Q&A: How Advolv co-founder Ashley Beattie carved out a social marketing niche

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In the summer of 2017, the Ottawa, Ontario-based L-Spark business accelerator held its annual Canadian Cottage Pitchfest, and I was invited to emcee. Several portfolio companies, including a few in the marketing technology space, presented to venture capitalists and corporate partners to try to secure funding.

One of those companies was Advolv.

I interviewed one of its co-founders, Ashley Beattie, post event, to pick his brain on his company and its place in the #martech ecosystem. Advolv’s platform provides insights to small and medium-sized businesses that rely on Twitter to drive traffic, improve SEO rankings, generate leads and boost influence.

 

Q: Why was Advolv launched? Were you solving a business problem or was there something else at play?

A: Advolv was formed because there seemed to be a gap in the market in the strategic social-media space for non-consultants. There are 30 million small to medium-sized businesses in North America, 78% of them are on Twitter. Not everyone has the money to afford a consultant, nor do they have the money or the time to invest in dedicated staff and do the work at a very high level. As a result, a lot of the tools that are out there are free and they’re very tactical, which means they help you with the basic grunt work of social media. We do the math on the social networks so you don’t have to. You can take leveraged action when you’re doing your outreach to be able to identify influencers and to target the right people with the right content. The challenge now is almost every business out there lacks the money to have full-time staff or to have a consultant working for them. And they really don’t have access to good tools, which are expensive if you have to pay for the enterprise packages. Not many small businesses can afford them. In the past few years, with the onset of cloud computing, algorithms, and what’s available in the open-source community, we can provide stuff that’s just as powerful. Maybe not all the way there but for the majority of businesses they don’t need that. They need something that’s more of an enterprise-light. That’s where we come in.

Q: What kind of technology are you using for the benefit of your clients? How are you enabling things like AI, just as an example, to allow you to come in at a lower cost?

A: We don’t have that much resident infrastructure. A lot of our jobs are done on an as-required basis. We don’t have thousands of dollars tied up in shift overhead associated with running our business. It’s very dynamic. We don’t have to pass on that big cost of running our business to our clients. The other thing is that because we don’t have a consultant-style model, we don’t have that many staff that need to be paid for. It’s just myself and my co-founder. We can come in at a way lower price point. We have access to the same algorithms and the same tools that the majority of the larger companies have. Let’s be honest: AI has been around, but it hasn’t been that prevalent, so nobody has a huge learning advantage.

Q: Let’s flip this around a little bit. You help companies with marketing, but how do you market yourselves?

A: We use our own tool a lot. It allows us to do a broad and deep search of social media. Let’s say we were going to target real-estate agents, they might need a social-media solution. We can type in ‘real-estate agents’ and ‘Toronto’ and we’ll pull a list, then select from that list examples of the key people we’d like to target. Then we do a deep search where we find a look-alike audience. By identifying the top five or six, we can find up to 500, or 1,000, maybe more of the same type of person, and then we can either do direct outreach or we can use our own advertising engine to target them when they’re on social media.

Q: You’re operating in an industry that’s constantly changing and evolving. How can you keep ahead of the competition, particularly when there are only two of you?

A: It’s hard for two people to anticipate and stay ahead of companies that are well funded in developing certain types of technology. Our company was founded last May, but I’d been working on it for about a year before that, and then previous to that I’d been a consultant in the space and I deeply understood the pain of smaller companies. The problem they had was audience intelligence. They all had to reach out to stakeholders. Some wanted to launch a product, some wanted to build a community, and others wanted to identify influencers. The use cases were really wide. They all had one question: What is the composition of the target audience? We built a really good audience intelligence engine, and instead of focusing on the separate use cases, we could focus on that one thing where we’d already established a pretty good pipeline as well as a good technology base. It applies to Hootsuite, it applies to Buffer, it applies to any advertising: Google Ads, Twitter ads, you name it. We use audience intelligence as the key piece. We’re starting at that spot and deepening that so we can hold it as our relationship with the clients. Then we can deploy it somewhere else. Staying ahead is largely a result of us improving the algorithms, improving the quality of that piece of the pie, which we can own, and then expand from there. The technology to develop that is out there, but the algorithms are not. The key advantage we have is that we’ve already built a good audience analysis engine upon which we can power all the other tools. A competitor has to come downstream to develop what we’ve built to make their own tool smarter, and we think that’s where we have a leverage point in the industry.

Q: When you provide analytics to your clients, are they accompanied by strategic direction, or are clients responsible for interpretation?

A: We’re still working out how a consulting style arrangement works on the basis of what we provide, which is a very clean and easy to use audience intelligence report. It’s pretty obvious as to who the influencers are, what keywords they use, when the people are active. If they need further work, we can provide that on a consulting, one-to-one type basis, which is probably similar to a lot of other companies out there. But when you provide a general product like audience intelligence, the list of applications and use cases can be very broad. While we provide that consulting from time to time, the majority of our customers have just been using our standard tools and we’ll analyze how that develops in the future. Because we’re focusing on smaller engagements and smaller customers, they typically are predisposed to not want to spend much money. Therefore, if we wanted to sell them an expensive consulting package, we’ll wind up being a consulting company rather than a technology company. It’s one of the traps of this industry. People start selling big contracts, which makes it harder to scale the business. We believe the convergence of advertising technology and marketing technology is going to lead to a situation where people are relying heavily on their audience intelligence to power all of their use cases. That will apply to conferences or product launches or general outreach, marketing of any kind, as it integrates more fully with the entire advertising and marketing pipeline. I think the industry will shake up around having a really good source of audience intelligence. If we build the right product we shouldn’t have to consult it. People will be able to leverage in an obvious fashion for whatever use case they build.


Sean Stanleigh is managing editor of Globe Edge Content Studio. Follow him @seanstanleigh

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