Michael Stelzner, CEO & Founder of Social Media Examiner
Building a Fast-Growth Media Empire with Michael Stelzner of Social Media Examiner
After being unceremoniously tossed out of the corporate world 20 years ago, Michael Stelzner took a chance and turned toward entrepreneurship. In the years that followed, Stelzner began building a reputation as an influencer with a huge network of writers and marketers.
It all culminated in 2009 when, after noticing more and more people talking about social media, he decided to run an experimental project: see if he could build a following by creating a blog with detailed articles about social media. Grabbing the name Social Media Examiner, he got to work.
His goal was simple. Instead of being one of the hundreds of bloggers already out there writing about what they didn’t like about social media or simply covering the latest news in that industry, Stelzner wanted to create a blog where he would get the best writers to craft articles that would help the average person and marketer understand how to use social media.
To say that his experiment paid off would be an understatement. Social Media Examiner is one of the biggest business blogs in the world, and is widely considered the authority on all things social media.
Beyond having an incredibly successful blog, Stelzner has expanded the brand to include a top-ranking podcast and an annual event that attracts the best marketers and entrepreneurs in the world.
Seven years into his entrepreneurial journey, Stelzner helms one of the fastest-growing and most respected media companies on the planet.
His secrets to success? A powerful mixture of marketing know-how, a strong business model, and understanding how to get the most out of your network.
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- How to land interviews with some of the biggest names in your industry
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- The magic behind networking and how to harness it
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Michael Stelzner
Nathan: Today’s episode is proudly brought to you by our sponsor, FreshBooks. FreshBooks is an easy to use cloud accounting software that’s completely transformed how over 10 million entrepreneurs deal with their day-to-day paperwork. It’s an absolutely amazing product. You can start your 30-day trial at freshbooks.com/foundr.
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I am your host, coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. I’m the CEO of Foundr Magazine. And today, you’re gonna be hearing an awesome conversation that I had with someone I can actually be humble to call a friend, Michael Stelzner. He’s the founder of a company called socialmediaexaminer.com. And this guy’s absolutely killing it in the media space. We talk everything media and events.
If you wanna know how to run a high-class, world-class event, you know, I spoke with Social Media Marketing World last year and I’m speaking in this year. It’s an amazing event. They have at least, you know, 3,000-4,000 people every single year. It’s insane what they do with their events. And, you know, it’s just really, really crazy, the growth that he’s had for this blog. You know, it’s a news website. It’s the leading authority brand on social media content. So, if you wanna know anything about social media, you go to socialmediaexaminer.com. [00:02:00] And, yeah, we have a great conversation about everything media, Social Media Examiner events, and everything growth marketing and how the business is going. So, yeah, I really enjoyed this conversation. I know you’re gonna learn a ton from Michael. He’s a very, very humble guy, very, very smart guy. And that’s it from me.
So, if you guys are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review. It would help more than you imagine. And also, please do check out the fruits of our labor. So, start checking out the magazine. Just go to foundr.com and we’re here to help. All right, now, let’s open the show.
The first question I’m gonna ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Michael: It’s a great question. I don’t even think what I do is a job, first of all. But I will give you and I will tell you how I got to be the founder of Social Media Examiner. Is that kinda where you’re going with that?
Michael: So, 20 years ago, believe it or not, I was working in corporate America. I got wrongfully terminated because the CEO of the company thought I saw him doing drugs and I didn’t even know he had a drug problem. And long story short, I went off on my own and my first gig was I was a…I started an agency, a creative agency. And back then, we’re talking mid ’90s. So, I was helping businesses develop their very first website and I was working on things like annual reports for companies, logos, anything creative, anything visually creative or written creative. Then, eventually, I established a name for myself in the high tech space, transitioned over to writing around 2001. I started writing white papers, which are longer article/pieces that are kind of persuasive yet also educational. And I wrote a book called “Writing White Papers,” became really well-known in the writing world
And then in 2009, I decided to start Social Media Examiner. And the story there is I noticed that, around 2009, a lot of people were talking about social. And in particular, Facebook and Twitter were very popular. And I, at this time, had developed a lot of great relationships with writers and marketers because marketers wanted these white papers to help them generate leads and the writers were the people, thousands of out of work journalists that I had trained on how to get into this new industry. So, I just decided to see if I can grab the domain, Social Media Examiner. I was able to get it and decided I would run an experimental project, which was to see whether or not if, I wrote detailed articles about social media, whether I could grow a following. So, that’s how I got this job.
Nathan: And how long have you been running Social Media Examiner for?
Michael: Seven years. October 12th of 2009 was when started it, so seven years and a couple of months.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, okay. And can you give the audience some perspective on how far you’ve taken it? Because this is an authority brand that you’ve built. You guys are, I believe and considered, the authority source when it comes to social media stuff.
