RENEGADE THINKING from the CEO of Renegade, the social media & marketing agency that helps clients make more out of less by transforming communications into "Marketing as Service."

The New Curators (of Content)

06/3/11

How Thrillist, PSFK and start-up iFlow are capitalizing on the accelerating need for content curation. (This article first appeared on FastCompany.com)
Barring the invention of a “time turner” like the one Hermione Granger sported in 3rd Harry Potter novel, most of us will never have enough time to consume the information we might otherwise want to absorb.  There’s simply too much info and too few waking hours.  Enter the notion of curation, a relatively new term that is not unlike the editor of old, a trusted person or organization that filters information and aggregates it in an organized fashion for others to enjoy.

According to Steve Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, “curation is the new way of organizing the web going forward.”  And no doubt he’s right.  Curious about why new curators like Thrillist and PSFK were thriving while the traditional publishing world floundered, I spent some time with their respective founders, Ben Lerer and Piers Fawkes.  These conversations plus one with Eric Alterman, the founder of a new curation engine called iFlow, revealed four insights that could help you too capitalize on the curation phenomenon.

You can’t curate for everyone, so be targeted
In Brian Solis’s recent tribute on FastCompany.com to Rosenbaum’s book, Solis noted, “the social capital of a curator is earned through qualifying, filtering, and refining relevant content.”  The key words here being filtering and relevance, something that Thrillist with its focus on urban males 22-30 has done exceptionally well.  Explained Lerer, “we’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver.”

Thrillist, for the uninitiated, started in 2005 with a newsletter to 600 New Yorkers and is now in 18 markets with 2.5 million subscribers.  Added Lerer, “our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic.”  Lerer and his fellow curators of newish nightlife have built a highly profitable business during a time when traditional publishing tanked. This was done, according to Lerer, “by zoning in on a small sector of the population and speaking to them in a voice that they trust.”

It’s not curation without a well-defined focus
The New York Times famous line “All the news that’s fit to print,” made sense when newspapers were the primary source of daily information.  Now it seems more like a potential epitaph, as newspaper readership plummets in the face of more focused web-based alternatives. One of the up and coming alternatives is PFSK, which founder Fawkes described as “the go to source for new ideas for creative professionals.”

Founded in 2004, PSFK has grown from a trend-spotting website to a hybrid company that publishes content, creates events and provides consulting services to clients like Nike, Target and BMW.  When asked if PSFK was in the curation business, Fawkes affirmed, “yes, our job is to find new ideas and we present them up to 50 times a day.”  Reflecting on their focused approach, Fawkes added, “every month a million designers, ad folks, digital entrepreneurs and media mavens get inspired by our content.”

If the curation is good enough, it will [almost] market itself
In the new world of curation, “information becomes currency and the ability to repackage something of interest as compelling, consumable and also [as a] sharable social object is an art,” wrote Brian Solis. This perhaps is the fundamental difference between the old world newspaper and the new world of curators.  New world curators can connect and engage with other curators, helping to disseminate information quickly and at little to no cost.

Ben Lerer of Thrillist recalled taking this approach out of necessity since, “one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing.”  “So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends,” explained Lerer.  By “putting content first and making sure its written for the guy reading it,” Lerer and his team developed a loyal audience that in turn shared the content and or acted upon it demonstrating they too were in the know.

Human curators beat the algorithms
No matter how you many words you type into Google, you’re not going to find a recommendation you trust without clicking deep into another site.  On the other hand, a quick visit to Thrillist and PSFK provides recommendations and ideas that are trustworthy without fail. When discussing the shortcomings of algorithmic curation, serial entrepreneur Eric Alterman explained, “only human curation can deliver real time content… that consumers are actually seeking.”

Seeing an opportunity in the limitations of algorithmic curation combined with the overwhelming flow of content generated via social media, Alterman is just about to launch a new curation platform called iFlow.  Alterman believes that iFlow will address the problem of information overload, enabling “efficient curation into highly contextual aggregate streams [that] include all content types.” Given Alterman’s track record of turning ideas into successful companies like KickApps, his hope “to bring the art of content creation to the widest possible audience,” is anything but a pipe dream.

