Expert Interview with Mike Stelzner from Social Media Examiner on Social Media for Growing Companies

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About Mike Stelzner

CEO of Social Media Examiner

Michael Stelzner is the founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner, author of the books Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition and Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged, the popular Social Media Marketing Industry Report, and the man behind large summits, such as the Social Media Success Summit.

On Twitter: @Mike_Stelzner      On LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/stelzner


Okay, you’re clearly not just a social media evangelist – you’re a living case study. How did Social Media Examiner become one of the world’s top blogs in so little time?

I’ll give you some of the most recent statistics: more recently – they change every day, but – we’re one of the top six marketing blogs in Ad Age, one of the top two small business blogs according to Technorati, and one of the top six business blogs according to Technorati. And according to Alexa we’re one of the top 1000 websites in America, and the top 2000 websites in all the world, of all websites. We also have 130,000 people that are on our email subscription list, 450,000 people a month that visits Social Media Examiner, and 72,000 Facebook fans

So, to the question of how did we do it? The model that we used was really all about creating super-valuable content that we knew people would want to share via social channels. If I can step back for a second, back in the olden days when you started something you were reliant on the traditional press and publications in order to grow. And what that meant is you had to have contacts with print publications, you had to have PR people essentially that would help you get some exposure in channels that already existed. When we started Social Media Examiner in October 2009, we knew that the world was changing because of social media and we knew that the collaborative power of many individuals sharing our content on Twitter and Facebook would be significantly more powerful than any traditional press we could have expected. The magic formula was to deliver the type of content that our audience would be willing to share, and that formula still remains true today. If you and your company can create really outstanding content that people want to share on Google+, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, Twitter, StumbleUpon, the end result will be that each of these individuals that shares something becomes a walking salesperson for your content, driving more people back to your site. That’s Step 1.

Step 2 is to figure out a way to keep a percentage of those people coming back for more. And the other part of our model was that we had a strong incentive, to get people to sign up for more of our content via email.

So there’s two facets here. Facet #1 is to make your content highly shareable, and facet #2 is to encourage people to get more of your content via email. And if you follow the model here, once people have signed up you’ve earned the opportunity to promote your own products in mediums like your email. But even if these people never buy from you, they will receive your content every day and they’ll share it, and the more people that share your content the more subscribers you get, and the whole thing kind of grows. And the end result is you now have a massive publication upon which you can do anything you want. And that’s exactly what we do, we started Social Media Examiner and it exploded almost immediately.

And did you think about what competitors were doing, like Mashable or Techcrunch in terms of their content? And did that help determine your content strategy?

Absolutely. So here’s the thing. I noticed that some of the biggest blogs in the world first of all had multiple authors, and I knew that from the beginning we needed lots of authors. So Social Media Examiner started out with a team of five or ten contributing writers, and eventually grew to over 100. These people are key to our growth because, just like a real magazine that has many different voices that are contributing editorial content, with Social Media Examiner we’ve got all these different professionals that are really pros in their industry that are coming and writing all this incredible content.

I looked at the Mashables and the Techcrunches and I recognised that they had lots of authors but what they were lacking was expert authors. Most of the people writing for Mashable and Techcrunch were young kids fresh out of college that had journalism backgrounds but they weren’t really professionals. With Social Media Examiner we decided to go direct to the people that were experts and that allowed our editorial quality to go up significantly.

The other critical thing that we decided that others were doing that we chose not to do which is to chase the news. Mashable and Techcrunch, part of the reason they were successful and still are successful is they publish 15 to 30 articles every single day, but they’re chasing the news, so they’re waiting for the next update from Facebook or a new statistic and they’re rushing for anything that’s news so they’ve become like the newspaper. The problem with that model is their content becomes outdated 24 hours later. I wanted to become a magazine and have our content be more evergreen so that it would be just as valid 90 days later as it was the day we published it. We made a very intentional purpose not to chase the news, but instead to publish detailed “how to” articles which is what you’re not going to find on Mashable and Techcrunch. You might find a few of them but it’s not the core of their content marketing strategy.

