Episode 30: B2C SaaS Marketing with Asaf Rothem, CMO of Seeking Alpha

Maia Wells:
Welcome. Welcome. I'm your host Maia Wells. And on today's episode of The Marketing Hero podcast, we are pleased to present a conversation with Asaf Rothem, CMO of Seeking Alpha. Asaf joins us today from Tel Aviv for a conversation about building an audience with brute force and what it's like to build a B2C marketing machine. With experiences from Seeking Alpha, Wix, BrightInfo and WiseStamp. Asaf cracks open the stories that will get you thinking about B2C marketing trends, first party data, and so much more. Asaf Rothem. Welcome to the show.

Asaf Rothem:
Thanks Maia. Super excited to be here. Let's chat a little bit about marketing.

Maia Wells:
Well, it's great to have you and I do look forward to learning more about your experiences in marketing. And I have really enjoyed prepping with you in leading up to this interview, but I do want to start out with a question that we like to ask all of our guests. What's your favorite part of your career and how did you figure that out?

Asaf Rothem:
It's a good question. I'll tell you from a personal level, the best part of my career is to kind of finally understand what I'm good at and what I like doing. I'm not the kind of person who had this linear career where he started in marketing like 20 years ago, and then became a manager, senior manager, director in one line because online marketing didn't really exist the way we know it 20 years ago. In some, because it was very opportunistic and, just jump on opportunities that I felt could promote me massively in my path to, I didn't know exactly where, but I kind of know now, so I'm at a stage right now where I feel very comfortable in what I do know and what I don't know. And that's the best part of my career is to finally understand what I'm good at and what I'm comfortable doing, as opposed to just keep guessing and kind of like going into unknown areas, hoping for the best.

Maia Wells:
So what are you really good at?

Asaf Rothem:
It's also a good question. And also, I think this one is easier for me to answer. I think I'm fairly good at selling subscription services for consumers, meaning B2C or D2C sometimes it's also called now. I really enjoy it. And I think as a person who leads marketing, you're often tasked with two things. One is to come up with a good story and two to own revenue. So it's a little bit different in B2B, sales own revenue in B2C marketing owns revenue. We try to do low touch, meaning no interaction with the consumer, but through online methods. And the combination of coming up with a really good story and marketing methods that do everything for our self-service purchase. That's what I do pretty well. It means that I have to understand what's inspiring, what's relevant, what's authentic to connect to build trust with users, but also to understand how to create meaningful experiences that people will be willing to pay for.

Maia Wells:
And you mentioned, you know what you're also not very good at. What are you bad at? What do you not really like to do, and you're not very good at right now?

Asaf Rothem:
So I think everything in marketing, at least from my experiences comes within inherent sense of anarchy. In good organization, we keep that anarchy within manageable science, meaning it's always good to, it keeps us sharp. It helps us seize opportunities, recognize opportunities. And those are the two sides of the same coin. So the other side is a little bit of that anarchy. Meaning people are not super task oriented and know how to deliver things all the way through. This is something I had to get much better at with my career as I manage bigger and bigger groups, but I'm not a person who loves processes. I understand their value. I think process philosophically is more important than the results, but making sure people are always have a task at hand and stuff like that is something I don't believe in. And I'm not very good in micromanaging and making sure all the small tasks happen. I'm much better at recognizing big opportunities and to tell people, drop everything, this is what we're going after right now.

Maia Wells:
And how has the reaction been to that when you've had to do that either in your current company or in other places, do you have an example where you had to throw a process out the window for a moment to achieve a big opportunity? What was the reaction of your team to that? How did you wrangle that anarchy at the time and what were the results of that?

Asaf Rothem:
Yeah, I'll give you an example that I had in Wix in e-commerce. We were there. I led a team, relatively big team doing the spectacle of e-commerce and COVID, which means we were in the eye of the storm for most of my duration there. That was the end of a year and had to kind of release a huge project that kind of summarizes the year in e-commerce. That was brutal for all my teammates and that was not easy leading them through it.

One of the things that I've learned, perhaps the hard way, but it's almost too simple for this to be intuitive. Once you have a huge opportunity, whether it's driven by the market or whether it's just like the company says we're going after that. Drop everything off. Don't work on small tasks as we're focusing all of our efforts on the bigger ones, because the worst thing that can happen is for you to miss out on big deadlines, on huge releases because of a couple of small tasks that just got everybody frustrated and because when you do that and you go after those big projects, you're going to be running on, there's not going to be a lot of capacity for anything else.

