Episode 23: Who is Your Ideal Audience, and Where Can You Find Them? | With Rand Fishkin

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

How do you determine who your ideal audience is and how to find them? That's what we're going to be discussing today with a man who has dedicated his professional life to helping people do better marketing through his writing, videos, speaking, and his book: Lost and Founder. He’s the Co-Founder and CEO of SparkToro, an audience research tool that shows you the websites your customers visit, the social accounts they follow, and the hashtags they use.

Podcast 26 Minutes
Who is Your Ideal Audience, and Where Can You Find Them? | With Rand Fishkin

A warm welcome to the Strategic Marketing Show, Rand Fishkin.

[You can find Rand over at SparkToro.com.]


Watch the episode via your preferred pocast platform:

Topics discussed on this episode include:

  • Where does audience research fit into the marketing mix?
  • What are the key areas of audience research that a brand absolutely has to know?
  • What areas of audience research and big brands typically missing out on?
  • What do you do with your audience research once you have it?
  • Is audience research something that you do once, and then you never have to do it again?
  • Is it not possible to use mega ad platforms like Facebook and Google Ads to build target audiences?

David Bain  01:00

The Strategic Marketing Show is brought to you by Insights For Professionals: providing access to the latest industry insights from trusted brands, all on a customized, tailored experience. Find out more over at InsightsForProfessionals.com.

Hey, it's David. How do you determine who your ideal audience is and how to find them? That's what we're going to be discussing today with a man who has dedicated his professional life to helping people do better marketing through his writing, videos, speaking, and his book: Lost and Founder.

He’s the Co-Founder and CEO of SparkToro, an audience research tool that shows you the websites your customers visit, the social accounts they follow, and the hashtags they use. A warm welcome to the Strategic Marketing Show, Rand Fishkin.

Rand Fishkin  01:31

Thanks for having me, David. Good to be back.

David Bain  01:32

Yeah, great to have you on your brand. Well, you can find Rand over at SparkToro.com. So, Rand, where does audience research fit into the overall marketing mix?

Rand Fishkin  01:45

I think there are two important places, one a little more important than the other. And that is: before you ever have a marketing mix, you should absolutely be doing audience research. Meaning that, if you go out to your market and you say, “Well, I'm pretty sure that I can reach them via advertisements in search on Google and maybe I'll run some Facebook Ads.”, you are going to spend a tremendous amount of money, and you're going to be up against an incredible amount of competition. You're almost certainly going to be overpaying and probably struggling because it's very difficult for new and emerging brands to be successful on those platforms.

If instead, you talk to your potential customers and you ask them about the sources that they pay attention to, and you run a survey, potentially, asking them, “Hey, what sorts of publications do you follow?” and “Where and what do you consume?”. And then you look at, hopefully, some broad passively-collected data (like the kinds of things that SparkToro does, but you could certainly use other tools too), and you get a sense of, “Oh, these are the podcasts that my target audience listens to, and these are the YouTube channels that they subscribe to, and these are the social accounts that they follow on Twitter, and LinkedIn, and Facebook and Instagram, and these are the subreddits that they subscribe to, and these are the publications and websites that they read.” If you have a great idea of what those things are before you go do your targeting, gosh, it's like having binoculars and being able to scope your target rather than just traipsing around the woods.

David Bain  03:30

Well, towards the beginning of your answer, you mentioned Facebook Ads. Let's go down that rabbit hole, to begin with. So obviously, platforms like Facebook Ads and Google Ads have enormous volumes of data - they are bringing AI into the mix in terms of who you're able to target as a brand.

Why, as a brand, can't you just trust massive platforms like that for your automated audience research? Why do you have to do it yourself?

Rand Fishkin  03:58

Oh, you absolutely can. And I think if you are richer than you are wise, you should probably do that. Because Facebook and Google's business model is essentially to say, “Hey, David, you've got a great product that you're making $1 of margin on, we would like 99.99 cents of that. Next year, it'll be 99.999 cents of that.” That's how the big ad platforms have incredible margins and have sort of dominated the growth of the tech world in the last few years. I think that's why even Apple is now like, “Gosh, advertising is a really great business, maybe we should kick out Facebook and take that market share for ourselves.”, which they're doing. 

