Quiz marketing veteran Steve Sarner (VP of Ad Sales & Program Management @ Amazon’s Goodreads) shares his insights about why quizzes and ‘opt-in’ lead generation work so well together – especially in this era of increased privacy regulations, ‘banner blindness’, and ad blocking.
Episode 19 – Steve Sarner – Amazon / Goodreads
Welcome to the Quiz Makers, a podcast from Riddle.com. Join our weekly chat about all things, quizzes, marketing, and everything in between. We’ll speak with entrepreneurs and marketers to get their quiz secrets, plus share our story, the highs and the lows of scaling and successful startups since we launched way back in 2014.
Hi, there, welcome to this episode of the Quiz Makers. My name is Mike Hawkins. I’m one of the co founders of Riddle which is one of the major quiz makers on the market. And in this episode, I’m very proud to be chatting with Steve Sarner, VP of ad sales and program management. Is that right, Steve?
Pretty close, Mike.
I was stalking you on LinkedIn and that’s the current title I saw. So maybe I should have Steve introduce himself.
Right. Hi, everybody, Mike, thanks for having me on. I’m Steve Sarner, VP of sales and program management at Goodreads which is a subsidiary of Amazon – we are the world’s largest community of readers with 110 million members. Basically, we are the place to come to find and discover your next book, see what your friends are reading, and follow your favorite authors.
And it’s a great place to be during this time, where people are finding a lot of great content to to engage with. So it’s great to be on the Quiz Makers podcast.
Thank you. And I have to say, just in the interest of transparency, I am way too much a customer of Goodreads at Amazon. The number of times I get prompted, “Oh, hey, you’ve read this author” or “We think you might like”… then sure enough, I bought yet another book, especially now!
It is working.
Yeah, it is. So Steve, you and I worked together. And it feels like five years ago. But really, it was quite some time ago. I used to work with you at Tickle and then Monster.com.
Yeah, exactly. Those were fun times together, for sure. Mike. We did a lot. We invented a lot.
We did indeed. So the reason I wanted to have you on this podcast is that Tickle was one of the very first quiz online sites.
This is centuries in internet time, way back from 2001 to 2006 or so. And Tickle was one of the very first sites to do the “What type of dog are you?” and “What is your IQ” tests, things like that.
And after all, this is the Quiz Makers. So I wanted to catch up with you. What was your role in the use of quizzes for marketing?
Sure, exactly. Back let me go back a little bit before that – you may not know this, do you know where I was before I joined Tickle?
I do not.
I was at a company and a site that still exists today called Real Age, which was a health assessment site. So that was kind of my first introduction to quizzes.
I’d come out of the travel industry and joined the health interactive side as VP of marketing to help them grow their acquisition base. And you know, that was very much in line with the whole test quiz model.
In this case, it was actually health assessments, a number of them. And you know, I think one of the beautiful things about tests and quizzes is that you’re actually providing value for the person taking them. I’m a huge believer in advertising, ALL advertising, particularly digital advertising should be invited versus invasive – anywhere where we can add value to the user experience.
So when advertising feels like it’s part of the product, part of the experience, it’s just such a plus. And so Real Age, we were giving people some great, you know, health tips and advice, and then at Tickle, our IQ test and ‘What breed of dog were you?’… and we had hundreds of them.
But at Real Age, it was an actual assessment that figured out your current ‘health’ age. Depending on you know, your lifestyle and your choices, you could be a lot younger or a lot older than what your real age was.
So that was my first entry into the whole power of interactive content. And it’s interesting that was well before HIPAA and all kinds of medical privacy and stuff which now is becoming even a bigger issue and concern across all digital marketing. So we were an early pioneer in those areas.
Along those lines, you mentioned HIPAA. But now you’ve also got the EU GDPR, you’ve got California’s CCPA. Canada has one as well, right? This level of privacy regulation, where advertisers have to be increasingly transparent about the data collecting and then giving users the chance to opt out.
With that in mind, do you see quizzes and interactive content growing in importance as a different avenue marketers can use to reach their customers?
Oh, yeah, without a doubt, marketers are gonna have to rethink a lot of things that have been built over the past 20 years.
With cookies and retargeting and first party, second party, third party data. All of these things are being disrupted not only by government regulation, but by major changes such as Apple with iOS 14 (making users opt-in to have their device identifiers collected), there’s multitude of factors coming up that are changing the landscape of how things have been done, especially over the last 10 years.
And it’s going to be very disruptive to a lot of businesses.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the infographic that shows the all the different middlemen in between a consumer and an advertiser – from the ad agency to all the different layers of ad tech and data brokers, and so on and so forth? All of those things are potentially becoming completely irrelevant very, very soon.
So people are going to have to start doing things like quizzes and assessments and offering value – they’re going to be prepared for things that are going to be very different than what’s currently out there.
Now, you mentioned Apple, I mean, in one of our last episodes, we had Maor Sadra. And he heads up kind of an ad tech company called Incrmntal basically designed to bring transparency to all those ad brokers and things like that. But he talked about how there’s so much ad fraud. There’s so much just deviousness going on in the adtech space.
He feels that with quizzes and interactive marketing, where you attract someone’s attention, then give them the chance to opt in like “hey, do you want to get some more information?”, where the user chooses and then they get they get the results. He saw that was as a clear win for marketers.
Yes, absolutely. And, you know, being transparent, forthright and really disclosing what you’re doing with the information, and then all the privacy and security mechanisms that you need to have as well to protect that data.
At Amazon, we have our leadership principles – I’ve been there for nearly five years now. And I have really learned to appreciate and believe in them. Customer obsession is the number one, but earnest trust is one of the key things and and that trust is very, very precious.
So that’s similar to doing quizzes and tests, doing them right, and not doing anything devious and nefarious with that, but actually giving value.
