We had an opportunity to talk with Mike Stelzner -- founder of SocialMediaExaminer.com -- about how he created the most popular social media news site in less than a year.
This interview is important for any small business owner who wants to learn how to leverage social media to build a brand presence, increase traffic, links, and ultimately drive more business.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
Check out the full interview with Mike . . .
It’s amazing to see how quickly SocialMediaExaminer.com took off.
Mike: Yeah, it really has. I mean, it’s been amazing. It’s been a great ride. We’re really only 22 months old, and it’s been a rocket ship ride into outer space. It’s been faster than I could have ever imagined for sure.
So what are some factors that contributed to your success?
Mike: I think that there’s a craving out there from business owners and marketers wanting to understand how to use these new media tools and how to connect with customers while bypassing the typical middleman. If you think about traditional marketing, it typically involved paying money to somebody else who owned an audience, like a magazine, a newspaper or a radio station.
But now, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ allow businesses to connect with consumers directly. And that’s just been a paradigm shift, really. We got started in October 2009, and it was all about delivering high-value, how-to content, which most people weren’t getting. Most people were just commenting on their opinion about what’s going on, but there were very few blogs or online magazines that were just getting deep into how to do this kind of stuff. I think that’s part of the reason why we exploded as quickly as we have, and I think you’re going to see it continue. Businesses of all sizes everywhere in the world are still grappling with social media, and it’s changing every day. So there’s always going to be a need for a site like ours.
If you were to go back two years ago and start SocialMediaExaminer.com over again, would you do anything different?
Honestly, I don’t think I’d do anything different. In the beginning, we identified experts in the industry of social media who had a lot of knowledge. We took a camera crew with us to Blog World Expo in Las Vegas two days after we launched, and we interviewed all the high-profile individuals at the time, which included Chris Brogan, Richard Jalichandra, Steve Rubel, and all these other folks. I really just asked them the kinds of questions that we would have wanted to ask ourselves if we were a small business or a business of any size. And then we showcased those videos on SocialMediaExaminer.com. We got on the phone and interviewed a lot of marketers, like Seth Godin, who is very well-known in the world of marketing. And we started reviewing some of the new books that were out there because, obviously, people were so hungry to learn more about social media.
It was about creating a movement. It was about embracing others. It was not about us. We didn’t sell anything in the beginning. As a matter of fact, we didn’t sell anything for the first four months of the site. And then we recruited high-profile individuals to pen articles for SocialMediaExaminer.com — people like Mari Smith, who later went on to write “Facebook Marketing: An Hour a Day,” which is one of the most popular Facebook marketing books out there.
And through that process of getting all these experts contributing content -- all of a sudden everybody else wanted to be a part of it. And before you knew it, we had this massive movement, and it exploded.
I ultimately ended up writing a book called Launch, and the book actually lays out precisely how we did it and how it could work for any business. It wasn’t the first time that I had done something like this, but it was the best launch, you could say, that I’ve ever done.
Some small-business owners and bloggers might look at your success story and think, “Well, I don’t know anybody in the industry. Your strategy won’t work for me.”
Mike: I didn’t know anybody either. So here is what we did in the beginning, and here is what any small business can do.
Step number one: tap your personal network. I looked up my friends who I knew from my prior relationships, and I said, “Who seems to get this space that I’m in?” And I reached out to them, and they were first. I then asked them, “Who do you know that I should interview?” And it was that simple. It was just about leveraging the network. Everyone has a network. Everyone has friends on LinkedIn or a personal or professional network that they could tap. It was about working the network.
Then we started to seek people out on our own, and one of the things that we learned was that when authors have new books out, they’re the most open to being accessible to journalists or bloggers or anybody for that matter. So we began targeting new books, and we discovered the new books by going to Amazon.com and looking at new marketing books. And that’s like the perfect list for us to work from. And we were able to reach out to those new book authors, get interviews with them, and develop relationships with the up-and-comers.
We also went to trade shows. We knew that the people who were at the bigger trade shows had been vetted by the trade show staff. They must have had something good to say. And we also knew that if someone was at a trade show, they’ve already agreed to speak publicly about whatever it is that they have to share. So how hard would it be for us to get an interview with them? Not very hard at all. As a matter of fact, many of them are there for that purpose -- to get exposure. So we just leveraged these little undertapped mechanisms to build those relationships with people. If it’s really all about you sharing your platform with others as a small business owner, and it’s not about you trying to sell them on something.
Success happened very fast. Was there a tipping point for you?
Mike: Yeah, it was pretty much our goal to reach 40,000 email subscribers double opted in by the end of our first year, meaning these are people who wanted to receive our emails and confirmed that they wanted to receive them, which is the best kind of email opt-in you can get. We hit that on our one-year anniversary.
