Interview with Brian Prince of Best of the Web (BOTW)

I normally start out my interviews with a nice little professional sounding intro. Not this time – partially because I hate doing it, and partially because the BOTW boys (pronounced bot-wah boys for those who have never had to say it outloud) are too cool and laid back to need it.

If you’ve been to any internet marketing show (or even glanced through pictures from them) you’d think BOTW had 100 employees working each event, because their swag is on everyone’s backs. So how do the acknowledged kings of guerrilla marketing in the search engine marketing world work their magic? That’s what I got CEO Brian Prince to answer some questions about.

[Note: I had no idea Brian would be so candid, lengthy or downright funny as hell during this interview. This is seriously a great read and if you never read anything else at my blog, make this the post. Secondly, I already offered him free alcohol, but he must have been aiming for champange with some of his responses. ;-) I laughed after so many of his comments that I could have interrupted the entire interview with my banter, but lucky for you guys, I chose to make this note instead.]

Q&A with Brian Prince of BOTW

RAE: Thanks for doing this interview for me – I promise to take you out and get you liquored to say thanks in Vegas. ;-)

BP: Wow, that’s quite an introduction – I hope I can live up to the hype. Guerrilla marketing is responsible for a lot of our success to date, so this is a topic that I am passionate about and enjoy discussing. So thanks for having me. And yes, getting liquored in Vegas – yeah that sounds like a good idea…

RAE: First, for someone who’s been under a rock since 1994, why don’t you give everyone a little bit of background on Best of the Web?

BP: Sure thing – I’ll give you the BOTW elevator pitch. Best of the Web (BOTW) was founded by graduate student Brandon Plewe at the University of Buffalo in early 1994. The original concept was to have the nascent internet community collaborate and vote upon the web’s best sites – thus making BOTW the first “Web 2.0” company before there was even a Web 1.0. Best of the Web recognized and awarded many of the early industry pioneers, even attending the first W3C Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to present the first ‘Best of the WWW’ awards to the lucky recipients including such industry notables as Marc Andreessen, Eric Bina, Kevin Hughes, and Lou Montulli.

Best of the Web categorized and recorded the annual ‘web award’ winners from 1994 through 1998; and BOTW was even referenced in the original Google paper on The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine as a pioneer in recognizing the best web navigation services available online. Alas by 1999, as the rise of algorithmic search engine took hold, the allure of the “web awards” model as voted upon by the community faded into the sunset. At least until web 2.0 got it’s groove on, ya Digg?

My business partner, Greg Hartnett, happened across the botw.org site one day and we immediately saw an opportunity to take this site that had pioneered the original web award directory model and expand it into an authoritative human-edited directory of the web’s best sites. We transformed the original Best of the Web directory from a few dozen top level categories into a comprehensive general directory that currently includes more than 70,000 categories and growing, but still remains intently focused on recognizing quality, content-rich web sites across all reaches of the web.

RAE: How long have you been doing tradeshows and conferences to promote yourselves?

BP: It amazes me when I think about it, because it really hasn’t been very long at all. Greg & I have been heavily involved with internet marketing since the beginning, but we maintained a low profile and flew under the radar for a long time. We sent the Director of our reseller program, Jared Del Prete, out to the November 2004 PubCon in Las Vegas, but it wasn’t until June of 2005 that Greg & I decided to attend PubCon in New Orleans.

That was our first industry show as attendees, and the energy, the people, the knowledge share, and the parties from the conference all combined to blow us away. I came home from New Orleans and couldn’t talk for two days – no joke. My wife might say that is a good thing, but I say it’s Nawlins – that town sure can party.

We then signed-up as attendees for the SES San Jose 2005 show, and by the end of the conference we were also “Trade Show Exhibitors” thanks to our good friends at Go Guides who were kind enough to share their conference booth with us – which was very cool of them. This act of goodwill actually afforded us the opportunity to test the power of BOTW swag in a large scale environment without the upfront capital cost of a full-scale exhibitor – viva la guerrilla marketing! The feedback during the show was fantastic and we were officially hooked on the conference tour and haven’t looked back since.

Now we’re at a trade show of some sort every 6-8 weeks but we love it. The conferences drive business and keep us tapped into this very dynamic and opportunistic industry that we compete in. The fresh ideas, industry advances, and networking contacts that I take home from every show are priceless. My only regret is that we waited about 10 years before we decided to come out of our shell and engage – I’m sure we missed a bunch of fun parties.

