The SaaS Bootstrapper Podcast

TSB003: Sustainable digital marketing, with David Mihm

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Episode overview:

David Mihm is first and foremost an advocate for sustainable digital marketing techniques for small businesses. In 2012, he sold his former company to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in the local search engines. He’s a co-founder of the Local University conference series. David now runs Tidings and his weekly newsletter, Minutive.

In this episode, David Mihm talks with us about the current state of SEO, and sustainable content marketing techniques. He also tells us how he positioned himself as a local search expert, and how he grew his first company to 2.5 million users.

Guest links:



@davidmihm on Twitter


Mentioned in this episode:

The interview:

Mac: Alright, welcome. Today we have David Mihm on the line. David is first and foremost an advocate for sustainable digital marketing techniques for small business, in 2012 he sold his former company to Moz helping over three million business get better visibility in local search engines. He is co-founder of local university conference series and is also currently running his new company Tidings and his weekly newsletter “Minitive”. Thanks for joining us David.

David: For sure, Its great to be with you and I’m for kinda more of those guys who can’t really sit still. I always have one side project going on.

Mac: Good. You and I actually became friends recently. For the listeners who might not know I do a lot of MVP development for the people like yourself, for entrepreneurs, for startups and that’s how we met. You came to me to build the MVP for your current company, tidings which I’m excited to start talking about here as well.

I would like to back up and go further back in your career and kinda talk about how you got to where you are now and from the milestones I know in your career, it seems like kinda staple one of the big first to just like setting yourself up as a local search expert. I don;t know if that is exactly how you would put it but that is kinda what I see has been a big thing for you.Can you go a little over what local search actually means, as well as how you gotten into that?

David: I certainly did not get into it with the goal of becoming a local search expert. I guess there is not as many local search experts as social media experts and that sort of thing, but that always rubs me a little bit the wrong way. I basically started designing websites back in college and after a year of grad school it didn’t take, I quickly started a small business accumulating small business clients who needed websites and after the first two or three pretty much all of them just sort of casually started asking me,” Hey, do you know anything about this SEO thing? What can we go to rank better in google?” All those sort of questions.

It wasn’t something that I had experience with or I went to school for obviously. It was 2005 when I started my web designing company. I just read as much as I could online, at the time there were a lot of forums and blogs and that sort of thing and I started paying attention to and one of them was the SEOMoz blog. Actually that’s where I learned a lot of what I actually still use today as a foundation for SEO.

About 2008, google released something that at the time we called a 10 pack, but essentially it was a totally anew interface that involved a map with little red push points if you remember which were featuring business listings. They weren’t webpages, they were physical places in the real world and at the time, myself and a few others - I mean really there were very few of us who were really paying serious attention to what google was really doing for local businesses and we just said this is a really huge shift, it was a brand new algorithm, a huge shift in the visual interface.

We thought, Okay, this thing is going to take off basically and so there were about two dozens of us in the world at that time when. We were on these blogs, sharing things via e-mail and that sort of thing and so just kinda solved the amount of attention was paying to this and I knew how valuable it was to the companies I was working for and the clients I was working for as a web designer. I kinda hitched my leg into the local search [sp]comet which is now a huge thing.

So basically anytime you do a search these days whether it’s on your desktop or on your phone or via your Amazon Echo or Siri or anything like that. If the category of the search or the business you are searching, if its a specific business you are looking up, if google or apple or Amazon or Facebook thinks that if you say something like pizza or insurance agent, or real estate agent google interprets that, “ Oh, you are not looking for New York pizza or Chicago pizza.” You are probably looking for pizza in southeast Portland.

So, they will show this local place results by default and it is a huge driver of visibility for this local businesses. That kinda brought my background in the space and also what local search is and why I think its gonna be such a huge driver of business for personal companies.

Mac: That’s great, I actually didn’t know you had websites before. It makes total sense because as we were building this MVP for Tidings you knew what you were doing, much more than a lot of people I work with. That’s interesting to know. It’s also cool in a sense you were brought to local search like the people you were working with made you do that. Okay, David, we have this problem. They are presenting you with the problem and you just ran away with it and that awesome.

David: Exactly, it was certainly not something Haas business school or Stanford business school decision to kinda get in the market by any stretch it was totally just, “Hey these are the companies I’m working with and this is what they need and I’m try to figure our how to help them.”

Mac:** Because I think a lot of listeners are doing a lot of consulting and freelancing on the side, maybe building their business on the side. Did you then continue to build websites and put just an emphasis on the search or did you shift fully to consulting and just telling people how to get on to the top those listings?