Michael: Yeah. We had 1.2 million people a month that read the blog. And we email 530,000 people 3 days a week with our articles. And then we have a podcast that gets about 250,000 to 300,000 downloads a month. So, it’s gone pretty large. I know, from a blog perspective, we’re definitely one of the larger business blogs on the planet.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. And you run an incredible event that I was lucky enough you asked me to speak at, which was insane. Was that 5,000 people?
Michael: It might have felt that way. That was our fourth year and there was 3,000 people there.
Nathan: Okay, got you.
Michael: And it was called Social Media Marketing World.
Nathan: Yes. Yeah, no, that was an incredible event. I’ve never really, because I’m quite new to business and this kind of stuff. I didn’t really go to many events before that. And, yeah, that was an amazing event. Really, really mind-blowing. And I met some incredible networks from that event. So, it was really, really valuable. So, if anyone is interested in social media and getting to know like-minded people that are interested too, I found it really, really valuable.
Michael: Thank you.
Nathan: So, okay, so, let’s talk about, you know, what the early days look like because when you started seven years ago, was there an authority brand in the space at that point in time around social media?
Michael: There were thousands of bloggers that were talking about social media but they were mostly griping about what was wrong with it. They were almost like opinion bloggers, like, “I hate Facebook because of this,” or “Twitter sucks because of this,” or “I wish LinkedIn would do this.” At the time, there was really nobody that had a multi-author blog. Meaning, you know, not just one person’s opinion but many different writers, that was really talking about social media frankly at all. So, I saw it kind of as a green field opportunity because what I had, you know, built up was a lot of relationships with excellent writers and some of the marketers that I had known had gone on to social media. So, a lot of people are coming out of different kinds of industries and marketing and kind of pivot it into this hot new thing called social media. But there was really very little competition. Mashable was the big competitor back then. And back then, Mashable was the news site that you went to to learn about social media. So, they would break news about anything and everything related to social. So, you could say that they were the authority site but the issue is, back then, Mashable was not publishing “how to” pieces. They were publishing news pieces and there’s a very important distinction there and that’s how we were able to stand out.
Nathan: Got you. And, so, yeah, tell us, like, what the first few months of Social Media Examiner look like.
Michael: It was insane.
Nathan: After you said you had a really good year, your first year.
Michael: Yes, I’ll share a little bit of story. So, up to this point, I had developed a very successful consulting practice, where I was making a good $500,000 a year, just writing white papers for huge corporations like FedEx and Dow Jones and Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, Motorola. And I had waiting list of people that wanted to work with me. So, I used the money that I had built on this consulting business as a writer of white papers to fund the growth of Social Media Examiner. So, the story was that I ended up going to two conferences. I went to BlogWorld, which doesn’t exist anymore, and I went to Marketing Across B2B conference. And I brought a camera guy with me to one of the conferences and I just did interviews with all these experts on location, little 10-minute segments, with a lot of people that were “the famous people on social media.” No one was doing this.
You know, I was dressed in suit. I looked very professional. Everyone else is in shorts and t-shirts. And I had a camera crew with me. And as far as they were concerned, I was, like, legit. And I remember walking, sort of, with one of the big companies back then called TechnoRadiant. I said, “Hi, I’m with Social Media Examiner and I would love to interview your CEO.” And the gal who’s working the booth calls up her little iPhone, you know, back then, it was probably like generation one iPhone, and she types in socialmediaexaminer.com. And she immediately says, “Oh, Richard, here’s Michael with Social Media Examiner and he would like to interview you.” We were three days old. But the perception was that we’ve been around forever because we had this, you know, nice, little microphone with our brand on it and everything. So, I got to…it broke me through rapidly because I was very professional. And a lot of people I met that day, including people like Chris Brogan, who at the time, was one of the key thought leaders in the world of social media and he’s now a good friend.
So, what ended up happening was I had these videos and I released them, like, one a week for many months on the website and it got a lot of press for Social Media Examiner and it got a lot of exposure for these authors. Because a lot of these people had never had on camera interviews that were professionally done before. And in the very beginning, I was writing one blog post a week, Nathan, and then I had recruited some friends to write one per month. And I told my friends, “You can write one per month until it’s not working for you anymore.” And one of those friends was a gal named Mari Smith. And if you don’t know who she is, she is the queen of Facebook marketing. And what ended up happening was as soon as we launched this site, because I had developed relationships, frankly, for quite some time prior to starting Social Media Examiner, I had a newsletter that went out. And I would interview these social media people in writing and I would promote them in the newsletter. So, I kind of already kinda had some track work in place.
But what ended up happening was, in the first 90 days, we got 10,000 email subscribers on our list. And that was back in 2009. And that was, like, really, a huge deal. And we went on to have a $1.4 million first year.