RAE: Everyone brings swag to the events, but no one seems to get anywhere near as many people as you guys do to sport it. Why do you think you have had such success with it?

BP: That Rae, is the BOTW secret sauce in action. I could tell you, but I’d have to off you afterwards ;-)

The short answer is a bit of strategy, some good fortune and some incredible friends. The long answer is rooted in comfort – the BOTW shirts were originally designed by us, for us. We’re a pretty loose crew (go figure) and we thought that as long as we dress in t-shirts at the office daily, we might as well dress in Best of the Web t-shirts and promote our brand. Mix in the wide-spread distribution opportunities that the conference trade shows give you, and boom – you get inertia.

The key for us was the day we sat down to strategize the t-shirt marketing effort and realized the unthinkable – One size does NOT fit all; AND, Women are people too! It’s been my experience that most trade show attendees come home with a bunch of x-large, short sleeve vanilla-style t-shirts that are printed en masse and distributed the same way. We realized that perhaps if we gave different sizes and different styles for men versus women, that we might get lucky and actually get people to wear the t-shirts out and about. That was the holy grail for us – not to just give the shirts away, but to actually get people wearing them and thus reinforcing our brand. Now when we attend a trade-show we give away a full line of BOTW shirts in various styles, colors, and size options – it’s our version of personalized one-to-one marketing. So far it’s been working out well for us, with thanks going out to some industry VIE’s (Very Important Evangelists) like Sugarrae, Jim Boykin, Daron Babin, Roger Montti and other industry notables who have supported our growth and helped to strengthen our message.

People seem to like the gothic look of the shirts, and I think the term ‘Best of the Web’ is easily recognizable and transferable to others, and so embraced. So when people see Sugarrae wearing a Best of the Web tank top, they get it – Rae is very successful and involved with the internet – she must be “Best of the Web.” Hence, instant rapport and understanding through a common ground. If only our world leaders were all sporting BOTW shirts, perhaps we could all get along……

RAE: Did you plan to go the guerrilla marketing route at tradeshows or was it something that just happened?

BP: Guerrilla marketing is in our blood. We got our start in the industry by raising a small amount of “friends and family” capital and then living frugally while reinvesting every cent back into the business for years. Guerrilla marketing was, for us, the only option available to market and compete with the industry titans. So that’s where we’ve earned our stripes and today that is our core competency.

We had high hopes of starting something a little viral at the trade shows, but the overall reception within the search industry has been overwhelming. We never expected to be embraced by our peers as much as we have been and we’re very grateful for that. There are some amazing people working in this business – it’s fantastic.

RAE: Do you plan out your efforts now in regards to guerilla marketing at both the tradeshows and in the online community? Is there an ideal timeframe to pull off your campaigns?

BP: I am very privileged to be surrounded by a team of exceptionally smart and creative people at BOTW. We do a lot of outside-the-box thinking about new promotions, new products, and new marketing initiatives, and we try to create a framework for success to happen if the ideas are executed properly. I don’t think there is an ideal time-frame for a particular campaign; each is launched with a certain strategy and objective in mind. For example, one of our goals last summer was to increase awareness and adoption of our category sponsorship program – so we launched a 60 Day Free Trial and now our monthly sign-ups are twenty-fold what they were before the promotion. So we keep at it, try new things, and measure success one initiative at a time.

RAE: What is the craziest thing you’ve done in regards to marketing your site? Was it a success and which member of your team are you going to give credit for the idea?

BP: This is an easy one. We’re pretty socially conscious, so we decided to mix our guerilla marketing efforts with our philanthropic nature, and have begun a program of distributing our long sleeve BOTW t-shirts to our less fortunate brethren whenever and wherever we can. I’ve done my part here and there, but my partner Greg has taken the torch and run with it, handing out Best of the Web shirts to the homeless in and around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s a noble effort and we believe it to be unique within the industry. Needless to say, the shirts are even better received by the homeless than the trade show crowd.

So next time you’re in San Francisco strolling down Haight Street looking for a good time, don’t be surprised to see a circle of BOTW friends helping to spread the good word about Best of the Web.

RAE: You guys are well liked by everyone I know in the internet marketing community – do you think trust has had anything to do with your success?

BP: That’s a very nice compliment that we take to heart – thank you. I think we try to be genuine, and people feel that from us. To quote an old proverb, we try to “say what we mean and mean what we say.” At our essence we’re a handful of internet geeks who like to snowboard and live the “work hard, play hard” mantra to the core. As a result, it makes me happy to think that we’ve built a certain amount of trust or respect within the industry, if for nothing else than just being honest and direct.

RAE: You run promotions on your blog a lot – have you found them to be successful towards your end goal?

BP: Yes – part of our marketing strategy is to keep people interested and engaged with our products. We sell a nuts and bolts type of service – a Best of the Web directory listing review. It’s a fundamental part of any internet marketing strategy, but admittedly, it’s not very sexy. So we try to engage both current and new customers alike by offering frequent specials, discounts, contests, or giveaways.

This month, as you mentioned, we’re running the Plasma HDTV and Massage Chair giveaway. We try to run contests for items that are of general interest, highly coveted, and generally elicit some-type of a “wow” reaction. We always like to give away items that we would want to win ourselves – who doesn’t need a new 42” Plasma HDTV and massage recliner in the den?

We’ve found incentive-based marketing to be very powerful if managed effectively. Marketing to an existing base of loyal customers can be one of the most productive marketing efforts a business can target. The users are already familiar with the company and the product, so the goal is to simply stimulate and drive demand – and incentive marketing works very well towards that end.

RAE: How important do you feel branding is within our industry and how much do you think it has contributed to your success?

BP: Branding is huge – it took me a while to grasp that concept, but even in an anonymous business environment like ours, the power of the brand is unrivaled. We actually compete in both the “branded” and “unbranded” marketplace so I have experience with each. Greg and I started online in the highly competitive online travel industry, building a network of travel and hotel reservation web sites. Most of our sites are “white-label” sites targeting the higher traffic, keyword-driven, organic search results. Every day we wake up and try to generate new sales from scratch. It’s a tough business, with very little customer loyalty, dominated by industry giants. It’s a lucrative business, but a grind nonetheless.

In contrast to that, we have been hard at work building the Best of the Web brand via trade shows, interviews, conference speaking, t-shirts, reseller program, press releases, etc, and cumulatively this has afforded us the opportunity to build an eco-system of industry evangelists and distribution partners that furthers our reach and solidifies our brand. It has also offered us the opportunity to launch additional products and services like the BOTW Blog Directory and the BOTW Enterprise Software Directory. Each offering extends the BOTW brand and allows us to present users with a consistent quality experience in new mediums.

We believe so strongly in branding, and particularly the Best of the Web brand, that we just went out and spent an ungodly sum of money to acquire the Bestoftheweb.com domain name and remove any confusion in the marketplace. Now we have a new platform available to develop an innovative and integrated Best of the Web portal weaving our various products and services together in one centralized destination. So keep your eyes peeled – it should be an exciting 2007 for the Best of the Web team.

RAE: What are some of your favorite books, websites or blogs on the topic of marketing?

BP: Books: “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Maugorgne, “Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing The Way Businesses Talk with Customers” by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, “See you at the Top!” by Zig Ziglar, “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, “Guerrilla Selling” by Jay Conrad Levinson, Bill Gallagher, Orvel Ray Wilson , “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and “Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith.

Marketing Sites: Marketing Profs, Trend Watching, Pew Internet, ClickZ, Inc.com and Cmoresource.com.

Marketing and Technology Blogs: Marketing Pilgrim, Seth Godin, Battelle’s Blog, Top Rank Blog, Micro Persuasion and Scobleizer.

Additionally I subscribe to many of the top industry technology and SEM blogs like yours – too many to list.

RAE: What do you think you’ve done to set yourself apart from other directories out there? What do you think website owners can do in general to set their own sites apart from the pack?

BP: We were fortunate to already have a successful travel business in place when we started Best of the Web, and this gave us a tremendous competitive advantage during our start-up mode. Contrary to popular belief, the directory model is not a “get rich quick scheme” and it is a long, hard, and tedious road to successfully build, operate, and grow a comprehensive general directory from scratch, let alone try to turn a profit while doing so.

