Episode 6: Amanda Orson on competing against big companies and leveraging PR

I met with Amanda Orson, VP of Growth at Zift, about how she approaches marketing Zift's cross-platform parental control apps. She shared how she plans to win over parents through PR and education, and take on giants like Apple by providing a better product.

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Jon Henshaw: Welcome to the 6th episode of the Coywolf Digital Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Jon Henshaw. In this episode I’m sharing an excerpt from my interview with Amanda Orson. Amanda is the VP of growth at Zift. Zift provides enhanced cross-platform parental controls for iOS and Android.

The conversation picks up at a place where I was telling her how in my neighborhood and in my community, a lot of the parents had been talking about sort of a feeling of helplessness around being able to manage their kids device usage. So she talks about the strategies and approaches that she takes, particularly in a market where she’s also competing with companies like Apple.

So how are you getting the word out for this? And the reason why I’m asking is because even in my own community, it’s been coming up a lot lately. I don’t know why it’s only coming up in late 2018, but it has been coming up a lot as far as all the things your teens, and kids, younger stuff can do and you don’t know about it, and you really need to be using parental controls and that type of thing. Which is shocking to me, that there are so many parents that don’t know about even the built in tools, which I have established suck. Let alone, what’s even out there in general. How do you …

If the big companies with the features that they’ve checked off their list, are providing certain things now, can’t even inform parents very well of this, how are you reaching them?

Amanda Orson: That’s a great question, and it’s a problem that we’re continuing to solve. In the interest of full disclosure, right now we’re working on trying to make the product as good as it can possibly be. Because I firmly believe, as a product marketer, right, my role has shifted over time, where I was an agency marketer, marketing for a lot of companies. And now I’m very product-centric on one product. The most valuable asset I have in my marketing toolkit is a product that other people wanna tell their friends about.

Because I know that that’s how it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be you’re hanging out at a soccer field and talking about this problem with another dad whose kid is on the field. And you’ll say, “Oh, I actually have a solution for that.” And then you offer the name. So fundamentally, 51% of all the marketing of this product, and probably more than that, is going to come down to product.

It’s an interesting problem set, I’m a nerd, if you couldn’t tell. It’s an interesting problem set from a marketing perspective, because I’m watching in real time the changing of the way that we talk about this. So if you look and do some keyword research in the category, you’ll see that the search volume for things like parental controls really peaked several years ago. And it’s not a term that parents know.

So my partner, Dr. Julie Gurner, is a psychologist. And she described what psychologists look for when they are evaluating someone who’s doing a Rorschach test. And it happens to be a really good analogy for this. The whole category is sort of focused on the ink blot in the middle. Julie will tell you that when psychologists are evaluating a Rorschach test, what they’re looking for is how the person reading it back may be incorporating the white space around it. In the same way right now I think we are so focused as a competitive set on people looking for parental controls, we’re missing the bigger picture, which is that most parents feel helpless and they don’t have tools, and they’ve given up. So I would say our number one marketing challenge is probably overcoming parental helplessness, not necessarily overcoming our competitive category.

JH: I love this. I love what you just said, because I think that in general, digital marketers look at something where they say, “You know what this is a category, and I need to market towards the category. I need to match up these specific terms and that’s what I’m focusing on.” Instead, you’re coming at it from where are they, and what are the problems they have, and what’s the language that they use? As opposed to there’s this thing called parental controls, it’s probably very competitive as far as who might be searching it. But that’s not where parents are, and that’s not necessarily even what they’re thinking of. In fact, they may not even know to even search for that necessarily.

AO: Exactly.

JH: Yeah, so instead what you’re doing is you’re looking at the, like you were saying, psychology, of where people are, and what are the problems that they’re facing right now? And how can I address that? How can I meet them over here, as opposed to this thing called parental controls that we hope they search for. Does that sound accurate?

AO: That’s exactly it. We know that parental controls as a category is not … It just sounds medicinal, right? You’re not gonna be talking to another mom or dad, like you’re not gonna talk to one of your friends about parental controls. You’re probably gonna be complaining about the problem, in the same way 12 years ago when I was doing local lead generation for small businesses, I knew that people that needed a plumber were much less likely to talk about plumbing in their search. What they’re probably talking about is how to fix leaky toilet now. You have to actually go to where the problem is, not the category. It’s too non-specific, it’s too narrow.

And kinds of parents that are searching that are already brand aware, they’re already aware of the problem and they’re already aware of the solution. I’m trying to get after the white space. The vast majority of parents who just feel like this is a problem that can’t be solved, and it’s just not true.

