Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses for an audience of real entrepreneurs.
No secret I live here in San Francisco, and I’ve got to be honest with you that one of my big challenges is that I’ve got a very San Francisco mindset right now, and so when it came to online blogs, for a long time I was thinking of, especially the ones that was started back in their late aughts, like 2008, etc., in that period, I was thinking TechCrunch and Mashable. Those are the guys who matter. Those are the big guys. And then anytime I’d see a small player that was new that the cool kids weren’t talking about, I was dismissive, I’ll be honest. And that’s exactly what happened when I first came across Social Media Examiner. I said, “Interesting, cute blog. Probably created by someone in their 20s who is trying to figure out blogging and smart stuff, but they can’t compete in this world.”
And then February 2018, this is how long it took. Actually, it didn’t. It took me a little less than that. But February 2018 is when I got my dose of real reality. I walk into an event called Social Media Marketing World, and this was the night before it started, just for speakers like me, I’m looking around and I go, “There are more speakers in here than there are in some of these like sexy conferences, sexy tech conferences.”
The next day I see the opening remarks by Michael Stelzner, the founder of this event, and the crowd is not just packed full of people, they’re sitting there in rapt attention and the guy is good, capturing their attention but also giving useful information, not just big ideas. That’s how big this blog, Social Media Examiner became, that big that they actually are teaching business people how to use social media to grow their businesses, not just to do the fun cool things, but to grow their businesses, and as a result people are flying in from all over the world to this event, Social Media Marketing World.
I asked Michael Stelzner, the founder to come on here. I felt that he wasn’t exactly excited about being here, so I backed off. And then I asked again, and I used the hook that I’m going to be at his next conference as a reason to get him back on here and somehow we got him to say yes. And so here he is, Michael Stelzner, the founder of Social Media Examiner. He runs a media — what is this? — runs a media company that helps marketers navigate the social media jungle. That’s a typo in my own notes. That’s what made me stop there for a second.
This interview is sponsored by two phenomenal companies. The first will host your website right. If you want to create something that’s a success story, like Michael’s business, you’re going to want to check them out. It’s called HostGator. And the second, if you want to do email marketing right, you’ve got to use them. It’s called ActiveCampaign. I’ll tell you about those later. Michael, good to have you here.
Michael: Andrew, thanks for having me, man.
Andrew: Michael, you are a little uncomfortable about the fact that I push for certain kinds of questions. I’m not going to ask you revenue numbers and all that. You aren’t big on talking about that. I’m not going to make it uncomfortable by pushing for something I’m not going to get. But how big was that event? How big was Social Media Marketing World? How many people?
Michael: We had about 4,200 people there in San Diego.
Andrew: Four thousand two hundred people. You told me that number before I came. It’s not until you see them in person that it hits and I got a sense of how big it was. Who are some of the speakers who come out to this event?
Michael: Well, it’s an event focused on social media marketing, so pretty much everybody you could possibly think of who’s a tactical expert in Facebook, Facebook ads, Instagram . . . They are names that people would only know if they’re in my industry, but they are all the superstars of the industry. And of course, we get boss experts who come out, like this guy named Andrew Warner.
Andrew: Yes, sir.
Michael: And the others.
Andrew: Oh, yeah. I came. I did scotch night for people who came there. I did . . . Actually, scotch night was a big one. You guys are doing it again, March 20th in San Diego. March 20th, 2019, I’m going to be there. That’s the big product that you sell, right? It’s mostly that, isn’t it?
Michael: It is the bulk of the revenue that we make inside the company. It wasn’t always, but it is definitely today, and we hope to have 7,000 people there in 2019.
Andrew: Oh, wow-wee. What kind of advertising do you guys do on the site? Hardly any, if any.
Michael: On Social Media Examiner?
Michael: Well, we have a lot of different owned media properties — the website, the podcast, the live show. We have multiple podcasts and Alexa flash briefing show. And we produce a heck of a lot of content. All those owned media channels are sponsored by Social Media Marketing World. So we have an email list of almost 400,000 people that we email three days a week. So all those channels are all channels that we use to promote the conference. So the bulk of the people that come are our fans, our super fans.
Andrew: But that’s why I don’t see as I go through your site a bunch of ads as I read articles.
Michael: You won’t see really any ads other than for our own conference, because we are what I call a product-based media company, meaning we make the product, we own the media.
Andrew: So that’s what I want to understand, how you made it when there’s so many other sites that went out of business. You’re not going to talk about them, but I will. GigaOM. GigaOM had so much attention. Om Malik, he is one of the top investors in San Francisco. He created a site. There was a blog dedicated to covering the space. People talked about him and his blog so much. They went under.
You still survived. I want understand how you got here and then why you think you survived where others didn’t. But let’s go back in time. You’re a guy who started in corporate America and you had this funny story about, funny to me now, about how you got fired. What was the job that you had and how did you get fired?
Michael: Yeah. I was in grad school getting my master’s degree in speech. I got an undergraduate degree in speech as well. I was a product marketing guy in the ’90s. So, back then, we’re talking about creating brochures and physical collateral that you would take with you on a sales call, doing trade show booth displays and stuff like that. And I remember . . .
Andrew: You were creating that?
Michael: I was art-directing that, and I was working with vendors and employees and stuff like that to create that for the product line that I was responsible for. And I was applauded as one of the best hires in the history of the company because I was working crazy long hours and I was in my 20s, hard worker. And one day I’m escorted out of the building by the CEO of the company without any reason why. And all he told me is, “I can’t have any chinks in the armor.”
So I later learned, from someone else who was an executive inside the company, that somebody saw me as a threat in a different division and wanted my job and started spreading rumors that I had seen the CEO snorting something he’s not supposed to be snorting. And this person told a lie and said I was going around sharing all this information, and I was fired. I said to the guy, “Hey, don’t be surprised someday if you come knocking on my door looking for work,” because I was cocky. And I went off and I bought a video game system, and then I tried to figure out what I’m going to do with my life and I started a consultancy in 1996.
Andrew: Did you really have that confidence despite what happened, or was it just bravado and an air of confidence that you hadn’t really felt?
Michael: You mean what I said to the CEO?
Andrew: Yeah. When you said, “Look, you’re going to be coming to me looking for a job.” At that point, did you really feel confident?
Michael: [inaudible 00:07:14] enough I really did have that confidence, and that exact thing did happen. I’ll tell you a funny little story. A couple years later, after I grew a really successful consultancy, he came into my office knocking on my door with a piece of Berber carpet that was shaped like a Frisbee and said, “What do you think about this?” And I said, “The first time a dog bites in that thing it’s going to unravel.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about. [inaudible 00:07:39] Frisbee thing, people think it’s amazing.” And he stormed out. But I was like, “Wow, that was prophetic, man.” He actually did come looking for my advice.
