Mari Smith: The "Pied Piper" of the Online World...the Interview

MariSmithNew Mari Smith is a Relationship Marketing Specialist and a natural-born networker. Wendy Marx, an expert blogger for Fast Company, recently called her the Pied Piper of the online world. I had a chance recently to interview Mari and talk about how small businesses can get started with social media marketing and leverage it to grow their business, and what the future of social media might look like.

Rich: Mari, you've been called the 'Pied Piper' of the online world on Fast Company. But how did you get there? Can you just give us a little background on what you were doing before and how you discovered social media and what has happened since that moment?

Mari: I'm very much a natural networker anyway. I was on many of these different online networking sites like Ecademy, Ryze, and LinkedIn. I dabbled with MySpace, but could never really get my head around it.

In early 2007, I was invited to check out Facebook, particularly because I was on a testing team, a beta team for a platform that had just been accepted as a Facebook application. It was called Podclass, a place where you could take and teach classes.

My friend that developed the app was so excited about being approved to be a Facebook application. I couldn't understand why he was so excited, but then I went to Facebook and I signed up for an account. I started exploring around the site and I was absolutely blown away by the power of this site. I could feel the vibe, the energy, the white space, the design and how easy it was to connect with people and how excited people were.

I just really fell in love with the platform and started to really immerse myself in how the different features worked. Also, I will tell you, Rich, that I very quickly realized that there is a lot of frivolity. There are a lot of games and just crazy things like throwing sheep, cupcakes, werewolves and vampire bites. I thought, "Oh my gosh. We're just going to ignore all of this." There is a button on there that I just hit: 'Ignore All'.

Rich: There's a 'Hide all Vampires' button?

Mari: Yes, or 'Block All' or 'Ignore All'.

My strategy from the get-go was to be very strategic about who I 'friended', who I chose to be in my inner circle, if you will; to be very strategic about my activities and to pretty much ignore all the noise and the frivolity and utilize Facebook as a very high-level professional networking platform much like people use LinkedIn.

But there certainly is an element of fun and Facebook is really conducive to conversation. The moment you become friends with someone, you can be writing on their wall, commenting on different activities and their feed and whatnot.

Rich: I know that you talk to a lot of small businesses and do a lot of consulting with them. One of the things that I've noticed as I've attended different events is that so often the focus is on what Dell is doing in social media or what Hallmark is doing in social media. There's not often a conversation about what small businesses should be doing.

What kind of challenges do small businesses face or how should they approach social media that may be different than what large companies might do?

Mari: You're absolutely right. I think the large companies, first of all, typically have a bigger budget. Secondly, they would have a more recognizable brand, such that when they all of a sudden make a big splash in social media, people are going to sit up and take notice.

For the smaller business, it's really important for them to certainly look and see what is working for that bigger brand. We could take Zappos as an example. It's a $1 billion company. One of the things that is working well for Zappos is that the CEO is actually the one who manages his Twitter account, for example, although I don't know if they do much with Facebook.

Another one might be Mashable. Mashable is a great social media blog and they pull in their feeds into a Facebook page that's going to give them more visibility.  

Look and see what are some of the things that are working? How can they scale it down and implement them into their own strategies? But certainly never get threatened by these bigger brands. Really keep that persistent and consistent focus; being clear on what products and services you offer and to whom, what problems that you solve and how you can help your marketplace.

I'm a great believer in that there's no such thing as competition, most definitely for the small business owner and certainly for the solopreneur, because there's only one 'you'. Nobody can claim to offer what you do in the way that you do it and in the mediums that you do it, et cetera, with all the different experiences and skills that you have.

I think it's just really important for people, whether you're a small, medium or large company, to really get innovative. Look to see what people are doing that's working and see how you can get even more creative.

Actually, for building up quite a following on Facebook and Twitter, it would be by offering contests and drawings and sweepstakes, for example. Forrester Research recently announced that companies that do drawings and sweepstakes and contests have twice as many social media fans than those that don't.

You can get quite creative with it. You don't have to give away the whole store, but you could give away something that would be of value and that's not going to cost you a lot of money.

Rich: Especially something that would be of interest to your audience. That way, you just make it about the people who most want to do business with you and attract them without attracting everybody with, say, a free iPod or something like that.       

Mari: Yes, exactly. A very good point.

Rich: A lot of small businesses—I'm talking to them and I'm a small business owner myself—a lot of small businesses are just starting to get into this. They saw the article in Time magazine on Twitter or all these other things and they realize, "I have to pay attention to this."

Bandwidth is always a big issue when it comes to small businesses. When you're talking to small businesses, do you have a blanket statement on where they should start? Where should a small business start; with everything or just one thing at a time?

Mari: I think, with social media, it's important to have a presence on many sites.