Final Note:
While admittedly I’m no longer in Thrillist’s demographic, I became a fan in ‘08 when one of my clients wanted to connect with their readers.  Seeing Lerer’s presentation at a recent PSFK event, I was simply blown away by their success in three short years.  It was the quality of the presenters at this conference that got me thinking about curation and led to my conversations with Lerer, Fawkes and Alterman (see their respective interviews on TheDrewBlog.com).

Q&A with Ben Lerer, Thrillist Co-Founder

05/23/11

I saw Ben Lerer speak at the recent PSFK conference and was blown away by how quickly Thrillist has grown.  In many ways, its is a classic example of Marketing as Service, with the newsletter being the service and in this case part of the product that meets a distinct information need.  Thrillist has also had a profound impact on the businesses they’ve recommended, gaining the kind of “make a hit” influence that newspaper critics used to enjoy.

DN: Thrillist has grown quite a bit since its founding.  Can you give me the highlights of this growth in terms of subscribers, markets, revenue, profitability?
We sent the first Thrillist email in 2005 to 600 friends in New York and in that first year slogged through the mud and grew to 30,000 subscribers by the end of 2006. By the end of 2008, we had expanded into seven cities and became profitable, bringing in approximately $5 million in revenue. In 2009, we launched in five additional markets and passed the one million subscription mark. And now, just a couple of months into our sixth year, we’re in 18 markets including our first international edition in London, reaching over 2.5 million subscriptions. With the acquisition of members-only online retailer JackThreads.com and the launch of localized deal site Thrillist Rewards, we’re expecting to bring in more than $40 million in revenue this year.

DN: Why do you think the Thrillist newsletter has been so successful?
As with any successful company, the winning formula is always a strong demand and a quality product. We’ve zoned in on a niche group that was previously starved for the kind of information we deliver. They were looking for trusted recommendations on where to go and what to do in their city and the best ways to spend their time and money and we do a good job delivering that.

DN: How do you decide what to feature in each of your newsletters?  What is the editorial review process?
We have a local editor on the ground in each of our markets whose main job is to scour their cities to find awesome things.  It has to be something new, unknown or under-appreciated (i.e. an underground supper club, a maker of custom shoes operating out of a warehouse in Brooklyn, or a restaurant with an off-the-menu three martini lunch special).

DN: Talk to me some more about the importance of curating great content…
When we first started out, one of the stipulations with the money we raised was that we couldn’t spend any of it on marketing. So we focused all our energy on building something that people actually liked and would want to pass along to their friends. We know how valuable our guys’ time is and we don’t want to waste it with anything but the winners, so we always put content first and make sure it’s written for the guy reading it.

DN: Newspaper and magazines have been curating content for years yet almost all are losing money.  Why do you think Thrillist has been able to be successful curating editorial content when these other info sources have not been able to make any money, especially online?
Our voice is extremely targeted to a very specific part of the male demographic. We’re not trying to reach all people in all cities. We’re zoning in on a small sector of the population, speaking to them in a voice that they trust and relate to and delivering content that they want to read, in a way they want to read it. Because of this, we’ve developed a loyal audience that trusts us and acts on our recommendations.

Photo of Ben Lerer by Thorstenroth.net

DN: Do you have a customer feedback system in place to help you measure what content is resonating?
We do have a system that collects data, click-through rates, etc. but we mostly find validation by speaking with the owners of the businesses we cover. We have stacks upon stacks of testimonials about selling-out seats, packing restaurants and huge increases in traffic to websites. We also see the companies being covered in additional press outlets and going viral across all social media platforms.

DN: Have you ever recommended something that turned out to be a bust?  If so, how did you handle this?
We’ve definitely recommended some things that were better than others — that’s part of the challenge of breaking stories. But our batting average is high and I think the audience has patience for when we miss because they really appreciate when we hit the nail on the head.

DN: Can you give me a specific example of a new restaurant or bar that you featured and the impact it had on that business
We recently covered a food truck named “Feed Your Hole,” that serves specialty hot dogs and burgers. We spoke to the owner a few days after our write-up who told us they were experiencing lines around the block and that they even had to turn away crowds of people. Prior to our write-up, they were unknown and by their opening day, there were masses of people lining up for their food. This is common feedback for us but its still awesome every time we hear it.

