Brian Dean needs no introduction. But just in case you’re new to SEO, Brian is the man behind online SEO and link building bible Backlinko.
In late 2020, he partnered with co-founder Josh Howarth to rework a cult trend-prediction app into the Exploding Topics you see today. The tool promises to help you uncover trends 6-12 months before anybody else.
We spoke to Brian about his move into forecasting, the value Exploding Topics provides to marketers and how we uses it to get an edge in his own SEO efforts. Brian also shares his secrets behind a 50% newsletter open rate and the marketing tools he uses to grow Exploding Topics’ customer base.
Hi Brian. please introduce yourself and Josh…
I’m Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko, which is an SEO training company. And Josh (Howarth) is a coder and self-described maker.
We connected from his project, which was called trend.co at the time. And I was getting interested in the space and realized that he was building basically exactly what I wanted to build except 10 times better than I could have done myself!
We ended up working together on what was now known as Exploding Topics. So, to answer your question of why get into forecasting, I saw an opportunity in the market for something that could basically reveal trends before they started to take off.
You’ve made your name in the SEO world, why venture into forecasting?
So, everyone and their mom uses Google Trends for researching trends that they know about. And it’s actually a great tool for that. The problem with Google Trends and other tools like it is that it’s not good at content discovery or trend discovery. It’s hard to find trends that you don’t know about already.
So, for example, if you’re in the tech investing space and you want to know about startups that are taking off, Google Trends isn’t helpful for that because you need to know the startup already. Or if you’re an Amazon seller and you want to find products to sell, Google Trends can be helpful to see, oh, is this product trending up? Is it trending down? But if you don’t know about it, it’s impossible to really use something like Google Trends.
I wanted to get into this space because I saw a couple of cool things that were bubbling up trending topics that were otherwise under the radar. However, they didn’t do as good of a job of it as I thought was possible.
How would you describe Exploding Topics and its USP?
It’s then that Josh showed me what was possible with the technology behind Exploding Topics and things got exciting.
I’d describe Exploding Topics as a tool to help people identify trends before they take off.
Our USP is first, that we help people identify trends that they don’t know about yet. And also that we’re able to identify trends very early. That’s actually our main USP because it’s one thing to show people a trend that they don’t know about, but if it takes off the next day, it’s too late to do anything about it. So, our goal is to identify trends as early as possible.
Our technology centers on that. We monitor a number of different platforms where conversations happen around different topics. So Reddit, podcasts, social media obviously, and our technology can identify a new trend that it hasn’t seen before, and then see that it’s increasing in popularity.
We crosscheck that with search data and we’re able to identify trends pretty early using that because it’s a very sensitive way to identify trends.
Because once people are having these conversations, usually they very gradually grow. And then all of a sudden they hit a threshold and they start to take off. Our goal is to identify trends well before that threshold is hit.
"That's actually our main USP because it's one thing to show people a trend that they don't know about, but if it takes off the next day, it's too late to do anything about it. So, our goal is to identify trends as early as possible."Brian Dean
How do you use it yourself, for your other business interests?
I use Exploding Topics mostly for identifying content topics to write about.
For Exploring Topics itself, we used it to identify a ton of topics early on and rank for keywords that weren’t competitive yet. So for example, we found decentralized finance as a topic really early. And we started writing about that and we ranked for a lot of decentralized finance related keywords because we’re able to identify early before it got competitive and as you know, once you’re on the front page, you have a huge advantage over people that aren’t on the first page yet.
→ Suggested reading: How to use Exploding Topics for SEO content
Pro users get their insights 6 months earlier than anybody else. How’s take up been?
Uptake for Exploding Topics Pro has been great. Our MRR has grown by 3X over the last year and we launched in September of 2020. It’s been great because we’re delivering something people want. They want trends early.
And we didn’t know how we’re going to monetize Exploring Topics when we first launched it. We just knew that people would be interested in it, but how to monetize it was a complete mystery for us. We tried different things, we experimented. We basically talked to our email subscribers and they all sort of said the same thing, that the number one thing they wanted was access to trends early.
They want to have early access to trends that they can do things with whether it’s investing in a startup, whether it’s launching a product, whether it’s launching a business, whether it’s launching a new division, if you’re an enterprise customer, people wanted to identify trends early. So we decided to make that our sort of pro USP, which is people get access to trends six months earlier. In reality, it’s usually more like a year earlier than we end up sharing them with everyone else.
"We tried different things, we experimented. We basically talked to our email subscribers and they all sort of said the same thing, that the number one thing they wanted was access to trends early."Brian Dean
How have you promoted the tool to date? What’s been the biggest learning?
In terms of promotion, we’ve tried a bunch of things.