Nathan: Wow, interesting. Now, can you talk to us about the business model? Because what I was really, really excited to talk to you about, Michael, was not so much social media tactics and strategies. I’ll leave that to you guys. You guys own that stuff, but I think you’ve got a very, very successful media company. And I really wanna understand the thought process behind that and the business model behind that. Because a lot of people, you know, there’s no doubt about a lot of people saying you can’t build, you know, a successful media company. There’s a lot of, you know, media companies going bust because they don’t have a solid business model. And I think what you’ve done is really, really, you know, just so impressive. So, can you talk to us about how you made, you know, that amount of money for the first year and talk to us about the model behind what you’re doing now as opposed to, you know, your first year?
Michael: Yup. So, first of all, we did not take any display advertising. So, from the very beginning, we did experimented, like, with, for a little while, like, year two after we got kind of big, but we realized that was never gonna be the business plan. We were never going to be a company that made our revenue by having ads on the website. So, that was the first thing. So, we had nothing advertised on the website in the beginning. It was purely just a destination and it was part of…our goal was to create a movement. And the idea was we postulated that if there was nothing for sale there and there was only value there, then people would feel, like, very compelled to wanna share it. And that was very, very important for us in the early days, was getting people to share our content on social. Because if there’s one thing that I knew back then, was that content about social media went viral on social media, especially if it was well-crafted.
So, the business model, the plan all along was to build the list to 10,000 email subscribers and then begin selling something. The philosophy that, I wrote about this in my second book launch, the idea here is that when you begin to sell, that’s like a friction. It’s like flaps coming up on the airplane when you’re coming in for a landing. It slows you down because look at your content as just a veil to get something to buy. And instead of selling anything, all we did was gave away something. So, we encouraged people to not miss our future articles and I created a one-hour video with Twitter tips, back then, on how to succeed with Twitter. And the only way to get it was to get on the email list. And that was very successful. Everybody loved it and the list grew very, very rapidly.
Once we hit 10,000, and by the way, I should say, it was just me in the beginning, and to be clear, I am the sole owner of this company, we never took venture capital, I own 100% of the business, I never ever financed anything. I butchered up the whole thing. So, my goal was, you know, I basically bankrolling it off to other business. So, once we hit that 10,000 email subscribers or once it became clear that we were headed to that trajectory, I decided how we were going to monetize, it was gonna be through online training.
Just to roll back the story a little bit, Nathan, in early 2009, actually even a little further, when I was the white paper guy, people would pay to hear me interview other people. So, I would have, like, 50 to 100 people pay $39 to hear me interview someone for an hour over the phone, okay. It was a teleclass, what we called it. All it was was me interviewing people because I know it’s one of my gifts. And good writers know how to interview people anyways, right. So, I would just interview these authorities in the writing world and I had built relationships with a lot of these people because many of them had written for my white paper publication. And I had decided I wanted to do a physical conference and I was gonna do it in Chicago.
And this really high profile guy named Bob Bly, who’s a big time copywriter, I said, “I would love to have you speak.” And he said, you know, he’s a slightly older guy and he said, “You know what, I don’t like speaking. I don’t wanna speak anymore. I don’t wanna travel.” And I said, “Well, what if I did an online conference?” And he said, “I can do that.” So, I developed the very first online conference back in, like, 2007. And I basically combed together some webinar technology from Microsoft and figured out a way to bring, like, 10 copywriting experts together and we did something called Copywriting Success Summit. And there’s this guy that had a private island on Second Life, which is one of these old-fashioned places that’s kinda like Minecraft, you know. And people, we had after parties on this private island. It was all done virtually. And I sold, like, 300 tickets to this thing. And this guy told me, you know, “You’re pretty good at this. You should consider doing more of this.”
So, then I did one on social media in the spring of 2009, before I started Social Media Examiner. And this guy that very few people had heard of before was my keynote. His name was Gary Vaynerchuck.
Nathan: There you go.
Michael: And he was pregnant with his daughter…his wife was pregnant with Misha, his first daughter. So, I moved the entire event to accommodate him. My friend, Mari Smith, said, you know, he is becoming a big deal. So, he was my online keynote for my very first Social Media Success Summit. We sold like 700 tickets to it and it was, like, a blockbuster event for us. And it was online and we were completely blown away. And it was the success of the very first Social Media Success Summit eight years ago that gave me the idea that maybe I should start a website dedicated to social media.
So, fast-forward, you can see I kinda had a proven business model before I started Social Media Examiner. I mean, so, what I was gonna do, the hope was that if I could grow the audience through a media publication, then I could have another Social Media Success Summit and sell it to the people that were Social Media Examiner email subscribers. And that’s exactly what I did in the spring of 2009, I had Social Media Success Summit 2, if you will, and we sold 3,100 tickets to that event.
Nathan: Yeah, wow.