DN; What role does your website play in your overall marketing and customer service mix?
We recently redesigned our website but prior to that, it was mostly just used as a tool for capturing subscribers. Most of our partnerships efforts drove traffic back to the site with hopes of enticing new subscribers to sign up. Now, our website is more of a destination for users seeking local lifestyle and entertainment content but we still have lots of work to do. Basically, we know we’ve got lots of valuable content on the site but we’re still figuring out how to surface the right content to the right guys.

DN: You’ve added some new services in the last year or so.  What are they and why did you add them?
In the past, we had covered JackThreads editorially – they hosted a lot of brands that we also frequently covered and so it made sense for us to actually be able to sell these brands to our audience, instead of simply recommending them. Another recent launch is Thrillist Rewards, which gives us a chance to monetize some of the local transactions we’re able to drive every day. Our mission is the same with this as it is with our content: we want to bring guys deals that they’ll actually enjoy and are actually relevant for them. A few of our recent deals are “Unlimited Beer and Ribs at Hill Country BBQ” and “a Strip and a Strip at Robert’s and Score’s.” We are also able to help small business reach our audience beyond editorial coverage and national display advertising.

8 Tips on Loving Your Start-Up

01/31/11

Job satisfaction need not be fleeting for entrepreneurs especially if they follow these 8 tips gleaned from an interview with ZogSports founder, Robert Herzog.  This article first appeared on FastCompany.com.

Robert Herzog founded ZogSports a few months after watching an airplane crash into what was his office on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center tower.  Eight years later, after growing his company from one sport to a dozen, from five hundred participants on 29 teams to sixty thousand on 4,000 teams in three markets, Herzog happily admits that, “I love what I do everyday.”  How Herzog has been able to sustain his initial enthusiasm is both instructive and inspiring, revealing 8 tips for just about any entrepreneur who actually wants to enjoy the journey.

1. Pursue your Passions

Duh, right?  After all, why would you go to the trouble of starting a business if you didn’t love the idea?  [Pause here if you’re in it for the money.]   With passion comes insight and hopefully an unmet need.  In Herzog’s case, the insight came after meeting his wife playing co-ed softball.  “I played in all these other recreational sports leagues and while I had fun with the sports aspect of it, they provided terrible customer service,” explained Herzog.  Knowing he could do better, he added “I wanted to create what I wished had existed when I was single.”

2. Make sure its Meaningful

This is one of the lofty notions that sounds good at the beginning but can be tough to sustain once an organization matures.  Recognizing a growing interest in altruism, Herzog made charity the third pillar of ZogSports along with the sports and social aspects of the service.  Herzog is understandably proud that the organization has helped raise one million for charity thus far but takes just as much joy from the sports and social aspects.  “I organize other people’s fun for a living,” explained Herzog, offering a broader perspective on what can make a job meaningful.

3. Hire the Happy

While most entrepreneurs will tell you the importance of building a team of different personalities and skill sets, few will call serious attention to the attitudes of these hires.  “When I hire people, I ask a whole series of questions about how much fun they are,” explained Herzog.  “We don’t hire people who are really uptight,” added Herzog, who considers himself the most uptight of the bunch.   “When I started Zog, I wanted to create a workplace that was fun, open and collaborative,” noted Herzog, who I witnessed greet a random team captain with outright exuberance.

4. Prepare yourself Properly

The serial entrepreneur is often content to get his/her idea off the ground and then move on, requiring a modest amount of prior experience.  Herzog, on the other hand, brought a wide range of experience to his new company, enabling him to adapt to the changing nature of his job.  “I feel like having a whole bunch of different jobs before this was incredibly helpful,” insisted Herzog.  Having been both a management and operations consultant and executive at several start-ups, Herzog “was about making things better,” which also ensured he was unlikely to get bored as the company grew.

5. Forget about Funding

Spend time with entrepreneurs and inevitably the conversation drifts back to finding VC funding.  And while not every entrepreneur is in a position to bootstrap his or her idea, don’t assume that outside funding equates to job satisfaction.  Self-funded from the start, Herzog has not sought outside investors.  Explained Herzog, “I have found that my job is so much easier because I don’t have anybody else’s money in here telling me how fast we should grow.”  Also relating this independence to his high job satisfaction, Herzog offered emphatically, “I don’t ever want to work for anybody else again!”

