Michia Rohrssen just stepped down as Head of Growth at VentureBeat. In this episode we dig into some of his best strategies, incuding his Facebook ads that were so effective that FB actually updated their TOS just to ban his ads.
→ The topic is the value of a computer science degree about a marketing degree
→ He is the CEO of a startup, argues that a computer science degree is more valuable in today’s marketing landscape as most of it is going online
→ Understanding the web, computers, and the ability to write scripts and work with data is becoming important in marketing, which a computer science degree provides
→ The strategy was to target ads to individuals by scraping their unique names and tailoring the ads to them
→ The takeaways from this campaign are: targeting ads to specific individuals is more effective than trying to reach a large audience, and breaking the rules can give you a competitive advantage in online marketing
→ His best strategies including his Facebook ads that were so effective
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor, and today I have McIlroy’s person with us. McHugh, thanks for coming on the show.
Michia: And thanks for having me. Absolutely. Fan of what you guys are doing here. So happy to be on.
Bronson: That’s awesome. Well, McHugh, you are the CEO of Prodigy, a new startup. But a lot of people know of you because you’re the former head of growth at Venture Beat. And I’m excited about this interview because you have some fun stories. You’ve been involved in some, you know, unique things. So this isn’t going to be one of those interviews with like one theme that they stay on the whole time. This is going to be one of those interviews. We’re going to be all over the place talking about all kinds of cool stuff, and I think whoever’s listening is going to learn a lot along the way. So you ready to jump in?
Michia: Absolutely. Let’s do it.
Bronson: All right. First off, you think that you’re a computer science degree has turned out to be more valuable than a marketing degree. Why is that? Because I’ve heard that before and I’ve heard the other side of the argument. I want to know, why do you think that computer science is so important for marketing?
Michia: I think I could be biased here, obviously, but we all are that it comes in the way marketing is shifting right now. And so, you know, there was probably a time when marketing trees were really useful because a lot of the marketing you were doing was offline and traditional and just, you know, the techniques were very different. But if you look at just the macro economy and also just the way marketing and consumers are going, it’s all going online. And so someone that can speak the language about online, who knows online really well, knows the web and with computer science knows computers, which is very useful. I mean, I spend all my day on a computer now. And so being able to write quick scripts, whip up some mainstream allergists, having the knowledge to really dove in and do computer savvy, I think is almost more useful than knowing the fee for the four piece of marketing, which I still don’t.
Bronson: Know is position product promotion price. So you got to go for fees, man.
Michia: I really don’t know. I couldn’t tell you until you told me.
Bronson: No, no, that’s awesome. Also, you know, it’s interesting because when I had on the CEO of a partner list, he said something similar but in a different way. He said that he was setting up this complicated, you know, Google ads campaign. And at first they had marketers running the campaigns and then it just wasn’t working. So I wasn’t there. So then he just found people that were really good at math, and he had them run the Google campaigns. And he said all of a sudden, our ally was there and he thought, you know what, I need mathematicians, not marketers. Like he made that switch kind of internally, at least for his pay traffic. And that kind of is the first time the thought really got put in my head of like, okay, you might like computer science and math and that kind of stuff. The hard stuff, the hard science of might be more effective than the soft marketing stuff for what we do now.
Michia: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s so formulaic, you know, especially older, you know, of the Madmen era, whereas like you come up with one campaign, it’s just like groundbreaking. But now a lot of the stuff we do is formulaic. And so just being able to iterate fast and look at the actual numbers rather than just like the big picture can actually be very useful in many ways.
Bronson: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. All right. So let’s jump into some fun here. So you had some Facebook ads once that were crazy effective, 10% click through rate. Yeah. For anybody who’s used Facebook ads. I don’t think I’ve ever had something with a 10% clip. Right. I mean, I’ve done some good ones, you know, 4%, 5%, you know, and less than that. 10%. No, never done that. And Facebook actually updated their terms of service to ban your ads specifically, I think. Tell me about that. What did you do? Why was this so awesome? Why did you ban?