I think that if you have more sense than dollars, then you might consider doing audience research first, because you will find a lot of tactics, channels, opportunities, etc., where Google and Facebook are not able to extract a massive chunk of your revenue. You can do that in two ways, right? One is: go direct. Maybe you're listening to this podcast with David and you're thinking, “Gosh, I would love to reach people on there. How can I pitch David and be interviewed by him? Or could I sponsor this podcast? Or can I work with David in some other way? Maybe he’s got an email newsletter and you can send that out, right?”. If you want to reach those audiences, you can go direct. You can do that with virtually anything in any field.

The second option is that you go into your Google Display Network, YouTube advertising account, your Facebook and Instagram ads, etc., and you use the data and intelligence you've gathered from audience research to better target your advertising. Actually, I just got an email on Friday from an agency and they were very excited. They were like, “Hey, we just ran a big test where we did all our SparkToro audience research, and we ran a bunch of social media advertising campaigns, and the one where we did the targeting based on what your data told us had - was it 30% the cost to reach the same number of people?” I was like, “Oh, this is great! Can we write up a case study?” and they were like, “Yeah, in the new year we’ll write up a case study.” This is the kind of thing that you can do if you target yourself. If not, Google and Facebook are really happy to take that money.

David Bain  06:24

I can see how you can certainly use audience research to better define what kind of publications your target audience are likely to engage with, and perhaps actually take full control over that advertising relationship yourself.

Can you also use decent high-quality audience research to better put together your Google Ads campaigns and better put together your LinkedIn advertising campaigns?

Rand Fishkin  06:53

Yeah, that's exactly what this agency that emailed me on Friday was saying, right? I think, in their case, it was LinkedIn and Twitter that they had done it specifically with. So they basically said, “Hey, rather than just letting these services do the targeting for us, or use our own intuition around it, we're going to actually go collect data and - okay, it looks like 19% of the audience that we want to reach who have this particular job title, follow these publications, or follow these social accounts. So, our Twitter ad campaign is going to be ‘Hey, show this ad to people who follow these Twitter accounts’, or go to LinkedIn, do the same thing with the job titles or people who use a hashtag or people who follow a particular group.”

Those sorts of targeting in the advertising world can help you potentially do better with your ad ROI results. But for me, David, the advertising side is interesting, but it's not my passion. That's not what I look for, right? When I get an update from SparkToro and it says, “Hey, the audience that follows you, or the audience that follows us, has changed in this particular way, and they're using this new hashtag or they're following this new social account or they're visiting this new website.” I like to reach out direct and make a connection of some kind and find some way for us to co-market or work together.

I want to find a way for that channel or service to amplify me without exchanging dollars. I don't go to, “Oh, hey, this new person on LinkedIn is really popular among the audience I want to reach.” I don't want to pay them; I want to do something with them. I want to find some way that we can collectively add value to their audience, that's going to get me in front of their audience - get SparkToro in front of their audience. That's really what I use the service for: organic campaigning.

David Bain  08:47

You talked about an audience changing. How often does an audience change? How often do you actually have to conduct audience research?

Because I guess some brands would think, “Okay, we're making a play into this market, we're launching this new product or service. We’ll conduct our audience research. Once it's done, it's done.” But is that a big mistake?

Rand Fishkin  09:05

Not necessarily. I think there are use cases where a big piece of audience research to try and understand a market and then do product development, and a channel strategy, and marketing-mix strategy, all those kinds of things, makes total sense, right? You don't want to redo your branding and positioning on a regular basis. No. Hopefully, branding and positioning are something that you establish once and maybe you fine-tune every year or two or three.

But, in terms of specific tactics: what hashtags are we gonna use for our social posts this week? I would highly recommend that you use the ones that are trending with your audience, right? That your audience is actually paying attention to, the ones that they're using. You should probably go in and look at those hashtags that they're using week over week and see what topics they're talking about so you know what to put in your blog, or who's trending so you can invite them on your podcast, or bring them to your webinar, or put them at your conference or event, or work with them on a co-marketing pitch.