But I started a consultancy, a creative agency in the ’90s, and my job was to help high tech companies with everything from logo design, to website development, to trade show booth displays to annual reports. And I doubled it every year for like the first seven years of business. So I was very successful.
Andrew: How big are we talking about in revenue?
Michael: We got to about a half a million dollars as a solopreneur in about five years. And then I pivoted the business into something completely different after the dot-com crash around 2001.
Andrew: At what point did you create the paper? What is it called? “The Value of ATL’s High-Availability Libraries.”
Michael: That was a white paper that I wrote for one of my first clients. That was probably in . . . I don’t know. That would have been in like the late ’90s or the early 2000s.
Andrew: And so what you were doing with that was . . . Was that capturing email addresses?
Michael: Well, okay. So, around this juncture, I had realized that, around 2001, there was this great disintermediation happening in the world of publishing. You used to have trade magazines that people would mail in the mail, and then you had the internet. And the internet was allowing people to create articles, if you will, that had a purpose designed to generate leads. And it allowed businesses to, instead of going to a publisher and being at their mercy to try to get an article published or to pay for an advertorial, it allowed them to actually publish their own content, and it was a white paper. And the goal of those white papers back then were to be used by salespeople to close deals, to generate leads, many different things.
Andrew: But was this . . . This was email-based, or are we talking about paper mail-based?
Michael: It was a little bit of both. So, on the internet, you’d have a . . . It would be like registering for an eBook today. It would be like what we call a lead magnet today. It’s just it was a lead magnet. Sometimes it was used by sales team to go in and actually leave behind when they went to a sales call. Other times, it was something that was a resource that could be exchanged for your name and email address and other things on a website.
Andrew: Okay. And so you wrote it. Was it your idea to say, “Let’s use . . . ” I guess this existed before. You were just saying, “I’m going to introduce this to my client.” And then you got hooked on . . .
Michael: Yeah. The concept of white papers was kind of a new concept. It had been around in the military space and in the government space for a long time, but people weren’t using it in the business space. And I started becoming exclusively known for writing these things, and I helped a lot of very well-known companies, like FedEx and Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, create these things pretty consistently.
Andrew: I looked at your background. You seem to have loved writing even going back to when you were a kid. Is it true that you used to just sit around and watch people and then write down your observations? Am I remembering that right?
Michael: Yeah, you are. I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was always told when I was a kid, I was a horrible writer. I found out when I was 40 that my dad told me I was dyslexic. So he never told me as a kid, so it was kind of exciting to learn that I could actually be a good writer by writing in a conversational style and that people would enjoy reading it because I never thought I was a good writer.
Andrew: But going back to when you thought you were a bad writer and you did it anyway, it was just you writing for yourself observations about life, thoughts about life, that type of thing.
Michael: That’s correct.
Andrew: Have you seen those lately? Have you gone back and read them?
Michael: No. But it’s fascinating that you pulled that up.
Michael: I don’t know. I mean, I can’t remember where I published that, but yeah, I used to . . . I would write about things like the . . . I’d have to take the bus because I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t afford to, like, get a car. So I’d get on the bus. And when you’re on the public transportation system as you probably experienced, Andrew, up there in the city, there’s some pretty interesting people sometimes.
Michael: And I would just make observations about life, but it would turn out that my observations about life weren’t what people were really interested in. They were more . . .
Andrew: Who did you publish if for?
Michael: I didn’t publish it for anyone. I just wrote it and I filed it.
Andrew: Wow. You know it’s funny. I just found a journal entry of mine from exactly 10 years ago. It kind of rocked my world, because in it, I said, “I want to run a marathon on every continent.” And I always thought I’m the kind of person who if I have a goal, I could do it. There’s no excuse why I didn’t do that, because there’s no one else that I need permission from, there’s no economy that influences it. I just should have been doing it. And going back and seeing those things is pretty impactful for me, seeing what I wrote back then, seeing what I thought back then. But you don’t do that.
Michael: Well, I did write something when I was in middle school that kind of rocked my world when I did look back at it. I wrote about how I thought these things called computers would make us antisocial. And I wrote about a dystopian future where people would live behind their computers and they would have no reason to go out and actually greet humans in real life. And it actually turned out that that’s pretty common now because social media makes it so that we actually don’t have to do that. But yeah, I don’t think to go back and look at that stuff. I don’t live in the past hardly ever. I’m very much in the moment. So I just probably should go back and look at some of that stuff.
Andrew: I don’t do that either. I kind of live in the future, and lately I’ve been learning to live in the moment. I think I know where I read it. It was in your book, “Writing White Papers.” At some point . . . I can’t find it right now as we’re talking, but I’m pretty sure it was in your book. The reason that I remember that is because when you talked about writing, it reminded me somehow of how you had an early Commodore computer, you had one of the first printers. So you were just starting to create this stuff, looking for an outlet.
All right. I’m actually looking at you as I say it. I feel like I’m making you more uncomfortable talking about this past stuff than . . .
Michael: No. It’s all good.
Michael: We can talk about whatever you want to talk about. I just don’t know what to make of it. I was definitely an early adopter of technology. My first computer was a VIC-20. And then I got a Commodore 64. I thought I was going to be a video game developer and actually got a contract for a video game that I had developed. And then the company proceeded to go out of business. So that never ended up happening.
Andrew: As you were doing these news, excuse me, these white papers, you created WhitePaperSource. What was that?
Michael: WhitePaperSource was . . . So I began to realize, okay, this white paper thing is a big deal, and my clients were dropping off like dead flies. And I thought, “Okay. I’m going to pivot into white papers.” So what I wanted to do is I wanted to actually become a resource for people. So, at this point, it was kind of . . . It started out as a forum where people could get feedback and answer questions about how to write white papers. I had written quite a few. And then I reached out to a lot of my friends. And we started doing what’s called . . . it was called an ezine back then, which are email newsletters, and I would publish like multiple, like, 500-word articles in a single email and blast them out to people and then I would publish them on WhitePaperSource. It just kind of became a hub and ranked in Google search, and it helped me because it kind of allowed me to kind of bring industry together around the concept of white papers. And that was really a fascinating experience for me.
Andrew: Was it about getting clients or something else?
Michael: I wanted to kind of . . . I’ve always been kind of a very social person, so I wanted to not just be a guy that someone could hire. I actually wanted to . . . When I was really young, dude, we’re talking bulletin board systems. Do you even know what those are?
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. My younger brother had one.
Michael: So I had a BBS board.
Andrew: Because he was that geeky.
Michael: You know what I mean?
Andrew: You did?
Michael: Yeah, I had my own and . . .
Andrew: Could you describe it for people who don’t know what that is?