Michael: And then we went on to have Facebook Success Summit in the fall. And we went on to have three of these events a year. We eventually, over the years, had, we always had Facebook Success Summit and Social Media Success Summit and then, every year, we would come up with a different one, like, we’d have small business success summit or copywriting success summit. So, we did three online conferences a year and that’s how we were able to grow the business in the early days.
Nathan: Got you. So, what happened next? Because you guys do, like you said, like an incredible in-person live one by…live in-person now. What happened?
Michael: Yeah, so, along the way, the Social Media Success Summit was the big one. That was the one that clearly we sold the most tickets to and, like, we just finished our eight annual Social Media Success Summit and we had 2,500 people come to that. We had, like, 30 to 40 speakers. But along the way, we began to realize that as this marketplace became more competitive that there were all sorts of different ways. Because, you know, over the years, people saw what we were doing at Social Media Examiner and they started replicating it or copying this, right. Because when you’re the first, then you kinda have a green field that, eventually, people will look at what you’re doing and they will start doing it. Now, there’s 10,000. I mean, there’s a lot of online success summits now and a lot of people, you know, use the exact same success summit. I’ve seen it all over the place. And some are free even.
So, a lot of times now, people are just using them as email on acquisition exclusively, not even, you know, charging for it. But we charge from day one. So, along the way, we, on different products, one of them was called the Social Media Marketing Society, which is about a year and a half old, that’s our membership organization, where people pay $50 a month to get 3 original trainings every month, 90-minute workshops trial trainings. And that’s almost like an online summit spread out over a whole year. So, we have thousands of people up along to the Social Media Success Summit. And then in 2013, we started Social Media Marketing World, and I’ll tell you a quick, funny story on that.
I was at my friend Joe Pulizzi’s event. Joe is the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, which he just sold for, like, $17 million. And he has an event called Content Marketing World. And I went to his event, I think it started in 2012, and I was blown away at how calm he was. And he had, like, 600 people at his first conference and I’m like, “How are you so calm?” He’s, “Oh, there are people who are event planners and you can hire them to do all the operational heavy lifting.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” So, all of a sudden, mentally in my brain, I shifted in the gears. I’m, like, I started taking pictures of everything, started taking notes, and I said, “You know what, I can do this.” So, we launched in the spring of 2013 our very first conference, Social Media Conference World, and we had 1,100 people at the very first physical conference. And that was, like, a huge eye-opener for us.
Nathan: Got you. That’s incredible and that…and Phil, did he work on that one?
Michael: Oh yeah, Phil has been with me for, like, seven or eight years. Yeah, he’s been there all along. He used to help me with the online events and now, he’s the director of all of our events.
Nathan: Got you. No, he’s a great guy.
Michael: Phil Mershon, yeah.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, great guy. Okay, interesting. So, talk to us about where you see Social Media Examiner going in the future for in terms of the model.
Michael: Well, the key part of our business plan is to aggressively grow social media marketing world. We hope to have 4,000 people there in March of 2017 and we have an aggressive plan, Nathan, to get to 10,000 people by 2019.
Michael: So, yeah, we’re talking 50% growth from last year to 2017, I’m sorry, 33% growth, right, from 3,000 to 4,000. And then 50% growth from 4,000 to 6,000 in 2018. And then 65% growth to grow from 6,000 to 10,000 by 2019. And that’s the plan, is to grow a mega conference. The city of San Diego believes that we are the next Comic Con and we are aggressively building out this to be a mega conference.
Nathan: Got you. And how do you do that? Because it’s very difficult.
Michael: It’s outrageously complicated.
Nathan: Yeah, because, like, talk to me about that. Because people will find this interesting because we actually ran our first event for Foundr for the book, “Foundr V1.0,” it’s on Kickstarter right now, and we ran just, like, a little launch party. And we charged for the tickets. We only charged 40 bucks and we had, you know, just in Melbourne and we had, we didn’t mail it out to anyone. We just let our community know, not even of email, just, you know, a few Facebook groups and stuff and we sell at about 120 tickets, sorry, 110 tickets and about 80 showed up. And it was a great event, it was a success. So, talk to me how you, like, thousands, you know, ace that.
Michael: Well, first of all, you got to have a really big following, okay. So, it helps that we have such a monstrously huge following. And I don’t mean just on the social channels, I mean, across all channels. So, when we have…we’re talking millions, you know, across all of our channels that helps a lot. But the best way to really grow something is to create something that’s of such high quality that people talk about it. And, you know, you said yourself that it was an amazing experience.We worked really hard to make sure that everybody who comes to that conference feels the same way you felt when you came for the first time. And that is a very important piece of marketing, which is the user experience. If you can just kind of exceed expectations, because you know, a lot of people have been to a lot of conferences and there’s a lot of things about a conference if they’re frankly just not good. And I’ve been to gazillions of conferences because I used to be, you know, a speaker who went on the speaking circuit and all that stuff and I just noticed a lot of things that were horrible about conferences.