Michia: So I think I was actually looking at the numbers last night. I think it might have actually been as high as like 16% on some of my campaigns. Click through rate. So they were just tequilas. And so basically it all started I had the, I guess idea that like Facebook is all about relevance. And so the more targeted your ads are, obviously the higher click, the rates, everything you get. But still, like, like so for example, if you get a selection of people that like bodybuilding and you give them bodybuilding out, you get a much higher click through rate than if you just like random people. So I thought, well, what’s, what’s the most ridiculous thing I can do? And so I thought I could actually the idea was I’m going to go make ads that, as you mentioned, the person’s name in the headline and the image and everything. And so what I was doing is I was actually using a scraper to scrape the unique ideas of Facebook users. So I had scraped, like all the McWilliams, and then I would make an ad that’s like, Hey, Mike Williams, you’ve paid too much for car insurance. Because I was like doing work for Geico and progressive and honest guys. And so you’re like, this big ad is super ugly and had to try to use the color which is like this really ugly yellow and then a red background on top of that said, Hey, my clothes like you’re paying too much for car insurance, click here to save money or whatever. And I was doing legion for different insurance companies. And so I met all sorts of different hands with like specific names. And I just crushed it like I was getting like ten, 15% click through rates and I wasn’t the only one doing it. So they should say it didn’t affect their jobs just to ban my ads. But I think a couple other people are doing it as well. But we ran with it for like six months. And then one day all my ads are banned. And I look at the terms of services like that’s not against our terms of service. And then I went back and they had updated on that day to add, it’s like the very last forbidden thing. Now you can’t put names in the ads. So it was fun while I worked.
Bronson: So. So that specific tactic is dead. But what’s the takeaway? I mean, I think there’s still a nugget of truth there that we should take into our Facebook campaigns.
Michia: Yeah. I mean, there’s obviously the more targeted, the better. You know, if you can really rather than trying to do like, oh, like my reach is like a million people. So I have to scale this really well. It’s better to have maybe ten campaigns with 200,000 people. And each campaign is different and super targeted that person. Yeah, that’s one takeaway. The other takeaway I would say is don’t be afraid to break the rules when you’re doing online marketing, because if everyone follows the same rules, then it’s kind of an even playing field. And I don’t like to compete in even playing fields. Yeah, I like to have a competitive advantage. So that’s the thing I would say.
Bronson: You know, I like what you just said about, you know, don’t worry about having a million people in the audience, because when I set up a Facebook ad, I literally try to get to a million people in the audience. That’s like my lowest. I’m wanting to go. I try to get at least a million so the ad doesn’t burn out in two weeks, you know? So what you’re saying, though, is let it burn out quicker, but it’s so targeted ROIs better and then you just cycle through into another ad. It’s also super targeted. And so that’s a new way for me to kind of look at Facebook that I don’t do right now. Yeah.
Michia: So when you’re doing this, I mean, I’ll make an ad with like 10,000, 20,000 people in it.
Bronson: So I stay away from those and like, Oh, it’ll be done in two days. And then what you.
Michia: So, so you get, you have to watch your ad frequency. And, and so what you’ll see is if you actually see lots of chart like that, frequency stays around like one and you click through each way up here and then as the ad frequency goes up, you click through, it goes down. And so what you actually have to do if you’re doing super micro targeted like Facebook ads like this is you have to I’ve noticed it’s not the offer can stay the same, but you have to cycle the copy. And if people get banner blindness and so they see the same banner. So if you just what I do is I opt to create like 30 or 40 banner ads if I know something is working anyway well and I’ll just cycle through them so that I keep my frequency on the ad low. But I’m still hitting the same target audience pretty regularly.
Bronson: I gotcha.
Michia: But yeah, I mean, I just.
Bronson: Copy the same. But you’re changing the visual.
Michia: Yeah. You can even switch the copy as well. But it’s, it’s more like you don’t want someone seeing your ad 20 times because they just start to ignore it. Yeah, but if you saw a new ad and it’s a targeted segment, they might convert just because they were ignoring your previous ad. But now this one just catches the eye for whenever you.
Bronson: Use any of the tools to, like, create all these variations like ad espresso or any of the competitors out there. Or do you use the power editor and kind of do it like what? What do you use? Because this is a lot more work than a normal campaign, you know?
Michia: Yeah. So I use, I guess you could say, like an army of outsourcers for the graphic design. Like if, if you’re hiring guys for like, you know, $10 an hour to make Facebook ads, they can make like ten, 20 Facebook ads an mean now if you’re swapping out different images.