Michael: Okay. Everybody knows what forums is, right? I mean, like, Reddit is probably the biggest one I think everybody can think of. But a bulletin board system is just a private forum, and people would log in on modems and they would interact on these forums and sometimes do things that are not legit, like trade calling card numbers or have illegal software downloads and stuff. But I was very active, and at night I would just plug my modem in and I would let people dial into my computer, my Commodore, and I had a little bulletin board system. And I’d wake up in the morning and I’d see that there were comments in there. And it was just kind of like . . . So what I did for WhitePaperSource was I found that there was forum software out there, and now because of the internet, everybody could go there and they could interact with each other and have conversations. And I started gamifying, giving awards to people that were super active, and it just was developing a little community and I just kind of had this sense that maybe I could cultivate a tribe using this forum and then maybe this could be the place everybody goes when they want to find a writer and maybe I could develop a network of writers and then eventually I could give them leads that I didn’t have time to do myself. And that’s kind of how it started.
Andrew: I’m looking at that early version of the site. I see the newsletter. I see the forum. I’m having a hard time getting to the forum, but I’m dying to.
Michael: You’re probably in the Wayback Machine, huh?
Andrew: Yeah. I live in that thing. That thing is so helpful. Do you ever go back and look at your own stuff in the Wayback Machine?
Michael: All the time.
Andrew: You do, huh?
Michael: For different reasons. I do it because I want to grab something from the past. A little secret, you can go on Facebook and grab a Facebook page from years ago and see what it used to look like, and I do that all the time.
Andrew: Wait. Facebook has not blocked Internet Archive?
Michael: Facebook is fully inside of there.
Michael: You can go, like, if you . . . Like, I’ve done it before. I’ve gone back and looked at National Geographic, like from 2011 or whatever, and I looked at how many shares and comments they had on their posts versus today to kind of help make points and stuff like that.
Andrew: All right. Let me do my first sponsorship message and I’d love your take on this and then we’ll continue on with the story.
The first sponsor is a company called HostGator. It’s for hosting. A lot of people are going to use it for WordPress hosting. Let me ask you something, Michael, within the context of HostGator and WordPress hosting. If you didn’t do Social Media Examiner today, you had nothing but a WordPress hosted account on, let’s say, HostGator, because they happen to be my sponsor, what blog, what content site would you start today? Is there one that would still work today?
Michael: Gosh, yes. People still read. Let’s not underestimate this. Google is a big business, and they make almost all their business on people searching for things to read. So, yeah, I would . . . I mean, if I was starting all over today, I’d try to pick something that I see as a hot trend, maybe it’s artificial intelligence, maybe it’s augmented reality, maybe it’s bots, and I would definitely start something and figure out a way to have a multi-author blog right out of the gate.
Andrew: Multi-author blog, because?
Michael: Well, when I started Social Media Examiner, which I might be getting ahead of the story here, but when I started Social Media Examiner, it wasn’t all about me. I wanted to create a movement, and the goal was to get lots of people to create content, because I had learned from my white paper days that if there was a win, win, win for everyone and the people that were my competitors were writing for WhitePaperSource and for my newsletter, because they were getting leads and inquiries, so I could get them in front of an audience that was a buying audience and they didn’t mind publishing their content in front of my audience. And then all of a sudden you get some of the really best writers to write for you on a topic, and then it becomes kind of a central gathering place, and that’s when the magic happens.
Andrew: Yeah. Don’t you guys have . . . You have like Mari Smith writing about Facebook on Social Media Examiner, am I right?
Michael: Well, she used to write. In the beginning, she was one of our regular contributors, but now she’s pretty active on her own blog.
Andrew: Okay. Yeah. I remember just like doing research on her and seeing that she’s got an author page. And so that’s why you’re saying, “Look, pick a topic that’s growing, people are going to want to read about it, and then make it into a multi-author blog so that you can get people, like whoever equivalent to Mari Smith is in this new world, to write for you. It adds credibility for you, gets them more attention.” Right?
Michael: Yeah, for sure.
Andrew: Okay. If you want to take that idea or anything else over to HostGator, don’t go to hostgator.com. Instead go to hostgator.com/mixergy. When you do, you’re going to get a big discount. They’ve got what they’re telling me is the lowest offer that they’ve got of anyone to get started with them. And frankly, these guys just charge a few bucks a month, so they’re inexpensive anyway. And now they’re even less expensive, and they work really well. Hostgator.com/mixergy. Hostgator.com/mixergy. I tend to talk too fast. I grew up in New York. Where did you grow up?
Andrew: Wisconsin. So do I sound a little too fast for you and too pushy because I’m a New Yorker? No, you’re fine with this.
Michael: No, I’m a fast talker too.
Andrew: How did you end up in San Diego, by the way?
Michael: I looked at a map and I said to myself, okay. My parents had divorced, and I moved to Cupertino, California. And I was working at Sears in the jeans department selling Levi’s, and I was talking to the guy over in the hardware department and I said, “Hey, I’m about to graduate high school. I’m thinking about wanting to get as far away from my parents as possible.” Dad lives in Texas, mom lives in Cupertino. And I drew a map on the line and I said, “Okay. It’s either Maine or San Diego. Which one?” “I hear San Diego is cool, dude.” I said, “Okay. San Diego it is.” So I applied at San Diego State, and I got accepted, and honestly, that’s the true story.
Andrew: I love San Diego. My one challenge was it didn’t feel like people were working enough over there. And I get so impacted by the people I’m around that I was worried I would just kind of hang out in flip-flops all day because it feels nice. You don’t get influenced like that.
Michael: You have a problem with flip-flops? Man, I’m in flip-flops right now. I’m still working.
Andrew: Maybe you could do both.
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. Look, just because the weather is beautiful here, it doesn’t mean we don’t work. We work really hard.
Andrew: I did finally find the forum. I see what you’ve got over there. What happened to the site?
Michael: I deleted it.
Andrew: Why? How did things work out?
Michael: I was ranking number one . . . For white paper, I was ranking like, literally 8 of the top 10 in Google Search. And when I started Social Media Examiner, everybody in the marketing world knew me as the white paper guy. Like, I was keynoting Content Marketing World, and everybody came up to me and said, “Hey, you are the white paper dude.” And I’m like, “Actually, no, I haven’t done that for years.” So it was a cathartic experiment, and I just literally deleted everything. It’s gone. The only way to get to it is the Wayback Machine.
Andrew: And so did white papers just stop doing well as a business and that’s why you’re looking for something new, or what happened to the business?