All of those kinds of things change, technically, every day. I think a big point of frustration is - and you sort of brought this up in the question, David – but a big point of frustration, for sure, is: having to go back through the process of audience research each time, that is very frustrating. I will agree that that is sometimes such a pain that it's not worthwhile. One of the things that we try to do with SparkToro - I think you probably saw this last week, but we did this audience-tracking update. Now you can say, “I always care about the audience that uses the hashtag #packagingdesign, or the audience that frequently talks about ‘drones’ or the audience that follows @randfish on Twitter.” Then every week, SparkToro will just tell you everything that's changed with that audience and give you a little summary in an email every seven days.

I think that's a much smarter way to go, right? Get automatic alerts. I do this with BuzzSumo, a lot of people do this with mentions or Google Alerts. Google Alerts is telling you what's changing. When are people talking about you or your brand or mentioning you on the web? It's the same kind of thing. It's that passive intelligence of: What's in the conversation? What's in the zeitgeist? What's going on with my audience?

David Bain  11:25

When you mentioned Google Alerts there, I was thinking, “When was the last time I've actually logged into Google Alerts.” I used to use it an awful lot, but it doesn't seem to be that -

Rand Fishkin  11:33

Oh, but it's so bad. Have you tried it in the last few years? I swear to God they have some engineer in a basement somewhere and 10% of that person's job is checking to make sure Google Alerts is still alive, but it barely works. It's awful. This is why I use BuzzSumo.

David Bain  11:50

When a marketer first tries SparkToro, what kind of platforms, if any, do you find that they're actively using at the moment? Do you find that brands are a bit higgledy-piggledy when it comes to audience research, and they don't necessarily have a fixed way of doing it, and it's all about just what the market really was like on the day? Or do brands typically have a certain way they do audience research that you can say, “A lot of companies do it this way”?

Rand Fishkin  12:18

First off, I want to recognize your genius use of the phrase “higgledy-piggledy”, which we don't have in the United States, but I would like for us to adopt and steal - it sounds delightful. And second, what I find is that no two companies are the same. No two agencies, even, are the same. I think this is one of those rare areas in marketing where there's no best practice.

I think the most common one that is standardized is folks who build personas. They tend to build marketing and product personas, and they keep those on a wall with a cartoon illustration of a person who has an alliterative name, and has three and a half dogs, and two cats, and six and a half children, and likes their Starbucks latte with cream. But I don't think that's a particularly useful or valuable insight into audience research. I don't think it's a great way to do it. My recommendation is that you change up that process if you've got it.

What I do find is, everyone does it differently, but that's okay. I know that sounds kind of odd. It's not that there isn't a best practice. What I think is true is, unlike many other forms of marketing, it is so crucial to cater the research that you do to the problems you actually have to solve. I really don't like, David, when people give advice - even other audience research professionals, market research professionals - where they say, “Hey, you need to follow these 10 steps. You need to get these pieces of information.” Because for me, it's kind of a: Why? Why are you getting those pieces of information?

If you don't have a great answer to that question like, “Oh, well, if we know which podcasts our audience is listening to and how that's changed over time, we will do this marketing tactic differently.” If you don't have a good answer to that, don't collect the data. It's not going to be helpful to you, it's a waste of your time and energy. I would start from the position of: “What do I need in my marketing to do better targeting, to better understand my customers, to better understand the people who amplify messages to my customers, to better understand which messages resonate with them and where?” And then take those questions and use audience research to solve them.

David Bain  14:38

Well for my US friends: higgledy-piggledy means “in a confused, disordered, or random manner”. That's the dictionary definition, there we go.

Rand Fishkin  14:48

So, politics then.

David Bain  14:50


Rand Fishkin  14:54

At least our politics. Maybe the UK has very sane and boring politics.

David Bain  14:57

Do you think so? Is that what you're seeing on the news at the moment?

Rand Fishkin  15:03

The Rand Trolls David Show will be back in a few minutes after our sponsor, The Queen.

David Bain  15:10

We had a brief conversation beforehand, dear listener, dear viewer, to say - I said to Rand, “Rand, any conversation that I have with you, it should be about 20 minutes or so but normally it ends up being five hours. That was detour number… No, we're not gonna go down that detour.

Rand Fishkin  15:30

Look at me being responsible. I'm being so responsible.