You talk a lot about working with experts in your awesome book Launch, how did you manage to get them involved with SocialMediaExaminer from the start?

Step number one was we took a camera crew to a major international trade show and we did on-camera interviews with blogging experts like Chris Brogan and Richard Jalichandra who was the CEO of Technorati, we did a ton of these interviews and we did them on camera. When they saw the video interviews we did for them, they loved it because it was free exposure for them. A lot of these people had new books out or wanted people to know about them as experts. This strategy allowed us to very rapidly become credible in the eyes of experts who had previously not known who we were. This is a strategy I think any business can employ and is still one we employ today. We do 20 to 40 interviews a year with experts. As a matter of fact, today we just published more. And we typically go to trade shows and we just bang out a whole bunch of interviews at a trade show. This is a key to beginning a relationship with experts in your market.

Getting back to what you said earlier, it’s about understanding what these experts want, and you know many of them want exposure. Now that’s just the on-camera stuff. Once you do an on-camera interview with these people some of them will come back and say, “I love what you’re doing and I’d like to write for you.” And that does open up the opportunity to get some of them to write for us. On the other side of the equation, because we were able to show, early on, the number of subscribers that we had and high re-tweet numbers, it sent kind of a message to the community that we had a big audience and that attracted a lot of people to us. As a matter of fact, we get thirty enquiries a month from people that want to write for us right now. And we don’t have to pay any of them! So you reach a critical mass where you’re growing a blog where your quality is so good and your audience is so big that people want to be part of it. And the reason they want to be part of it comes back to: What do they want? They want to get in front of that audience. Today we’ve got people that work for us in pretty high-profile companies, like Wildfire, IBM, just because they want to be in front of this audience. And it’s great; it’s a total win-win because they want to prove to the world that they’re experts and we want to publish their expert content.

So for businesses looking to roll out this strategy, do you feel Social Proof is a really big part of the puzzle?

Absolutely. If you go to socialmediaexaminer.com one of the first things that you’re going to see is this little badge off to the right that says “Join 130,000+ of your peers” and then it says, “Sign up for our newsletter.” That is a very powerful statement for someone who first discovers the website and sees, holy cow! 130,000 people subscribing email. That’s super-powerful. And we use that all over the place.

As a matter of fact if you open up any of our articles and scroll down to the bottom you’ll see another really big thing that we put at the bottom of every article that says, “Don’t miss our next content. Join 130,000 of your peers.” So that’s powerful social proof.

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The next social proof that we employ is the re-tweet button at the top of every article. So if you visit Social Media Examiner on any given day and just scroll down on our homepage, you’ll see that our articles typically have at least 1,000 re-tweets. And sometimes, I’m just looking, yesterday’s had 1,800, the day before had 3,500, the day before that had 3,700, the day before that had 6,900! So when you see those kind of re-tweet numbers, I mean that’s way above normal, right? Most people are never going to get those kind of re-tweet numbers.

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But even if you have fifty re-tweets, that’s powerful. And you want those social proof numbers displayed prominently within the content, because it send the message to someone, if a thousand people have re-tweeted this, maybe I should read it because it’s probably valuable.

Is traditional marketing really dead? Does social media marketing replace it or complement it?

Well, since we’re talking about small businesses, I do believe traditional marketing is dead. What I mean by that is, I don’t think you should ever waste another dollar putting an ad in the Yellow Pages; I don’t think you should waste another dollar putting an ad in a newspaper, or a physical magazine; I don’t think you should waste another dollar putting an ad on a radio station or a television station, or even in direct mail, in someone’s inbox at their physical address. I think these mediums are dead for small business. I think for big business who have huge budgets there’s a place for that; not for small business. I think the new thing for small businesses is obviously online, obviously email – those two have been around for a long time – but I think the next thing for small businesses are some of these interesting social channels: for example if you have a physical location, all these cool geo-location tools like foursquare and Facebook Places, mobile is obviously the next big thing, the fact that everybody has iPhones and smartphones, and obviously all the social stuff because, remember that with mail and with radio and with television and magazines, you’re paying someone else that already has built a publishing platform and you’re paying a premium to get your message across that platform. But with blogs and with social media you don’t have to pay anyone. You can do it all for free and it can be yours. That’s why traditional media is dying.