Michael: No. I was just . . . I had been doing it . . . by 2009, I’d been doing it for like eight years and I was good. And like I said, I had worked with a lot of really big brands, but I was looking for something different. And when social media started taking off, it wasn’t until . . . I probably didn’t delete everything until 2011, but I deleted my personal blog, which is Writing White Papers which you can look up in the Wayback Machine. That was really my first “blog.” I just deleted it all, and it was such an amazing experience to know that that old identity is gone. It’s still a part of my history, but my new identity is something very different now.
Andrew: I read that there was . . . Where was it, actually? It was an experiment that you were doing that led to . . .
Michael: The Social Media Examiner.
Andrew: Yeah. What was the experiment?
Michael: Well, the simple story is Ann Handley from MarketingProfs . . . Do you know who Ann is?
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. She had a big impact on me that one interview I did with her.
Michael: So I basically said to her, “Hey, can I connect with you on LinkedIn?” And she said, “Well, how about Facebook?” And I said, “I didn’t even know you could do that. I thought that was for college students.” So I connected with her on Facebook around 2008, and I started noticing some of my friends were on Facebook. And I’m like, “What’s going on here?” So then I started writing articles for Ann’s blog and also for Brian Clark from Copyblogger’s blog. And it turned out these articles I wrote were some of the most popular that had ever been published on their blog, like “The Dark Side of Social Media” and “The Dark Side of Twitter.” If you google those, you might find them.
But all of a sudden, I was like, “Holy cow. This is something. So, when you write about social media, it gets shared the most on social media.” So then I decided to grab a domain, Social Media Examiner, immediately trademarked it thinking the San Francisco Examiner was going to sue me, and then just decided to have it be a side hustle because my main business was doing well. And I just decided I’d go ahead and recruit some of my writer friends, because I had a lot of them, and partnered with people like Mari Smith and just say, “Hey, you want to write one article a month? I’m going to write one a week as a writer and let’s just see if we can create a little movement here.” And it just kind of exploded.
Andrew: And the value prop for her was exposure to the people you’re going to bring in.
Michael: I’d already interviewed her for my WhitePaperSource stuff. I’d already met her. I’d already become friends with her. She had actually taught in a little online conference that Gary Vaynerchuk was part of back in early 2009. And so I’d already kind of proven myself to her that I can help bring an audience, but it was mostly the marketers that were in the white paper industry. So, for her, it was like a no-brainer to just write some articles and just see if this thing would take off, and she was just one of many people. And it turned out that the moment . . . And back then she wasn’t really well-known either, let’s be honest, early days for her. And what ended up happening was people started seeing the caliber of the people that were part of this thing and then they wanted to be part of this thing, and all of a sudden like this “website” that wasn’t opinions but was actually tactical how-to stuff blew up because nobody was doing tactical how-to stuff back then, Andrew. It was all opinions.
Andrew: That’s the thing. So I’ll tell you where I read this. This was in Founder Magazine. “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 the 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,” emphasis from the magazine, “how to use social media.” And that was your thing, if I teach them how to use it. Did you know what the revenue was going to be based on that?
Michael: Well, I decided I wasn’t going to do advertising first of all, so I did have a plan. The plan was that once I hit 10,000 email subscribers, that was going to be the trigger to go ahead and have an online event. If I roll the clock back a little bit, I had previously done an online conference back in 2008, which is very unusual. Nobody was doing them back then. It was just a series of webinars, and it was focused on copywriting because that’s my craft. And it was really popular. So then I decided that I was going to do one on social media. That’s the one where Gary Vaynerchuk was our keynote and Mari was there. And that was crazy popular. So my goal was to monetize the audience by doing an online summit, to do multiple ones, actually three a year.
Andrew: And people would pay to attend these virtually.
Michael: They definitely did pay. They were paying $300 to $600, and I would sell thousands of tickets.
Andrew: Is this the Social Media Success Summit?
Michael: That’s one of them, yeah.
Michael: And we made about $1.4 million the first year . . .
Michael: Just for these summits.
Andrew: I see. I see it up on your website there’s still a link to that.
Michael: Probably. I’m shocked it’s still there, but yeah, it’s definitely . . . In the beginning, there was . . . In the very first year, it was just like eight presenters, Gary Vaynerchuk, Mari Smith, and some other people that most people don’t know. They were just the people in my network that I knew that could teach on social media.
Andrew: So I saw that when I was looking at your bio on Copyblogger, there was a reference to Social Media Success Summit. There was something called Social Media Marketing Society there too. What was that?
Michael: Okay. So the Social Media Marketing Society was launched quite a few years later. It’s still alive. It’s our professional organization. Kind of the best way to describe it is a membership organization. We have I don’t know how many thousands, but many thousands of people that are paying X amount of dollars per month, up to $70 a month. And then what we do is every month we bring three live trainings to the members of the Society, done in a webinar-style, and then we have a private Facebook group and forums. It’s just kind of our ongoing continuity model, I guess is the best way to describe it.
Andrew: So I’m on the page for that. I get it. I feel like the difference between you and some of the other people who are covering the space is, yes, you were covering how-to or they were covering the latest feature to be added to Facebook. The other difference is who you were targeting. I looked around at your conference, and I saw people who had jobs and were proud of it. It’s not like they wanted to be the latest entrepreneur. They weren’t trying to be Mark Zuckerberg. They weren’t trying to spend their days on social. They had jobs. Their company sent them to the conference because they knew that this is how they’re going to get the training. At what point did you know this was your tribe, this was the people you were going after?
Michael: Early, because one of the things that we also did from the get-go was research. So we published an annual industry report every single year since, like, 2008, I think, or 2009, called the Social Media Marketing Industry Report. We release it as like a 50-page free report. And I always ask a couple of extra questions that I never publish in the report. So I’ve always had intelligence as to who our audience is, and I’m very much an analytical kind of guy. So I’ve always known that the majority of our audience their full-time job is a marketer, and the reason why they love us is because we help them be better at their job, we help them to be the hero of their company.
Andrew: Okay. I get it. I think a lot of people would have said, “I’m an entrepreneur. I don’t get these people. That’s not my world.” But they’re the ones who are willing to pay, they’re the ones who are willing to it, they’re the ones who you can count on. Good audience.
Michael: Yeah. Well, and we have the entrepreneurs as well, because they’re just not as big of an audience for us because the reality is that an entrepreneur has to run a business and a lot of times marketing is a full-time thing. So a lot of times the entrepreneur might be good at sales or good at product development but maybe isn’t really good at marketing. And there’s a big old industry of marketers out there that wanted to learn this stuff.
Andrew: Okay. Let me do some math. You tell me if this becomes at all uncomfortable.
Michael: Go ahead. Do the math.
Andrew: Seven thousand people showing up to your conference. The price is $1,000 now if people get it at a discount.
