On Monday night, I was fortunate enough to interview Michael Stelzner, Founder of SocialMediaExaminer.com and author of the new book Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition. In this interview, I speak with Mike about the meteoric growth and success of Social Media Examiner.
Just two weeks after launch in October, 2009, Technorati rated Mike’s blog among the world’s Top 100 Small Business Blogs. Within 12 months, Social Media Examiner acquired more than 40,000 email subscribers and earned over $1 million. In just 20 months since launch, Social Media Examiner has been named a top-25 business blog by both Technorati and Ad Age and a top 5 small business blog by Technorati. [pullquote]In just a year and a half, Mike’s return on his $4,000 startup investment is $3,000,000 (and rising).[/pullquote]
Mike had no previous experience in social media.
Below is our conversation:
Jim: What was the genesis behind the idea of Social Media Examiner?
Mike: I noticed that there were very few blogs that were dedicated to the deep content that people were seeking. There were lots of social media expertsť that were sharing their opinions and there were lots of marketing publications that were talking about social media but there was no magazineť that was dedicated to bringing together experts and really diving deep into the how-to details.
I didn’t get the sense that there were too many really savvy businesspeople that were behind some of the social media publications, so I decided to reach out to my friends in the world of writing and marketing. I asked, “What do you think about starting something that we’re going to call a magazine and that will hopefully take the marketplace by storm?” That was kind of how it all started.
We were very strategic about launching it right before BlogWorld in Los Angeles in October of 2009. We launched it two days before that event. I was walking around carrying a microphone in my hand with my little Social Media Examiner flag on a microphone.
I was walking around at the event, flagging down everyone I could. I walked up to Technorati’s booth and said I would like to interview their CEO and they asked, “Who are you with?” I told them I was with Social Media Examiner and the gal at the table took out her iPhone and typed in Social Media Examiner and said, “Oh you’re with Social Media Examiner, of course, we’ll be happy to let you interview our CEO.” And we were only a couple of days old.
Why do you call Social Media Examiner an online magazine?
I knew that the people I would be targeting were small business owners and marketers. I knew marketers would be very familiar with what a blog is but knew that small business owners would not necessarily be familiar with blogs. I chose a term that would be universal because everyone knows what a magazine is. Typically a magazine, unlike a newspaper, has the deeper content that comes out less frequently.
I did it to try to differentiate myself from Mashable, which essentially and still is the leading newspaper in the world of social media. I didn’t want people to misconstrue that we were trying to compete with Mashable.
I knew that everybody knew what a magazine was so I tapped the vernacular that made sense to the reader and that’s why I called it an online magazine. Ever since I did that I noticed that everyone in their mother started calling their sites online magazines. I think it clicked and stuck. People know what it means and it conjures an image in their head.
When did you find your calling in life?
That’s a great question. When I was in my late 20’s, I was working in corporate America. I got wrongfully terminated from my job because the boss thought I saw him doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing, the CEO of the company.
That forced me to essentially figure out what I was going to do. The first thing I did was go out and buy a video game system and figure out what I wanted to do.
I was a product marketing guy so I went to some of the manufacturers of the products and asked if they wanted to hire me. And they did and things were good, I didn’t have to market myself much, it was all word of mouth. My mentality was as long as people are willing to hire me, I’m willing to do whatever they want me to do.
Eventually what happened was the tech market crashed in 2002 and I had been servicing high tech. I lost a lot of business and I had to come to the realization that my spaceship had always been floating kind of aimlessly without a vision.
At that point I realized that I really needed to figure out what I needed to do and go after it hard-core. I chose to be a specialist in whitepapers. I focused on establishing myself as a thought leader in the world of whitepapers, which are crosses between articles and brochures used by big businesses to help them sell their products and services.
That was the beginning of the first ah-ha moment because I had a baby girl, I had to get food on the table. Necessity forced me to figure out what I was going to do. Then I just started going for it and it worked beautifully. I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks; I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed, and refined and refined and refined until I was able to figure it all out.
[pullquote]There’s no easy road in life. You gotta work hard and be willing to take your knocks, you have to learn from your mistakes and if you do that you can become successful in business.[/pullquote]
My goal when I started making whitepapers was to build an audience first and then have a book and this is exactly what I did with Social Media Examiner. I built an audience and then came out with a book. I learned along the way that the best way to sell something is to have the audience to yourself and that’s what’s great about being a publisher. When we own the audience and we are the publisher then we’re setting ourselves up for success and we’re not reliant on outsiders, we’re middlemen.
How did you transition from whitepapers to social media in mere months?
I was very successful with whitepapers, I got to the point where I was making $30,000 a month writing for big corporations like FedEx, Dow Jones, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft and I didn’t need to do anything, literally I was set for life. I could have written whitepapers for the rest of my life but it got a little monotonous and a little old.