David Bain  15:33

I'm gonna say that you also shared with me - well you shared with me at the beginning of the discussion to say that a marketing agency informed you that they had a significant percentage decrease in their cost to acquire customers based upon the audience research, I think you said 30 or 40%?

Rand Fishkin  15:50

Yeah, they told me 30%. 30% of the costs of what they were doing before.

David Bain  15:57

So, articulating a financial value to audience research will certainly get heads turned internally, in terms of why you should do it.

A case study that you also mentioned to me beforehand was a brand called Comprehensive.io, that's an online B2B service that helps to ensure that compensation decisions are fair and equitable, and they recently managed to appear in TechCrunch. And you did a little bit of research to show that 41.6% of their target audience engages with that particular publication.

Rand Fishkin  16:29

Which is slightly surprising to me, right? TechCrunch is a popular publication, but when I think of who reads it, I tend to think of tech entrepreneurs, and insiders, and oftentimes venture capitalists and investors, those kinds of folks. To be frank, I do not think of HR professionals, when I think about TechCrunch. But apparently, if you are in tech HR, TechCrunch is a very popular publication. I think it was one of the top three most subscribed to or followed publications that we have in our index. Which means that, if you want to reach HR professionals in tech, and you have a product for them, it's a great idea to get covered in TechCrunch. And you probably should go through the effort of trying to do a PR pitch and getting your new product covered in that publication.

I think that data like that is hard to come by. It's difficult to ask your audience, “Hey, can you tell me all the publications that you subscribe to?” and then try and put together a sophisticated analysis of that. Very often, if you ask HR professionals, they will focus on some recent ones that they read. They'll focus on the ones that they think they're supposed to read that are more popular, rather than, “Hey, here's my phone, just go through everything I've done in the last week.” That passive collection of data can help solve that.

So TechCrunch is a big popular publication, and everybody knows about it. But I was helping someone I mentioned - that packaging design, David. I was helping someone in Europe, in Italy, actually who works in packaging design for agricultural and food processing equipment. So a weird, boring industry. Anyway, I didn't know anything about that field. But we looked up people whose professional bios included the words “packaging design”, found all these publications, conferences, and events, (which apparently is big in Europe for that group), and then that is where they did their outreach and targeting and got some placement. I think it was RaboResearch? I had an example of them appearing in a bunch of these places. 

What's cool about this is you don't have to know a whole lot about the field, right? You can just go in and say, “Well, who are you trying to reach? Okay, I can tell you where to reach them.” And that's data that Facebook and Google - they have, they know it, but they will not tell you.

David Bain  18:58

One thing that I also took from what you were saying there is to actually focus on the passions of your audience. Not necessarily content behind what it is that you do or what you're trying to sell, but if you can engage with them at the point where they're engaged - they're motivated, they're loving what they're reading - and then perhaps you can consume with them at the same time.

It reminds me of the story of attorneys in the states actually, that they decided to research their audience and because they researched their audience (and also because they knew that their service was the type of service that people only used every four or five years or so), they decided to start a podcast on golf. That's what the majority of their audience absolutely loves to do, but it was a reminder of the fact that their brand existed. So, when their target audience was ready to buy, then they'd remember the brand.

Rand Fishkin  19:48

I love those sorts of random affinities; affinities that you wouldn't ordinarily find. I have no doubt that they did this in some other fashion, but I saw the crossover that - you know how Lego will work with Sony to do a Spiderman set or Marvel to do a Thor set or stuff like this, right? Lego will do these collaboration crossovers. I saw they did one recently with the Dungeons and Dragons brand, which is based here in Seattle. We have the offices for the company that owns and runs Dungeons and Dragons here.

You can see in SparkToro the overlap (we have this Venn diagram that you can do if you compare two audiences). The overlap of people who follow one of Lego’s social accounts and follow one of Dungeons and Dragons’ social accounts is very high. I thought to myself, “My god, this is a genius marketing move, right?” It's a product marketing move. They're not choosing where to target an audience, or a hashtag to use, or content to create. They're choosing a product to design and a collaborative effort to engage in.

The data bears out that this is a very smart idea, and they probably have a lot of crossover fans to be able to engage with that. I think that it's those kinds of interesting connections that you would otherwise be unable to surface that make audience research so valuable. All the kinds of audience research. I'm not just talking about the passively collected stuff from SparkToro. Interviews in surveys. It wouldn't surprise me if a survey or an interview was exactly how Lego found that a bunch of their fans were also fans of D&D.