Michia: And then I just use the power editor. It’s pretty terrible because it is. It is. I was.
Michia: It’s so bad, but it’s still better than manually using the front end. Yeah. So that’s the way I do it.
Bronson: Okay. Gotcha. Nice. All right. So talk about Facebook ads now. Let’s jump in to another subject. That’s all. People would be all over the place in this one SEO. So not only do you know a little something about Facebook ads, you know a little something about SEO as well. And you’re actually doing some tactics that were so successful that not only did Facebook have to change their terms of service, but Google released manual updates to kind of affect, you know, the work you were doing on there as well. So walk me through that. This was back in 2011, 2012, I think. Yeah. So I’m sure that the specifics won’t work anymore. But again, there’ll be some bigger takeaway that we can learn from it. So what happened there?
Michia: Yeah. And maybe the biggest takeaway is that like making tools.
Bronson: That you fit in with the people watching this show, so don’t worry.
Michia: Yeah. So. So this is like 2000 11,012. And this is kind of when I don’t think we were the first ones to do it, but we were definitely we became the largest wants to do it. We’re private back like networks. We’re working really, really well and really don’t know what those are. Essentially, you have a domain that has like maybe like a PR for PR six and it drops for whatever reason the person forgets to renew it. And so you can buy that domain and just put new content on it. I mean, put links on this domain and Google doesn’t realize that you’ve switched the hosts of the domain. So now you have like a free PR six link to your whatever website you want.
Bronson: Now, is that still true? The Google still doesn’t know when you buy a domain like that, or are they.
Michia: Still guys doing it that there’s certain techniques that you have to use when you’re buying? Networks are definitely becoming much harder to run these days because it’s exactly, you know, four years ago when it was working really well. Yeah. And for a while we were just doing it like we just had like hundreds of private backlink sites that we were just putting months on and no one was really I mean, it was working really well. Everybody was just like really happy, but it probably wasn’t the most white hat thing. I guess you could say it.
Bronson: Was at least gray hat.
Michia: Yeah, exactly. So it’s not like we were like spamming like forums. We were spamming on sites, basically. Yeah, but it was still like manipulating the Google algorithm and so on. Like late 2011, early 2012, Google actually started taking serious steps to basically ban these sites. Probably the biggest one that everyone knew about was Build My Rank. It was a really, really popular link network that, you know, had like thousands of clients and all of a sudden built by rank just released a blog post one day that said Google indexed every single domain we have when shutting down our entire company. Wow. And they were like the biggest one. And so around that time and actually a couple of months before, there had been signs that something like that was coming. And so one of the other the the second well, actually the largest network, definitely not as well known, but it had like 600 agencies using it actually. So like it was kind of powering the whole SEO agency world and hired me as kind of like the lead SEO consultant. And basically I job was to do my job specifically was to kind of figure out Google’s every move and make sure that we stayed two steps ahead of them. And so making sure that like our network was undetectable, trying to reverse engineer like how Google could detect and make that work and then alter things so that we could avoid the penalties.
Bronson: Yeah. So able to do that or is it just too much going against Google?
Michia: So we actually were the only white network that I know that never got slapped. Mm hmm. We never got the index. We never got some of the sites that really ten, 20% got hit. But we had we were able to retain the integrity of the network. The other part of it was we also were able to retain the brand by expanding the SEO offering. So we stopped doing just like networks and we started doing more holistic things. And this is back when guest hosting was okay and social bookmarking and all those things. Yeah. So we actually expanded the offering and totally like Bill Novak shut down. It’s like kill the entire of business. Whereas this woman I was the ACA consultant for still today and still doing really well because they were able to kind of stay ahead of Google. Yeah. And also just kind of expand their I think that they weren’t so reliant on these kind of abusive tactics.
Bronson: Okay. So I’m interested because you said your job there was kind of stay ahead. What what are like the best practices for staying ahead? Because people watching this that are really into SEO, they’re going to be like, all right, what are you reading or what are you looking at? Or What kinds of test even give you data you need to work off of. Like just in general, what do you do to learn the stuff you need to learn?