How do you feel businesses can measure the impact of social media and where should a business concentrate their efforts?

Well you ask two questions, one about quantifying the metrics and one about where to start. Let’s start with quantifying the metrics. The online marketing that I’m talking about has much more quantifiable metrics than traditional marketing does, period. So email marketing, blogs and social marketing are highly quantifiable and have incredible analytics and tracking. You would be absolutely shocked at how sophisticated it is. For example, Google Analytics allows you to embed content into your website and blog and do amazing real-time tracking, determine what content is popular, and can even track which social channels are driving traffic to your website. Facebook has incredible analytics that can tell you things immediately about the demographics of your audience: how old they are, which part of the world they are in, how engaged they are. These are things you could never ever get with traditional marketing. And of course, using tools like Radian6, there’s a lot of tracking that can be done to actually connect your social activity to the sale. So I think it’s actually very powerful.

Now, as to getting started: one of the things that I recently published was in the Top 30 Predictions for 2012 on Social Media, and the very first prediction was the one that was made by me, and it was that businesses need to consolidate their social activity; they need to pick their battles, they need to dig in. And I think that we’ve been living in a world where there’s all these new social channels popping up every day and everybody previously felt, “I need to be everywhere” and I’m now saying that’s not true – you just need to be where your customers are. So instead of saying “I’ve got to be on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, foursquare, Instagram” and every other place you could imagine, instead, focus on one; get it, master it, and then expand. With Social Media Examiner we really focused heavily on Facebook, that was our primary focus, and then we just recently expanded into Google+ and LinkedIn. So I would just recommend starting where it makes the most amount of sense for you and your business, where is your audience. And maybe it’s LinkedIn, if you’re Business-To-Business, maybe it’s Google+ which has a much bigger business-to-business audience than Facebook. So start there, and then begin figuring out how to create great content and how to promote the content view of the social channels.

I wrote a book about how to do this called Launch, but Social Media Examiner is also a great free resource that people can go to. We have a little tab at the top called Getting Started, we’ve got all these categories like YouTube Marketing and Google+ and for those businesses that are just getting started they can read a lot of really interesting articles for free about how to get underway with those things.

What is the role of content in social media marketing and why is it so important?

It’s everything. Let’s put it this way. If you’re on Facebook, what is it that you choose to share when you see stuff across your news feed? It’s content. If you are wasting money paying other people to put banner ads up on their website, why are you doing that? Because they have content and you don’t. Content is the key to everything. By producing high-value content you become the publisher and you eliminate the middle-man, and you draw an audience and you retain an audience. I’m a strong advocate of content. I believe that’s what travels the furthest across social channels is your content. It’s not the picture of you and your son in the backyard smiling as you just pull a big turnip out of the ground; it’s the content that people go crazy over.

We know content plays a massive role in social media, but when bandwidth and resources are an issue, how can a business generate the right content?

Well, there’s a lot of journalists out of work. Think about all these people who used to work for the newspapers in your region that are now out of business. There’s a lot of great writers out there that aren’t necessarily experts in your business, but could do an interview with an expert and create a great article, or could review a book.