For example, they don’t give you any details. You show up, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s kinda every man for themselves. The networking is typically in a bar and, you know, you can’t even hear your own voice. So, everyone’s looking at their iPhone. Just all these things that are horrible about conferences, I’ve been watching for years. And I just decided, “You know what,” and by the way, a lot of my friends do conferences and I’ve been telling them, “You need to try this,” and no one would ever listen to me. So, I just decided to start employing a lot of these techniques to my own conference. And now, as a result of some of the stuff we do, Phil Mershon, our event director, was asked to speak at national conferences on conferences because we do so many things that are completely unheard of in the conference space.
Michael: So, that’s the key. You know, the key is to create something, and it takes years to build it. We’re coming up on our 50-year. But what ends up happening is if you create something, an experience that people love, they will share it socially all over the place. And what I hear from a lot of people when I go to conferences is that whenever our conference is going on, Facebook explodes everywhere and people just can’t stop talking about it. And that’s what you want. You wanna create those kinds of experiences that make people wanna pull out their phone and film it or Instagram it or whatever, you know what I mean, and just kinda get those experiences into their Instagram stories or on Snapchat or on the Facebook or Twitter or whatever platform they use. And we just create lots of those kinds of experiences. And it does kind of create kind of…it’s almost like it becomes its own beast and it has a reputation. And then once something has a reputation and everyone talks about it, then you start getting people saying things, like, “I’ve been meaning to come for years. I’m so excited. I’m coming this year.” And that’s the kind of stuff that just takes a lot of hard work and dedication to kinda build.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And, like, this year’s event that had 3,000, how many people did you have doing stuff? Because it looked like you had a massive amount of people?
Michael: We had a lot. We probably…our team was probably almost 200 people and then we had all of the speakers, which was another 150, approximately. So, when you count all the speakers and all the staff and personnel, it’s a monster undertaking. Now, when I say our team, that includes a lot of volunteers. We have what we call a volunteer army. There’s a lot of people that love us and love our event and have even been in the past but can’t come because, maybe, financially it’s not working for them. So, we love to make those people volunteers. And those people get a chance to experience the event but also work the event and kind of understand that we’re trying to create a Disney-like experience and understand our service focus and everything like that. So, you know, it’s really awesome. A big chunk of that is volunteers.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s really cool. So, can you make events profitable?
Michael: It’s our primary product. It’s our primary product. And we make money, yes. We make good money. But to make an event profitable is not easy. I mean, you know, you did an event. You probably lost money on that event, am I right?
Nathan: Yeah, yeah. How did you know?
Michael: Yeah. Because I do events, I know how the stuff works.
Nathan: Yeah, but ours was extremely small scale. It wasn’t there to make money, yeah.
Nathan: This is for community.
Michael: So, the big cost with events are food, the space, the venue. We rent an aircraft carrier for our opening night party. Did you make it over to the aircraft carrier?
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, that was cool.
Michael: That’s not cheap. You know, so, these things cost a lot of money. But they’re worth the investment. Like, I remember our first year, we were inside of a natural history museum, you know, where you could network among dinosaurs and stuff like that, which was cool in its own, right. But in the next year, we knew we’re gonna outgrow that venue. So, we looked at this aircraft carrier and I said, “Man, I wonder if we can get that. Can we afford that?” And I went on on a limb and I said, “Okay, we’re gonna do it,” because I just knew it would be an unforgettable experience, right. I mean, it’s one of the few things that kind of imprints permanently in your brain, right, because who has a party on an aircraft carrier?
Nathan: Yeah, it’s crazy you say that because, yeah, I had a few too many drinks. So, I wasn’t really thinking that straight.
Michael: You probably don’t remember it.
Nathan: No, I do, but it was awesome.
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A lot of people, you know, would look at your brand and ask, “Are events scalable?” Like, you do online training. How come you’re not looking to scale up the online training? I know, you’ve got your membership site but, like, individual courses, you know, really, really looking to scale that up because it is much more scalable.
Michael: Yeah, here’s the challenge. Here’s the challenge. I, first of all, am a perfectionist. I’m gonna self-disclose that I am a perfectionist and if there was a perfectionist anonymous, I would be leading the group. And the challenge with anything is the amount of energy it takes to market it and this is the secret to anything, right. Nothing sells itself, it has to be marketed. And the challenges, the amount of work that it takes to promote something like Social Media Marketing World is huge. And the amount of work it takes to promote a 40-person event is also large. So, the idea of constantly having different courses that we’re launching doesn’t sit well with me because I’m a believer of…I coined this thing called the elevation principle in my book. And it’s called great content plus other people minus marketing messages equals growth. And remember, I talked about how promotion and marketing and selling kind of is like the flaps on the airplane and it slows you down.