Michia: Yeah. And so a lot of times you can actually there’s a couple different ways to learn. One is to learn by doing it. So you just you throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and you see what sticks. But a lot of times you can actually look at what’s working now. So you go through like the the SERPs. You want to compete in search engine ranking pages and you kind of look at like what’s ranking now? And then you can go to like a heroes Jessica SEO, all these different sites pull backlinks and see like how are these guys actually doing SEO now? Because if they’re ranking in the top ten now, it’s obviously something that Google’s algorithm currently favors.
Bronson: Okay. I gotcha. Yeah. So I reverse engineer what other people are doing that’s already working. And then you can build that into your own stuff and then you can even watch the rankings change over time. So you see the direction, the algorithms trending in and then kind of work backwards from there as well.
Michia: Yeah, that’s one way. The way we were doing it was actually we were trying to think like we were trying to be a step ahead of even the guys that were doing stuff well. And so we were trying to think like, what are the actual engineering capabilities that Google would have? Like how could they? It would just make it impossible for them to algorithmically detect what we’re doing. So what you’re trying to do as well. So that’s another way. If you if you want to.
Bronson: Using your computer science knowledge, you know what’s possible. You know what data they have access to and what they don’t. And you’re just thinking through how to work with that.
Michia: Yeah. So that that’s nothing to like I guess it’s that’s definitely leads to it’s more of the great world. But if you want to do great or even blackout, you have to step back and think like what’s actually undetectable by Google. Yeah. Or understand that most things you do actually undetectable because they have a lot of smart people working out. Yeah. Yeah.
Bronson: Now, on the same topic of SEO, when you were with Motley Rice, you actually allowed you got the phrase asbestos lawyer and asbestos lawsuit in the top ten. You got your pages in the top two in there, which is a really big deal.
Bronson: You know, I’m getting those phrases. To your side of the top ten. That’s a lot of money there. Yeah. How did you do that? I mean, what was the is it what you just said? Just kind of really applying the things you just told us or what was your game plan there to do that?
Michia: Yeah, so there was a lot of different things going on there. For those who don’t know asbestos lawsuit, asbestos lawyer, these are all like $300 plus CPK terms and perfectly. Yeah.
Bronson: Percolate Brooklyn and somebody clicks that word and someone pays three her bucks.
Michia: Yeah. And if you’re actually getting a lead for basically how much it was worth versus one in eight leads turn into an actual lawsuit and the resources with eight, $8 million. So you can look at it as almost it’s worth $1,000,000 to them early. Wow. So it was it was a huge deal for them. And when I took the job, I basically perhaps foolishly promised that I could get that in the top ten of these terms within 30 days. Mm hmm. And somehow I actually managed to do it. Wow. So and the game plan was really to try to just. This is back, you know, just an 11. So they’re also want as many sophisticated as the whole players. So I just kind of like stack the cards as many ways as possible. So we first thing we did is we created dedicated many pages for this general kind of subject as this lawsuit by lawyer. And this is back on like URLs which really important so that the URL had asbestos lawsuit in it. The H1 tag there was like really good SEO. Yeah. In a market that didn’t have SEO players, essentially. I gotcha. That would probably be like the quick summary of it. Mean we did a lot of the cutting edge stuff at the time, like we were using private networks and all these other things. Back when I was to work, we had to expand our strategies. Obviously Google started to crack down on that. Yeah, but a lot of it was just and you still see this. In fact, I can’t talk about too much, but I’m sort of, you know, in some of the thing where, you know, you go into really kind of like untapped markets. And if you can bring in sophisticated tech that the guys in Silicon Valley or any of the startups are really they know really well, you can dominate really big markets a lot of money without having to spend because they’re just they’re not sophisticated. They’re just going to like who spends the most money? It’s often who is actually the most clever that wins.
Bronson: I gotcha. No, that’s awesome. All right. So, you know, one of the mottos that you, you know, you say you live by is just to fill in fell often and you give this great example of failing a lot at VentureBeat. Yeah, obviously you had a lot of success there too, but you felt alone. Let me see if I got the quote here in March alone. You failed 31 times and succeeded, too.
Bronson: So tell me why that’s a good thing and just tell me about that mindset, because I agree with that. Yeah, I feel like most of what I do is a complete failure. But, you know, you’ll have to be right a couple of times to get, you know. Yeah, some really cool stuff happen. So while we do that.