What I recommend is rethinking how you invest in marketing. Most businesses understand that they need to invest money in marketing. And usually for them, that means physically paying for advertising. If you stop that altogether and just took a quarter of that budget and applied it to content generation, and hiring people to create content, you’re going to generate much better results. So the solution is to pay: you have to pay to have someone create this content, and you have to treat it as an investment. When you think of the content you generate as an advertisement, even though you’re not really advertising anything, but instead you’re generating educational content, it is an advertisement because it’s drawing people to you. You need to hire people to generate content. Those that do are those that succeed.

In your book, Launch, you talk about the Elevation Principle. What is it and why does it matter?

Imagine as a business owner or a marketer you’re in a rocket ship, that rocket ship is your business, and your goal is to navigate that ship to new frontiers, what I like to say is, content is the fuel that moves your rocket ship, and people are what burns the fuel. So it’s Great Content + Other People – Marketing Messages, is the formula for the Elevation Principle. Great content is what we’ve been talking about. It’s the detailed how-to articles, the expert interviews, the case studies… the other people are the readers of that content, but also specialty experts, maybe that you interview. And then the last component is “minus marketing message”. That means, take your marketing message and extract them completely or remove them from your content. The reason I say that is because when you go to a website and you’re completely surrounded by advertisements, do you really find yourself focusing on the content? Or do you say, this content’s just a big piece designed to get me to buy something. I’m a strong advocate of stripping all of your marketing messages from the content. When you do that, you’ll have content that’s highly sharable, that will bring more people back to your website, and as long as you have a way to get them to opt into something, like your newsletter, then you can rapidly grow your business.

It’s a really simple Einsteinian formula: Great Content + Other People – Marketing Messages = Growth. It’s a proven formula and it’s been the model Social Media Examiner has been following from day 1.

It’s kind of counter-intuitive to tell a marketer to suppress the urge to deliver marketing messages. How can you sell if you don’t tell people why they should buy?

Great question. First of all, realise that the reason people are coming to your website is not to buy. That’s the first thing you have to acknowledge, okay? People are coming to consume something. So when people come to your website they’re coming because of your great content in this particular strategy. They’re coming to learn or they’re coming to get educated. And that requires a refraining of your thinking as a marketer. We know that the sales cycle is long, and that it’s complex, and that it’s not simple. Therefore we need to get people into that cycle. The way to get people into the cycle is to educate them about all the great things that they want to know about. When you, instead of advertising your product, start advertising the content, which is the shift here, you’re now advertising, “Hey, get more great content by getting on our list!” That is really what you’re marketing. Most people don’t even think of that as an advertisement. Instead they think of that as a smart incentive for them to keep getting great content from you. But what ends up happening here is you get people coming back regularly to your feeding trough, to be fed by your content, and when a portion of these people get on your email list, you now have a channel in which you can later market to these people.

For example, when you have a new product coming out you can send an email blast out to that channel. Or you can even sell advertising to that channel. The key to the whole thing is to nurture people into that channel. And that means to repress your marketing messages until they’ve given you permission to communicate with them regularly via that secondary back-channel which is email. And when you do that, that’s a really powerful thing because, as any marketer will tell you, an email ad will always out-perform a banner ad.

In our case, we send our email out six times a week, to 130,000 people. We get a 20 to 25% daily open rate on our content, and that’s because our content is strong and powerful and everybody loves it. Now we’ll probably be to a quarter of a million email subscribers by the end of 2012, and you can imagine how much bigger our business will get as a result of having that captive audience that reads our stuff every day. We are growing, quite radically. We grew 33% last year. It’s really the key to everything is to get rid of those marketing messages and save them for that secondary channel.

You’re also a big proponent of Robert Cialdini’s concept of Reciprocity Marketing? What is it and how can growing businesses harness it?

Cialdini wrote a book called Influence: Science and Practice and in the book he talks about some interesting science that showed that a study was done at a college where two people were in a room, one was the plant and one was the subject, and the plant left the room and came back with a soda, a Coke, and gave it to the subject, who then later on was asked by the plant if they would be willing to buy a raffle ticket to help support him. The study showed that those people that received the free Coke were much more compelled to buy a raffle ticket than those who did not. That’s known as the Rule of Reciprocity. You give something of value to someone they have this innate desire to return a favour.

