Disrupt the Market with a Pillar-Based Marketing Strategy with Stephen Messer, Co-Founder of Collective[i]
Speaker 1: Welcome to Page One or Bust, your ultimate guide to getting on page one of search engines. In this episode, we're talking to Stephen Messer, the co- founder of Collective [ i ] and who you may know as the co- founder of LinkShare before famously selling for$ 500 million. Today you will learn how Collective [ i ] is disrupting sales forecasting by leveraging pillar based marketing, plus Stephen's advice to other execs on getting noticed and ranking content. But before we get into it, here's a brief word from today's sponsor. Page One or Bust is brought to you by DemandJump, get insights, drive outcomes with DemandJump. Get started creating content that ranks at demandjump. com today. And now here are your co- host Christopher Day and Ryan Brock.
Christopher Day: Welcome Page One or Bust. This is Christopher Day, the CEO of DemandJump along with my co- host Ryan Brock, the chief content officer here at DemandJump.
Ryan Brock: Yo.
Christopher Day: Today our guest is Stephen Messer. How you doing Stephen?
Stephen Messer: So good to be here. Thank you for having me Toph.
Christopher Day: Absolutely. So today's theme I'm really excited about, we're going to be hearing the perspective of a CEO and how they view SEO and page one rankings for those mission critical keywords. So to kick it off, Stephen, talk to us a little bit about your background and first, how you came to found LinkShare and the pain you solved and about that awesome exit.
Stephen Messer: So Heidi and I and two other co- founders started LinkShare in 1996 and it was a time when traditional brand marketing ruled and the internet was just at its early nascent stage of going commercial. And we went out and started the business as an idea that the traditional ways of doing advertising just didn't work. So we were probably the first performance marketing player. Today you probably know performance marketing as a consumer through apps like Honey or any of the buy now pay later models, which are all affiliate models, but it's in every website you go to where you see someone promoting a good or service is probably leveraging LinkShare to do that and we're proud that we were able to make that disruption become real and today to give so many individual stakeholders the ability to earn a living off of the internet.
Christopher Day: That's amazing. Yeah, I love it. So how did that transition to when you formed the idea for Collective [ i ], what pain points did you see in the marketplace and how did you and Heidi and Tad come together to form Collective [ i ]?
Stephen Messer: So when we sold LinkShare to Rakuten, that didn't mean we didn't stop thinking about sales professionals and how to make their lives better. And when we think about today, we're now going after that B2B portion of the world. We already transformed the B2C portion of the world. Now that B2B world needs the same kind of disruption where we can really help sales professionals, their leadership teams and the organizations they work with to change the way they're operating to fit a more modern paradigm.
Ryan Brock: I think we face a challenge that I'd imagine Collective [ i ] has to face sometimes as well where we're coming in and we're promising a paradigm shift in the way people think about marketing. Just like you're proposing that for sales and using technical terms that I think a lot of people before us have used but haven't really meant and haven't really been able to make the kind of change that we're talking about. How do you go to market when people are maybe afraid of what you represent and certainly don't understand it and don't know it's an option?
Stephen Messer: Yeah. So the thing about agile sales is a lot of people are trying to learn about this because it is actually taking over the way traditional sales worked. And for 30, 40 years traditional sales has been this very bureaucratic, a command and control type approach. And frankly the last bastion of qualitative business, which is strange since it's such a quant based org. So for us we actually... Our go to market motion is about being very honest and direct in confronting the truth, which is no human in the history of time for all of humankind's history has ever been able to predict any future. Not 10 minutes, not 10 days, not 10 months, not 10 years. It's never happened. Think about the world we actually live in today. We had JP Morgan Chase come out at the end of December with a price target for Bitcoin of $155, 000 per coin. And then they updated that literally three weeks after they made that announcement to 38K. Now that is a swing in predictions. And it's not because they didn't have a good process in place or a good inspection in place, it was because no human being has ever predicted the future. So we have to tell this to people and say you're giving up 52 working days a year, technically a full quarter out of every business year to play a game that nobody has done well. You can look at the economists and we literally go through examples of this like the Fed who in December said there would be no interest rates and they would taper over six months, who then announced four weeks later, four interest rate improvements, increases and tapering. So these are things that we do, but here's what it means after I say the truth those people who are angry at me for the first day when I tell them it realize, oh my God, that's exactly why no one in 40 years has gotten forecasting correct and they start thinking about, and then they go to try to figure out where can I learn more? And that's where search for us is a big deal.
Ryan Brock: It's amazing how simple a phrase like past performance does not indicate future results can be. And I've written for those big finance companies and I know they make you slap that on the bottom of everything you publish, yet here we are all trying to build that better crystal ball and it just doesn't make any sense.