Andrew: I’m not going to do the math beyond that, but we’re talking about considerable amount of money, right?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: Wow-wee, dude. You’re so understated. You’re sitting here in a T-shirt. Here’s what tells me that you’re understated but deliberate. Your earphones. Most people don’t bother wearing earphones at all for a podcast like this, and if they do, they wear whatever free ones came with their iPhone because they’re not thinking ahead.
There are two people who thought ahead to the level . . . Now, some people think ahead to the mic and now we’re buying mics for every guest. There are only two people in the history of this podcast who said, “I’m going to go one step beyond.” You and Jason Fried doing the exact same thing, not just earphones, but earphones that no one’s going to see unless they know to look for it. That I feel is you, understated, wearing your flip-flops, and at the same time . . . Yeah, look at that. He’s showing that he’s got a light shining on him. Right? And it looks like you’re just chilling out, but you’re not. You’re deliberate. You care about every minute that we’re here, and then you probably even have an appointment that happens two minutes after we’re done. Is that you? Am I picking up on your vibe?
Michael: You’re pretty close, yeah. I am a stickler when it comes to detail. In the lobby at Social Media Examiner it says, “All that we serve is quality and we serve all with excellence.” So I believe in quality and excellence in everything that we do, and as a result, that’s part of our unique differentiator, which is that we deliver very high-quality content and we serve people really well, including the people that interview me.
Andrew: I appreciate that and the people who are listening. This morning I spent 20 minutes talking via text, me and my producer, talking to a competitor of a guest who’s going to be on in a month to understand their business, going back and forth. Boy, we’ve got some great stuff to prepare. No one’s going to know about it. Most people are just going to think, “This is kind of interesting.” They’re not going to see it, but to me, this is what adds the quality that I could be proud to be associated with. I wonder if there’s something like that for you. What is it that I, as an outsider with an untrained eye, don’t notice when I go to socialmediaexaminer.com that you as someone who put it together take pride in and it doesn’t matter if it’s not getting you an extra hit but it’s . . .
Michael: Well, if you go there now, we just launched a brand new website design a couple of days ago, so it’s completely overhauled. What they don’t know is I hired the top web developer in the world. His name is Rafal Tomal, who used to work for Genesis, Themes. And I also hired some of the best people in the world to design that site, and it’s optimized and designed for readability.
And every little, tiny thing you could possibly imagine is designed to allow you to retain on the website. We don’t have sidebars. Just these subtle little kind of nuances that you wouldn’t even think about. We go really hard to try to, like, make sure we get you on the email list, and you’re going to notice that if you start scrolling down the site, all these subtle little things we do. So there’s intention in everything we do. I don’t do anything by accident. It’s pretty darn rare that I do. There’s always a strategy behind it.
Andrew: You know what? That’s a really good example, because I was on it and I noticed something was different, but I couldn’t tell what it is. Like I noticed the one thing that stood out for me is, when I mouse over an article on the homepage, it kind of pops a little bit. That I noticed. But it still looks so similar to what it looked like half a year ago and what it looks like when I go the Wayback Machine that it’s consistent, but I can’t pick up on what’s different.
Michael: That’s right. Yeah. Well, it’s pretty dramatically different. But that’s the key. The key is to create a brand that’s recognizable even if it changes, right? So what I wanted to do is keep the jungle theme and the slogan, “Your Guide to the Social Media Jungle,” but I wanted to do it in a modern way with using the right color palettes, the right fonts, the right leading between the fonts. The whole user experience is really designed to make it look a little nicer. And I’ve always been someone who’s tried to really try to push the edge with the visuals on what we do, because I think that in order to get to the brain, you got to go through the eyes, Andrew, and if you don’t get through the eyes, you’ll never get back to the brain where they make decisions.
Andrew: That’s a really good quote. “To get to the brains, you got to go through the eyes.” And I am someone who struggles with that eye part. I don’t have it. And I get frustrated when I can’t create it fast. Do you get frustrated like that?
Michael: No, but I am a creative, so for me . . . The best way that you can get there is you can hire people that are super-creative and you can . . . Like, I work with amazing designers and developers because I used to own a creative agency and I know the value proposition, because here’s the thing. I call it the Who Are You objection, Andrew, which is a pretty good marketing concept. If people don’t know who you are, then they’re going to question you. But if you look like you belong and you look like you might even be really amazing, then they’ll say, “Oh,” and they’ll pay attention. So I try to design things with extra level of professionalism so that when people look at it, they don’t even question it.
Andrew: What about the writing? Now, I’m starting to notice things, by the way, like, Social Media Marketing World comes like that badger, whatever you’d call it, to talk about how I could save $550 if I buy today. That comes up in a really interesting way. I think I wouldn’t necessarily focus on it, but it caught my eye a bunch of times. It wasn’t until you said that you just redesigned the site that I was looking and I noticed it. That now I’m starting to see. Can you walk me through something like that around the copy, around the content? What is it that makes your content different and that you are proud of?
Michael: Well, we test everything first of all. So I’m very analytical. So, literally, we just take a paragraph, run it through Google Optimize, and we see whether or not this paragraph converts better than that paragraph. I’m a big believer, because of my background in writing, that the message is the most important thing if you want to persuade someone. And you could spend a lot of money on advertising and driving to a sales page that doesn’t convert, or you could spend a little bit of money making that sales page optimized so that whoever comes there will increase the likelihood they become a customer. So that’s the kind of stuff I think about almost every day.
Andrew: Wait. Google Optimize is like a landing page or A/B testing type software to oversimplify, right?
Michael: Yeah. You just literally . . .
Andrew: And so you take . . .
Michael: It ties in with Google Analytics, and you just edit it a little bit and then you say, “I want to . . . ” Like for example, just yesterday, I ran a test where I changed a paragraph on the Social Media Marketing World homepage, and I said, “I want to track how much revenue, how much time on site, and how many transactions come out of this.” A thousand people hit the sales site, and it said with 100% certainty that your test is the winner. So I just changed it, and boom, now it’s live. That’s the kind of stuff you can do with Google Optimize.
Andrew: Do you do that with blog posts too, like the Six Tips for Writing Social Media Ad Copy That Converts, would that headline be A/B tested? Would the copy be A/B tested?
Michael: No. I write every single headline for Social Media Examiner because of my background as a copywriter and [inaudible 00:36:34] every email broadcast and all of our marketing collateral still because it’s my superpower. So I don’t split test that stuff. I just kind of know what works because it’s my craft. But I do split test the sales page because we’ve got that steady stream of traffic coming in, and I mess around with stuff all the time.
Andrew: Look at this, by the way. That post was published today, 264 shares already. That’s the thing that you get because you’re . . .
Michael: A little low for us.
Andrew: That’s low. But it’s been up for a few hours.
Andrew: But that’s still low.
Andrew: All right. Let me take a moment to talk about my second sponsor. Can I be a little like, I was going to say critical, but now that you’ve told me like all this hidden stuff, I can’t be critical.