So I literally told people, if you're not on this project, drop everything. I prefer you guys going to the beach, taking a day off recharging and coming back fresh and starting something new that I will have to meet because of no capacity to look at in a week time and understand this in some way hammered our, or crashed into the main project and derailing it.

Maia Wells:
That does make sense. And in there, you mentioned even in the biggest projects that it's important to recharge, and that's kind of, for those of us here in the United States, a lot of the people listening to this podcast are Americans, and it's a little foreign to us to hear that because our bosses would probably not say that to us. Do you think that's a uniquely European or middle Eastern, AMEA type of an approach? I mean, is that something that is unique to you? Talk to us a little bit about vacation, recharging, how that perspective is different?

Asaf Rothem:
Right. So I think it started even before the pandemic, meaning Israeli startups are geared toward typically the US market, which means we have to work crazy hours and kind of align our days, but you don't really align your day. I mean, you start early and you just finish late and you do it until you burn out. So I was fortunate enough to have seen burnout earlier in my career, and to understand that the price of burnout is probably much, much higher and comes way sooner than we anticipate when we ask people to work hard. For me, it's way more important to work smart, which means know what you're working on, as opposed to, let's just whatever the first task is let's just jump in. Let's make sure we prioritize. We only have a certain amount of hours a day.

You do want to spend some time with family. You want to eat, you want to breathe, you want to have coffee with colleagues. Those things are critical to manage workloads and high stress environments, which is the case in startups. So for me, burnout has the highest cost. Losing an employee over that is just dumb and ineffective. It means you are a bad manager because you didn't see it coming. Typically when you do see it coming, it's already too late. So I try to kind of take this pledge to myself, to be respectful for my employees and remember that not to push anyone to harm them or myself.

So I don't know if it's a cultural thing. I know that there's a lot of jokes about it from the difference how Europeans kind of send you like, "Hey, I'm on a summer vacation, I'll get back to you in three months." Whereas Americans are like, "Sorry, I had to leave for one hour to get a kidney transplant and I'll get back to you, but I'm available all the time."

So you realize somewhere in the middle there, we all have to be more minded about it. And I think as managers, it's critical, especially after the pandemic, work life balance, all of these things that have blended into this ongoing grounds of day, where you wake up and you do the same things over and over again until you don't know who you are. So it's even more important right now for us to tell employees, drop everything, go, come back another day when you were fresh and you've vented out recharged. I think that's an essential part of today's managerial role.

Maia Wells:
So what I'm hearing you say there is, it's a mixture of seeing the employee, seeing the team as a human being as a whole holistic human being that has needs outside of work and must fulfill those. And not only that, but also combining that with prioritizing the right things. I heard you say you don't just want to wake up and do the first task on your list because it's the first task on your list. How do you balance the need to prioritize for your teammates with your desire to see more of the big picture? Do you set the priority and then let your team members figure out the steps to get there? How do you actually accomplish that with your strengths and weaknesses as a manager?

Asaf Rothem:
The short answer is yes, we prioritize together. Meaning we do off sites like every six months. Kind of go for a day or two. I'm talking about specifically for the marketing department. There's also company wide priorities. In those off sites, we'll kind of do a quick review of what we've done and what is worked, what hasn't, and think like where the big opportunities lie in the foreseeable future. Some people have two and three year plans. I've never seen these manifest into reality. There's the great American philosopher called Mike Tyson. And he said that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

And I think it's very true. When you're in startups, it's good to have some roadmap. It's good to know where you're going. It's very important to kind of force the way. It's going to be way more surprising and way more murky than you can imagine. So I think you should take this into account one in terms of, we need to maintain flexibility and the ability to pivot and move and go after big opportunities when they present themselves. But also from a team perspective, as I said, let's not put all the firepower on the first thing. We need to think about what's going to happen if you're doing a big sale, what's going to happen in the following week, whatever I think that sale doesn't give you the outcome that you wanted. You always have to have another card to play.

So again, from a planning perspective, we'll kind of mark what the biggest plays are and what are possible ways to get there. And then the domain experts or the main managers, typically product marketing managers will come up with the plays that they want. Acquisition managers will come up with the plays that they want to do in terms of like bringing new users and trying to combine them is kind of where the biggest upside is. Meaning if you can tailor a full experience from the video that promotes it all the way until the sign up and then upgrade into paying that's the biggest play.

That's what I'm pushing my team always to come up with, I want a holistic play, a full flow of the user, show me all the steps. That's where it will also keep it reasonable. I don't know even like 11 steps where it has to be thing that people don't literally just do whatever you tell them. So think about it like video landing pages, onboarding experience, value. And show me, give me a couple of examples and yeah, let's just jump on it.