David: I probably could have and should have prioritized my time, better time management, better financial decisions about what this more lucrative and that sort of thing. Yeah, I continued to built websites all the way through probably 2012 for small companies and for non-profits. If I got an inquiry from somebody that resonated with me, I generally took them on as a client regardless of what their budget was.

I did continue to do that but the nice thing was that my professional reputation was growing at the time and I started getting a lot of inquiry from major national brands like RIA and a few really big financial companies I can’t mention because I’m still under NDA with them. I started getting a lot of inquiries from major bigger companies who were being put at a disadvantage by all the new local results that were favoring local businesses.

I kinda of had a two headed monster type of a web design for small companies and a little bit of SEO for them as well and then also really focused on technical SEO for bigger companies with thousands of locations all over the country. That was my web design and consulting business and then GetListed started as a side project in addition to that. Like I said, I kinda of always had a lot of things going on which is not the smartest thing but its how my career evolved.

Mac: GetListed it sounds like it came out of this, it kinda of discovering this problem. I know you have since sold GetListed to Moz and I’m actually not sure that I have used it myself but is it in a sense automating the work you were doing? Is that how it came up?

David: Exactly. It was just me and a business partner we sort of developed this. I found myself repeating the same searches and in my consulting deliverable I would give everyone the same advice. It was of those things where i was like,”we can streamline this and probably make it…there is no reason you should have to hire me as small single location business to do x, y, z, you should be able to do all this stuff yourself if we can give you kinda of a road map to follow or a checklist of things to do.

That is really what it was, it was a very simple web applet, you just typed in your business name and zip code and we went and hooked to a different set of APIs and pulled in all the information that on google,yelp, and yellow pages and Yahoo and all these sites had about your business and presented it and said,” Here is what you need to go.” At the time all these companies were just launching their local business portals, where you could actually go and claim a listing and add photos and add your logo and add your description and your categories and your website and all this stuff was free.

If you had a couple of hours and you knew where you should be paying attention, that was pretty easy to get some significant exposure. That was what we were trying to do, dump it down, make it easy as possible to understand and make it exactly where it is you should be focusing your energy. That was the software product, just connecting to a bunch of APIs, spitting back the information and making it as super simple to use it, just go down the listing and claim this listing. That’s what the product was.

Mac: That’s great and how did that differ from at that time what product did, would you still get consulting work out of that or there was more in depth from customers?

David: Not so much to get listed but I think getting listed kinda of reinforced my visibility in the local search place so people would contact me because they had heard about me through the site or whatever it was. It was a very [inaudible 00:11:13] this is software we don’t do consulting. We actually listed a whole bunch of trustworthy consultants agencies that I knew personally on the sidelike “Hey, if you need help talk to this guys.” But myself and my business partner were never on that list, not that I can remember anyway.

Mac: So was to get listed a paid service?

David: Everything was free and we monetized largely through advertising and sort of affiliate type models, like at the time which I don’t know why they shut this down especially given their reputational promise with business owners, but yelp was actually…they were the ones who wrote us the biggest checks basically because we were sending so many business owners to yelp to claim their yelp listing.

They shut that program pretty quickly. I don’t know they weren’t seeing good returns or whatever but they are now paying sales people at least probably $50,000 or $60,000 per year even in the bay area to basically do the same thing. There is a lot of things we can get into about yelp that is probably beyond the scope of this podcast, but that was largely how we monetized was programs like that were publicly available on commission junction and sharesell and affiliates like that.

Mac: I saw the number three million business associated with GetListed was that at the time of sales to Moz?

David: I think at the time we sold to Moz, we were on the order of about two and half million and since then Moz with my help has sort of taken GetListed and turned it into a product they now call Mozlocal and this was basically the number of businesses who would look themselves up using our product or we displayed results with them to go and claim.

Theoretically, there could be that three million number may not be quite unique numbers if you have an agency and the business owners looking themselves up but it was certainlly a substantial number that I’m proud of. There is something on the order of 30 million small business in America and so the fact that we were able to reach at least five percent of those through this product made me feel good at the end of the day that I was helping companies that I wanted to help succeed but i could never talk to all of them at the same time.

Mac: That’s great. So you obviously had an audience so this time you are like building your own personal brand and your own name and there is clearly overlap with GetListed audience. Can you talk about how you grew that? It wasn’t even that long by the time you sold it, a couple of years, right? How did you

David: I certainly leveraged my personal brand in order to growGetListed audience and it kinda of took on a life of its own from there. Early on, like as I said on local search industry history there weren’t many of us who were paying attention to what google was doing and we were all sharing stories and sharing client stories and sharing screenshots of search results and these kind of things all the time.