6. Emphasize the Experience

A lot of start-ups narrowly define their offering to the product or service at hand and in doing so miss the larger opportunity.  In the case of ZogSports, Herzog is quick to note that their business transcends sports.  “Our goal is to be the highlight of a ‘zoggers’ week,” and to do that explained Herzog means that every customer interaction from registration to the games to the post-game happy hours needs “to be overwhelmingly positive and fun.”  The end of result of this emphasis on experience is that 80-85% of the new zoggers come from positive referrals, keeping marketing costs down and CEO smiles up.

7. Live your Life

While working long hours is hard to avoid at the start-up stage, entrepreneurs who continue at this pace year after year are unlikely to say, “I love my job.”  Although Herzog admits to having worked 80-90 hours a week initially, he has avoided over-extending himself and the business since then.  “I never wanted to work that much and completely sacrifice every other aspect of my life,” explained Herzog.  A father of two, Herzog also derives helpful instruction from his family time.  Admiring his son’s

ability to be happy 24/7, Herzog explained, “I look at him and say, wow that’s just amazing, why should I dwell on this thing that’s bothering me?”

8. Grow your Goals

Like sharks, entrepreneurs have to keep moving, challenging themselves and their employees to do better.  The gleeful Herzog is no different here.  “I see my enjoyment in my job being tied to being able to grow the business and provide my staff new and exciting opportunities,” he added.  As such, Herzog is investing in new systems that will make it easier to offer a standardized experience from game to game, sport to sport and market to market.  With these systems in place, Herzog hopes to be able to expand to 15-20 markets in the next five years, a growth pace that will be hard not to love.

Final Note:

Given that he is in the business of providing “an escape from people’s daily lives,” it is little wonder that Herzog puts a premium on having a well-balanced life himself.  He also is well aware that his situation is not the norm nor easy to maintain, “I couldn’t think of a better job for me but if I didn’t have to work hard at it, I might not appreciate it.”

[Robert Herzog, Founder of ZogSports]

Turning Customer Service into a Marketing Weapon

11/29/10

How Thor Muller and the gang at Get Satisfaction have helped thousands of companies and millions of consumers transform the fundamental notions of customer service. This article first appeared on FastCompany.com.

Just three years ago, you needed to be a prominent blogger like Jeff Jarvis or Bob Garfield to make an online noise loud enough to inspire a company response to a particular product or service issue. It was about that time that Thor Muller, Co-founder and CTO of Get Satisfaction, developed an online tool that would “allow anybody that same power,” to in essence, “get satisfaction by pulling the company in.”

Forty months later, Get Satisfaction is well on its way to transforming the way companies interact with consumers, turning customer service into the kind of measurably effective marketing that even John Wannamaker could have fully blessed. Gleaned from my conversation with Muller at Get Satisfaction’s San Francisco headquarters early this month, here are eight ways community driven customer service is changing the ways brands go to market.

1. Re-humanizing consumer interactions

For Muller, it is simply not enough that companies use their tools. “We really want people to change their whole approach to what it means to talk to customers,” he explained. “For a long time, maybe a hundred years, we’ve been gradually squeezing the humanity out of our interactions; scripting it, automating it, scaling it.” Instead of asking people to take a number, “Companies now have to revolve themselves around individuals.” Muller noted, adding that in doing so, “we’re making the world a better place, certainly more human!”

2. Elevating the conversation from transactions to aspirations

While traditional customer service is often about addressing transactional issues like resetting passwords, Muller believes that community-driven customer support can go much further. “Customer communities at their best are really tapping people’s deeper goals, their deeper desires,” explained Muller. This requires companies to, “rise above writing help documentation and be more of a good cocktail party host.” Muller links this change with the new staff post of Community Manager who is part therapist, part help desk and part cruise director.

3. Reducing the costs of the traditional help desk

For years, companies have sought to drive down support costs with automation and the ironic goal of minimizing human interaction with their call centers. Part of the reason Get Satisfaction has grown so quickly is that it flips this notion on its head, increasing human interaction but decreasing costs by making support more peer-to-peer driven. Noted Muller, “we’ve seen with our communities at scale typically reduce the number of [service] tickets that go to [call center] agents by 75% or so.” Muller referred me to case histories for Mint.com and Yola, both of which reduced “repetitive support by two thirds.”