There are sites like www.KnowEm.com. There are many other ones, but that's the one that just springs to mind immediately. You can pop in a username and you can see how many sites that your username is available on. This is particularly for the small business owner and the entrepreneur or the solopreneur because you want reserve your name.

Just having a basic profile on as many different sites as possible would be at least part of an overall strategy because it's very much like real estate. It's valuable real estate. A good domain name, if someone already owns it, it's too bad if someone has the same name as you. So that might be somewhere just to check and see.

As far as having a basic profile on all those other sites, you want to really pick one or two, maybe three, sites that overall you're going to be active on.

For me, that has always been Facebook, Twitter, and a tiny little bit of LinkedIn. I have some YouTube channels and I'm also on FriendFeed, but I use FriendFeed to integrate other platforms. I aggregate the feeds. I'm not that active on it.

Interestingly enough, because I think Facebook has quite a bit more complexity, I would recommend starting with Twitter. You can set up a Twitter account, customize it, put a nice background in there, fill out the bio, and put a picture in there. Decide, if you have a recognized logo, if you're going to put your logo in as the avatar or if you're going to put a person's face in. It's a big decision for a lot of people to make.

Then it's also choosing what messages to broadcast. Getting back to that piece I mentioned earlier about consistency and focus, do your best not to be talking about things that are so off topic that you confuse your audience.

Adding value is not always just your own messaging. You can bring in messaging from other sources that complement what you do that really add value to your marketplace: your friends, fans and followers.

Just as soon as maybe after a week or two, after you've gotten the hang of Twitter, you might go ahead and start building out a Facebook fan page.

You need to have 100 fans before you can reserve your own username at www.Facebook.com/username. If you have an email list already, as soon as your fan page is up, I would send out an email to the email list and talk about being on Twitter.

You can grow much faster on Twitter, too. That's one of the reasons I recommend starting with it. The rules say you can follow up to 1,000 people a day.

It's a little trickier to get people to join your fan page on Facebook. You've got to be quite a bit more proactive. So hopefully, there are some ideas there, but these are just very general.

When I work with my clients and students, we just do pretty much a big analysis and look at exactly where they're at right now, what traffic they're getting, what keywords that they've got coming up on Google, and where they can really do an all-integrated social media strategy and internet marketing strategy.

Social media is just one piece of the overall marketing pie. A lot of people are getting very hung up thinking it's the only thing, but it's very important to combine it with all kinds of other marketing too. I love to go to events, both virtual and live events. I like to see and be seen. I like to do public speaking and those kinds of things that then complement what you're doing in social media because then you can upload photos and videos and blog about it and tweet about it.

Rich: You talk about using your email list to then help build your fan page. This is something that I still struggle with. We do have a fan page and we do have our vanity URL www.Facebook.com/flytenewmedia, but what do I do once I get people there? I think that's a question that a lot of people struggle with.

What kind of value can a small business offer, or any business really, on their fan page that isn't found at their blog, that isn't found at their website, that isn't found through an email newsletter? How do you add value there as well and give people a compelling reason to become a fan of your company on Facebook?

Mari: You've hit the nail on the head. It is a challenge for a lot of people. I think that it's important to create what's called 'stickiness'; stickiness meaning that once people become a fan, they feel compelled to come back.

They're going to come back because, for them, they feel like it's a quick source to ask questions. That would be one way. You can start some good discussion threads. You can encourage people to write on your wall, to comment and to ask questions there.

Certainly, push good content through into the status updates. There are shortcuts to do that like through Ping.fm. That will update your Twitter as well as LinkedIn, your Facebook profile, and your Facebook fan page, and you can do some multi-site broadcasting.

I don't do that for every single outgoing message, but maybe a few times a day, I would make sure that my page is being updated so that content is going out into the feeds of the fans. That's how that works. That's a relatively new feature. They didn't always used to push the content from the fan page out into the feeds of fans.

The other thing would be to send regular updates to remind people to come back to the fan page. For example, on my fan page, I have a 'follow me on Twitter' badge. Then I have content in there like my opt-in box code and a welcome page. All of that is done through the app called 'Static FBML' where you can drop in your custom HTML.

Really think about your fan page as a store, if you will. It's always open and you want to keep the shelves well-stocked. You want to be well-lit, bright and inviting for people. So always be attractive and active for the fan page.

It's really not unlike your blog. It's like an extension of your blog. You want to be having some good content coming through and some activity, encouraging people to comment.

The other thing is to look at who's doing it well. Again, you've got big brands like Gucci. They're putting some great content through and some photos and videos of preexisting fans of Gucci.

