about how you think about SEO, how you use SEO data and how does that fit into your business and what trends to you see in the space?
Hiten: So currently one of my blogs is actually ranked for online marketing. And one of my co-founders, Neal, his blog is ranked for a lot of marketing terms as well. And we’ve spent a ton of effort and time to understand all these trends and how they’ve evolved over time. So I love talking about search. I think search is amazing as a sort of medium and long term strategy for most businesses. What I’m finding is hard today is convincing a young company to go invest in search. At the same time convincing a mature company that hasn’t been investing in search, to go invest in search. I’m finding both of those things to be very challenging.
Hiten: So if a young company believes search is their … A young company tends to find other channels, whether it’s social, having a freemium business or a badge on people’s sites, or they’re just doing outbound sales, which is another strategy, they’re having a hard time getting short term gains from search and SEO. Which is totally true right now, it’s very difficult to get short term gains on SEO. You have to be in it for the medium or long term with SEO in order to see the gains. I also see this trend where if a company is already deliberate and let’s say that they do understand search is going to be one of their main drivers over the long haul, then what they do is they deliberately create search-focused content, whether it’s targeting certain keywords and obviously creating great content, best in class content for it.
Hiten: But then they’re also basically marrying that with knowing that they need to create that content in such a way where if they want traffic for it today, it needs to be designed to get traffic from other sources. And traffic from those sources should lead to back links, and should build up to this sort of medium and long term opportunity with search.
Hiten: And I can explain that to companies but if they don’t really have execution towards knowing that it’s a medium and long term strategy, a lot of them will kill their blogs. A lot of them will invest in video content and other things like that and stop investing in written content, that is actually what search engines love, still.
Hiten: Not that video content is bad. It’s just still … You would want to transcribe it and you would want to make it into actual real text content as well in order for search engines to love you. And even for you to get back inks, because that kind of content still gets more back links. So that’s a scenario of like the young company and some of the issues I see there.
Hiten: And then the older company, I think they have a similar problem, but it can be augmented with some experiments. If you’re a more mature company, what ends up happening is you’re already beholden to a bunch of channels. And you already have ROI in it. So investing in a new channel, if search is a new channel for you or a channel you’ve just forgotten about, can be a little tricky. So there I tend to see companies if they are in that boat where like they haven’t invested in search a lot, they need to get ramped up really quickly and assess what their opportunity is.
Hiten: Because a lot of those companies might have great domain authority and many other factors that are sort of great for SEO but not know how to capitalize on it. So putting a team in charge of experimenting, but first starting with data and understanding what the landscape looks like, and where the opportunities are, they’ll be smart.
Hiten: And I’ll say one positive thing about search. I’m still seeing niche keywords and search terms, if you can find them, which in every category you can find them, actually help in the short term. You just have to be willing to find them. And that requires you to use a tool like Searchmetrics and actually understand … And I didn’t mean to do that but it’s true. Use a tool like that to understand what the opportunity is, because without looking at the data for search, you’re kind of hosed. You’re not going to know where to focus.
Ben: I think one of the things that I’ve learned focusing on content and search businesses over the years, and having worked with Searchmetrics very closely, I totally agree with you that people don’t understand that when you’re creating search you’re building an asset that becomes increasingly valuable the more you invest in it and the longer you make that investment. As opposed to when you are buying a PPC ad, if you’re buying paid social ads. If you put a dollar in, you get a dollar out. With search you put a dollar in, you probably get nothing right away. And in two days you get ten cents, and then 20 cents and then 30. And it grows and grows over time the more you’re investing in building out content that is specific and relevant and structured in the right way.
Ben: I also think that people look at search as a black box. That they think of search as I’m just going to create content; I hope we hit the mark over time and eventually that investment pays off. And that’s one of the things where having worked with Searchmetrics and worked for Searchmetrics, taking away some of that uncertainty and helping use data to understand where you are likely to rank, where you are going to have the best performance, what’s going to be your most valuable keywords and what topics you should be covering, that to me doesn’t have to be guesswork.
Ben: So as a content creator, tell me a little bit about your process. That’s obviously sort of important. You have a personal blog. You mentioned that you have a newsletter, you’ve done podcasts. Talk to me about your process for thinking about content creation and how do you focus your content engine?
Hiten: I like to write things that people want to read. And that’s really where I start. So I want to figure out what people want to read in the category that I’m in. So for all the blogs, all the content I create, whether it’s email, newsletter or the blogs themselves, I’m running a lot of experiments early on. And even constantly to see what works and what doesn’t work.
Hiten: So now one of my blogs, Product Habits, what we discovered is that when we write about product, like just product development, tips, tricks and ways to do it and best practices, people like it. But when we write about other companies, people love it. So the last three companies we’ve written about are Box, Whole Foods and Turbo Tax. And our titles, I’ll just give you some of them, are like How Box Conquered the Enterprise and Became a 1.7 Billion Dollar Company in a Decade. How Whole Foods Started an Organic Revolution and became a 13 Billion Dollar Company. How Turbo Tax Used Design and Emotion to Solve a Boring Problem and Dominate an 11 Billion Dollar Industry.
Hiten: So what we’re doing is, we’re really titling these things to help people understand the magnitude of these companies. And the articles are all about the history of the company and how they turned into what they turned into. And that’s the pattern that we saw that works really well, that people gravitate towards. And that’s the kind of content people want to read. So we’ve been creating more content along those lines.