Michia: Yeah. So a lot of people talk about like failing fast as if like that’s the, the best thing to do. And I agree that failing fast is the best thing to do. But people say that and most people go they feel like once or twice and then they go back to what they were doing. So they’re like, Oh, I felt really quickly. That sucked. I guess I should just go back to what I was doing because that was a failure. And so I tried to think of it as like failing often, whereas like you’re constantly just trying new ideas and seeing what’s working. And so for VentureBeat specifically, we were trying to actually increase the number of people registering for the site. So what we found was, like a lot of people would read the news for those who don’t know about the tech news site. So people would read the news and leave. And we didn’t have like a deep level of engagement with them. So we were like, Well, how can we get them to engage with our brand? Why? How can we get them to register, get our newsletter, and we can actually like communicate with them and follow up and can I move them to deeper engagement with the brand, including buying things, going to events with that? Mm hmm. And so basically what we came up with was like. So I guess this goes back to my computer science for smugly the old school marketing way would be to like okay let’s go like do focus groups and like let’s see what we say. And that’s like for like six months making this campaign and then we’ll launch it and like either we’re like the hot shit in the office because everyone does it and it works really well or like it fails and every hits the market department responsibility. So I guess let’s look at kind of like every single approach that we can think of that might convert someone to register and then let’s just try them all because eventually it has 7 million viewers a month so we can try things really quickly.
Bronson: Yeah. A lot of AB tests with the nuts. Yeah. The right amount of data there.
Michia: Yeah. So a lot of it was a B testing. And then when I think maybe testing, there’s a saying you test forest trees, branches and leaves in that order.
Bronson: I’ve never heard that so I break it down for me.
Michia: Yeah. So it’s, it’s forest trees, branches and leaves. So you test forests first, which is like you’re just really, really big, drastically different ideas. Once you find the best big idea, then you start testing the trees within that forest. So this could be like different layouts or not maybe like totally different strategies. Like one is a landing page for a few report ones on any page for a free webinar like totally different ideas. Then once you find the best landing page or say it’s a webinar, then you start testing the landing page of the webinar itself. That’s like a tree. Then the branches would be like maybe the first opening paragraph or the headline, and then like the leaves are like, what’s the color of that? But you like that, and you see a lot of people that like this backwards, like, oh, well, where, you know, test up on colors. But they’ve never been tested. They’re forest or they’re trees. And so when you test like leaves, you get small little improvements. And so what we do is we’re testing for us, we were testing like drastically different ideas and yeah, we tested three of them and the, the ones that failed, I won’t say they failed as much as they weren’t as good as the really big successes. And so like I was just actually calculating the difference. The difference between our worst failure and our best success was six. Wow. So by testing all these different ideas, if we just stuck with one of them, you have to pick the worst one, which is actually are they enough? One of my favorite ones was the.
Bronson: Way it goes sometimes.
Michia: Yeah, it would have converted it like 0.04%. Wow. And then the best one can read it at 2.2%. So they had five times better. And so I guess by failing, often it’s okay because the home runs are so much better. I mean, we got two home runs in March and then increased our lead volume by 30 times. Yeah. No.
Bronson: Yeah. I mean, I love what you just said. I mean, that’s this the quote. That’s the idea of the episode right there, the forest, then the trees, then the branches and the leaves. Everyone needs to walk away. Remember that, because tell me if I’m wrong. But that keeps you from getting stuck on a local maximum and just not being able to really get the forest right. It puts things in the right order so you don’t feel good about an improvement. That’s not the big win that you could have had.
Michia: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, definitely that’s the way to do it. And I actually use this a lot to those who are in departments with bureaucracy or just like a lot of chefs in the kitchen, I guess I’ve been in places this too, where I’m working on something and someone’s like, Oh, well, that should be like this color or that should be this color. Fine. I’m like, Well, back up. Like, you don’t actually have the data to say which color this should be. So let me just launch my forest and then we’ll worry about the leaves like in a month or something. So you can see, like forest.
Bronson: Yeah, that needs to be the title of your book. When you write one about maybe testing Launch My Forest.