Christopher Day: I love the similarities in the parallel paths of agile sales, agile marketing, so this thing called SEO, right or search engines, and there's a page one and everybody's fighting for 10 slots and it may not be a direct competitor. You might be fighting against Forbes for sales forecasting or for marketing attribution or whatever it might be because there's a lot of other thought leaders talking about these topics. And so what we tried to set out to think about is that's the whole title of this show, Page One or Bust. Because if we're doing activities and kind of doing old school ways of trying to figure out what to do next by downloading a bunch of data and slam it into a spreadsheet, and if we're really fancy we do some macro things and some vlookups, et cetera and sort that data, but all that data is still linear. The internet's a network. Network of networks. It's not in a graph database to understand how all these things are connected to each other. How do you think about that in terms of SEO strategy, content strategy, content creation and getting on that page one?
Stephen Messer: Yeah, we think about it from a few different levels. So one, we're the leader implying AI to create agile sales words and today we track about 5% of the globes B2B economy. So we've got this huge scale, but what that means is awareness for people who are later adopters to this concept of agile sales. There are still companies doing waterfall software development, they're not doing well, but they're out there. And so there are still companies that are trying to put in place technologies that make their waterfall sales process work. There are literally companies today that are doing sales kickoff where they're planning an entire year ahead today. And so for us it's not simply just about creating awareness. I think the bigger thing is when you're the leader in a disruptive category in particular, but I would say this for almost everyone, the weaker players are always out there trying to put out misinformation or make themselves look like the one who's winning. So I always joke about this, I always say if someone's got. ai in their domain name, that's probably the only AI they've got.
Christopher Day: Oh my gosh, I'm so happy you just said that.
Stephen Messer: Almost all the companies I know that have AI don't sit there and say it's just AI. They're using it as an enabler to do things that would've been magical before, but that helped the world get back there. In the same way LinkShare wasn't. link, LinkShare was a. com and the name suggested what it was. In the same way Collective [ i ] suggests collective intelligence, leveraging our large network to train an AI means that everyone can get really great information. But that's what you're doing with search. It's the same thing. We've got to get information to the right people before all the misinformation gets out there because people have a confirmation bias, they want to believe what they're doing that has never worked for 40 years and doesn't work for anyone. Somehow somebody figured it out and if they do it, it's going to make them special and the reality is it just doesn't work. But you've got to get that message out there because we're out there telling people something that's obvious to everyone else in the world. But when you don't want to let go, you've got to read a lot of content before you get to the place where you go, " My God I am crazy. Why am I trying to do something that nevers worked?"
Ryan Brock: So how do you know where to start then? I'm not talking philosophically, how did you know where to start and where did you start in trying to get on page one and say this is the little corner of the internet we need to start carving out for ourselves.
Stephen Messer: Look, I think as any company you have two options, you can do the HubSpot approach, which is just blanket everything. And that means you better be willing to take a lot of venture capital, you better be willing to blow a lot of venture capital and you better hope it works because it's an all or nothing. We did not go that we are data- driven people. We believe in agile marketing and we believe in agile sales the same way we believe in agile software development. We basically learned the pillar strategy and we went deep in each pillar. We started off with a simple one. I think forecasting was the one we started off with even though we knew that wasn't probably the biggest category because we wanted to get experience and learn, we wanted to improve our process and we also wanted to make sure that every piece of content we put out left someone wanting more. In other words, it had to have a high value ratio because time is the only asset we never get back. And so we wanted people to go down this rabbit hole in the same way people went down the blockchain and crypto rabbit hole, in the same way they went down digital marketing rabbit holes and all of a sudden where people started realizing, oh my God, everything my parents told me was wrong and found a better way and found out it was easier and they became more successful and it enabled them to get new jobs. That's exactly what we wanted them to do is start getting down this rabbit hole because there's always that one epiphany when you realize, you're right, no one ever has ever predicted any future and yet every Friday we give up an entire day to do that and that's forecasting, but how about logging activities? We ask people to give up 20% of their time to put stuff in CRM that nobody believes, that's never updated. So there's this thing where you have to come to the realization of what my dad did and my mom did may not be what I should be doing and that's really where we leverage you guys with that pillar strategy.
Ryan Brock: I wasn't going to bring up that relationship unless you did Stephen, but having been on that team and managing a lot of the writers who are contributing to that, something that I want to underscore for our listeners is how hard achieving that for a company that's offering something that's truly different from their competitors, how hard that has been. Straight up, Stephen, your content has been the hardest content we've ever had to write and it's because of what you're seeing. We still hear people talking about SEO sometimes. It's just it's not real thought leadership, it's not real this, it's not real that, it's just throwing keywords up and it doesn't have to be put in a box like that. And in this case, that SEO value is only there if every single piece we're putting out there is truly thought leadership and truly gives people that network. And it took a lot of hard work. This isn't, we make it a lot easier by getting you those insights and giving you the direction, but then executing on that, it's not easy to do, but when it's done right, it's very successful. And I don't know, I wanted to get on a soapbox there because this is not just your everyday stuff that we've been writing here. This is seriously changing people's entire biases and then their whole, their philosophy on what they do professionally and it's not easy to do that.