So, I don’t like to always be selling. Because if I’m always selling, then I’m not gonna be able to grow. And we’re growing our email list by 20,000 to 25,000 people per month because we’re not constantly selling. And I believe in having seasons, kind of like a television show has seasons. And we have our seasons where we sell stuff and then we have our seasons where we don’t sell stuff. But we sell enough stuff during those seasons that it funds everything else. So, while we could have courses constantly, I would much rather group them all together and call them Social Media Marketing World, because that’s essentially what it is, right.
Nathan: Yeah, exactly.
Michael: Social Media Marketing World has workshops, it has sessions, it has everything. And if it’s one thing I learned over the years is that, you know, it’s a lot of work to create one thing and then sell it. It wasn’t until I grouped the all together in my first online conference that I began to saw the power of grouping things together and selling them as a package as an experience that has a start date and an end date. And that’s what’s great about live events is that they, you know, they have a date tied to it and people are either there or they’re not. And that’s, I think, the magic about what we do is everything that we sell is live.
Nathan: Let’s talk about events, like, you said they are quite expensive. Can you give, maybe, you know, three to four, maybe five key pieces if someone wants to put an event make it profitable or make it a great venture? Like, what is required? What are things, in Michael Stelzner’s world, that requires?
Michael: I’ll tell you that the three magic pieces that I think work for us are networking, discovery, and fun. So, and actually, we have those three words as kind of our tagline for Social Media Marketing World. I think when you do an event, there needs to be a networking component to it because people that go to events want to connect with people, certain kinds of people. And they wanna have the option to meet the kinds of people that they wanna meet. So, if you can figure out a creative way to implement networking that even an introvert would enjoy, and my guess is you’re an introvert, is that right?
Nathan: I don’t know. I don’t really like to label myself either or, but I do really like people. Like, I…
Michael: Well, an introvert would prefer to go retreat at 3:00 in the afternoon and recharge when exhausted.
Nathan: No, that’s not me.
Michael: Yeah. An extrovert would say, like, “Okay, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna talk to other people.” So, creating an event that works for even the introvert, you know, that gives them a reason to wanna say, “I’m gonna push beyond that boundary even though I’m exhausted and keep talking to people,” that is absolutely powerful. So, that’s the first thing is you’ve got to understand the importance of networking. Secondly, the content, it needs to be excellent. And in reality, people buy events because of the content, they come back because of the networking, and this is important. So, what sells people on an event is that they will come and they will discover something that will make them better marketers, entrepreneurs, whatever. So, the content needs to be exceptional, no matter what you do. It needs to be really your best or you need to have the best people, even if they’re not known, but excellent teachers. So, that’s really, I think, what ultimately helps sell tickets is the quality of the content.
And then, the fun component kind of is like an emotional angle. Like, most people, you know, don’t come because of the fun. And they may not even come because of the networking. They come because they are hopeful that they’re gonna discover that’s gonna move the needle for them. But if they discover something that moves the needle for them and they have fun, then all of a sudden it’s like taking it to an entirely new level. And the fun component should never be underestimated. And fun, typically, could mean almost anything. It could just mean smiling faces greeting people, making people feel more comfortable. It could mean parties. Like in the past, we’ve had an indoor beach party and we actually had an indoor surf machine. So, you could get up on the surf machine and then, if you fell off, you fell into an airbag kind of thing, you know. But we would do cool contests and surfing contests. We’ve always had karaoke, you know, where you get to sing and stuff. So, just fun stuff that is, like, the kind of fun stuff that you would normally like to do when you’re hanging out with your friends.
So, the networking and the fun and the content, all combined, is very rare in an event. But if you can figure out how to add, how to do all three of those with excellence, that’s when you will create a really, really happy customer, that even if they don’t come back, they’ll let their friends know you ought to go to that event.
Nathan: Love it. All right, let’s switch gears and talk about the content strategy because that’s the essence of what’s driving the growth. Like, yes, the event, I agree, but the core business is content, right?
Michael: Absolutely. We’re a media company.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s right. So, if somebody wants to, you know, start an authority brand like you have in a particular niche, what’s your best advice if you wanna go for the whole content play, building a successful media company? I’m really curious around that.
Michael: Yeah, so, first, start with research, okay. And this could mean lots of things. But first and foremost, understand the space that you wanna get into. So, who are the players? What are they doing well? What are they not doing well? How could you find a little unique space for yourself in there? So, for example, when I’ve started Social Media Examiner, I noticed, no one is writing detailed “how to” pieces. I knew that would be my differentiator. And also, most of them didn’t have a background in writing. They weren’t professional writers. So, I knew that those two things would be my secret sauce to go into a crowded marketplace. So, study, study, study the marketplace. And then try to find some way to differentiate yourself because there is no industry that cannot be disrupted. I don’t care how good you are or how good the space is or how good you think the people are that are in that space. There’s always room for innovation. There’s always room for a different spin or an angle on something.
