Anne Holland is the president of MarketingSherpa, which aims to help marketers advance by sharing real-world marketing data and hard-won lessons. The Rhode Island-based company publishes a wide range of metrics guides, buyer’s guides and how-to reports, as well as a 500+ case study library. Prior to founding MarketingSherpa in 2000, Holland spent 20 years in publishing. She also served as the head of marketing for Phillips Business Media – a $100 million publishing company where she helped launch one of the world’s first profitable subscription sites in 1995 – and the trade publications Interactive Marketing News in 1994 and min’s New Media in 1995. Started in Holland’s spare bedroom, MarketingSherpa was recently acquired by marketing research firm MEC Labs out of Atlantic Beach, Florida. Revenue Senior Editor Eric Reyes asked Holland about her company’s role in moving marketing forward and what lies ahead for the performance marketing space.
Eric Reyes: What was the genesis of the MarketingSherpa idea? How did you perceive the need?
Anne Holland: Before I led MarketingSherpa I was a marketer myself, so I had a pretty good gut-level understanding of what marketers needed that wasn’t being provided by research firms or publications. However, that doesn’t mean I trusted my gut! Instead I toured the U.S. and U.K. for about six months, asking marketers themselves what information they really needed to do their jobs more easily and/or with better results. The final company – MarketingSherpa – was built directly from those suggestions. Turns out our target audience wanted lots of case studies, benchmark data, creative samples and how-to instruction at a practical yet advanced level. So that’s what we provide. We still tour regularly as well as surveying and talking directly with customers weekly to keep on track.
ER: Can you outline your inventory of content – how much is available and how has it grown?
AH: There’s a lot! Basically it breaks down into three areas – all of which are created by research and reporting teams in-house here (we don’t accept contributed content).
- Case studies and how-to articles – based on hour-long interviews with actual marketers. We delve into what worked, what didn’t, what the data was and include creative samples. We’ve got a library of thousands of these, searchable by tactic and by company/brand name. They’re all exclusive.
- Benchmark guides, buyer’s guides and tactical handbooks – based on research into what’s working for real-life marketers. We survey tens of thousands of marketers every year, and profile hundreds of consultants and vendors. These 200- plus-page reports come in PDF for instant question answering, and we also ship a printed-and-bound copy to every customer for easy reference.
- Summits – every year we hold three big summits for marketers: in New York, San Francisco, Boston and a fourth city (next year it’s Miami). The topics include email marketing, selling subscriptions to Internet content and B-to-B demand generation. Naturally our summits feature loads of peer-presented case studies and new data.
ER: Now that MarketingSherpa has been acquired, what will change for you and the company?
AH: Pretty much since day one, there have always been a lot of people who wanted to buy us out or invest in us. I held out for seven years because I wanted our growth to be driven by our readers’ needs, not some board of investors. Every six months I take a few days to step back and review the progress and future of the company. When I did that this past June, I realized it had gotten too big for me to handle alone anymore. It’s a common fate for an entrepreneurial- driven company. You grow it as big as you can and then you hit the ceiling of your own desires and abilities. I wasn’t born to administer this fast-growing multi-million-dollar organization. I was born to research, write and keep in touch with the needs of the readership.
So that’s when I started looking for a new corporate parent for Sherpa. The goal was to find someone who would understand and appreciate our readers and our mission, plus appreciate the great team of employees and researchers we’ve built – not just someone who would wave a bunch of cash at me. By finding the right buyer, in effect I was hiring Sherpa’s new boss. Several organizations were in the running – after carefully interviewing several of them, I chose MEC Labs based on fit.
They are a research firm that partners with folks such as The New York Times to conduct experiments on live campaigns to discover what works (and what doesn’t) in marketing. We are a research firm that partners with our 237,000 readers via surveys and studies to discover what works in marketing. Culturally the fit works too. We are all fairly intense, hardworking people who also like the ocean. Their headquarters are on the beach in Florida. Our headquarters are about a block from the beach in Rhode Island.