4. Extending support beyond your website to Facebook

While most companies recognize the need to engage consumers on social media, only the savviest have begun to offer customer support on platforms like Facebook. For these enlightened marketers, Get Satisfaction offers a Facebook application in two distinct versions, “one for enterprises who have a lot more demand for customization/controls and one for everybody else,” noted Muller. Having a support tab on Facebook gives fans one more reason to “Like” a brand and get the information and support required to encourage and enable over-the-top evangelism.

5. Turning customer support into searchable content

Given the fundamental importance of search to customer acquisition, finding ways to improve organic search results (SEO) is a top priority for most businesses. That said, few have recognized that content generated via customer communities can do just that. Explained Muller, “somebody asks how they can use a particular camera to take better pictures, that is then indexed by Google and then next person who searches finds that conversation. Get Satisfaction] is taking something that used to be a cost center, customer service, and turning it into lead generation.”

6. Listening builds trust in and of itself

Dell famously solicited customer ideas and ended up producing a Linux based laptop that no one bought. This kind of listening and responding is not the ultimate intent of Get Satisfaction. While community members are encouraged to offer ideas, Muller does not advocate, “design by committee” or conclude that the customer is always right. “Even if [a brand doesn’t] build what I want them to build or do what I want them to do, I may be less likely to change to another product because I feel close to them,” explained Muller.

7. Integrating customer conversations with your CRM system

Many sophisticated marketers, especially in B2B, rely on well-honed CRM systems to track leads through the funnel. Get Satisfaction allows these companies to take this one step further by connecting the social web with workflow systems, trouble tickets and project management tools. Explained Muller, “Knowing who a customer is, what their buying history is, and what they care about is important to servicing them well.” Suddenly a customer complaint becomes “actionable within an organization,” given the CRM integration concluded Muller.

8. Measuring C-Sat on both a qualitative and quantitative basis

While some pundits strive to simplify customer satisfaction to one basic metric like Net Promoter, this may not be the ideal approach for your particular business. Having witnessed thousands of customer comments and complaints, Muller encourages clients to take a “more holistic approach” and “measure satisfaction in various ways.” Having developed something called a Satisfactometer, that explained Muller, “might be something fun like an emoticon and other times might be something more structured and numeric,” Get Satisfaction is delivering both sides of the measurement equation.

Final Note: Having recently hired a CEO to drive the company forward, Muller is re-focused on his true love, product development, so we can expect even more satisfying features from Get Satisfaction in the days ahead.

Cisco’s Social Media Marketing Puts Game on Leaderboard

06/24/10

Just after the Marketing VP set the bar at 20,000 downloads in the first six months, Petra Neiger and the myPlanNet game team at Cisco wondered, “How the heck are we going to do that?” The marketing budget was well under $50,000, her team was tiny and each of them had other marketing responsibilities. Nonetheless, when I met Petra this May, the program was already a stunning success and being honored with BtoB’s Social Media Marketing Award for Best Integrated Campaign.

In fact, myPlanNet, a simulation game that “puts you in the shoes of a service provider CEO,” exceeded expectations at every turn. Launched in October 2009, the game surpassed the download goal by 3,200 the end of January and has gained at least 20,000 more players since then. The game has attracted over 60,000 fans on Facebook with players from at least 2500 different companies and over 130 different countries. With 5,000 new fans joining between mid May and mid June, myPlanNet is a case worth studying, revealing six game-changing steps to social media innovation.

1. Get Management Blessing

It’s a fundamental truth that innovation requires support in the highest offices of any company. Not surprisingly, the myPlanNet game concept was “formed out of an internal innovation contest,” noted Ms.Neiger. “The idea was to find an untraditional way to engage our customer and teach them about Cisco,” she added. “Cisco is very big on innovation, wanting to show the human network in action,” offered Petra. That said, management did not write a blank check and instead put a cap on financial resources, limiting the development budget to $200,000 thus requiring the team to make the most of every dollar. This hedging approach to innovation is not unusual and can inspire further creativity as it did with this program.

2. Channel Internal Energy

Often companies overlook the importance of encouraging widespread employee involvement in their innovative initiatives, particularly in social media. This was not the case with myPlanNet. First, noted Ms. Neiger, “we had an internal group that tested the game every step of the way.” This helped keep the program on budget. Then, added Ms. Neiger, “We launched the game internally 2-3 weeks before external launch because it’s a very robust game so we didn’t know how it would work once a lot of people started playing.” This had the added benefits of enhancing morale and as Petra noted, “started a trend inside the company where other groups are starting to play the game and are inspired to try more innovative approaches.”