Michael: Of course, be critical. I’m always open . . .
Andrew: Let me ask you this. How is it? So my second sponsor is a company called ActiveCampaign. What they do is email marketing that allows you to do targeting based on what people clicked, what they’ve even done on your website. If they watch a video all the way to the end that’s about showing up to the conference, you can come back to them and say, “Hey, there’s this conference coming up and here’s a ticket.” You could do all that kind. I looked at your BuiltWith to see what you use. Builtwith.com tells me what software people use. You’re using AWeber. Why is someone who’s . . .
Michael: I’m actually not using AWeber.
Andrew: Oh, you’re not. Oh, maybe there’s some extra code . . .
Michael: No. We’re using something like ActiveCampaign. And I got to say, I’m a big fan of using tools like ActiveCampaign. We do track everything. And this is what’s great about ActiveCampaign is that even though we’re not a customer is that you can absolutely have a full CRM system tag them, and we do use one of those kinds of systems, believe it or not.
Andrew: Oh, okay. So is there a clever thing that you do there that I wouldn’t know because I don’t have access to your CRM?
Michael: Yeah. If you happen to hit . . . If you’re on our email list and you happen . . . We do what’s called lead scoring, so if you happen to hit Customized Lead Scoring. So if you happen to hit our Social Media Marketing World sales page more than a couple of times, then we tag you and then we put you through a sequence. In addition, every time we send out an email, if the word “Facebook” is in the URL, we give you a point for Facebook, and then we know that you have a high interest in the topic of Facebook, for example, just based on your actions and your activities.
Andrew: That’s brilliant. Fairly simple to do if you have the right software and you know how to use it. But I wouldn’t even think to do that. That’s great. You know, I actually don’t even use the lead scoring option.
All right. Guys, if you’re listening to me and you’re not doing any kind of customization when it comes to email, any kind of targeting, you’re really missing out on an opportunity. And the problem is, up until now, it’s been so difficult to do because you have to do it with an expert, you have to spend a lot of time figuring out the software, you make a lot of mistakes as you’re doing this sequence and that sequence.
ActiveCampaign said, “We’re going to make it easy.” And they are known for being the company that has all these features and makes it easy enough that even the CEO could do it himself or transition to a virtual assistant to do it. They want to be that simple. If you want to get started with them, they have a special URL where they’re going to give you first month . . . No. Trial period, free trial period so you can get started with them and try it out, second month completely free. Then you get two one-on-one consulting, so you could say, “Hey, this guy, Michael Stelzner said that he does this thing. How do I do it in my business?” They’ll tell you, they’ll walk you through it.
And then you go away, do it, and then you come back again a month later or whenever you want and you say, “Actually, I got stuck. It’s not working for me. Maybe this is not the right solution.” They’ll adjust it, and then they’ll tell you the next step and then you’re ready to go. They’ll give you all that. And if you happen to be with a different email provider and they don’t offer this, they will migrate you for free.
So what’s that URL? Here it is. Activecampaign.com/mixergy. Activecampaign.com/mixergy. I challenge you. Go talk to your friends, talk to the people who are in the know, ask them, “Is this real or is this just something that Andrew got paid to say?” Then you’re going to see people in the know are now more and more using ActiveCampaign. Activecampaign.com/mixergy.
I’m loving these ads lately, Michael. I’m loving it.
Michael: I like the way you integrate them. That’s very smart.
Andrew: Thank you. At what point did you decide to get into the live conference space?
Michael: You know, I had been doing this Social Media Success Summit for quite a few years, and I was at a conference in Cleveland, Ohio, called Content Marketing World, and I was keynoting with Brian Clark from Copyblogger. And my good friend, Joe Pulizzi was putting on this event. There was about 400 people there, and I was like shocked at how calm he was walking around in his orange shoes. And I’m like, “Dude, how can you be so calm?” And he’s all, “Did you know that there are people who organize these events?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” So I went back. I took lots of videos, I went back to San Diego and I started calling my team together and I said, “Hey, I think we’re going to do our own conference.” And that’s how the idea was born. We had 1,100 people at our very first year.
Andrew: How did you get . . . How big is your email list for you to get 1,100 people your first year?
Michael: It was about 250,000 back then.
Andrew: Got it. And the reason it’s 250,000 is you keep thinking through this stuff that you mentioned earlier. How do you get people on the email list?
Michael: We get about 800 subscribers a day.
Andrew: Wow-wee. And what’s the best way to get a subscriber on your site right now? What’s working for you?
Michael: Well, we use all sorts of different mechanisms, but, for example, if you’re visiting the site for the first time, there’ll be a pop-up that comes up about 15% scroll down. If you exit the page, there’s an exit intent pop-up. We have boxes all over the place, the bottom. Our industry report is our like lead magnet. It’s just been . . . Typically, we get about a quarter million subscribers a year, new subscribers to the newsletter, and then we purge quite a few every year as well. But we were at about 675,000 at our peak. We’re at now about 340,000 because I just purged anybody who didn’t open email in the last 90 days.
But yeah, it’s a really loyal list. We used to email them every day. Now, we email them three days a week. And it’s just kind of the core belief for me is that if we’re providing all this great valuable how-to content, I want to be the well at which people come to get water, and a lot of them want to be reminded and they don’t see their reminders anymore on social, so email’s really where it’s at.
Andrew: And the topic for the conference was a no-brainer then. You’ve got a bunch of people who are coming to you to learn how to use social media. You bring in speakers to do it. Was there any . . . I think the most clever thing that I saw done was Lead Pages when they invited me to speak at their conference, they said, “Andrew, we can’t pay. What we’re going to do instead, though, is buy a bunch of ads and do this other stuff,” or something like that. Or maybe they said, “We’ll pay you but we need you to do . . . ” What they were basically doing was getting the speakers to promote and paying for that. You don’t do that. Do you do anything beyond reach out to your list and your site to get people to attend?
Michael: You’re talking about the speaker side or the attendee?
Andrew: Yeah. To get people to attend with the speakers outside of your site, beyond the speakers, buying ads. What else is working?
Michael: Here is the deal. With the speakers, first of all, it’s recruitment only, so it’s got a mystique about it, which is it’s invite-only kind of a thing. So a lot of the speakers actually have heard about the conference and know about our reputation, so it’s very easy for us to get speakers. And we really don’t focus on the speakers really very much in our site, unlike a lot of other events where they’ll put like two or three marquee speakers up at the homepage.
In our case, it’s just, when you’re talking about 12 simultaneous tracks, there are so many speakers that it’s less about that and it’s more about like I’m coming to learn about this. So we promote it in a crazy number of ways, Andrew. We have a documentary called “The Journey” that comes out every week, which is a seven-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. It’s kind of like a little TV show. And it’s all about how we’re marketing Social Media Marketing World, journey.show, shameless plug.