And a good experience for someone is a fantastic mechanism to really engage your customers, learn more about them, and then allow you to be able to offer them more of what they’re looking for.
Yes, perfect. So many people who are listening to this podcast and a lot of the community at Riddle, they tend to be more of the small to medium businesses, like coaches, consultants, and a lot of health advocates asking their audience “Hey, you know, are you depressed?” or “Are you anxious?”. They’re using personality tests to drive people to that side of it.
So with that idea of transparency and trust, balanced with effectiveness, what advice would you try to give to a marketer saying, “Look, I’ve heard about these quizzes… that Steve Sarner guy sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. How should we get started?”
You know, one of the one of the best things to do is just learn a little bit about it. There’s certainly plenty of content I’m sure on your site (I believe you even have a book on Goodreads if I’m not mistaken) that gives somebody a really great foundation on on how on how to approach a quiz. And you know, there’s so many different levels of them too. I mean, they can just be fun and entertaining, which is great, or it can be really serious.
If you are an expert and you’re able to to give some solid advice, maybe its finance, its health, its mental health, its parenting. Just like there’s a book for every subject, there’s pretty much a quiz for every researcher too.
So if you are a small business and you have a niche where you’re expert in it, there’s no reason why you couldn’t develop something around your expertise.
And, the beauty of the internet and digital is, in the past, it used to be impossible to find the hundred thousand people around the world that might be a good customer for specifically looking for what you offer.
But now with digital, and with a well done quiz that goes viral and is searchable in search engines… now you can reach anybody just about anywhere with your content. And it’s a fabulous way to build your business for your customers.
Yes, it’s very interesting now that you have the long tail to target. Especially with the cost of production for marketing dropping.
For example, back at Tickle, we didn’t have the tools that let people create their own quizzes, people had to come to us. And then our team would make the quizzes.
Now these tools, and you can extend this concept to what’s happening with making your own website or running your own digital advertising, these tools are becoming so inexpensive that you can hit that little niche you mentioned – at a minimal cost – and still have a profitable business.
Right, exactly. And they’re looking for the information – they’re looking for you. So put out your expertise in a way that again offers prospects value, and they will come.
You know, you make a really great point. I mean, we were at Tickle going on 20 years ago, possibly.
Let’s not talk about that…
Yeah, exactly. You know, it was a completely different world. Now you can get a beautiful, custom-looking website up in a matter of hours. And you know, with tools like yours, you can have a really high quality quiz that used to take us weeks to write, develop, program, and design. It can be done in minutes with your product…
The record on our site is 47 seconds for a very short little quiz. A reporter was interviewing me and challenged me when I said you can make a quiz in under a minute. She said, “Wait, I don’t believe you.”
So I recorded myself with a clock. And she said, “Wow, fair enough!”
Yeah, the tools are amazing. And you know the technology allows you to do so much more, so much faster now. And so much more customized.
Well, it’s interesting, because of you coming from Goodreads… one of the the mantras of writing a book is that you should focus on what you know, right? Write about what you know.
And I feel for small to medium businesses, don’t go into a niche because you think that’s a good market opportunity – instead find that small community where there is going to be a community out there for you. You might not be the next Google. But there are going to be communities who want to know what you can know and can offer. So, in that regard books and quizzes are kind of similar.
They really are and again, it all comes down to people looking for knowledge or looking to improve something, learn about something, or simply be entertained. And books and quizzes both do that.
Fair enough. So we like to keep these podcasts very short and punchy. Unlike books where you can’t last for hours, we try to keep it on 10 minutes. So for our last question, this has nothing to do with quizzes, but I like to ask all of our guests this.
Okay, brace yourself. And this has nothing to do with marketing. Just what is your biggest pet peeve?
Well, I’m gonna give you a couple if that’s okay.
Wow, bring it on.
My immediate biggest pet peeve is I’m grounded. I can’t travel and go to visit people like yourself or clients – and see people in person. I mean, without a doubt, I’m looking forward for this world to get back a little bit of normalcy and be able to get back on the road again.
But I am actually going to take this pet peeve question back to marketing. And that is when this whole COVID pandemic started, watching all these large brands simply take like a cookie cutter approach to put somber piano music against emotional pictures and tell you that “We’re there for you” – yet offer no value really. I mean, I probably saw dozens of them. And I couldn’t tell you what the brand were. But they are almost all identical. So I just thought that was really just following the flock. And for those brands that didn’t go there, I salute you.
Yes, I mean, you could say the same thing about Black Lives Matter. You know, there’s the people and companies who say “We support Black Lives Matter.” But hold on, as a corporation, you look back to 20, 30 years and A) you have a bad track record. And B) what are you doing right now to support this? And so yes, that cookie cutter approach drives me crazy as well.
Right. All right. Mike – it’s been great catching up!
Indeed, thank you so much for your time, Steve. Like you. I can’t wait to be traveling again.
For our listeners. Steve travels probably about 80% of his time. So he’s always gallivanting around to interesting place. So this must be a new type of environment and experience.
Of both of us you, you’ve worked around the world literally. So you’ve got me beat by a long shot!
Hopefully we can meet up in San Francisco over a beer soon.
Sounds great. Better yet. I’ll meet you in the UK. Perfect. We’ll see Boris in Germany.
We’ll have a proper pint. All right, thanks so much, Steve.
Cheers. Thanks, Mike.
Thanks again for listening to this episode of the Quiz Makers. And don’t forget, check out Riddle.com – we’re the quiz maker used by the BBC, Shopify and thousands of other companies worldwide. Our quizzes are fully accessible and they’re GDPR-compliant.
Try our free full featured trial for 14 days – no pesky credit card required. And until next time, happy Riddling!