SparkToro
Rand Fishkin and Casey Henry have spent the past 2 years developing their main product over at SparkToro. Whilst they had already released free tools including Fake Followers Audit, Trending and SparkScore, this was all preparation for the main platform. As of April 2020, SparkToro’s main audience intelligence tool is now live and ready to use!
 
We’ve been using SparkToro for a couple of weeks so wanted to weigh in with our experience. We’re not going to explore every function of the tool, that already exists (thanks Brian Dean and others). Instead, we’ll look at some of the benefits that we weren’t expecting.
 
Also, we decided to use the tool without reading other reviews or the tips offered up by SparkToro. We wanted to explore it as organically as possible and come to our own conclusions.

What is SparkToro's Audience Intelligence Tool?

Basic though it is, it makes sense to start with that question. It’s SparkToro’s flagship product, in fact the product is synonymous with SparkToro.
 
In their words, SparkToro’s Vision statement is to:
 
“Help people do better marketing by making the publications, people, and sources that influence any audience more transparent”
 
From our use of it, we would describe it as a tool that allows users to explore potential audiences’ interests. You can dive into the accounts they follow, how their interests overlap with other subjects, even the language they use. Who’d have thunk it with a name like “Audience Intelligence Tool”!

Why was SparkToro created?

Full disclosure, we’re big fans of Rand Fishkin and Moz here at Catchworks. He’s an evangelist in the world of search and Moz’s White Board Fridays has been a constant source of ideas, topics and discussion over the years. As such, it’s exciting to see a new product being released by Rand and Casey.
 
Rand has always been a pretty relentless producer of content, and as far as I can tell, pretty ‘straight up’ with the information he disseminates. In my opinion though, there was a noticeable change in tone after his somewhat unceremonious departure from the company he created, Moz.
 
Again, in his own words during a blog post entitled “My last day at Moz. My first day at SparkToro” back in 2018:
 
“On a scale of 0-10, where 0 is “fired and escorted out of the building by security,” my departure is around a 4.”
 
That always struck a chord with me, to be ousted from a company you started. He admittedly says that it left him with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
 
It makes sense to build something else.
 
It wouldn’t make sense to compete with Moz and their products, including Link Explorer (I still think of it as Open Site Explorer – old habits and all that). He is after all, still a shareholder of Moz. Considering the interconnected nature of today’s marketing world, audience insights and the application for influencer marketing seems like a shrewd move.
 
There’s more though, and this is just my opinion. Do I need to say ‘allegedly’ here? Who knows.
 
I’ve read Rand’s “Lost and Founder” book, as well as the blog post SparkToro released referencing their angel-only round of investment. There is an obvious distaste for the supposed value offered by institutional investment. He sums it up well in his book, in that successful businesses must prop up the losses that funds experience with the businesses on their books that fail. As such, the successful ones have to be astronomically successful, often with detrimental results. The investors still want their returns.
 
It’s highlighted by a single paragraph on SparkToro’s about page:
Quote from SparkToro
“In that order”. That chip is visible for all to see. You could even argue that Rand is flaunting it a little. It’s understandable. We like it. Power to him.
 
I get the impression that SparkToro was created for a few reasons:
 
  1. There is a space in the market for this sort of tool. It aligns with the future of marketing and could be very successful. That’s the business argument.
  2. Everyone has bills to pay, even those who have set up companies such as Moz. Both Rand and Casey don’t seem like they would be content lounging about the house in their PJs. That’s the personal finance (and potentially renewed purpose) argument.
  3. Prove those on the other side of the investment table wrong. Avoid the substantial pitfalls of raising large sums of institutional money. Do it differently, and make it successful. That’s the ‘f*ck you’ argument.
 
Again, that’s just my opinion, reading between the lines (or in this case, just reading the lines).

Update: I contacted Rand prior to publishing this article as I felt that it was the right thing to do, considering some of the conjecture above. He confirmed that there are personal and emotional elements involved. In addition their “biggest goal was to help folks answer the question: ‘where can I go do marketing to my audience(s) without just throwing money at Google and Facebook’.” 

 
Let’s move on to our expectations of the platform, and how that has panned out thus far.

Our Expectations

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what the expectations were. The previous products and articles showed that SparkToro was less search focussed than Moz. It was clear that market research and insights would sit at the heart of the product. What wasn’t clear was exactly how that would be executed.
 
If I had to sum up my own expectations, SparkToro would be useful for some SEO research but would be less relevant to us. It felt like it would be more applicable to a social media specific agency.
 
That still may ring true, but there were some surprising use cases. I actually think SparkToro will surprise a lot of SEOs. It will remind the search world how critical it is to tailor campaigns, content and outreach to your audience. It resonates with us, after all we don’t paint by numbers.

First Impressions of SparkToro

As we’ve said, expectations were vague as I logged into SparkToro for the first time.
 
I did a quick search……and thought. Is this it?
 
The main dashboard showed me profiles and websites that I already knew. Of course it did! I searched for something related to SEO. That initial impression would have been very different if I had searched for a subject I knew nothing about. When I did, it suddenly became more impressive.
 
It also felt light. At first. As I dug deeper, the value of the tool became more and more apparent.
 
Very quickly I realised why it felt so light. Marketers (and especially SEOs) are often using platforms that pride themselves on the amount of data they can provide. I’m used to using SEMrush or Ahrefs where you are bombarded with options and data immediately on the dashboard. It’s both useful and annoying.
 
Not only is SparkToro a newcomer and as such the product will naturally evolve over time, but they’ve also accounted for design. It presents the information you require without the data overload. This may change as the product evolves. But it was interesting that my very first impression of it being ‘light’ was so based on design and what I was accustomed to.