But the tipping point was when we went back to Blog World for the second year. Things were completely different. People came up to us out of the blue, and they started telling us how much they loved what we were doing. And it wasn’t just our readers. It was also the very people we had interviewed a year earlier who were patting me on the back and whispering in my ear, “You’re killing it.” That kind of endorsement for me was the tipping point. At that point, I realized we had gone big. And that was about 10 months ago from today. We had 40,000 email subscribers then. We have 105,000 today. So after that one-year anniversary, we had realized that we were on a massive trajectory, and we were pretty much unstoppable as long as we didn’t deviate too far to the left and too far to the right and stayed focused. I never would have thought that we would have grown this fast if you asked me when I started SocialMediaExaminer.com.
Let’s talk about your content production. Do you look at your Web analytics to decide on what type of content your audience likes the most?
Mike: We do look at our Web analytics, but we don’t let that drive our content production. Instead, we have a survey that we do at the beginning of each year called the Social Media Marketing Industry Survey. We typically run it in January, and we ask a lot of questions of our readers and our followers on Facebook, Twitter, etc. We ask them things like, “What’s the biggest question you want answered about social media?”
And we also ask them what tools they use and how they are going to change their use of tools in the next year. We also ask how much time they are committing, etc. And from that data, we produce a free report called the Social Media Marketing Industry Report. We give it away. It’s a huge marketing thing that we do. We usually get about 40,000 people reading that report in the first couple weeks.
But we also use the data from that report to actually plan our editorial calendar, so it’s a double win for us. You know, we’ve got this great thing that we give away for free that we don’t require any registration for, and everybody loves it, and we’ve been written up in The Wall Street Journal and all over the place about the findings of these reports that we put out every year. But more importantly, we know what our readers are actually interested in, and that drives our editorial decisions.
In Launch, you talk about primary fuel content and nuclear fuel. Can you talk a little bit about the differences?
Mike: Right. There are two kinds of content that can bring people to your business. Primary fuel is the content you produce regularly (e.g., your average blog posts). Nuclear fuel is the kind of stuff that’s really complicated but is stuff that people go crazy over (e.g., reports that they normally would have to pay for but are free).
And the upside to nuclear fuel is mass exposure. You’ve given a gift to people. You know what I mean? And it empowers them to make decisions about what they’re going to be doing in the future. And that builds stronger relationships between your readers and your brand. But it’s also something that demonstrates the value of your wbsite.
You could argue that it’s a form of marketing. Yes, it costs a lot of money actually — a lot of time to analyze and produce a survey, hire a graphics designer to create a nice cover, etc. But at the end of the day, I would probably have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the equivalent number of press mentions about the report. You know what I mean? Just think about all the advertising I would have to buy and all these different mediums just to get the word out about that report. It’s free because now I’ve got thousands and thousands of people who are sharing this thing everywhere.
A lot of seo consultants talk about the importance of keyword research to optimize content and bring in more traffic. Do you conduct keyword research to come up with topics to write about?
Mike: I think there’s something to be said about keyword research, but in our case, we’ve never really focused on that in a hardcore way.
As a matter of fact, last month, we had 935,000 page views on SocialMediaExaminer.com, and less than 25 percent of our traffic is coming from search engines. Nearly all of our traffic is coming from social. So what does that mean? That means that people are sharing it on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter or Google Plus or sources that we can’t even track. For us, it’s really incredible that we can get that kind of traffic and still not be super-reliant on the search engines.
The bad news about search engines is these keyword phrases are highly competitive, and you are competing with tens of thousands of other companies that are trying to also optimize those very same phrases.
And you would imagine in the world of social media that I’m in, I’m competing against some pretty big players — every conceivable publication in the world writes about social media, and there’s no shortage of them. I mean, there’s no physical magazine and no online source that isn’t probably talking about social media in some capacity. We focus on the human element. What do our readers want? What’s going to resonate with them?
And we know that for every article that we write, thousands of new people come every day because people are sharing our content in their communities. So for us, that’s more valuable than keyword research because in our industry, things change rapidly. An article today might be outdated two months from now. And what that does, ultimately, it drives more people to SocialMediaExaminer.com, increases our subscriber rates and ultimately grows the whole company. So that’s why we do it.
Well, I think this is a great segue into talking about social networks and how they are a central driving force for bringing in visitors. What has been your strategy to keep your Facebook fans engaged?
Mike: We actually have three people (myself included) monitoring our Social Media Examiner Facebook page 24-hours a day. Our strategy is to answer every single question that people post on our page. People have come to realize that if they have a question about something, they can just come to our fan page and get it answered. That has been really, really valuable for a lot of people.
We also ask questions every couple of days. Sometimes it’s got nothing to do with social media. Like if it’s Labor Day weekend, we’ll ask, “What are your plans for Labor Day?”, or if it’s Valentine’s Day, “What are you going to get for your valentine?” I mean, things that absolutely seem to have no relationship with social media, but a lot of people can connect with us on a human level. And these kind of things get people engaged in the news feed.
Some businesses are fearful about getting into Facebook because they fear negative comments. What is your advice for them?