Then you've got an individual celebrity like Vin Diesel. Interestingly enough, he's at www.Facebook.com/vin and at some point soon, he is going to surpass the president of America for numbers of fans. He's getting close to 6 million. He has just almost come out of nowhere in terms of Facebook, so I've been really observing him to see what he's doing that's working so well.

First of all, he already has a preexisting phenomenal fan base. But he's very, very personable and he shares a significant amount very warmly, sincerely and intimately with his fans. In the updates, he shares a lot of photos and a lot of videos. He's very available. I don't know how he finds the time for it all, but his fans just love it.

Rich: Maybe if Obama stars in the "Fast & Furious" sequel, then he can also start to equal those kind of numbers.

Do you ever think that there are certain companies or businesses that shouldn't be on Facebook or shouldn't be on Twitter?

Mari: It's interesting because this comes up from time to time. Back in the day, about 18 months, almost two years ago, I used to say, "Any company that has to be really vigilant about privacy probably should not get involved in social media," because what are you going to talk about? You can't really talk about much going on in your business. I was thinking of an example, maybe a private detective.

Lo and behold, a friend of mine told me about a private detective—I believe he was in the U.K.—and he was using Facebook to get a ton of international business because he found that people who wanted to hire a private investigator didn't want to hire someone in their own backyard. They wanted somebody from afar. So that's a great example.

Otherwise, if there are companies that are very, very protective about their privacy or their content, or another big thing too is the time element of it, make sure that you've done your homework first. I think that's why a lot of companies are floundering in social media. There's a ton of excess information out there and confusing and conflicting information. People say, "Start with a blog," or "No, start with a video," or "Do a podcast," or "You've got to have Facebook and don't forget Twitter." People are just tearing their hair out. They don't know where to start.

Just do your homework and your research. Do some analysis and be clear on your company's services, products, values, and who your target market is. Just know that it's so important to be in that niche and go an inch wide and a mile deep. I think that a lot of people are trying to go a mile wide and an inch deep and just reach everybody. "Who's your target market?" "Everybody." No, everybody can't be your target market.

In fact, social media makes it quite easy for you to find your target market. Especially on Twitter, you can do quite a bit of keyword searching to find people to follow.

Rich: That brings up an interesting question. One of the things with Facebook is that you can really target your ads. What kind of experience have you had in ads and do you have any advice in terms of companies that do want to be buying some ads on Facebook?

Mari: The ads have really improved a lot. There are two ways that you can go. For those who are not quite familiar yet, it really works like Google AdWords. You're buying targeted traffic. You can pay per impression or pay per click. You really want to pay per click because impressions could rack up. You're not going to get a lot of mileage out of that.

You can get really, really specific. By way of example, I could put up an ad for women age 30 to 35 who live in San Diego and who like Oprah. You can put keywords in like that. The rate depends on how many people are in that target market.

I have found that by advertising—not trying to do necessarily direct sales, like to do an ad that says 'click here' and they click and they go outside of Facebook and now they're on a sales page and you're trying to get them to buy and get a sale—rather, if you advertise something, typically inside of Facebook, like say you're doing an event and you advertise the event or you have a group or you have a fan page and you put up an ad for the fan page, any time someone becomes a fan of that page, their little 'social action' would say "Rich Brooks just became a fan of" and it would show  their fan page with a little picture.

It's essentially like you're endorsing. You're giving the thumbs up by the fact you're supporting this company or fan page. So you certainly want to join the fan pages that you really do believe in because you really are endorsing them when you do that.

Now switch that around. I've used that a lot over the last year or so in terms of getting visibility for myself for free. I call that my 'viral visibility'. When I click and become a fan, I always look at the ads to see who's advertising, what are they advertising and how can I support them and also benefit from it as well. Just by joining a fan page, I can get more visibility by having that social action on the ad.

So I think it's really worthwhile, especially if you're in what I call growth mode and you're really wanting to build up a significant fan base on Facebook. For example, you could set aside a nominal budget and experiment with those ads.

Rich: You had mentioned Ping.fm which is a tool that I use all the time too. I couldn't live without it. Obviously, you do spend a lot of time doing social media and that's always a concern for small businesses. What tools or tricks do you have in terms of managing your time when it comes to social media?

Mari: It's interesting because there really is a lot involved. First of all, for those people that are feeling overwhelmed already, it's really important to get some support. That could be in the form of a virtual assistant, a social networking assistant, an intern, or a designated member of staff.

Depending on the size of your company, a lot of companies are going by way of what's called a 'brandividual', the individual that represents the brand, like Frank Eliason from Comcast. He's on Twitter at comcastcares. You've got Scotty Monty, the voice and face of Ford Motor Company. Those are brandividuals. So that might be something too. Literally look to see if you're starting to get some good results from social media. Most people that are using social media effectively are getting good results, so they find that it's worthwhile to put some resources in there.