Stephen Messer: People don't have time and they will within the first paragraph decide is this a valuable content or is it clickbait? And look, one, it doesn't hurt to have not only the truth behind you but massive success. I mean that's why I said when Gartner did a case study on us calling us the first intelligent app or Forrester called us the future of sales forecasting and thank the Lord, they said, that future is here today with Collective [ i ]. We have to be able to back it up with not just valuable mission- driven statements, but content that explains in every paragraph high value. If someone's seeing something with our name on it better be something that they walk away and say, I learned something that made my career successful.
Ryan Brock: Yeah, it's remarkable. It's marketing has no longer come up with the best slogan and I guess B2B never was, but I'm always looking for the story in the B2B and the emotion in the B2B, but the most important thing to look for is the value in the B2B and I love your approach to that.
Stephen Messer: Thank you.
Christopher Day: Yeah, I think what is the number out there today is 70% of all B2B buyers, they're doing all their research and evaluation digitally online before they ever talk to someone in sales. And so if we are not, as any given company, if we are not a part of that customer journey, answering those questions along the way, and a lot of times those questions become more and more focused or more and more granular. It's just like in real life, here's what I always think is amazing. Here's two fun analogies. Number one, we looked at B2C, it was about six months ago, we were looking at, we wanted to run a fun case study on B2C, so we entered lipstick and the most powerful question in the world for lipstick was what does lipstick stand for? Not one manufacturer was answering that question, not one. They're all saying how great their product is. It does this, it does that or whatever. It's glossy, it's matte, whatever. Not that those questions aren't important, but they're much less important than what does lipstick stand for? Apparently that's a big search thing on the internet by women. It's the same concept in B2B. What we think that pain is may not be correct, and trying to talk about how great our product is, is not the question of the pain that the person's feeling. They're feeling they have another piece of pain and that's why that content has to align to it.
Stephen Messer: The reality is this post- COVID buyer has broken every rule that existed two years ago. For example, two years ago ABM was your main strategy because you're trying to target people one by one. Today it's all about a dialogue. You were talking about a consensus purchase for a consensus selling process where everyone is doing research on their own and you as an organization. So at Collective [ i ] believe we must have a dialogue with our customer, but they don't start the dialogue by having me lecture. They want to go-
Christopher Day: That's exactly right.
Stephen Messer: ... andread it, research it, form their own opinion and belief. Come back with the questions and debates they have and have you convince them as an advisor. They don't want to be sold because they've been sold for too many years and they're doing this independently from their homes and from sometimes offices, but they're all doing it on their own, all playing their different role and they want to walk away at the end and say, I have opinion on this thing.
Ryan Brock: It sounds elitist sometimes, but what I've been saying is there is much more of an impetus to be worthy of victory in marketing today than there was before. I've said this for years just because when I'm writing a story for someone, like when I'm writing content or my team is I want to believe in the story I'm telling. I want there to be actual value. We're contributing to someone's life, we're improving it in some way, we're solving a problem. But nowadays, the brands that deserve to win at marketing are the ones who want to enter into that dialogue and take the time to do it. And I don't know, I like that. I like the idea that we're not looking for you to just use a silver tongue and drop a nice slick line on me and sell me. I want you to earn my business by showing me how you're going to improve my life. And if you can truly improve that person's life, doesn't matter what package the marketing comes in, you're going to communicate that value and you're going to actually follow through on it and that means you deserve to win. And I think there's something cool about that.
Christopher Day: Markets have been trained to think that SEO is some, has to be some big, long, drawn out process and it's going to be six months or a year or maybe even two years before you really see any results and that's just hogwash. Sometimes people see things go to page one literally overnight. All right. Well let's move to some kind of wrap up questions Stephen. What would be the best piece of advice that you could give to a marketer, to a marketing leader or someone executing marketing? What's the CEO expect from the marketing leader of the marketing team?
Stephen Messer: That's a good question. Look at the CEO is accountable to everybody. It is probably the hardest job to have, and I know everyone thinks, oh my God, I want to be the CEO, but you are accountable to your investors, you're accountable to your employees, you're accountable to your customers. It is a hard place to be.
Christopher Day: A lonely job, right?