JH: You mentioned that for this to be truly successful, and this statement I completely agree with, that for you, it’ll be the parent that’s sitting at the game at half time who’s chatting with the other parent and then they mention that because it’s something that has helped them and now it helps the other. So it’s kind of a word of mouth, and loyalty, and that type of thing.

But can you give me an example without giving too much away, I guess, as far as your tactics and stuff, of how you would get into that white space? How you would get into that conversation to even get somebody to know about it and tell other people about it? What’s something that is working for you or you’re planning to do?

AO: Right now PR. I would love to be able to say, because I have a digital marketing background, that digital marketing is the be all end all, but we know that every single customer that we pay to acquire is less valuable than the last one. And they’re more expensive to acquire in the first place. So I’m actually not relying a lot on paid advertising yet. What we’re trying to do is to really work PR.

JH: So with PR, is that trying to find a compelling story? Or just making sure that any time you add a new feature that’s very unique to what you’re offering, that you do some type of release? What do you mean by PR? ‘Cause that could mean different things.

AO: It’s actually injecting ourselves in the conversation whenever this comes up, which as you said, has come up quite a lot. Screen time in general is a topic of increasing focus, it’s certainly a topic of increasing media interests. And we are definitely responsive to articles we’ve seen. We make ourselves available as often as we possibly can. And at a high level, we do have a PR team that has helped us actually join the conversation on much larger … Not technical programming, which has helped, like Good Morning America.

JH: Okay. So what you’re doing is you’re making sure that you’re part of the conversation. That’s essentially it. Okay.

AO: Yeah. And not just from the … So to go back I think to another marketing truism that I know I’ve seen Rae post, and I think I’ve seen you talk about in the past, you want to educate. You want to be there to help provide a solution and to make people aware of the various aspects of the problem. And not necessarily to come in with the hard sell. And that’s really what we’re doing. We’re trying to provide a lot of educational resources, we’ve certainly put a lot into content marketing. If you look at WeZift.com, we have a large blog. But we’ve also got something called the parent portal, where you can actually go in and look up apps that your child might have on their phone or that your child might be talking about, and have a perspective from a parent’s perspective on what that app actually does. Or what the concerns might actually be.

So really we’re trying to be a hub and educational resource first and foremost, so that we can try and tackle the problem of parental helplessness. Because there is stuff that you can do, there are ways to get yourself educated. You can certainly figure out what emojis actually mean, if you do the research. But yeah. Really it comes down to trying to be a help to the parents, trying to equip them with the tools, and we hope that they love our product. But that’s, right now form a marketing perspective, that’s not what I care about. What I care about is educating.

JH: Yeah, and you’re right, you’re talking about Rae Hoffman, or Dolan that is now. And the education is something that I know she’s done a lot of and I really believe in. ‘Cause it’s so effective. I actually love to do it, but I also think it’s super effective. And I’ve often kind of referred to it as sort of altruistic marketing. Where you’re looking at the problems of your target audience and you want to write something, you wanna create resources that are really just going to help them. They’re gonna help solve a problem. And it could be that it’s just an association of the brand with that, so that it helps build sort of a brand affinity. And other times it’s more of, “And now you need this.” Now that I’ve taught you about this, by the way, the next step is using a service or something like ours.

AO: Yes. Absolutely. That comes in. Categorically this is something that parents don’t need to feel helpless about. This is something that you can actually do something about. And this is something that you can educate yourself about. And we’ve tried to assemble a bunch of resources there in one place, for parents. And we’re trying to get the word out above and beyond our small platforms right now.

JH: I think that’s great. So the last thing, which you may have just answered sort of the last question I was gonna ask, or maybe there’s something else, some other idea that you might have. But what advice do you have for anyone that’s listening that is about to or has just started a new business, and they’re competing against an established or bigger company? How can they make a name for themselves with say, even a smaller budget?

AO: I would say focus first on the business, in the same way that I’m focused most on product at the moment. You want to focus. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Really be known and be good for one thing, and then build your brand around whatever that one thing is. So for example, if you want to start a business on online reputation management, to go out against a lot of the other brands that do stuff like ORM, which I think is still pretty niche, relative to marketing. But there are firms that do ORM. Maybe you’re just the guy that polices reviews. And I know one of those guys right now.

When you focus on just that one thing, you give yourself the opportunity to be seen as the obvious expert in that small category and then eventually you can add and build out from there.

JH: You can listen to my full interview with Amanda at coywolf.io/orson. O-R-S-O-N. Thanks for listening.

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Jon Henshaw

Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @[email protected]