Interview by Tim Sweeney
Q&A with Mark Schaefer
Internationally acclaimed college educator, author of five best-selling social media marketing books, speaker, and strategy consultant.
Mark Schaefer is an author, commentator, and educator who has appeared on international television shows and periodicals, including The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The New York Times, MSNBC, and the BBC. He has worked in global sales, PR, and marketing positions for 30 years and now provides consulting services as Executive Director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He specializes in marketing strategy and social media workshops. We interrupted his busy schedule to pose a series of questions on social media, content marketing, and whatever else he would answer.
Q: You’ve worked with a range of international businesses, government organizations, and news organizations. Despite their differences, where does the diagnosis begin when you meet with them?
Mark: Remarkably, the diagnosis begins well before content or a Facebook Page. It begins with the organization itself. The biggest predictor of success is not a strategy, a budget, or even talented resources. It’s the company culture. So, the first step is to take a rational look at what is possible. What is the current strategy, if they even have one? What are the obstacles to success, both real and perceived? Is the organization ready for a public social media presence? Are they a conversational brand, meaning, is this a natural fit for the company, or will it take extraordinary creative effort? If you don’t assess this carefully, you aren’t looking at the primary factors that can derail you.
Q: As an adjunct marketing professor at Rutgers University, you teach to the marketing brains (and, potentially, leaders) of tomorrow. What are the skills they will need most to make an impact in their chosen profession in the decade ahead?
MS: Since I teach at the graduate level, most of my students are already marketing professionals looking to up their game—and this is a wise choice! Certainly, digital transformation is at the forefront today. My view is that leaders don’t need to have all the right answers. They can surround themselves with people who can set up a social media account or create Facebook ads, for example. But they do need to have the right questions to know what is possible, to know what is ideal for their organization. In my view, the ideal marketing leader would know enough to ask the right questions about:
- The role of big data and analytics
- The skill sets needed to lead to the next levelof marketing proficiency
- Megatrends on content, social media, e-commerce, etc., all of which requireongoing education
- Generational changes in consumer behavior
- Shifts in digital platforms relevant to the business
- Emerging technologies, such as virtual reality
Q: You speak specifically about creating practical, or reality-focused, strategies. Have you seen too many marketing strategies that are unrealistic? How might companies avoid this pitfall?
MS: A challenge for companies is becoming intoxicated with the shiny new thing. It is only natural that you don’t want to be left behind, that you want to understand and master the latest platform. But the fact of the matter is, most new platforms don’t make it. If you look at some of the hot ideas over the past couple of years, it proves my point—Meerkat, Blab, Foursquare, Quora, to name a few. A couple of years ago, Ello was so hot, people were selling invitations to the platform on eBay. Where are they now? These platforms may have a place in the marketing ecosystem, but it is a minor one, and, if you had a goal of becoming the Ello-master, it was a giant waste of time. Let others make those mistakes. It’s more practical and realistic to be a fast follower in most cases.
Q: You wrote in a LinkedIn post about companies only being concerned with building an audience—blog and newsletter sign-ups, etc.—without being dedicated to moving peoplefrom being involved with the brand to being committed to it. Who is doing this well and how?
MS: It’s easy to find the companies doing well on social media. Look at the best-managed companies in the world—they tend to do everything well! The challenge is to achieve a change of mindset. For decades, we have been conditioned to sell, sell, sell. But, if you try doing that on the web, you will usually fail. People are sick of being advertised to, marketed to, and sold to. They don’t go on social media to learn about your new line of adhesives; they go to see pictures of babies and Grumpy Cat. That’s your competition.
Q: So, what should brands be doing?
MS: The new challenge is to help, help, and help—and to do it in a patient way. Many companies expect social media to work like advertising. It doesn’t. A better analogy for social media is a networking meeting or industry conference. You go there to build relationships, and it may take months or years to pay off. As they begin to know us and trust us, they are more likely to opt in to our content and begin more of a two-way exchange. Ultimately, you want this to lead to a buying relationship.
Q: You managed a highly successful e-commerce team at Alcoa. If you were to give our readers two pieces of actionable advice on growing e-commerce, what would those be?