And then we also have, obviously, banner ads all over the website. We do advertisements in our email newsletters. We do all the different shows that we produce. We produce a live show, two podcasts. Those are all sponsored by the conference. So we just use every conceivable media channel that we own.
Andrew: Can I take a moment? You just said journey.show. I went to it, of course, because I always check to see what people are doing. You’re doing the smart thing. You’re not sending me to a website, you’re sending me to YouTube.
Andrew: And then it automatically says, “Are you sure you want to subscribe?” You’re doing what very few people do anymore, which is linking to the subscribe process.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: You know what? As much as I’ve . . .
Michael: And by the way, I got to say this, Andrew.
Andrew: Do it. Yes.
Michael: The reason why I know these things is because I have, on my podcast, the Social Media Marketing podcast, I interview some of the smartest people in the world every single week, just like you do, but it’s all about marketing. And I just take little tips from every one of them and I just implement.
Andrew: How? That’s a problem that I have that I feel like maybe it’s because you do much more tactical stuff than I do, and we do bigger picture ideas. And you say, “Here’s a URL that you should be promoting.” Maybe that’s a difference and then you can pick and choose, but even then, even if you have people get very specific things that don’t take an eternity to put together, there’s still a lot coming at you. How do you implement it all?
Michael: Well, I have a pretty good sized team first of all. I have 17 W-2 employees and then 50 some contractors, regular contractors that work. So there’s like 67 people or something like that that work for me. So I’m not doing it all myself. That’s part of it.
Andrew: So it’s just, “Hey, this guy just talked to me about this thing. Why don’t we go and implement it? Here’s an easy way to do it,” and you know the person on your team who is going to go implement.
Michael: Yeah. Or I do it myself because I’m super technical. But yeah, a lot of times, like, I’ve got my marketing team all around here, and I just call a meeting and people come in, and a lot of times I end up hiring the people that are on my podcast, a lot of times I do. I just, after the podcast, I say, “I want to hire you. How much is it going to cost? Okay. When can you start?” Boom. I’ve hired tons of people that have been on my podcast.
Andrew: What’s an example of someone who you hired?
Michael: Recently, Talia Wolf, who is a conversion rate optimization expert out of Israel who specializes in surveying people and coming up with emotional messages to help sell. That’s one that just literally happened a couple of weeks ago. Another one is Tom Breeze who’s a YouTube advertising expert who I just had on my podcast. Well, I just interviewed. He’s not come out yet. And I’m hiring him to help with our YouTube advertising.
Andrew: Okay. I see it. I see the way that you operate. Tell me a little bit about day-to-day. I’m trying to get a sense of you too as a person, as a CEO.
Andrew: What’s your day-to-day work like?
Michael: Sometimes I get up as early as 4:00 in the morning. Andrew, I hate to say, I’m an early riser. I’m in bed by 10:00. I usually get up pretty early, and I just sit in my home office with my laptop and I analyze things in the morning and I sometimes get worked on creative processes. And I get in the office around 7:30. And at that point, I’m starting to work with my team and make sure that they’re all mobilized and they’re all making forward progress. I’ve got a video guy who’s filming stuff around me for The Journey when certain things happen. I’m in phone calls pretty much all day long with my team trying to kind of help make sure forward motion is happening. And then generally, I’m done by about 5:30, 6:00 and I head home. I’m a hard worker, but there’s always a lot of stuff going on, and there’s never a dull moment for sure in this company.
Andrew: How are you going to measure whether this podcast is worth your while? You’ve come on here . . . I remember asking before, you said . . . You were thinking a little . . .
Michael: I don’t measure this kind of stuff, Andrew.
Andrew: You don’t. Then what’s the point of doing this? Why come on here?
Michael: I, once a year, open myself up to be on people’s podcasts and give myself an opportunity to talk to some of my friends like you. I consider you a friend even though I know we’re early in the friendship development thing. And like I told you before, I didn’t want to be on your show, but we know each other now, so I opened myself up to that because sometimes when I talk things out, amazing things happen. It is advantageous for me around conference season to get my name out there in front of different audiences. But since we’re not really talking about the conference, it’s more about them getting to know me, the person, and then maybe wanting to watch The Journey or listen to my podcast, because I know once they do one of those two things, there’s a high likelihood that they will become fans.
Andrew: Without directly measuring it. That’s the type of thing that sometimes frustrates me, that people will tell me . . .
Michael: I measure a lot, but there’s some stuff you just can’t measure.
Andrew: And you still do it anyway. You don’t focus just on things that you can measure because at least then you know that you can improve it. And I was just talking to someone about this yesterday, a guy who used to work for Toptal who’s been advising me a lot lately. And every time he suggests something that I can’t measure, I get uncomfortable. But you’re more . . .
Michael: But here’s the thing. Okay. You know this, Andrew.
Michael: You have a podcast. You have guests on your podcast. What happens is people go to an event, I go to an event, maybe it’s not even my own event, someone comes up to me and they say, “Hey, I heard you on Andrew Warner’s podcast or I heard you on so-and-so’s podcast.”
Michael: And then next thing you know, we’re friends, or next thing you know, they’re coming to the conference. So I believe that in a world where it’s so easy to publish content that the connections, a human to human connection is what transcends everything else, and that’s the reason why I let my voice out a little bit more at certain times of the year, because I know that someone is going to potentially recommend someone else to listen to what I’m saying here and that somebody else might check out Social Media Examiner and then that’s just how it goes. The only way you know it’s working is when someone comes up to you. So anyone who’s listening right now, when you come to Social Media Marketing World, come up to me and tell me, “I heard you on Andrew’s podcast.” Then I’ll know it works.
Andrew: Do that. Better yet, come see me there. You guys gave me a URL that I can use to give people a discount. I’m not going to use it because I can’t make this into a situation where I’m promoting or being nice to you just so people can sign up so that I can make money. But I will say this. I really enjoyed being at the conference both as a speaker and as attendee getting to know people there. I’m going to not just come back again and speak again. I’ve got to tell my wife I’m doing that. It’s weird. Now that I’m married, I’ve got to actually tell someone where I’m going to be.
Michael: [inaudible 00:50:40]
Andrew: And then the other thing that I do is I’m doing scotch night again. I love the people who came over for scotch night.
Michael: What is scotch night? I don’t even know what that is?
Andrew: Oh, here’s what I did last time. Now my team is so ready. I usually will have scotch night here at the office. SaaS entrepreneurs will come into the office, we’ll have scotch, we’ll talk. Other entrepreneurs who I interviewed will come in, listeners will come in. We’ll do five or so people. At your event, I rented . . . I had a suite, and so I said to everyone who came, “Come to my suite. I’m going to have scotch tasting.” And so I bought a bunch of different scotch that I want people to taste. They came into my suite. I got to know people who I have only seen online, people who had never heard of me before until then. And that was great.