Unfortunately, so many marketers have abused the Rule of Reciprocity. As a matter of fact, even the word “Marketing”, as defined by the American Marketing Association includes the word “exchange in offerings”. The word “exchange” implies that me, as a marketer, gives you something and you, as a prospect or customer, gives me something back. I’m saying that’s wrong. You can’t expect that, just because you give something to someone, they’re going to give something back. Many marketers have got this “give to get” mentality. I say, forget the Rule of Reciprocity, I say give gifts instead. Instead of just expecting that you’re going to be able to compel people against their will to do something because you’re given them something great, give it as a gift. A gift is something that’s given without expectation of anything in return. If you gave your child a gift, would you say, “Where’s my gift in return?” Of course you wouldn’t. Or do you go to a wedding and give someone a gift and then say, “Okay, where’s my gift?” Of course you wouldn’t. You give it out of your love for whoever it is you’re doing it for. And your content should be given away as a free gift. When people perceive it as a gift, they will in return love you, and that will take you places. Where I’m going with this is, instead of giving to get, just give, and watch what happens. You will have really loyal fans and followers that will help you at least drive more people back to your content. Most of them will never buy from you, but you don’t need a lot of people to buy from you, you just need a small sub-segment to buy from you, just like most people who see your ad in a magazine will never buy from you; it’s a very small subset.

But those that love you will become your own raving fans who bring more people to your audience, to your content, and as you grow that pie, that little slice that buys from you gets bigger as a result of it.

Your Social Media Marketing Industry Report is an excellent snapshot of social media right now. How does it show social media marketing to be changing? What’s hot? What’s not?

We’re actually in the middle of our new Industry Report right now. We already have 3,200 people that took the survey and it’s not out yet, but I can tell you what some of the hot trends are.

Google+ is the area that everyone wants to learn about. It’s one of the questions we ask in here, and this is just doing cursory analysis because we actually have to do a lot more analysis on this content once the whole thing is done. But one of the biggest things that people want to improve their knowledge on is Google+. 70% so far. Google+ is a hot new thing that people are focusing on. And there’s been some research out recently that says that, by the end of 2012, there will be 400 million people on Google+. So that’s hot. That’s big right now.

Blogs are the second biggest thing. Obviously the content marketing play is very big right now. People understand that, and right now that’s what they really want to focus on.

As far as topics, measuring social media is the number one topic people want to learn about right now. How do I measure it? It’s always been one of the top topics. But that happens to be one of the biggest ones. That’s just some very high-level analysis from our raw data.

Another interesting thing is that, outside of social media, email happens to be the next biggest marketing channel. As a matter of fact, about 88% of marketers are using email channels. That’s a very strong correlation between what we’ve been talking about, about how social and email are really strongly connected.

Other than Social Media Examiner itself, do you know of any other small or medium-sized businesses that have had great success with social media? Any cases our readers can chase up?

Well, I wrote about a pioneer woman in my book, at thepioneerwoman.com, she ended up getting a TV show! She’s a blogger that writes about cooking, and now she has a TV show on the cooking channel, and like 3 New York Times Bestselling books. This is clearly a small business, it’s a mom. There’s that one. Another one is the Content Marketing Institute, which is a multi-authored blog where they’ve got a bunch of people writing about content marketing, and they’ve been able to build a multi-million dollar business off of their blog. Those are two.

One more is ana-white.com. Ana-white.com is a carpenter in Alaska who basically gives away free carpentry plans for women, and encourages women to build their own furniture. She’s got a major book deal, and she’s got millions of people that come to her site every month to learn how to build their own furniture. Those are just a couple off the top of my head.

But those that love you will become your own raving fans who bring more people to your audience, to your content, and as you grow that pie, that little slice that buys from you gets bigger as a result of it.

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