MarketingSherpa won’t change much – aside from continuing to grow and serve our readership even better. We’ll just have even stronger corporate leadership to allow us to reach bigger goals and do some pretty amazing research projects. On the personal side, I’ll still be here. Only instead of being stuck in meetings with accounting, HR and IT, I’ll get to focus all my time on the things I really love – research, writing and the art of marketing. And, maybe a little more time to walk on the beach.
ER: What are some of the most important goals you have for MarketingSherpa next in the 12 to 15 months?
AH: Keep her on a steady, focused course. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with expansion opportunities, or to let success go to your head so you do crazy things, launch big new ideas that don’t hold to your core business. I’m an idea person, so it’s probably toughest for me. But our big idea is No New Ideas.
Aside from that, you’ll see several launches that have been enormously researched and several years in the making, the biggest of which is our upcoming membership site launch. At the base, it simply means instead of paying $5 to $9 per article every time you want to read something, you can pay one flat annual fee. Convenience is a wonderful thing. There are also some new features – but the dev team will shoot me if I talk too soon. Watch for December-January and you’ll begin to see.
ER: Are there industry segments that MarketingSherpa is not currently focusing on but would love to get into, and why?
AH: We set our course for a very specific marketplace from day one, and it’s a darned big one that will take us many more years to serve completely. Our chosen marketplace is marketing professionals (including advertising, PR and online) in corporate America at the manager to VP level. That’s about 140,000 marketers. We also serve the consultants, agencies and vendors who serve marketers. That’s about 10,000 folks. So it’s a total market of 150,000.
ER: How much effort is dedicated to the affiliate marketing space by MarketingSherpa ? And the performance marketing space? And do you see that changing in the future?
AH: We cover affiliate and performance marketing from the point of view of the merchant or brand-side marketer. That’s who our reader is. Although many affiliates also read us, they aren’t our target audience. So, for example, the affiliate marketing team at eBay reads Sherpa, but most of their affiliates probably don’t ” and that’s fine with us.
Our coverage in the spaces is decided by the input of our readers – they tell us what they want us to focus our research on and that’s where we go. I personally would like to cover affiliate marketing a bit more than we do, but for many of the merchant-side marketers, it’s just not all that critical to their jobs.
Often an e-commerce or lead generation site will have one marketer who is responsible both for affiliate and also managing SEM. That’s crazy – too much work for anyone to do well. But that’s the way it is. We try to educate marketers via our annual Affiliate Marketing Special (now in its fourth year) every January and other studies such as our Ecommerce Benchmark Guide. Many, however, many, especially in consumer software marketing online, are not there heavily yet, if at all.
ER: What are the next two or three things you think will turn Internet marketing on its ear?
AH: Frankly, I don’t see much changing over the long haul with the exception of a lot more mobile activity in the U.S. (at long, long last) and of course video, video, video. I’m sure what we’re going to see next is a lot of “shovelware” video [sticking your TV ad online], badly measured corporate podcasts and way too many text-voting entertainment campaigns.
If mainstream off-line marketers – the giant retail chains and consumer packaged goods firms – could easily measure Internet activity against their off-line sales, then you would see the world change. The biggies still spend single digits online. Bear in mind, all of SEM spending for this year is less than everything spent on promotional products such as embossed pens and T-shirts given out as marcom. We who research Internet quite a bit tend to forget how incredibly small the spend still is compared with other vehicles.
In the meantime, the real focus that every marketer should be spending their time and money on is not what’s new, but rather, how to make the old stuff work better. Our data show that if you just improve the copywriting on your site a tiny bit, your conversions leap up. Copywriting! That’s as old-fashioned a tactic as you can get. True success is about testing the basics.
ER: You do a lot of public speaking gigs and you also conduct many of the interviews for case studies. Is there one facet of your job you prefer, and why?
AH: My job has really evolved as the company has grown over the past seven years. Research is now run by our research director Stefan Tornquist and his team, while editorial is run by editorial director Tad Clarke and his team. We also have teams running summits and memberships. These days I’m doing less research and writing myself and far more leadership. So I get to attend departmental meetings and guide the company as a whole. I miss the old days when I was chief cook and bottle washer ” but now we have so much more capacity to serve our customers’ needs. So that’s a delightful thing.