I kind of tried to quantify all the stuff we were talking about with a survey called the local search factors that I published essentially the opinions of the two dozen people. I published that annually, year over year over year and given that the space was so new and very few people were doing any kind of SEO and even smaller number of people were doing local SEO so it became a pretty valuable resource to kind of educate people on the kind of signals google was looking at to rank these businesses.

That kind of helped build my personal brand and from there people started paying attention like, Oh David launched this new software product, I should go check it out, GetListed. So I published a couple of basically info graphics. They are not typical info graphics in the sense that here is one data point from one survey with a graphic and here is another data point from another survey with a graphic. It was more of a static data visualization for how local business listings are created and the kind of progression signals that google had been looking at.

A few static data visualizations that agencies who were working with small businesses would show their clients as they were trying to explain why the client should hire them. It was not only an online word of mouth, people actually started sharing this graphics and sharing the results of local search ranking factors and this sort of thing but it was actually offline. People would actually print out PDFs, here is you score card and here is how this things fit together and this is why you should hire us.

That kinda helped GetListed brand sort of a traditional way. As an SEO guy you would think we got a ton of traffic from search results and digital marketing and all these things. When we actually sold to Moz, google analytics showed that we were getting something like 60% of our traffic was direct typein, and another 30% was branded searches on google like getlisted, or and that sort of thing.

It was really like a brand exercise in a traditional marketing more than an SEO and for anybody listening and building a product and a startup, do not count on google to send you any traffic. SEOs are terrible growth hacking technique, google are sending fewer and fewer organic visits, they are monetizing more. There are whole range of reasons why I would not like anything you get from an SEO should be gravy and you should definitely not be putting that stake in the ground.This is how I’m going to acquire users because you just never know with google.

Mac: This is a great segway into what you are doing now, which is Tidings maybe you can talk a little about that and who that audience is and I would like to hear what sort of plan you have for growing that. It sounds like you got a lot that you learned there.

David: Again, most of what I’ve learned was not intentional, that stuff just kinda like I fell into and it is easier for me in retrospective to identify maybe why this kind of thing work even though we didn’t really have a strategy per se at the time. I think that local search is still going to be a pretty big driver of traffic or at least a subset of small business in future. I’m really bullish on voice search as really the primarily mode we will be searching within three or four years. I think Mary Meeker from Kleiner Perkins with her annual report this last year and 2016 projected that voice search would be half of our queries by 2020.

I don’t disagree and think it might come faster especially when you see the amount of effort that google is putting into its new hardware google home and that sort of thing and apple is doubling down on Siri and Samsung is acquiring bing and all these things on voice search are really a big deal and if you think about voice search ten years ago and if you were a small company and someone did a search for pizza in south east Portland for example, before the advent of the 10 pack there were just ten websites, ten links and the top three or four got most of the clicks.

If your website was on page one with those queries you were gonna get a good amount of traffic and if you think about the shift first to mobile where there is less screen real estate and especially to voice where there is no screen real estate and in particular there is no way Siri or google assistant or Alexa is going to read ten website results to you when you ask where can I get take out pizza. If you don’t have an incredibly strong brand you are probably not going to rank in those results to the same extent . I’m looking at things in terms of long term marketing strategies for small businesses I’m looking at things that are going to make all these stuff to be personalized.

All these voice assistants are going to know who we are, they already know our search history all these things and if you look at what is influencing these results its largely like who are you interacting with both on a personal basis and also on business basis on all these various platforms. I think what is going to drive search results going forward is retention and how can you maintain if you are a small business how can you maintain a regular relationship with your client overtime and at least starting out I think the best way to do that it via an e-mail newsletter.

There is a study by Yolo that I would like to say 60% of customers have responded that they are willing and eager to receive a newsletter and only 15% of business are sending newsletter. There is a huge gap in terms of maybe you don’t want a newsletter from your local pizza place but you probably want one from your local realtor to stay up to date on what is happening on the market or your financial consultant on what is going on the Dow Jones or the Nasdaq and that sort of thing.

For people who aren’t domain experts i.e you customers you being able to show your domain expertise as a small business owner and especially as a small service person as opposed to selling product I think that now e-mail newsletters are the best way to do that. We will see where it goes with voice search and all that but I’m seriously talking Tiding is helping you as the small business service person demonstrate your knowledge expertise in your field and helping you stay in touch with your customers over time on a regular basis by demonstrating that knowledge.