Surprise #1: Opportunities for amplification and contribution

So this is the least surprising of the five. I guess it was surprising because I approached the platform with the view that it would only be relevant to social media marketing.
 
There are two sections that were expected:
 
  • Social accounts
  • Websites Visited & Shared
Sparktoro list of social accounts

Those are great and ones for you to target strategically. However, if you operate in a very busy industry such as SEO, that might prove to be incredibly hard.

We found more value in the ‘hidden gem’ sections for both social accounts and websites. It’s exactly the same theory but the surprise was to see it separated out clearly on the platform. The description for these sections are that those listed will have good numbers, but may not be mainstream yet.

I know what you’re thinking, you can get these sites through backlink analysis on SEMrush, or any other similar platform like Ahrefs. The difference here is that it tends to remove your biases. Instead of navigating to websites or social accounts that you or your client know, this is aggregated data from a keyword or topic. It gives you a birds’ eye view of a subject and allows you to dig past the usual suspects.

Hidden gem websites Sparktoro
List of hidden gem websites Sparktoro

Surprise #2: Discovery.

As marketers we are often guilty of remaining in our own little echo chambers. It may be that as an SEO your daily/weekly visited sites remain the same. That’s probably not harmful as the major sites do a great job of keeping you up to date with the industry.
 
However, for some, Sparktoro can offer some insights into other options. For example I wasn’t aware of Quuu and hadn’t investigated Buffer as a social media platform. Perhaps that’s embarrassing to admit, but the fact remains that had it not been for SparkToro I would still be non the wiser.
 
It’s not just social media accounts and websites though. SparkToro also expands this to Podcasts and Youtube, further increasing this power of discovery. We thought this was a really good feature. It came as a bit of a surprise probably because we were expecting it to be focussed on search due to Rand’s background with Moz, even though the literature leading up to launch said differently.

Maybe the stresses of running a business had meant I had strayed away from my own personal development. Alternatively, I hadn’t considered the possibilities of multiple channels being included as part of the features. Call me naive, whatever the case I can see this being very useful for a lot of people in different circumstances. Personal development, agencies researching new industries, companies looking to connect with their peers.

Surprise #3: Language

There’s a lot of pretty bog standard market research out there. You know the type. It’s sold as ‘social listening’ but doesn’t achieve much more than the usual demographic information. They present slide after slide of age, sex, location, maybe some other buying habits but not much more.
 
The Audience Insights section of SparkToro provides a refreshing angle. It appears to focus on how your audience engages with content, rather than what they are as a person. This is invaluable for marketers, from the use of hashtags to the frequency with which they post.
As an SEO agency, the language sections of Audience Insights was particularly interesting. From a targeting perspective, we want to understand the types of queries that our audience may use. Furthermore, if we can speak the same language we are immediately more relatable, giving ourselves the best chance of converting.
 
Finally, we can couple this data with buyer personas. You can do this with either the ‘frequently talks about’ or the ‘uses these word(s) in their profile’ searches. Remember, it is aggregated data so you will need to be specific about how you search. However, if you choose carefully it can give you further insights into what they prioritise.

Surprise #4: Competitor Analysis (Profile Search)

This came as a little surprise for a few reasons:
 
1) I didn’t see it at first. As soon as I searched I was drawn to the left hand side menu options. So when I noticed the 3 further tabs along the top, it was a nice. Especially considering my very first impression that the tool was a little light. The tabs include Compare Audiences, Profile Search and Lists.
SparkToro tabs
SparkToro full menu
2) I wasn’t expecting to be able to search for specific audiences by social account or website. Maybe I didn’t give SparkToro enough credit but nevertheless it was an interesting piece of functionality.
 
We’re still working out how to get the most out of profile search, except for the obvious competitor analysis. It looks as though aggregating the data with other SEO specific platforms will provide the most benefit for us as an SEO agency. At the moment, it appears to have significant overlap with Audience Insights (depending on your search). Of course it will have different use cases for other agencies, channels and individuals.
Profile Search SparkToro

Surprise #5: Price

This product has been released in the middle of a global pandemic which is almost certainly going to be followed by one hell of a recession. The timing is unfortunate, especially since their planned release was in March 2020. Regardless of circumstance, when we looked at the pricing, it seemed….well….as my friend would say ‘a tad lumpy’.

SparkToro Pricing
There are different levels of subscription available. The premium account at $225/month is targeted at ‘small agencies, & in-house marketing teams’. This seems reasonable, especially for the right team. However, the $112/month option for ‘solo consultants, individual in-house marketers’ feels like it might be a harder sell.
 
That’s just our opinion though. The figures are somewhat irrelevant, it’s all about the value that you can garner from the platform. Some marketers are going to find SparkToro highly relevant to the work that they do, and it can save a huge amount of time.

Final Thoughts

We’ve enjoyed using SparkToro here at Catchworks. It’s always good to challenge your current way of working and the technology that you use. We’ll continue to use it as well, whether that is through the free 10 searches a month or a paid plan is yet to be seen.
 
Expectations were vague going into it, and most of the surprises were positive. Overall we were impressed. The tool is going to be relevant to more than just social media marketers and can provide deeper, and importantly, actionable insights.
 
Rand reported that “Early customers have been a mix of media/ad buyers, content marketers, social media marketers, founders & product builders, market researchers, and yes, some SEO agencies and consultants, too.”. 
 
It’s particularly interesting how a tool can apply to so many different types of individuals and companies. Most interesting of which will be how founders & product builders use it and how it may contribute to strategy. 
 
Excited to see how SparkToro evolves!

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