Now my favorite things are speaking about new research studies (it’s so fun to say, “Hey, here’s info marketers are yearning to know – let’s go get it!”); speaking at shows, especially when I get to meet readers who have ideas about research studies or stories we should cover (many of our best case studies come from me meeting folks on the road); and once a week personally conducting a marketer-side interview for a story I or one of our reporting staff might write.
ER: During many of your talks you give real-life Internet shopping examples of good and bad things that you’ve encountered. How many of those incidents spark research on that topic?
AH: Actually events often spark our research because attendees will ask great questions… . Those questions drive the research. I’m way, way, way too close to the research we’ve done and the marketing world to know what marketers really want to know.
When you’ve studied something intensively for years, you’re the wrong person to come up with new ideas for studies. You’ll end up in esoteric or newfangled places that your audience couldn’t care less about. One of our biggest stories – in terms of readership and reader feedback – last year was research we’d done in partnership with CNET’s B-to-B Network on what white paper titles got downloaded the most. I thought it would be [just] an OK article, but my God, it hit a huge nerve: floods of thank-you email letters from our readers in the B-to-B space.
So, you have to let your readers tell you what’s hot and what’s not. Don’t ask your editor or newsletter writer. I’m shocked that so few email newsletters do reader surveys asking about content. They all need to.
ER: What are some of the benchmarks for maintaining the quality of MarketingSherpa research and other content?
AH: We never publish data that doesn’t have enough evidence behind it to be statistically reliable. That drives me nuts about other studies (including the DMAs). They’ll survey 10 people and then call it a “study” and make a big stink about findings. We don’t publish charts if the data has to be sliced “too thin” to get a number.
We know that many readers are using us for their budgeting, forecasting and to sell their marketing plan to their CEO. We don’t want to feed them misinformation or slanted data and mess that up.
Unlike most of our competitors, we do not publish third-party content. We don’t solicit editorial from vendors or consultants or anyone else. Our editorial is researched and created in-house. That’s a lot more expensive, but it’s worth it.
On the research benchmark side, we do create partnered studies with some folks where we survey the marketplace or examine results stats we could not do alone. We also gather best-of research from some third-party sources to fill in holes and provide perspective. But we’re not like eMarketer where 100 percent of the data is compiled from other people (they do zero primary research). With us, it’s about 20 percent.
That combination of our data plus partnered studies plus best-of-third-party data is a killer combo. You get everything in one place. It’s all about convenience.
Sometimes people question our data – for example, recently several SEO experts questioned whether our data on the industry slowdown was based in reality because, from their personal perspective, business was booming. Thing is, we had data out the wazoo – data from more than 3,000 client-side marketers, from 104 top SEO firms and from third-party studies. We had more data than anyone on the planet on search marketing. From our perspective, the industry was slowing like crazy and I was able to defend that very easily.
ER: MarketingSherpa covers so many areas of online marketing. Do you consider yourself an expert in any one area of marketing?
AH: I suppose my main personal areas of expertise would be e-commerce, lead generation landing pages and email marketing. I’ve personally been involved with research we’ve conducted in all three and met many, many of the marketers themselves in these fields. I’ve also been heavily involved in our SEM research and coverage over the years, but I think SEM is something that you really cannot be expert in unless you’ve rolled up your sleeves and you do it every day yourself. I don’t. Few of the press covering SEM have.
ER: What is the next logical evolution beyond paid online content?
AH: I am so psyched about buying TV episodes online! In a past job, I was the marketer for a paid subscription [print] newsletter called Interactive Video News. Back then in the early ’90s we were all talking about 500 channels and pay-per-view cable where you’d be able to view anything on demand. Well I have on demand at home on my cable now, but it’s a very clunky interface. However, our research director Stefan Tornquist brags he doesn’t own a TV at all ” he just buys and downloads anything he wants to watch from the Internet.
Mainstream TV networks are now cross-promoting new shows by running them on cable for a few episodes to get the word out. Broadcast TV is, in effect, now just a marketing vehicle for content that’s paid for with some ads. I buy the TV episodes directly by episode online now. Love it to death. That plus buying music song by song for iPods, and the huge long tail of that, is very exciting. Media consumption is changing hugely in the way purchasing changed in the past five years due to search engines for research and ecommerce.