Michia: Yeah, because especially you get too many people to really like do tiny little things and it, it’s like a big pet peeve of mine. I was like, let’s just focus on that picture here. So we use a lot of things is because when you have people focusing on little things, that’s going back to like the old school marketing, which like let’s do focus tests and like figure this out. Yeah, no, you don’t need to. And today’s, you know, just the way online marketing works. Yeah, we must use it.
Bronson: Yeah, we have the ability to do the exact process you’re saying. And that’s a thing because like old school marketing, it wasn’t that they weren’t smart enough to do it, it’s that they didn’t have the ability to, even if they wanted to. It’s like it’s just now that we really have these tools and we have this information. And so it really changes the game of what marketing is, not because they’re smarter, just because we have better tools in one sense.
Michia: Yeah. I mean and, and you can even so one of the things I like to do for split testing or testing in general is like, yes, you can test the headline, but what if you just test things like, so what are they going for the best? We only go by testing like different images of things like that. You can also test like what speaks or it’s like what products. Like you can basically launch Facebook ads with products that don’t even exist and you can send them to any page that says, Oh, sorry, coming soon. Not for the waiting list, but now you can actually test which party should we spend time developing?
Bronson: So it’s like a super for us that’s like test incontinence or something. Yeah, right. What you see even do as a business before you even get divorced.
Michia: So I try to test everything and have to edit to be like this is actually what the business should do. Oftentimes before spending time doing, that’s just kind of my approach to things.
Bronson: Yeah, no, it’s good stuff. I mean, if people are, you know, wise, they’ll pay attention to what I mean, you’ve just been talking about. So tell us what’s about to now you’re the CEO of Prodigy, so it must be something awesome for you to leave being the head of growth venture B because that’s a pretty sweet gig. Yeah. So what can you tell us about Prodigy? I know what’s behind the scenes. I know it’s stellar. You know, tell tell us what you can. Tell us what else you do nowadays.
Michia: Yeah. So I’ll tell you a little bit about Prodigy, essentially. So I was actually I was super happy eventually, I should say that I really enjoyed working at.
Bronson: We have to say.
Michia: No, no, I really did. But I was I was just kind of working this phone idea with a friend of mine who had just sold his company last year. And we had we were playing on a lot of ideas and we kind of uncovered some really groundbreaking high tech stuff and a certain industry that I can’t talk about too much, but maybe later. But we ended up, you know, playing out with the idea. And the reason Andy left is because we got investment and so we’re actually closing on our C round today, right? So yeah, so that was pretty cool. So, you know, I’m running the company there. We’re just starting in the office now that you see in the background. We just moved in Monday so it’s like that’s very, very and new.
Michia: I don’t have a bank. I took a setup. That’s the other thing I’ve been doing a lot is I’ve actually tried to like so I’ve been doing marketing and advertising and growth like eight years and I didn’t have anyone to actually like. I go to class when it I learned from working on different ideas and having a really good network of people that I could bounce ideas off of. So I’ve been trying to kind of actually get back with my time lately. I’ve been turned out to get about 10% of my time just advising early stage startups and helping them out, develop growth tactics, scaling business and things like that. So I can just like talk to guys like you and yeah, you. I share my thoughts on marketing in life, I guess.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s awesome. So how can people get in touch with you if they want to kind of, you know, touch base with you and, you know, maybe get some input or insight and maybe be one of those companies that you get back to.
Michia: Yeah. So my emails McIlroy’s sina.com it’s a message iar0hracen at gmail.com. Email me a penny for advice. Just want to job. Yeah, whatever. I’m pretty open. I love to meet entrepreneurs and if I can help them out with anything they’re doing. Yeah, that’s always like the coolest part of my day. So.
Bronson: Yeah, well, I’m sure our audience is going to love that. I mean, after hearing this interview, they’re going to be excited. They get to email you and talk to you and possibly, you know, have a beer with you. And I think you will hear from some of the people in this audience, because I think that’s been a great interview. And best of luck with everything with Prodigy. Once you guys have been out and launch and start killing it, ping me, let me know. We’ll bring you back on. You can tell us what this cleverness is and we can dove into it some and, you know, just keep updated on your success.
Michia: Yeah, I’d love to.
Bronson: Yeah. Well, Mochi, I thank you so much again for an awesome growth and a TV interview.
Michia: Yeah, thank you, man. This is awesome.
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