3. Create Something Innovative

Admittedly, this sub-head may seem a little obvious, but the key word here is “Create” and you’d be amazed how often marketers seek social media success without actually creating something of genuine value for their target. In Cisco’s case, they created a simulation game that according to Petra, was “easy to play but difficult to master; you can play five minutes or you can play for an hour.” One sure sign of success that you’ve created something innovative is unplanned press attention. “We had no PR outreach whatsoever,” added Ms.Neiger, yet the Washington Post, The SF Chronicle, numerous magazines and blogs all reported on the game, which in turn fueled social media engagement.

4. Seed Your Efforts

Bestselling author Doug Ruskoff recently suggested that all a company needed to do was to create a superior product and, in the new world of social media communications, consumers would find out about it and beat a virtual trail to their door. This idealistic viewpoint may ultimately prove to be true but few marketers can or should take this chance right now. At a minimum, marketers need to jump-start the conversation, as was the case with myPlanNet. The game demoed at a big tradeshow in Geneva last October where, noted Ms. Neiger, “We had a camera to record people’s experiences and put these videos and images on our Game Support and Facebook fan pages.” Judiciously allocating their $30k launch budget to demos, welcome ads and content syndication, Cisco also spent $100 per day on Facebook to bring people to their fan page all of which helped spark interest in the game.

5. Keep on Experimenting

Given the dynamic nature of social media, it is essential that once you get started you keep adapting to consumer feedback and experiment as the opportunities present themselves. Noted Ms. Neiger, “six weeks after launch we started doing social media even more and experimenting a lot.” When they started seeing comments in foreign languages, they responded with a monthly report of fans by country. “People have national pride and are very into it so they passed along the link,” offered Petra who noted enthusiastically that users could be traced back to 130 different countries, thus fulfilling an important objective for this unique marketing initiative. Later on they added a holiday challenge, mini-online games and even a multiple choice quiz about the game, all of which increased fan engagement.

6. Think Small

Unfortunately, a lot of innovative programs, especially ambitious ones in the social media arena never see the light of day because their initial funding requirements are deemed to be too large by management. myPlanNet, the game, was built in 13 months with the help of external experts at a budget cap of $200,000. Though previous gaming efforts by Cisco had achieved some success, management still asked, “Why would this be different from what we’ve done before and how do we get the word out?” Petra and her team were quick with answers, having baked in a more “inclusive gaming experience” and social media-friendly elements like in-game testimonials and a dynamic leader board that allows players to see top scores by week, month and all-time. At the same time, Petra noted that “We would have loved to do more personalization within the game and to include a multiplayer aspect,” but that would have required more time and money, changes that might have prevented this winning game from launching in the first place.

Final note: Petra was quick to remind me that myPlanNet, “started as a side project.” Since then, she added, “The company realizes that the game is really good and really successful,” but she “still has a day job” as does the rest of her team–so much for award-winning marketing being all fun and games!

How Shelly Palmer Built his Personal Brand

06/17/10

Four years ago, Shelly Palmer was asked to stop pushing an “advanced media agenda” by the Emmy® Awards Board of Governors after writing a book called “Television Disrupted” that anticipated the transformation of network TV.  The son of Julliard-trained musicians and a composer/producer himself, Shelly was not one to mope over a blown recital.  Instead, he gathered his instruments; forty email addresses, some fellow digital enthusiasts, a lifetime of technical innovations and started a project that focused on emerging media and what they call a “digital life.”

900 business days later, the Shelly Palmer brand is nearly ubiquitous.   He is on practically every media platform from daily newsletters to radio, taxis to Facebook, websites to books and a broadcast TV deal is in the works. His consulting practice is highly lucrative and he gets paid to speak all over the world.  Shelly will tell you he’s been very lucky, but after spending on hour on the phone interviewing him, I can assure you luck has nothing to do with it.  In fact, the success of Shelly Palmer is a beautifully conducted symphony of marketing savvy, revealing a six-movement composition on how to orchestrate a personal brand.