I saw a lot of my friends singing the praises of Twitter and Facebook. I said to myself, “I gotta figure this out; I think we’re on the cusp of something humungous here.” I reached out to my friends who knew social media and asked, “Do you want to be a part of something? You know my track record.”ť I had already been coined the king of whitepapers by many of my peers. Marketing Sherpa called me the Grandfather of Whitepapers, even though I’m only 43. I had already proven that track record in bringing high-profile individuals together to make stuff happen.
I decided I was going to go for it. It happened over a dinner at a fish restaurant in San Diego in May and in October the whole thing was born.
What has been your bread & butter for your blog — your evergreen content?
It’s a combination of everything. The stuff that has a really long tail, meaning its content that seems to bring people back again and again and again are the forms of nuclear content that we produced like The Social Media Marketing Industry Report that we come out with every year.
We surveyed thousands of marketers and asked them what’s the biggest question about social media marketing that you want answered? How many hours have you invested in it? What tools are you using? What are you planning on using in the future? We started with that in 2009 under my prior business Whitepaper Source Publishing. That was a test run to see whether we could produce a piece of nuclear content that could help us in leading up to the launch of Social Media Examiner.
[pullquote]That particular report was read by 40,000 people in a matter of 4 weeks and was written about by 500 blogs. [/pullquote]Since then we have since gone on to produce two more of these reports. These reports have brought in enormous traffic, we have been written up in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
It’s an enormous amount of work to create these kinds of things that we just give away for free. This incredible evergreen content has had the biggest long-term effect and is content that to this day people are still tweeting about.
Tell me more about your Social Media Success Summits. How have these helped grow your business?
The way we monetize Social Media Monitor is through these events. The mentality is you get all this good free content from us every single day, the hope is that the reader will ask, ‘Well how much more will I gain by buying a ticket to this event that is online?’ť We do one on blogging, one on social media and one on Facebook each year.
We typically get 20 to 30 high profile presenters — usually these are people who have written books or that are practitioners at big brands. For example, we are working right now on the Facebook Success Summit. We have Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment, as the keynote and we have a ton of people who have written books on Facebook such as Mari Smith, Amy Porterfield, Dave Kerpen and Jesse Stay.
We create these incredible opportunities to bring top names in the world in a niche together in a virtual setting. We typically have thousands of people from around the world come to these events to hear from these experts. We had about 3,000 people come to our last event, a Social Media Success Summit, in May.
I noticed that you include an ad on your emails to subscribers? Is this another channel through which you make money?
It depends. Sometimes the ad is just a favor for a buddy. That is the only vehicle through which we do advertising. We also do advertising for our summits as a vehicle. [pullquote]Our newsletter is so simple that people don’t unsubscribe. We deliver it 6 days a week to about 85,000 subscribers and we get on average a 25%-30% daily open rate, which is phenomenal for a list that size and for a daily publication.[/pullquote]
The article is the reason why they open it. They have to click through to read the whole thing. Through that daily feeding of content to our audience, we give them the opportunity to come to our free events, like our webinars and Facebook Fridays, where we bring experts to the table and occasionally we’ll advertise our own events in there — that’s what I call the back-channel or secondary channel where commercials live. On our website we never have commercials, we try to keep it completely advertising free. If we do advertise anything, it’s always something free.
Right now we are advertising a free chapter of my book. The idea is to keep the primary channel commercial free, so when people go there they receive it as a great piece of valuable content that is perceived as a gift, not as some sort of a bait piece to get them to do something. We hope that they’ll want more and sign up for our newsletter.
What’s your top piece of advice to small businesses looking to blog?
My number one piece of advice is to figure out who you want to reach and precisely what they’re interested in. Sometimes that means you have to talk to people, reach out and survey them, get on the phone with them and find out what they’re interested in.
When you give people exactly what they want then they’re going to love you and want to come back for more. At the core everyone wants great insights, access to great people and they want recognition, if you can figure out how to meet these three needs, then you’re going to be off and running very quickly.
The core of it all is focusing on the needs of people and not on what your personal desires and interests are. Don’t focus on trying to pitch and sell, instead focus on what people are truly interested in and focus on developing these relationships with these people.
Those are the people who will share your content on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Those are the people that will evangelize you to the hills. They may not buy from you but they will do something better, they will market the heck out of your content for you and they’ll bring people back time and time again to you. They will be extremely loyal. And that’s where everybody seems to get it wrong. People are so focused on trying to do the sale and convert people, instead of focusing on what peoples’ true desires and interests are. If you can re-focus your efforts on how I can help you, then how I can sell you, then you will find success.
What’s next for Social Media Examiner?
In the long-run I’m going to continue to do what we’ve been doing and we’re going to continue to grow. We’ll be well over 100,000 subscribers in the next couple of months. As long as social media continues to change, there will be a need for Social Media Examiner.
My real desire is to write children’s stories. Someday I want to stop all this and write stories for kids. That’s my true passion and figure it may be in 10 years that I’ll be able to do that. For now, I’m going to keep doing what we’re doing, which is helping people figure out this crazy world of social media.
Check out Mike’s latest book: Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition.