POV: Interview with Tim Metzner, VP of Marketing at SparkPeople

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



tim-metznerWelcome to The Agency Post. Tell us a little about yourself.

Name is Tim Metzner, and I’m currently the vice president of marketing at SparkPeople. I was born, raised, and still reside in Cincinnati, Ohio, with my wife, Kristy and son, Nolan.

I joined SparkPeople in 2001, just after the company was formed and have helped grow it from a startup to the largest weight-loss and fitness website in America. As VP of marketing, much of my focus is on developing and executing strategies for user acquisition (we have over 13 million lifetime registrations), user engagement (including helping with product development/innovation), and social media efforts (we have the most active/engaged Facebook page in our industry).

In addition to my work at SparkPeople, I’m very active in the startup community in Cincinnati. I’m currently advising several startups, and I’m one of the organizers for Startup Weekend Cincinnati (next event coming up: July 27 to 29!).

I’m a graduate of the Carl H. Lindner Honors-PLUS Business Program at the University of Cincinnati.

Do you think there is a certain personality type that flocks to startups? What attracted you to get involved in SparkPeople when it was just starting out?

Without a doubt. In my experience, early startup employees are hard-working, very loyal and have ambitious goals of not only being a part of a great organization, but playing a key role in creating a great organization. They tend to be less risk-averse than the average person and inherently entrepreneurial.

When I joined SparkPeople (other than our founder, only one person has been here longer), I was attracted to the opportunity to help create a mission-based organization and to work with Chris Downie, a proven entrepreneur who had successfully exited his first startup (Up4Sale was acquired by eBay) and was clearly passionate about his next venture.

Is there a secret to turning a small company into a huge success like what you’ve done with SparkPeople.com? What do you think made SparkPeople.com successful compared to the many other health and fitness sites started each year?

I don’t think there are any real secrets. A lot of different forces and factors play a role in successful companies. For us, I believe the main drivers of our success so far are: 1. a great team, 2. a great product (and a philosophy of continuous improvement, driven by listening to our members), 3. a great brand that people are excited to be a part of and to share (word of mouth is still one of our biggest sources of new members), and 4. maintaining a startup culture and staying nimble enough that we can react to emerging trends before most others.

In terms of product, I believe our rare combination of great tools, content and an active community that remains positive and aspirational, has been a very successful model. There are several competitors who have been successful at one or two of these, but it’s really hard to be great at all three.

SparkPeople maintains several media properties, including BabyFit.com and SparkTeens.com. What types of strategies do you employ to connect with and keep each audience engaged?

SparkPeople.com is really our core property and most active community. Much our efforts on our other properties are driven by our ability to drive people to SparkPeople.com and then funnel users to the most relevant resources based on their goals.

Many industry leaders are debating the ROI of social media, even coming up with terms such as “return on engagement” and “return on attention.” How do you measure the effectiveness and revenue from social media investments?

We honestly don’t worry too much about trying to measure the actual ROI of social media. The reason we started getting active on social media was because we believed it was a great opportunity to continue to build and strengthen our relationships with our members, and to stay in front of them in a place where they were clearly already spending time. We have certainly seen some measurable results of having an active social media following (like continuous growth in visits to our properties from social media), but we also know there are other benefits, like boosting our SEO efforts, that we can’t directly measure.

On your blog you talk about social media autoposting sites like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck. Do you think autoposting creates clutter on the web or makes it difficult for brands to engage in meaningful conversations online?

I don’t have too much experience with social media tools (we don’t use them much), but generally have no problems with most of them as long as they are used properly. I will note that for posting on Facebook, specifically, I prefer to forgo using outside tools — mainly because I think it’s possible they could negatively affect EdgeRank. (And with things like Facebook’s own scheduled post tool, I think they are making it easier to get away from using these outside tools.)

Niche web communities like SparkPeople.com are capitalizing on finding an engaged, while sometimes smaller, core audience. What do you think about the effectiveness of mass marketing campaigns? How do you think big brands need to change in order to stay relevant in an era of targeted communications?

I think it’s difficult to speak in generalities about the effectiveness of these. It largely depends on the brand and their goals. I will say that one of the things that makes SparkPeople such a great option for our advertisers is that we have a very loyal and engaged audience, and we’ve proven these benefits can be extended to other brands when integrated within the SparkPeople experience in an authentic way.

How have you leveraged other tactics apart from social media to build SparkPeople (i.e. PPC, event sponsorships)? Based on your experience, what tactical recommendations would you give to a marketer seeking to build a community of similar scale?

In addition to social media (remember, that wasn’t even around when we started!), the main things that have helped us grow are: word of mouth (again, comes from a great product and brand), SEO, PR (we have a great PR engine because of the thousands of great success stories we have to share), PPC and mobile (extending our presence to apps).

What are some of your email marketing pet peeves?

  • Not asking permission to email me and/or making it crazy hard to unsubscribe
  • Not providing value (only making the “ask”)

Name some considerations specific to health and fitness marketing you must consider with any strategic campaign.

Positioning is always a unique and interesting challenge. For example, even though we know that what makes our members successful is learning to transition away from a “diet” and learning to live a healthy lifestyle, we have found that we still have to use “diet” positioning very heavily in our marketing efforts because that is what people believe they want/need.

Favorite Ad of All Time: Nike, Just Do It

One reason that you love what you do: I’ll give you two: 1. We’ve helped millions of people reach their goals (over 20 million pounds lost) and 2. Though we’ve now been doing this for over a decade, we still have a great startup culture, and I’m continually challenged.

Mentor: Real-world: Several co-workers (we have a great team) and also several folks in the startup community in town. Virtual: Mark Suster (bothsidesofthetable.com)—Don’t have a personal relationship, but have learned so much from following his blog over the years.

Must read book: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Spark,” by Chris Downie (this really is a great book for anyone with goals, not just weight-loss), but I’ll also mention:

“Good to Great” by Jim Collins

“Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh

Music that gets you in your zone: Totally depends on the day! I’m all over the board here, from classical all the way to some old-school hip hop/rap (and everything in between).

Connect with Tim on LinkedIn, on Twitter @TMetzner or view his About.me page.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user joshuaseye.

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