MS: Number one, treat people online like you would treat them offline. If somebody walked into your store, you would not demand an email address before talking to that person. And you wouldn’t try to trick them into subscribing to something through a pop-up. So, the first piece of advice would be: act like a human in everything you do. Make technology a tool to take down barriers with your customers, not build them. Number two, just because you can do something with consumer information, doesn’t mean you should. I have sat in meetings and have been blown away by the clever (sneaky?) things companies can do to track behavior, link emails to sales, and even determine incredibly intimate details of a person’s life from their online behavior. Consumers are resigned to the fact that they are trading privacy for some value. The keyword here is “resigned,” just like they were resigned to seeing ads to receive free content. Most marketers assume this is a fair trade. It’s not. Studies show consumers do not like it. So, breaching their confidence even once will have a severe backlash. I’m concerned we live in an age where we can hack together some software utility so quickly and so cheaply that we will be implementing without testing, without thinking through unintended consequences. One mistake will become a PR nightmare.
Q: Your book The Content Code discusses the “psychology of sharing” on social media. Can you give us a bit of insight about that and what people could expect to find/learn if they get your book?
MS: My book is the first of its kind and suggests that we need to build a third marketing competency based on six strategies to get our content to be shared, or to move. In fact, I argue that social sharing drives the economics of any social media marketing effort. Yet, most businesses don’t know the people who share their content the most, and these people are the bedrock of the business. Social sharing creates advocacy. It also drives sales and affects purchasing decisions. The data is clear on this. It’s time to wake up and focus on driving real value by igniting your content. My book tells you specifically how.
Q: You’ve written about creating content that “moves.” But it also takes a certain understanding of the audience or knowingthe format and topics that resonate for it to move. How do people determine that?
MS: In my book, I outline six different strategies to get your content to move, and you touch on two of them in your question. Absolutely, there are small things you can do to your content and your website to assure that you give your content the best chance possible to ignite. Similarly, on the audience side, there is a lot we can do to understand and nurture the elite group I call the Alpha Audience. These are the people who share your content the most, and it probably makes up less than 2 percent of your online followers. The key here is to connect to these folks in a human way that builds an emotional connection between you, your content, and your audience.
Q: Should companies be hiring content creators internally, such as writers, video experts, and perhaps a photographer?
MS: I think that depends on a lot of factors. The strategy and analytics should be in-house. The advantage of in-house content creation is stability, expertise, access to internal experts, and the ability to sustain a relationship with readers. The advantage of outsourcing is access to more creative treatments and keeping head count low, of course. I do feel strongly that these important Alpha Audience relationships should be owned internally, however.
Q: Content and social media marketing don’t mean anything if companies can’t find their audience. Any tips on how brands can realistically and practically find them?
MS: There are lots of ideas for that in my book, but let me hit on two of them. The first is by connecting with influencers in your marketplace. Who are the people who already have an engaged and trusting audience? Is it possible to partner with them so you can “borrow” their audience when you are just starting out? This emerging field of “influencer” marketing is critically important as we try to cut through the noise in an information-dense world. A second idea is paid promotion. That is just a fact of life these days. The social streams have just become too crowded with information, and there’s a good chance you’ll need a paid component to build an audience early on. Facebook ads, for example can deliver an extremely well-targeted audience.
Q: The key to “leading them up the curve,” as you say, seems to be establishing that emotional connection, but what do you tell brands who think they sell products that no one can have an emotional connection to?
MS: Well, they may be right. I think you have to be humble in these situations because, after all, these marketing professionals are experts in what they do and know their market better than me. Marketing dollars for a company that makes ladders, for example, might be better spent on a point-of-purchase coupon than a long-term content effort aimed at building an emotional connection to their product. Still, having said that, we do see wonderful examples of brand-building content for appliances, hand tools, leather goods, and other seemingly commodity products. I think you need to take a realistic approach and think, “Are we a conversational brand—or could we be?” Then, allocate dollars to social media accordingly. Social media and content marketing do not solve every business problem, as some of the gurus might have you believe. We still need to look at the fundamental drivers of the business and spend our marketing dollars in a way that has an impact.
Q: Finally, what one trending or current marketing topic would you like to expand upon for our readers that we haven’t covered?
MS: When I decide to write a book, it is to answer a big question on the mind of my customers and students. Marketing is becoming more challenging every day. I addressed part of this problem in my latest book, The Content Code. How do we stand out as a company and get our message through? I think the next challenge, and where I have been spending a lot of my time recently, is thinking about how we stand out as individuals. If you have a goal of writing a book, beginning a speaking career, embarking on “social selling,” or building a reputation in your industry, it all boils down to building a personal digital brand. It boils down to becoming known. Is there a process to do that? I think there is, and that will be my next project. I want to codify the process of building a digital self.