Secondly, it’s really important to try to understand who it is you wanna reach in extreme detail. So, for example, if I ask you, Nathan, who are you trying to reach with your publication? You probably, and I’m not put you on the spot, but you probably know a lot about who they are. And the best way to know about them is actually to put some sort of the survey together. So, at Social Media Examiner, every year, we run a survey to thousands. I think we had 5,000 people take it this year. And we ask them all sorts of questions about things they wanna learn about, things that they plan on doing, and then we also ask them, like, what I call the demographic questions. What part of the world are you in? How old are you? How many hours a week are you spending doing this? And the list goes on and on and on, you know. We would ask them…I’m forgetting some of the demographic questions that we would ask them but lots of questions. And then that would allow us to really understand exactly who our audience is and it would allow us to be smart about planning our editorial content.
Nathan: In regards to content, how has it changed in terms of the quality of content at scale that you’re producing? I’m really curious around that. Like, you won how many pieces, fast-forward to now, how many pieces per day, per week?
Michael: We publish eight articles a week. Back in the beginning, we were publishing like three or four articles a week. So, it’s not changed that much. There are other media entities that publish 30, 50, 100, 1,000 articles a day. It’s not our play. If you look at somebody like Mashable, my guess is they’re probably publishing at least 50 to 100 articles a day, short articles. If you look at somebody like Social Media Examiner, we publish one to two articles a day, long articles, 1,000 to 2,000 words. We haven’t fundamentally altered that, you know. Sometimes we scale back to 6 a week and scale up to 10 a week. But we don’t believe, at this point, it’s about a quantity play, it’s about a quality play. It’s just not kind of wise to go crazy and publish lots of content. Because think about it, Nathan, any piece of content can scale to a potentially unlimited audience, right. My blog article could be read by 500 people or could be read by a million people. But it’s the same piece of content. Content scales indefinitely. It’s not like you need to have more content to get more readers. What you need to have is really good content.
Nathan: Okay. Curious then, what if you created the same quality content but more of it, wouldn’t that help you guys grow faster hypothetically?
Michael: Hypothetically, no. Here’s why. Because there is a limit to how many…first of all, every piece of content needs to be promoted, okay.
Michael: This is not, if you built it they will come. You can’t just put something out there and it gets picked up and just goes viral. That’s not how it works. It must be promoted. So, social sites are beginning to penalize people that aggressively promote over and over again, you know, the same piece of content. That’s what algorithms do, they stop that from happening. There’s algorithms everywhere. I don’t think there’s any social network that doesn’t have them. So, the moral of the story here is that if you get to the point where you’re publishing 20 articles a day, do you think your audiences got time to receive all that promotion?
Nathan: None at all.
Michael: And what are you gonna do, send out a newsletter with 20 things in it and you know they’re gonna click on the first one and that’s it? So, it’s not scalable. It’s just not. And it’s because everything that you do must be promoted and must have some sort of a plan behind it. How many times do you publish a day on your Instagram account?
Nathan: For our Instagram, you know, five to eight times a day.
Michael: Right. And how many on Facebook?
Nathan: Not sure, probably similar, maybe more.
Michael: Right. So, but the moral of the story is that you’re not just publishing links to articles. You’re publishing things that are graphics, that are designed to spur some sort of an emotional or elicit response, right?
Michael: If everything that you posted was simply just a link back to your website, what’s gonna happen with those social networks? They’re gonna stop showing your stuff because they’re gonna say all of this company cares about is linking to themselves. And your fans might not even follow you. So, yeah, the moral of the story is you’re gonna hit some sort of a maximum threshold for your audience. Now, the only exception to this is if you are trying to simultaneously attract many different audiences to you, which is not the objective of my company. You know, if I was trying to attract internet marketers, email marketers, social media marketers, direct response marketers, public relations, you know, then maybe I should be generic and publish tons of content for everyone. But then no one…and then I would never be known for anything.
Nathan: Because you don’t down.
Michael: Yeah, because I’m extremely focused on social media marketing, there’s just so much content that the social media marketer has room for in their brain. Therefore, we don’t go crazy overboard.
Nathan: Got you. That makes sense. So, look, we have to work towards wrapping up but I’m curious around your team and I think people would find this interesting because, you know, you do produce a lot of content. Like, you know, that’s no easy feat, you know, seven, eight articles a week, six articles a week. That’s no easy feat. So, talk to us about your team and what your company structure looks like in terms of your team and running, you know, a high traffic media company.