So as a result, we never felt the need to push the commercial model and instead spent the better part of three years assembling a team of paid editors to build the directory out using a set of quality criteria guidelines to create a deep and useful informational resource. We were able to focus on building an authoritative database of quality web sites and let the revenue model solidify after we had a top-notch product to offer.

We’re very proud of the fact that everything on Best of the Web was custom created, in-house, and from scratch. We employ excellent programmers and editors, and it shows. The BOTW software, and our blog and web directories were all created by hand; from the initial top-level nomenclature and taxonomy down to the individual listings and additional search features available within each category. The BOTW reseller program was created in house, as was our category sponsorship program, thus providing us with a proprietary database of the internet’s top marketers. We don’t run any third party advertising on the site, and we think that makes us unique and somewhat exclusive.

My advice to site owners looking to separate themselves from the pack would be to analyze your marketplace and seek out small, but sustainable strategic advantages. Look for the low-hanging fruit that offers efficiencies or speed to market opportunities. Adding a synergistic or ancillary product or service into an already existing traffic stream is a great way to increase revenues, as well as to diversify and grow your business. That is the beauty of this industry for entrepreneurial people – low barriers to entry and unlimited long-term potential across a global marketplace. Awwwww yeah.

RAE: What’s coming up for you guys? What can we expect to see from you in the next six months?

BP: Well, we just announced the hiring of your co-mod on the Link building forum over at Webmasterworld – the revered and renowned Roger Montti of martinibuster fame is now a BOTW Guy, so look for big things ahead for us. Roger is going to head up our BOTW Verticals initiative focusing on B2B lead generation, and we’re very excited to have one of the premier minds in the search industry join our management team.

Additionally, during the next few weeks we will be exhibiting at the Ad:Tech New York and Webmasterworld Las Vegas conferences, where both Roger and Greg are scheduled to be conference panel speakers (as well as the legendary sugarrae I believe?) So if you’re attending one of the trade shows, please be sure stop by our booth and say hello – I’ll do what I can to send you home in some sweet new BOTW swag.

I would hope to have some progress on the new Bestofhteweb.com portal during the next six-months as well, and if history is any sort of indicator, I would imagine that we’ll pull another rabbit or two out of our hats as well.

After that, things get a little murkier as I start to see some significant *snowboarding* in my future as the winter months wear on……and that’s what it’s all about……

RAE: I know from personal conversations that you keep a lot of the pictures people send into you of them wearing your swag – it’s even been rumored there will be an eventual “Hall of Fame” for them. What are some of your favorite pictures and why?

BP: Yes, the often spoken of but never before seen “BOTW Hall of Fame” is a work in progress. My tech team almost had it live after the SES San Jose show, but then we ran into a technical glitch and I believe the project was shelved a bit on the priority list. But fear not – we will get it live for all the world to see, and in the meantime, I have attached a few of my favorite shots for your readers enjoyment:



The Best of the Web softball team coached and managed by Text Link Ads founder Patrick Gavin


Best of the Web’s Greg Hartnett and his long lost twin brother Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy


Robert Scoble, the self-described “Tech Geek Blogger” and author of “Naked Conversations” sports his BOTW pride with his son at an industry trade show


The one and only Sugarrae shows some prime-time BOTW attitude


Kat Ortland, formerly of SEOmoz fame, shows her stuff with BOTW’s Greg and Brian at the 2006 Google Dance in San Jose

This picture is NSFW, I repeat, not safe for work!
An unnamed BOTW Evangelist claims that whenever he puts his BOTW shirt on, women nearby take their shirts OFF!

[Note: Brian wasn’t sure if I’d want to publish this one or not, but, I think we all know my attitude in general is “bite me” – but I did at least make it a link for those of you at the office.]

RAE: Thanks for sitting down with me and doing this. I’m sorry I couldn’t fly up to wine and dine you like some of the bigger news companies have (sorry ladies, he’s a happily married family man) but I’ll be happy to sport a shirt as always at the next event – even if you don’t have me blogrolled. ;-)

BP: My pleasure – I enjoy talking shop and as you can see from the length of this interview, I am not short on words. I appreciate the opportunity to pontificate on BOTW and the search industry at large, and I thank you for the time, forum, and thought-provoking questions. I personally enjoy reading your blog daily and I hope we don’t bore your readers too much with this interview. See you in Vegas!

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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