Stephen Messer: It is a very lonely job. You are blamed for everything and everyone else takes credit for all the wins. It is a hard place. What people want today is the ability to understand not why we got it right or wrong, but what went down and how we're changing. I'll point out something that maybe people don't think about as much, which is there used to be a time where once a decade there was a disruption. The internet, we had 10 years to deal with the internet, mobile, another 10 years. Name the disruptions taking place today, AI, robotics, currency, small thing like digital currency that's changed, the blockchain, 3D printing, 3D printed homes.
Christopher Day: Yes.
Stephen Messer: Self- driving cars, drone delivery. And have I inaudible Oh, well wait, Space is an entire industry and I can keep going. The number of disruptions that are taking place simultaneously. CRISPR, I mean I literally can keep going down the road. All of these things are life changing, life altering things. So as a CEO, what you're getting used to is the idea that my, what got me here isn't what's going to get me there. So what I'm really trying to figure out is how do I work with a team that's adjusting quickly? I would make the argument, if you are doing anything you did two years ago, you are already classified as a late adopter. We're constantly having to adjust quickly. And if it's not quantifiable, I can't learn. And if I'm not learning, I'm listening to opinions. And opinions are what get you into a problem like Nokia. And so for the marketer, I think what they do better than anything else is if they can work with companies like yours that show there's a plan and then show the results of the plan, they're able to get more resources out of people like me, to put double down and triple down and quadruple down because we're all trying to figure out how to learn from everything we can quantify.
Christopher Day: I think it's great advice. What about a first time founder? You've been through this multiple times. I mean, gosh, you could probably talk on this for eight hours. What about the great piece of advice or experience sharing for a first time founder?
Stephen Messer: Look, I'm going to say exactly what I said before, which is if you're doing what you did two years ago, you're in trouble already. VCs are talking to people like me all the time. They want to know what people are doing well, what's changing. Because when there are big disruptions like Collective [ i ], all of a sudden the entire sales stack looks rigid. We went from a data warehouse and an MDM solution to Data Lakes and Snowflake and things like that for a reason. They took all the hard work out and did better stuff. And so if you're still doing things the way a marketer said... Let's put this way. If you hired someone and they said, " At my last company I did," you already got yourself a problem. What they should be saying is, I've been following this new thing that I'm trying out, and they should give everybody the shot. If you delay because you think, oh, I've got, I think it should be, you are dying on the market. You just don't know.
Christopher Day: Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan Brock: That's the difference between telling, saying they know everything there is to know about SEO and that you're an absolute expert in saying I'm going to be wrong tomorrow probably, but let's keep learning.
Stephen Messer: I have friends at the senior levels of both Google and Microsoft, and they will tell you they don't know. They themselves are learning things about what people are doing with their own product that you'd be shocked at. And that's what it means is nobody has the answer, but you pick your partner, you learn from your partner, you trust your partner, you move fast. Which by the way, I didn't come up with that, that came from Steve Jobs. If you look at how they build the iPhone, he relied on the Gorilla Glass guys, the Samsung guys, they all came in and said, here's how we're going to help this vision become reality. And he relies on them to inaudible he's passed, but Tim Cook relies on them to this day. Foxconn for example is a critical partner. They're constantly talking to find a better way to design the products that's built faster and better. These are things that you've got to learn to rely on. That's something that we didn't do in the past.
Christopher Day: Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan Brock: That's amazing.
Christopher Day: That's great. I love it Stephen, so how can people learn more about Collective [ i ] or learn more about you? Where can they go to find more information?
Stephen Messer: Look, you always go to our website, which is easy to search, thankfully now, and you can look up anything from Collective [ i ] which is short for Collective Intelligence, and you can search for any of the key things like forecasting that you want. You guys have done a good job to make sure that we're there. But I would suggest one other thing. Every Thursday we run an event called the Collective [ i ] Forecast, and if you go to ciforecast. com, you are going to be able to join 90 minutes where we learn from the most amazing thought leaders. So if you believe that you got to stay on top of things, come join us, participate, and you guys will love it. And thank you for having me here today guys.
Ryan Brock: Thanks so much Stephen.
Christopher Day: Absolutely Stephen. So ciforecast. com, go there every Thursday to learn more. And Stephen, thank you very much for joining us. That was a great episode of Page One or Bust. And until next time, have a great day.
Speaker 1: Page One or Bust is brought to you by DemandJump. Know the exact content to create to increase first page rankings and drive outcomes with DemandJump. Get started for free today at demandjump. com.
This episode features Stephen Messer, the co-founder and vice-chairman of Collective[i] and formerly, co-founder at Linkshare Corporation (exited for $500M). In the episode, you'll discover how Collective[i] disrupted the sales forecasting game with a pillar-based marketing strategy that built strong brand awareness and generated an impressive volume of leads, and much more.