That is really what the product is, that is the vision behind the product anyway. Starting out we are looking at pooling sources that are relevant and aimed to the industry, the practitioners operating in, ranking them with what is popular in social media and what is being shared on their own network and that sort of thing and then helping them condense that into a newsletter that they can send with a push of a button.

I would say you would know better than I would, but that is one and half to the two of the V1 is a rougher around the edges, we just in beta mode right now but I think our goal to have that in the wild by the first part of next year, the first part of 2017.

Mac: I think that is great insight about the voice, keeping in mind,looking ahead to where the search is going and looking 5,10 or 15 years ahead and I remember you telling me how voice is going or how voice does give you one or two results but very few results that are going to get all the traffic

David: The condensed version of what I’m trying to say is if you were not on page one you were invisible now in voice if you are not number one you are not. The number of companies who are gonna win on search by default are going to shrink by 90%.

Mac: That is really interesting to really think about. Now I’m curious, your audience for Tidings, it seems Tiding is much more of a there is a lot much that could use this. Its about helping them grow, helping them engage and keeping their customers engaged or even potential customers engaged. I’m curious now how that overlaps with how you intent to grow this so again Tidings is at the point maybe beta testing or whatever you want to call it its slowly being rolled out to early customers. Right now I assume you are in figuring how you are going to roll out this thing out, how you are going to promote it and how you are going to get it in front of people. Can you talk a little about your thoughts there and your strategies as we say you an advocate for sustainable digital marketing practices. I would like to hear how you approach that and are approaching that with Tidings.

David: The first thing kinda conceptualizes I’m a big believer in content marketing. I don’t really believe in I don’t necessarily like that phrase I guess what I would say there are typically these in sales world there are this take and give, you give me your e-mail address so I can spam the hell out of you and cold call you and all these kind of stuff with a little more information about your business and in exchange I will give you a this boring white paper. I think that is the default mentality for a lot of people.

I think it seems like. I”m a big believer in just breaking down that wall guarding of consent. I think you are going to get, not bulk but the time spent in creating that piece of content if you put it out there in the open and let people share it out and certainly let people consume it first the virality of being able to share something that is not behind a login or an e-mail address. I think we will go along way and certainly in terms of competitive sets of companies that are selling to small businesses these days somethings like the yellow pages, newspapers and lot of legacy like media companies they are very focused on be on the street sales force and in person sales and all these things`.

I really think my target audience is a little bit more sophisticated digital marketer they are going to have a Facebook page and the know they should be sending an e-mail even if they are not yet. I think those people are going to be more self service as opposed to being sold to and so my sort of over arching customer acquisition strategy is put a lot of great content that those small businesses are going to find interesting and things like drawing my analogy back to where I came from both professionally when getting listed things like local ranking search survey factors when you are involving other experts in whatever your domain area is to get their opinion.

That really feels good to be asked to be included in this sort of group of experts they will then help spread your message because a) they were part of your message and b) the message is going to have a higher credibility because of who else is getting involved. That is one angle how can you get other experts in your domain involved to helped spread the word kinda of collaboratively and the other thing is get listed as it was a self to use premium tool where we don’t require any log in you could log in later to save your business results and those sort of things but give away as much as you can at the beginning for free instead of holding captive unless you give us a piece of information. Sort of conceptually that’s where I’m going and we plan to launch publicly early part of 2017, its now October 2016 so the next three or four months are gonna be me planning what those strategic pieces are and what sort of thos e premium products might be and that really is the goal.

In terms of content I think the main, small business are notoriously hard to reach I think that is why yellow pages and media companies have this street sales. That’s why yelp calls every business five times a week is because that is the model they know. Its very hard to reach more businesses with the kind of content I’m talking about no question about it but if you can get the content out there that your target audience is interested in but distribute it through the channel you actually have a relationship with in my case other SEO consultants and digital marketing agencies that know me from my previous experience, that actually helps your message get down to your end customer even if someone is distributing it.

That’s kinda my overall content strategy there are certainly, I have a pretty good idea of my target customers which I think is a really actually based on my experience with Moz, its kinda the number one thing I learned I’m looking for a thirty eight year old single men in whatever- you can really drill down on who your target customer is demographically and geographically. The options for targeting those people with Facebook ads, Google display network ads, twitter ads and LinkedIn and all these things with paid media are so know your customer really well, know the kind of content they are gonna be interested in, distribute that content to them directly through this really granular social and digital ads and don’t try to sell them on that page.