Maia Wells:
You used a phrase when we were talking about startups and building a new audience for a new product, a new service, it was brute force. So you were talking about, you need to start a company by using brute force. Tell me a little bit more about that. What do you mean by that? And then we're going to talk after that about how marketing and creating the media machine comes after.

Asaf Rothem:
I actually started in startups in B2B company and I was their I think the sixth employee, meaning they just came up with a product and the Israeli textbook of startups, which focuses on B2B, says like this, you build an MVP, something that you wouldn't be ashamed to put and have users start using it. And then the first users are going to be friends and families and your own personal network, those kind of things. Then you would put sales development like SDR to start having, picking up the phone and that's just brute force. They're going to code call people and pull them into scheduling an appointment, most with no show. But if you play the numbers, you'll get up to dozens of paying cut customers, just by brute force of having people doing code calls.

I think once you've establish that you have whatever, a dozen, 20, 50 paying customers. Then the CEO will take the VP of marketing and tell them, Hey we need to create a legion machine. This isn't something that we can scale on code calls. And that's the stage where you have to kind of shift your mind about, let's generate tons of lists that are anything above terrible is a huge success into something that people want to use. Meaning you're going to have to start telling a story and you have to start building a media machine.

A media machine typically means, tons of content, you can't start with tons, let's start with content blog, podcast, some sort of communities, all these things, all these plays that would eventually lead to inbound audience coming and looking after your product. In my experience, that's the most difficult part is to build that media machine. You need excellent content people, you need excellent market understanding, and you need to always climb up in the category, meaning you always want to go after bigger audiences. And those would not necessarily have a direct interest or even would be aware of your niche. So you always want to climb up there and kind of claim the bigger territories in order to bring that audience in.

Maia Wells:
And how is that different from the B2C approach? You mentioned starting with a video. I think that's a great place to start. Do you start with brute force that way, or is it a little bit different? Are you building that marketing machine from the very beginning? Talk to us about that.

Asaf Rothem:
So in Seeking Alpha is a little bit different because Seeking Alpha is not a very young startup. It's almost here for 20 years, started as a crowdsource financial publisher and has been up until last year. To be honest, we started subscriptions three years ago. And up until then, the company was focused on selling media and ads and stuff like that. So when I came a year ago, I kind of already had a media machine and my focus was internal, inside the company to make sure we want to move from our financial publisher to a financial services and financial products kind of company, and also kind of shift the way we look at the audience, meaning I don't care how much pay you choose we have because we don't sell ads anymore. I care about how many new users we're bring in how many new visitors we're bringing in. How's our SEO and PPC working together.

And we didn't really have PPC. We had to kind of build all those things. We had to build a new creative department to generate amazing YouTube videos that would make us seem clever and smart and fun just the way we are in reality. So the challenge here was different. I inherited a very strong media machine and I enhanced it with creatives and PPC. If I were to start this from day one as a financial services or products company, the big difference in B2C is the speed of things. Meaning we don't work on leads and then need a demo. Then there's a no show and a schedule. And then 20 day free trial, negotiation, discounts, all these things that end up converting into a paying customer four months down road, that does not literally exist in B2C.

In B2C, everything is today. So by starting, I would start with acquisition machine meaning paid acquisition. How do we get people to landing pages? How do we get people to engage with our videos and bring them directly into a flow that where they try the product right from the get go? Meaning if they watch the video five minutes afterwards, they should be already playing with our free version of the product and hopefully within an hour converting. And hopefully still we'll be able to attribute all of that on an ongoing basis and then improve it. And then it's more of a problem of having the funds to do it and the right people. Which is always a problem, but it's much faster. And the feedback loop is such that you can really improve fast and grow faster. I also like it better, but that's on a side note.

Maia Wells:
So what this is bringing up for me is thinking about marketing automation. And when we were talking before you mentioned that at Seeking Alpha, you don't use a marketing automation platform like a HubSpot and Act-On Marketo, those types of names. Why is that? What do you do instead? You must use some sort of automation, right Asaf?

Asaf Rothem:
Correct. We do use automations and I'll elaborate in a second, but we do use Sell-through for email automation and some of the systems that we use piano for the payroll and other things, to be honest, I think we're in an era where you kind of need to own your data. And in order to excel in the game of personalization, you really want to have everything owned by yourself because that's how you can really develop your own competitive advantage. So some things like sending emails through automated systems is something that we're not going to develop internally. We don't have really any competitive advantage or any edge into doing that. So we just make sure that integrates properly with our system, but everything on site, it's really critical for me to develop. One because of privacy issues and data protection.