Michael: There’s 43 people inside the company and there’s only 6 people at corporate headquarters in San Diego and then everyone else works out of their house. It’s technically a virtual company and we have a lot of specialists, you know. Like our editorial team has got quite a few specialists on it. And it is a lot of work. We have staff writers and then we also have people that are just average, everyday people that say, “Hey, I would like to write for you.” And they go through a vetting process at socialmediaexaminer.com/writers. And every article gets a good thousand dollars’ worth of development internal labor cost applied to it because there’s a whole bunch of different people on the team that go through what we call beautification process to take the article from what was submitted to something that’s ready for us to publish on Social Media Examiner. But we have, let’s see, I think, six divisions. We’ve got a social division, we’ve got the editorial division, we’ve got the sales division, which sells sponsorships for the conference, we’ve got the events division, and we’ve got the society division, and I’m probably skipping one for some reason, I can’t remember what the sixth one is. Marketing, the marketing division. So, and those are the core parts of the company. And I am the chief copywriter.
Nathan: Oh really? You copy.
Michael: I’m the copywriter dude. I write all. Let me rephrase. I write every headline for Social Media Examiner. I review every single email that goes out for our sales stuff. I’m also the…even though I’m the CEO, I also oversee marketing. Even though we have a head of marketing, it’s my secret sauce, you know. So, half of my time is dedicated to the marketing side of the company.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Couple questions, I know, I’m really enjoying this conversation. Talk to me around the beautification process. Can you just give some insight quickly around, like, how many hoops does one piece of content have to go through and for how many people before it gets published? I’m really curious around that.
Michael: Well, back in the early days, we had six editors working on every article.
Michael: Now, I think we’re down to four or five. So, just to give you the quick skinny. It comes in and it goes through an initial team that reviews it and rejects it or accepts it or sends it back for revision. And then once it comes in for revision, then it goes to a developmental editor and the developmental editor is like a book editor who goes in and actually tightens up the entire thing. Then it goes to a copy editor who looks at it for syntax and grammar. Then it goes to the director, the main editor, who has one sober on it. Then it comes to me and I have the right to reject anything, and I do reject stuff. And I’m looking at the opening paragraph and the headlines. Then it goes back to another editor that preps it for publication. And then it goes to a designer who creates the images for the article.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s intense. Impressive, though, impressive, impressive.
Michael: Yeah, I’ve always run it like a print magazine. You know, it’s always been about really high quality.
Nathan: Yeah, I know. I can definitely see that. All right, awesome. Well, look, we have to work towards wrapping up, Michael. But one last question…two last questions. The first one is, you being the copy guy, isn’t, like, from a business building standpoint, you shouldn’t be the technician? I just wanted to ask that question.
Michael: It’s a good question. I believe that everybody has a secret superpower. And I happen to know that I am a very good copywriter. And just like I’m sure and I don’t, you know…Bill Gates probably coded right up until he couldn’t code anymore. You know what I mean? So, it’s a special craft that’s been built over 20 years and I’m just really, really good at it. So, for me, it takes me less than a half an hour to do the copy edits for all the articles for the week of Social Media Examiner.
Nathan: That’s it down then.
Michael: Yeah, it’s just because I can do it with my eyes closed. And then to write an email, it’s critical because, you know, I know how to persuade. So, I might spend half an hour writing an email and then it goes to someone on the marketing team, who cleans it up. But I believe that everybody has a craft and a specialty and you don’t have to give it up to grow your business. And I think this is one of the things that a lot of people believe that they have to give up what they love to grow their business. And I’m here to tell you, that’s not true. You don’t have to. Just give up what you don’t like and keep what you love.
Nathan: Love it. All right. Taking the last question. Around building an asset-based business, incorporating you as part of it, because you do do the podcast and all those kinds of things, and I’m putting you on the spot here so you don’t have to answer this. But have you had any acquisition offers for your…?
Michael: I’ve had five.
Michael: Five. I’ve said no to all of them.
Nathan: And why was that? Because it wasn’t…this is what you love to do?
Michael: No, it’s because I know that what I have is a once in a lifetime thing and I don’t wanna give it up. I’m not for sale. And I look at people, like Dave Ramsey, who’s built this monster following, as the personality. And I think you can still be the personality and have a big old company behind you. He’s got like 600 employees behind him. And, you know, if someone did buy Social Media Examiner, you know, obviously, I could keep the podcast or I could sell it and we’d get a new host. I mean, there’s nothing we’re doing that couldn’t be replicated by someone else. But in the end, I love what I’m doing and I don’t know what I would do if I sold the business.
Nathan: Love it. Awesome. Well, look, this has been an awesome conversation, Michael. You’ve shed so much gold. So, where’s the best place people can find you if they wanna know more?
Michael: If you wanna find out Social Media Marketing World or Social Media Examiner or my podcast called “Social Media Marketing,” you can just go to socialmediaexaminer.com and there’s links to everything there.
Nathan: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time, Michael. It’s an absolute pleasure.
Michael: My pleasure.
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