There are always going to be negative comments, and a big majority of those tend to be frustrated customers who tried to get an answer and couldn’t go anywhere else and resorted to Facebook. The first thing you’ve got to do is immediately acknowledge the comment and just say, “Hey, I’m sorry to hear about that.” The second thing is to try to determine whether or not this person is out to get you or whether they just truly want to get their problem resolved. There are people in this world who are sometimes called trolls, and their whole purpose in life is to basically create a ruckus when there doesn’t need to be one. And sometimes, those kind of people just need to be banned from your Facebook page. But the vast majority of people are not like that.
Most people truly have real issues that they need to get resolved as fast as possible, and sometimes it’s just a matter of acknowledgment. Think about if you’ve ever been into a department store and you’ve gotten poor service and you ask to talk to the manager. If you had to wait around for a half an hour for the manager to show up, you’d probably get really frustrated. But if the manager showed up five minutes later and was really appreciative and listening to what you were saying, even if they can’t do anything for you, you’re going to feel a lot better about that relationship, and that’s the key to Facebook. It’s just like face-to-face, and peoples’ issues need to be resolved.
The downside to not using social media because you’re concerned people are going to say poor things about you is that people are going to say things about you with social media regardless. All you have to do is go to http://search.Twitter.com and type in the word sucks on any brand. You will see bazillions of people complaining, especially if you’re a big brand.
If you’re a small business, it’s less of an issue. As a matter of fact, I would encourage any small business to get on Facebook because chances are pretty good most people aren’t griping about you. It’s the bigger businesses that have bigger issues with that — you know, the enterprise organizations.
So I would encourage any business that’s decided, “Eh, we don’t want to go on Facebook because we’re concerned about negative comments.” I’d say, “What have you got to lose? Try it out. You can always back out of it if it doesn’t work out, but I would say try it out."
If you were talking to a small business owner who is just getting on Facebook, what are a few practical tips you'd give them?
Mike: Well, we have a cool getting started guide on SocialMediaExaminer.com. If you go to the Getting Started section, you can see all sorts of interesting articles that will go way beyond this interview. But one of the first things that you want to do is develop an avatar that’s nice and conveys your brand. The second thing you want to do is develop some sort of a welcome page -- and there are bazillions of apps out there that make it so that if you don’t know anything about programming. The cool thing about these welcome pages is you can create little videos that say, “Hey, thanks so much for visiting our page. Click that welcome tab up there to begin engaging with our site.” You can even set up special offers for people that become fans, maybe they get discounts or something. Those are the very basic things.
Any things small businesses should avoid doing in Facebook?
Yeah, don’t just set it up and forget it. The “set and forget it” model is a serious mistake. It’s not an “If you build it, they will come” mentality and will just automate and take care of itself. You need to actually have a plan in place on what you’re going to do with a Facebook page. The other thing is don’t schedule posts using scheduling software like HootSuite to show up on your wall because Facebook penalizes you for that. If you manually post stuff on your wall, Facebook actually will increase the chances that it will show up in peoples’ news feeds, which, at the end of the day, is how people will interact with your brand. They don’t usually ever come back to your Facebook page. Instead, they just wait to see your updates in their feeds.
You’re a big advocate of just giving away great content as a means of gaining fans. And obviously, the strategy has worked extremely well for you. In your book Launch, you talk about your elevation principle formula:
Great Content + Other People – Marketing Message = Growth
Can you talk about this?
Mike: Yeah. So the idea is that most people are repelled by marketing messages. They don’t like to be marketed to, and I think anybody who is listening or reading what I’m saying right now can understand that we are attacked by marketing messages in our car, airports, bathroom stalls — and literally everywhere. The problem is that people tune out and they don’t pay attention to those ads. So that creates a real quandary for us who are business owners and marketers. How can we get in front of people when they’re not paying attention?
People don’t trust us anymore. Edelman did a study that showed that only one in three people trust businesses. Those are two serious quandaries. So what do you do? Well, we should focus on the needs of people, and if you can figure out how to provide what people want for free and can figure out how to scale that by hundreds or thousands or millions of people, then you can rapidly grow a following upon which you can grow a business, and you do that with content.
Content provides the ultimate scalability because a single article can work for you in a way that a human being on the phone never could. And it’s something that if done right, people will end up sharing the content with their peers, which will drive more traffic back to it, and it creates this awesome feeder mechanism. So that’s the great content you need. You also have to bring in people outside of your organization if you want to grow — these experts that we refer to earlier. And the last thing is put away the marketing messages.
When you do all three of those, you end up creating content that is highly valuable and not perceived as bait designed to convert. And when I receive a gift that I know has no strings attached, I’m going to love you as a result of it. I’m going to want to keep reading your stuff and tell my friends about it. And what that does is create a big, big following upon which you can ultimately begin the process of selling, and that’s the elevation principal. You first need to own the audience so that you’re not reliant on middlemen anymore who cost you a ton of money.
Google is a middleman. Magazines are middlemen. Wouldn’t it be great if you just were the publisher and you owned the audience and wouldn’t have to rely on anyone? That’s exactly what the book talks about.
Check out SocialMediaExaminer.com to learn more about utilizing social media for your business - and also read Launch to learn about Michael Stelzner's strategy for creating one of the world's most popular social media news sites. Follow Mike Stelzner on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.