1. Give Away the Melody

The marketing cornerstone of the Shelly Palmer brand is a daily email newsletter that now goes to a whopping 575,000 subscribers.  Noted Palmer, “We take the 3-5 most interesting stories every day, distill them down, contextualize them and try to add value.” Initially, these stories were just provided as headlines, which encouraged readers to visit ShellyPalmer.com to get the whole story and of course learn all about Shelly’s other “products.”  This marketing as service approach led readers to sing Shelly’s praises, for in a world of information overload, he helped them “look like a genius to their bosses and less-informed colleagues every day.”  By “relentlessly putting something of value in people’s mailboxes,” Palmer stayed top of mind as a potential speaker or consultant, like a pop tune you simply can’t shake.

2. Beat Your Measures

Well aware of the need to acquire a steady stream of “customers” cost-effectively, Palmer and Co “took all the available technology to promote a marketing circle.”  Email drove web traffic which drove video plays which led to speaking engagements which led to consulting gigs and so on. But unlike most start-ups, Palmer assigned dollar value metrics to all the things you could do on his website even those without an immediate return.  For example, a newsletter subscriber with a corporate email address was assigned a value of $4 since it would have cost them that much to buy such a name.  By carefully tracking everything from email open-rates, to website loyalty and recency, to conversions, Palmer was also able to make informed improvements over time.  On a side note, Palmer castigated the use of website hits, calling them “how idiots track success.”

3. Try New Tunes

As a small company, Palmer noted that “it was easy for us to test things and we tried a dozen different experiments with radio, all of which we screwed up.”  Eventually they got it right, partnering with the United States Radio Network, providing a daily Shelly Palmer Digital Life minute to 218 stations across the country.  They also continued to refine their newsletter approach and recently started providing the whole story instead of just headlines.  Added Palmer, “our website traffic dropped off 50%, however, our conversion against product sales, speaking engagements and email opens went double digit through the roof.”  This new approach also reflected Palmer’s preference to “follow the road, not the map” by adjusting to changing circumstances with savvy, speed and flexibility.

4. Every Instrument is its Own Art Form

Shelly Palmer cranks out a remarkable 46 different pieces of content on a daily basis.  Knowing that his target expects a consistent level of excellence regardless of the medium, very little of the content is cookie cutter.  Palmer offered, “You can’t repurpose physical media, you need to rebuild it for what it is, radio can’t just be the audio from a video.”  The terse newsletter wouldn’t work as a video nor could it translate into the longer-form thought leadership pieces Shelly writes weekly.  And this level of customization continued with the emergence of social media. Added Palmer, “We were there instantly, putting all our content in the form of questions in order to inspire conversation.”  Since the Shelly Palmer brand is only as strong as each individual communications, he and his team take the time to make each component stand alone, an effort that other marketers would be wise to emulate.

5. Find Your Voice

At one point when Palmer was traveling, a substitute performed on his daily MediaBytes video.  The fans were not amused and hundreds complained.  Thinking that his brand was only about the high quality content that he and his team worked so hard to deliver, Palmer suddenly realized that, “a huge part of what the Shelly Palmer brand is–is Shelly Palmer.”  He doesn’t say this as an egotist but rather with amused resignation that he and the brand are one.  Fortunately this role fits him like the fine suits he wears.  “I love to perform and I get a kick out of it when people tell me that I’m a good speaker,” notes Palmer who is called to the lectern over 50 times a year.  He also noted that as a personal brand, “You gotta be in uniform and always assume you are being watched—so I try to comport myself that way.”

6. Don’t Play Every House

When offering advice to other small businesses, Palmer noted “I don’t take every consulting job–I only take the ones that I can do great, make a lot of money for me and my clients and when people learn that I did that, they say ‘Wow’.”  This approach sings volumes about Palmer’s commitment to delivering a product that is of genuine value, whether free or paid.  For his weekly thought leadership article, Palmer imagines that he is writing it for a media maven like Jeff Zucker, making sure he keeps it interesting and “wastes as little time as possible.”  And though Palmer acknowledges that his articles may be “superficially useful for the less digitally literate,” there is always “code” for important digital issues that will spark interest among his more sophisticated consulting clients.

Final note:  Shelly Palmer has been training for this role all his life, writing music since he was four, filing for his first patent in his teens, attending NYU film school, producing EMMY-award winning TV shows and composing over a thousand pieces of music (including “Let’s Go Mets”) that are currently in use on TV or radio.  Like every great musician, Palmer knows that he is only as good as his last performance, an understanding that is sure to keep his brand pitch perfect for many years to come.

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