Don’t make them put their e-mail address or phone number, give that content away and try to get that brand relationship started as opposed to thinking that everything that you do actually has to be about transaction.

Mac: It’s funny how you talk about content marketing, I Think the initial thing that comes to mind like blogging, put content out there and then my mind goes to oh because it’s going to help My SEO, its going to help me drive traffic but what you are saying is that content is still valuable you are taking it to a different level of leveraging, creating a network of your contacts and going a different route to get in front of people and make sure it spreads.It almost forces you to make the content extra valuable because you are relying on it being spread and if its not that valuable it is not gonna be spread.

David: Exactly right, I would argue that if you should spend… I don’t know if it’s my former CEO or former co-founder [sp] Ranny Fischan or it is another one my former Moz colleague Dr. Pete Mius but they have 10 x content and I would rather see anybody could be a really small business could be a Saas company, could be IBM, doesn’t matter but spends on one extra piece of content that is really gonna go viral on this kind of things and build it in a way that you can release it to the wild and then also build sort of back-end post on it to fill in the other nine x in terms of maintaining that relationship with people.

I think the 10 x investment will actually pay off for you. A hundred x in terms of audience and exposure and that sort of things and simply blogging for blogging sake or blogging for SEO both of those are not good ideas. Write a really good content, it could be a podcast, it could be a video, it could be an info-graphic, could be an offline event. but spend 10x amount of time on something really great , that has a chance to get spread and shared as opposed to just grinding out content because everyone else is telling you that is something you should be doing.

Mac: You just touched on a few different ways to create content. Podcast, blogging, presenting in conferences,creating courses any type of these things as far as creating out written content, even blog content, I’m guessing things you would put on your website. How do you come up with the content? I mean there are people that just- I was reading a blog the other day it was just unique content all there it was about experiences which was really valuable and great to read. They are able to just come up with experiences that they know are very valuable to other people, maybe you don’t have that do you generate ideas out of experience or do you go out and see what people are talking on the web and write about that? Do you have strategies there and coming up with ?

David: The main thing I would say is, really understand your audience, understand what their needs really are. For me get those I know small businesses are confused about digital marketing and I know they are strapped for time and money and so what kind of content can you create that will scratch both of those itches? That is really what I would say that is really hard to answer that horizontally across all industry and products and that sort of thing but pay attention to what the core needs of your audience are, number one.

Number two I read a lot, there is about a dozen newsletters that I subscribe to, I’m on twitter probably an hour or two a day just kind of digesting what is going on in technology and marketing and in the small business space both online and offline and so I think, I would have a much harder time coming up with what I think would be wonderful content pieces like I said premium widget type of products. I would have a much harder time trying to figure out what those are unless was in the stream of what is going on in my space.

I don’t have like a replicable formula right to create this sort of 10x content but I think identifying who the key influencers are in your space, although other people influencers might not be your influencers but identifying people that really stretch your mental muscles whenever you read something by them or listen to something by them or whatever. identifying who really those people are and absorbing what they are really talking about and thinking about it deeply instead of just reading the headline and moving on which I do a lot, if there is a story that doesn’t click with me right away. And figuring a way to relate that [sp]zych that kind of stuff to whoever you are trying to sell to. I guess that is the closest I can get to a formula of what you write about or what to blog about or what to record about.

Mac: I think that’s right. I find whenever I try to come up with a website copy for a business or a newsletter content or anything like that. If I’m having a hard time figuring what to say,what to write about, its because exactly what you are saying about. I haven’t defined who am talking to and as soon as I do, Oh, yeah. So Saas Bootstrapper is trying to come up with an idea. I can now come up with 18,000 blog posts. Much does come down to knowing your audience and knowing who you are talking to and in my experience it makes the website copy come out easier almost like without effort. This has really been awesome, where can people find tidings and where can people find you?

David: As I said, am on twitter quite a bit @davidMihm on twitter, Tidings is just and our twitter handle is tidingsco. Once I start generating content and putting out there on our blog and our newsletter that is the primary handle I will probably use tindingsco on twitter and my weekly newsletters will just be my personal thoughts because I get stuff that resonates with me I typically share that on my newsletter which is “Minitive”. I think you can just go to actually the place to go is my pintrest or twitter peofile just follow me on twitter and sign up for the newsletter while you are there. Look in my profile.

Mac: A pretty good tip right there. Cool, I appreciate you joining us today David and

David: I appreciate the opportunity Mac and yeah, thanks for all the help with Tidings and looking forward to releasing it to the world.

Mac: Thank you, I’m excited. Alright take care.