David Bain  21:30

It almost reminds me of the Reverse Unicorn ad strategy by Larry Kim. If Lego had advertised on Facebook - I know you’re probably not a great fan of doing that - but if they'd advertised on Facebook “Lego and Dungeons and Dragons”, the community that were passionate about both brands would have been highly likely to engage with that campaign.

Rand Fishkin  21:56

One of the interesting things - before the 2016 election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you used to be able to go into Facebook and you could select (in Facebook's Audience Builder) an audience that had some particular attribute, and then see how big the audience would be if you added another dimension onto them.

So similar to what you could today do in SparkToro, you could do in Facebook Ads. Of course, they took this away because of, they say, “privacy”. I think probably they had concerns that people would be able to use it in problematic ways, which maybe is fair, but that's something that I think is ludicrously valuable.

David Bain  22:41

Well, let's move on from what works now to planning for the future. So, in your opinion, what's the biggest marketing trend or challenge for marketers over the coming year?

Rand Fishkin  22:50

I think we are entering, have entered, and are continuing to enter a period of attribution going away for virtually all organic channels. I think attribution today only really exists for paid channels. It's so incredibly difficult, so complex, and so rough in terms of the measurement that I would suggest that most people don't even bother. Unless you're doing $100 million a year in revenue or more, I would say you shouldn't even bother trying to build attribution models for organic. They're going to be so off that it won't help you.

Instead, we're getting back to a world that's a little bit, David, like what the 20th century's measurement systems looked like. If Coca-Cola ran an ad in 1955, the way they would do it is they’d run it in Cleveland, Ohio, but not in Cincinnati. Then they’d look at same-store sales from Cleveland, and Cincinnati. If those sales were exactly the same, and they didn't change, or they were within margin of error, they’d say, “Okay, the ad didn't work. That was an ineffective ad, let's run something else.” If it did - if Cleveland’s same-store sales rose and Cincinnati's didn't - they'd say, “All right, take that ad, run it all over Ohio. We're going to test Ohio against Kansas.” 

This would be how advertising measurement was done, and how marketing measurement was done. Today, I think we're going back to that world where you sort of have to make investments, measure broad lift, and then try and say, “Okay, our campaign of content marketing, or social media marketing, or podcasting, or building up our YouTube channel, or trying to get our brand out through conferences and events”. For all these organic kinds of things, the way to measure it is with broad brand lift, direct and type-in traffic, branded search traffic, etc.

I wrote a long blog post about this for people who are interested in the actual process of measurement versus attribution and why this is going on. But this, I think, is a huge trend. You're gonna see - I just saw the report this morning that Salesforce feels like, because of the macroeconomic environment, because of the challenges of measurement, etc, they don't think they can make a forecast for next year. “It's too difficult, so we're not going to forecast our financial quarterly results like we usually do.” I think that's going to be true for a lot of folks who don't just rely on paid.

David Bain  25:25

Yeah. A lot of big public companies are certainly struggling to stick with the story that they felt were going to happen, because you just don't know what's going to happen. It could be a mild recession next year, it could be a deep recession, it could be even no recession at all. It’s so hard to predict. 

Rand Fishkin  25:46

It is weird. I feel like for four quarters, we've been waiting for a recession. It's been this holding pattern. Part of me wants to just say, “Okay, consumers, just stopped spending or never stopped spending and just tell us.” But of course, consumer behavior being impossible to predict, you don’t know.

David Bain  26:05

I’ve been your host, David Bain. You can find Rand Fishkin and the blog post that he mentioned over at SparkToro.com. Rand, thanks so much for being on the Strategic Marketing Show.

Rand Fishkin  26:14

My pleasure, David. Thank you again for having me.

David Bain  26:17

And thank you for listening. Here at IFP, our goal is simple: to connect you with the most relevant information, to help solve your business problems, all in one place. InsightsForProfessionals.com.

The Strategic Marketing Show

The Strategic Marketing Show is brought to you by Insights For Professionals – providing access to the latest industry insights from trusted brands, all in a customized, tailored experience.

Available on:


Join the conversation...