Hiten: That took a while to figure out, because we ran a lot of experiments with all kinds of different content, different titles, things like that. And what we realized is that a company and the magnitude of their success tied with a deep dive into their history with a point of view is what works the best. And so that I haven’t seen online like on other sites. But what we noticed is for our audience, that’s what they resonate with the most.
Ben: Yeah, it’s interesting, one of the tools that I like the most in the Searchmetrics suite is you can put in a topic and it comes up with the questions that people are asking about it. And I’m sure that there are other services that do it, but I think that that’s always valuable is answering the questions that your customers have. You mentioned that you ran experiments to figure out what the format of content best fit the people that you were trying to reach, the best fit for your target market. For the executive-level marketers, how can they advise their staffs to run those types of experiments? What’s the process for figuring out what is the best fit for your target?
Hiten: That’s a great question. I like to make sure that … Because I have to do this as an executive so to speak, and get teams to kind of do this, which is basically make them come up with the experiment based on data. Based on knowing what kinds of questions that people have. So it’s just a process of understanding that customer. And then coming up with experiments. And experiments to me are very constrained. So this many amount of words, this type of content, three to five pieces for that type of content to really assess whether it works or it’s working or it doesn’t.
Hiten: So for each of these experiments we’re writing three to five different pieces of content that are related to what we think is an answer to a customer question. Or the type of topic that we want to write about, or type of structure. And then what we do is we start with an outline, a generic outline for that type of content. So it’s a process of picking three to five different content types that you want to really attack in terms of marketing and your blog or whatever. Whether it’s your email newsletter or your blog, and really thinking through how those solve customer problems, and using customer problems to kind of find them. Sometimes it’s even customer outcomes.
Hiten: So like what outcomes your customers are trying to get, it’s a marrying of problem and outcome. And then, we’re going down and saying for each one, we’re making sure we’re able to run three to five experiments. So as a sort of executive and wanting your team to do that, I think the main focus should be being able to create the budget, and help them create a budget and think through how they can run these experiments.
Hiten: And the outcome of these experiments is you find what works best for you. You find what works best for your audience.
Ben: I think what I’m hearing from you is there’s this sort of scientific process of have an assumption, come up with multiple variants, test them individually, and then be willing to accept multiple answers and look for something that is definitive. Maybe I’m not exactly quoting what scientific process is perfectly, but that’s my high school science class is coming out.
Hiten: Yeah, good enough. I’m all about the scientific method. I think you’ve got it covered when you think of it like that. I think oftentimes we do think of science as experimentation. And that’s good. At the same time, we think of science as research inside of universities that never goes anywhere. So I tend to focus very much on tactically what outcome are we looking to achieve? We’re looking to find content that’s repeatable, scalable, at a reasonable cost that we can make money from, right? Or get leads from, or whatever, that has some ROI.
Hiten: And so as long as you establish that I think it makes it easier to have the constraints and the framework of what to do, what kind of experiments to run.
Ben: Definitely. I feel like we’ve covered a ton of ground. We talked about some marketing trends, conversational marketing. We’ve talked about some of the ways that people are using data. The aggregation problem that marketers are facing. We talked about search and content. I want to turn the conversation back to you. Tell me as the founder of a company, you’re running content, you’re advising other startups, what are you trying to accomplish at this point in your career?
Ben: Where’s your head at? What’s the goal for you?
Hiten: The goal for me is really just to focus on basically creating sustainable growth across the companies that I have. And just learn from the past. And make less mistakes in the future, or make new mistakes is probably a better way to say it. So for me it’s really about growth. And to me that’s the marrying of sort of marketing and product and sales. And how do you actually grow a business regardless of what kind of business it is. I have a few of them, so I think that’s the big thing on my mind in terms of company structure, team, all the way to tactical stuff and strategy.
Ben: And is there any one that you’re interested in trying to meet to help you improve or expedite that journey?
Hiten: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think right now ways to look at data inside of a business is something that I’ve always been of since I built a bunch of analytics tools, but it’s something that I think about a lot. I think even like, on one of my properties, like I said, we have good search rankings. We’re looking to really focus in on what kind of business model can we build out with those search rankings. Because it’s a blog.
Hiten: And so I think thinking through what data do we have available to us, how can we use data and be very data informed instead of just data driven has been another thing on my mind. So you look at data, but if you have a point of view of where you want to go, the data keeps telling you you can’t get there, I think you can still keep pushing. Because if you believe there’s an opportunity and you’re convicted and you know it’s solved a customer problem, then you should figure out how to solve it.
Hiten: And I think a lot of times people get stuck on looking at data and quitting too early. And so these are the kind of things I think about a ton.
Ben: Well, Hiten, I feel like we’ve covered a lot of great ground. It’s been fantastic getting your insights and hearing about some of the trends, some of the applications of data. And if there’s anything that we can do, if there’s anyone that’s listening that knows a fair amount about the type of data collection that you’re interested in, we’d love to help you connect the dots. And I think that’s a great place for us to land the plane. And that wraps up this episode of the Trend Spotting podcast. Thanks again to Hiten Shah for joining us. If you’d like to learn more about Hiten, you can click the link in our show notes to visit his bio, or go to his website which is hitenism.com.
Ben: If you’re interested in spotting more marketing trends or if you’d like to learn more about Searchmetrics, the creator of the Trend Spotting podcast, click the link in our show notes to see our podcast content archive or go to searchmetrics.com.
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Ben: Okay, that’s it for today, but remember until next time, it’s a data driven world out there and the team at Searchmetrics is here to point you the right direction.