But initially, as an individual, I'm really a big stickler for not delegating my voice. I don't want anybody speaking as me. Certainly my whole team, I have seven different assistants and they do different things in my company, but they don't ever speak as me. Certainly on Twitter, they might respond to an email, but they're responding as themselves.

It's about using a systematic approach. I have a way that I call my 'social marketing method' and it's really a grid where you have a certain processes like:

  • Check your blog feed reader for content to share
  • Check certain Twitter accounts
  • Look at your blog metrics - comments on your blog
  • Upload content
  • Write blog posts

There's just so much to do, so it's having a systematic approach to that and knowing that you have certain times of day that you're going to do that. As well, you might space things out maybe two or three times a week that don't need as much daily attention, for example.

Twitter can be really quite demanding too and it's really again a personal choice. Some friends of mine will more kind of educate their followers. They don't engage much, but they provide exceptional content and I like accounts like that. ProBlogger is one. There's Copyblogger, certainly Mashable, and Mike Stelzner, he's at Mike_Stelzner, a good friend of mine.

So I would get those accounts for good social media and online marketing content to share and aggregate; to essentially be a human aggregator and share with my followers as opposed to looking through accounts that are very, very chatty. It's to find content in Twitter streams that are filled with '@' replies.

Rich: I think that maybe comes down to a personal issue. What one person is interested in may not be what somebody else is interested in. But it does sound like it's important to stay on topic as far as you're recommending.

Mari: Yes, stay on topic and also find your own style. I am very chatty. I'm upbeat and playful. On Twitter, I'm quite a bit more informal than I am on Facebook. I'm always changing up my avatar and I'll use kind of goofy, playful language. I think that the vernacular over on Twitter lends itself to that because of the 140 characters and because you've got to be brief and often use shortcuts.

But on Facebook, again, you've got a massive difference in numbers. There are 225 million on Facebook. I don't know what the latest numbers are on Twitter because it seems to fluctuate depending on what source you go to. But it's somewhere between 20 million and 40 million, definitely in the tens of millions. It's a fraction of what Facebook is.

More people are used to the culture and vernacular of Facebook than they are with Twitter, so I like to keep them somewhat separate and be quite a bit more informal on Twitter, just because you can.

Rich: Where do you think social media is headed? You've talked about how you came about it and found Facebook. But what do you think the next big thing is? Is it going to be another website like a Facebook or a Twitter, or is it going to be something completely different?

I won't hold you to it. If it turns out in a year you were wrong, I'm not going to bring this up again. Don't worry. 

Mari: I love to get out my crystal ball and look into the future. Just yesterday, for example, Facebook announced—they have Russian investors—that they are releasing $100 million in stock for its staff. The employees have 20 days to decide how much of their stock they want to sell; I think all or some of it. So that is the initial stages of what will eventually be an IPO and we'll be able to own shares of Facebook.

They are absolutely going to be, or are already on track to be, what people are calling the "next generation internet". They are adding in their payment part like a PayPal. It will be Facebook's own equivalent of PayPal, for example. We'll actually start to do commerce inside of Facebook and you can actually have your own buying experience, if you will. You go shopping for books on Amazon and with one click of a button, you can recommend that to your Facebook friends, for example, inside of Facebook. This is what's coming.

That's why we're calling it the "next generation internet" because it's all in-house. It's like going to a giant mall where you don't have to cross the street to go and get some groceries or books or videos. It's all right there inside the big mall.

However, I really think that niche social networks are a force to be reckoned with. Especially for women, there are some great ones. The Circle of Moms last fall launched and within months had tens of thousands of members, now hundreds of thousands. There are some great new ones coming online. I just saw a couple of more this week. One that I've been involved with is called BraveHeartWomen.com. Women love to group together anyway, particularly where there's a certain purpose or focus or a specific theme for the site. For example, everyone who's a young mom to young children, they like to share their experiences and whatnot. 

Even one of my new clients, his target is Fortune 500 CEOs and he said, "No, they don't have time to be on Facebook or Twitter and they want to be more protective about what they share," so they might look at a Ning site or a custom-built niche social network.

Rich: This has been great. I have 1,000 other questions that I'm thinking, but I know that you have a lot to do today. One more question is: where can we find you online? It sounds like everywhere, but I'm sure you have a few places you want to point us to.

Mari: Let's start with my fan page. That's always a good place. It's Facebook.com/marismith. There's certainly Twitter at Twitter.com/marismith. Then there's my main site, which is MariSmith.com.

I also write a blog, specifically about Facebook, but I do often blog about social media in general and Twitter. That is at WhyFacebook.com. I tend to write extensive posts that are more like tutorials.

Rich: This has been fantastic. Thank you very much.

Mari: Absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

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