There's a lot of things that are kind of coming into focus. We all know what happens to Facebook around those areas. And I don't want to be at the mercy of the data migration between one platform or another. They never give you the same data and it's frustrating. And I think they're out of the box solutions are excellent, but we're in a stage where we need to invest in our infrastructure and give ourselves a competitive edge in personalization, in the ability to match the customer journey with the right offer at the right time. And again, while there are legitimate solutions out there, I think if you take data and privacy into, as key considerations, you need to develop it on your own. I'm super pleased to say that we're going to launch the first project that we've been working on it for a few months in this week, it's going to go live.

So I'm extremely excited to see it finally coming. Also once you invest in infrastructure, it's kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Requires a lot of [inaudible 00:22:41] work, but I think it will pay off massively because once you have the basis, anything that we will add now will just give us bigger, competitive advantage in everything we do in Seeking Alpha from the insights on the onsite into campaigns that will take out and better do on Google, YouTube Outbrain and Tumblr. Everywhere we're going to go, we're going to have massive amounts of data and insights from our own analysis.

Maia Wells:
Can you tell me what it actually looks like to accomplish this data driven way of marketing? I would love to just hear how that flow works at Seeking Alpha. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you actually implement those ideas?

Asaf Rothem:
Sure. So in seeking alpha, I think one of the amazing things about the company and its crowdsource approach is that we have almost 200 advisory services, meaning those are analysts that give you specific recommendations and access to their portfolios in almost every investing strategy or theme. If you like growth stocks, if you want dividend stocks, energy, defense, cannabis stocks, ETFs, you name it, we have an expert that's going to help you pick the best investment for every investing cycle that there is. However, when you have 200, it's kind of difficult to think like, who do I promote? Are we going to go with most popular? Are we going to go with the hot hands? I mean, there's always a pool market out there. We've had like a very brutal starter of the year, especially since the war in Ukraine started, however, energy stocks and shipping stocks have skyrocketed.

Asaf Rothem:
So we're pretty unique in having a hot hand nearly for every market condition. However, the most popular or a hot hand is not necessarily whatever investor would like to be offered. So we infuse our marketing widgets with data science, and then we track the users' digital behavior from which we can infer what's the highest or the best service that we can offer them at a certain time period, meaning instead of just playing the hot hand or the most popular both are by the way, excellent benchmarks that data science needs to be.

So we're going to be offering seven to 14 different services based on your personalized behavior on Seeking Alpha and kind of the emails that you're reading. And that's how we connect all those little dots into a clear and actionable insight that we're going to be offering you, and from everything that we've seen, this massively beats pure segmentation, or just playing most popular or the hot hands.

So that's how we kind of try to tie everything together from the inventory we have, the behavior of the user all the way through the assets that we're going to promote on the website and on email, making sure that you've seen or clicked or closed it. We won't be nagging you further, but in the end we've seen tremendous promise in this and we're just getting started. We're just building out those things and it's going to work much, much better. And once we do four or five, 10 iterations on that.

Maia Wells:
So there you have it Marketing Hero folks, it pays to be a data nerd. I think that we had also the results of that personalization and sending the right offer at the right time. I think that's what we're all trying to get towards in our digital marketing lives. So it sounds like the name of the game here is taking big opportunities, going after them, with everything you have, owning your own data and creating the systems to make all of that happen. Would you say that's a good characterization of what you have going on right now?

Asaf Rothem:
I think it's a perfect reduction of things to a place that is manageable to conceive. I always believe in marketing, if you kind of get all the basics right, and it sounds too easy, but it's not easy at all. When you do it, there's always pressures. There's always compromise. There's a lot of things that are happening on a daily basis, especially B2C, which is, fast based environment. But if you are able to keep your eyes on the ball and kind of connect those big dots, you'll be in a good spot.

You can be excellent, once you double down on that, but connecting those dots is not an easy task and requires a lot of long term projects, which is something that is just difficult to manage and make sure that people remember the value of those things as [inaudible 00:27:31] another sale, you can always do. And just to be clear, we're not at that point yet. I think you've added a lot of the ingredients, all are progressing very nicely, but with probably a few months we will be able to kind of take pride in our machine, how it looks like, how it operates on a daily basis.

Maia Wells:
Well, it sounds like there is a great leader at the head of all of that at Seeking Alpha, which is you. Thank you so much for joining us today all the way from Tele Aviv. We do appreciate you coming on so late in the evening to talk to us here on The Marketing Hero podcast and do hope to follow what happens at Seeking Alpha and see that marketing machine start to work.

Asaf Rothem:
Thanks a lot Maia for having me. It was a pleasure.


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