We’ve tried Facebook ads, we’ve tried Twitter, Instagram, you name it, we tried it. The number one thing that I’ve learned is that a weekly newsletter is by far the best way to promote basically anything, but especially something like Exploding Topics. Right now, our email list is about 65,000 people that receive our weekly trend newsletter. And we get a 50% open rate, which is crazy.
The biggest learning has been the promotion in the newsletter. Most newsletters I’m subscribed to that have something paid associated with it, promoting themselves is kind of the main thing in the newsletter and the media content is sort of the afterthought.
We decided to flip the script on that mostly by accident, because at first we didn’t have any monetization, so it was just value. We had nothing to pitch. And then once we decided to pitch something, we sort of had this template in place and it felt weird to completely switch it around. And it seemed like stupid to switch it around because we had this thing that people really like.
So, why would we make the pitch the main part of the newsletter when we’re getting this insane open rate with our newsletter?
Our conversion rate per newsletter per subscriber is probably horrible, but we make up for it in volume because so many people open and read the newsletter every week.
So, the biggest learning has been that promoting in a newsletter is really powerful, especially if you’re willing to put in the work in. If you’re willing to be patient, to make sure that when you send an email, you’re not looking at it and being like, oh, I need to get all these customers coming in or all these trials coming in saying, every time you send an email, thousands of people are seeing your brand. They’re reading your content. They’re saying, wow, this is a cool brand. And then when they are ready to buy and they see your pitch, they’re going to convert down the road.
The pitch should be more of an afterthought and something that doesn’t need to be the main part of the newsletter.
"The biggest learning has been that promoting in a newsletter is really powerful, especially if you're willing to put in the work in."Brian Dean
Have you come across any particularly creative or effective uses of Exploding Topics?
One creative use of Exploding Topics that comes to mind is someone created a version of it for TikTok influencers. So they’ve realized that if you’re in influencer marketing, it’s hard to identify TikTok influencers who aren’t already huge, that are sort of on the come up. And he created a tool that tracked follower counts for TikTok users and created a sort of a SaaS product that you could sign up and see all these TikTok users that were quickly growing that probably weren’t already getting bombarded with pitches yet. And he sold that SaaS company.
That was a pretty cool way to take our idea and do something totally new with it.
What’s next for Exploding Topics in 2022?
In terms of what’s new in 2022, our focus is really technology. We want to identify trends even earlier than we are now.
The better the product the less marketing you need. Also, personally, I’m going to be working a lot on SEO for Exploring Topics. We get about to 100,000 visitors a month, about 70,000 of that is from Google. I want that to be at least double by the end of 2022. But like I said, if that’s not really going to be a needle mover, unless the product is always improving.
So that’s our main focus right now is to improve the technology, improve our sourcing, improve our process for identifying trends early on. Because the earlier we can identify trends, the happier customers are going to be. And with the subscription business, it’s all about retention and reducing churn.
Is there anything new or in the pipeline for Backlinko?
In terms of Backlinko, my number one thing I want to do this year is update the site, obviously, which is always something you got to do on a regular basis, but also takes the learnings from Exploring Topics and apply them to and share them with Backlinko readers who are interested in SEO.
So I’ve done that a couple times and people really like it because it’s not Backlinko. It’s not like, “oh, I did this thing with Backlinko and it worked.” It’s new site that was started from scratch. So, it’s more relatable for people because Backlinko is one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world.
So when I would say “this thing worked” and people say “well, it’ll work for you. You have this advantage”, which is a fair point.
With Exploding Topics, it’s a lot newer. A lot of people are interested in that because they are the same size or age as Exploding Topics. The site doesn’t have a domain authority of a billion. So this might work for me too when it comes to SEO.
"Exploding Topics is new site that was started from scratch. So, it's more relatable for people because Backlinko is one of the most popular marketing blogs in the world."Brian Dean
And finally, what are your Top 3 marketing tools you’d recommend to others?
My number one marketing tool recommendation would probably be Buffer.
When it comes to scheduling social media posts, there’s tons of them out there. I tried them all. I like Buffer the best. It was one of the first, if not the first for Twitter and it just works really well. It has a very intuitive UI and we use it all the time for scheduling tweets and other social media posts too.
The second will be Semrush for SEO. The first marketing software you should invest in is an SEO marketing tool because that’s going to take care of a lot of your marketing, keyboard research, on page SEO, rank tracking, finding links… everything. I personally use Semrush a lot and think it’s great.
The third would be an email service provider. I use AWeber but ConvertKit is also really good because that’s just the best way to get in front of customers. This whole thing about the newsletter wouldn’t be possible without a reliable email service provider.