And the day before, no one was planning to come. My team said, “Andrew, you’re going to have a failure. Why are you getting us to send all these bottles of whiskey over?” I said, “There’s no problem with me. I’m super social.” I just walked around and talked to people. Like, I saw John Lee Dumas there. I said, “John, I know you’re doing something. If you want, my room is open, come over and have scotch.” And a couple of other people. And before you knew it, speakers and attendees. It was phenomenal.
Michael: That’s awesome.
Andrew: Phenomenal. Yeah. All right. So I’m going to be at the conference. For anyone who wants to go to your conference, what’s the best URL? Actually, I think socialmediaexaminer.com is the best URL to go to for the conference too and then they could find it there. What do you think?
Michael: Yeah. I mean, or you can just google “Social Media Marketing World.” I mean, it’s not hard to find. It’s really not.
Andrew: All right. Go over there and check them out. And if you want to get a website, go to hostgator.com/mixergy. And if you want to do email marketing right, go to activecampaign.com/mixergy. We must be doing something right for ActiveCampaign. They’re buying again for next year. I like that.
Andrew: Yeah. Thanks a lot, Michael.
Michael: My pleasure, man. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Thanks. Bye, everyone.
Actually, hang on one second. I know that interview was over, but once we were done, Michael and I talked in private about a couple of things that he was thinking about doing next, and how his past I feel was haunting him a little bit. And so I said to him, “Michael, I know what you’re telling me is in private. Can I just hit record on it? And if you’re not happy with it, we won’t include it.” But I think this private conversation is really meaningful. And so he said, “Yeah, record it. I trust you. I’m going to put my faith in you and we could delete whatever.” I told him I could even edit out anything if he starts telling me personal stuff, because I don’t know if it was going to go into his family situation or what.
There was one thing that he did not like for me to include. It was the most trivial, in my mind, little thing, but I get it. He wants to be a little dramatic in the future and keep that in his pocket to reveal in the future. I don’t think it changes the message, but here it is, this private conversation that Michael and I had that was a little less structured than I usually would be, but also deep as I always like to go. Let’s roll it.
I’m going to put this on. We just finished the interview and Michael goes, “There’s a couple things that I thought you were going to dig in on.” I go, “I didn’t know there were a couple things that I didn’t dig in on.” One of them that we brought up . . . I’m going to just attach this to the end of the interview. One of them that we brought up was My Kids’ Adventure. You lost how much money on that?
Andrew: Trying to do what?
Michael: Well, the simple story was that Social Media Examiner was a hit. The year was 2013 or ’14, and I decided to start another multi-author blog and a passion project that I was interested in, which is doing fun things with your kids. And my hypothesis was digital addiction is a problem for children. I had three young kids at the time who are now teenagers. And I wanted to bring together writers to talk about how to do fun activities for busy dads and moms, mostly dads who got home from work and didn’t have time to come up with creative projects for their kids, but wanted to do fun physical activities with their kids and in their house, in the backyard and in the great outdoors. And I partnered with people like Steve Spangler, who’s a science guy, and so many other people and they just started writing great articles on . . . And the site still exists.
The mistake I made was I thought I was going to monetize it on display advertising, so I decided for the first year it would be free, no ads, and then I would monetize it with display advertising. The problem is I interviewed a gal named Holly Homer, kidsactivitiesblog.com, and for my podcast, strategically building that relationship and when it was all over with, she told me how big her site was, way bigger than Social Media Examiner even. And then she told me how much money she was making, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding me?” So my Hail Mary was I went to BlogHer and I thought to myself, “If I go to BlogHer up in the Bay Area . . . ”
Andrew: That was a conference.
Michael: Yeah, that’s a conference for mommy bloggers, for lack of better words. “Maybe I’ll meet some big brands there and I can get a big sponsor.” I went there. All the big brands were there. I started talking to everybody there, and none of them worked for the big brands. Everybody in the booth were agency people that were hired to just come and work the booth. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding?” I’d spent a year, $300,000, hired multiple employees and contractors, wrote, I don’t know, 200, 300 articles, the site was getting hundreds of thousands of page views a month, and I had no business model.
And I thought, Andrew, my big plan was to be the next Walt Disney. My plan was first build the blog, become the biggest blog in the industry just like I was with Social Media Examiner and just like I had done with the white paper industry. I thought if I could do it three times, I was going to be a golden child, you know. And the plan was to draw a huge crowd of people that were interested in doing activities with kids and physical activities with kids and then start regionalized theme parks all over America where people could come and do things like start fires with their kid or teach them science projects or just make like stuff, you know, just fun stuff, like get dirty kind of physical activity stuff, maybe have guided hiking tours and just getting kids out.
And then the goal was to grow that up and then just kind of build theme parks and all that craziness. But I really was convinced. I even introduced from the keynote stage at Social Media Marketing World this big vision, and people came out of the woodwork and wanted to volunteer to help with the movement, and it was just nuts. It was a really, really big deal, and it was a big fail and I did a podcast episode about what I learned from it.
The lessons that I learned from it were pretty substantial. First of all, it’s so important when you start something new that you have a business plan and you test it out. I had proven that people were interested in this kind of content by looking at all the content that was out there, but I didn’t have a way of making money. And I just did the math on it. I would have to spend millions of dollars to continue this project in order to be able to just break even, and I just didn’t see the business plan, so I shut it down and brought all the staff to work for Social Media Examiner and just learned a heck of a lot of lessons.
Andrew: And it was, there’s no money in it month to month because advertising wasn’t what you thought it would be.
Andrew: And because there wasn’t any money to carry you through month to month, you couldn’t then make enough money to buy the first or to create the first local event space and then build it from there.
Michael: Yeah, because I was spending like $25,000 a month on staff and personnel just to keep that alive.
Andrew: Wow. And so now you’re still thinking of doing something else, right?
Michael: Yeah. In The Journey, I introduced something called Project Genesis. The Journey is my documentary. And I open up Season Two of The Journey with a lot of fear and trepidation saying, “I’ve got this idea that I think is a really big idea, but I also have this business which is really successful. And my struggle is, like, how do I find time to pursue this new idea while also keeping this really successful business operational?” So, as the storyline unfolds, there’s a lot of gray hair that seems to be growing because, like, this idea keeps getting put off and . . .
Andrew: The idea of starting an [inaudible 00:58:55] you want to or starting some other company. You want to start something different, but the demon . . .
Michael: Can you edit out starting [inaudible 00:59:02] company part because I have not disclosed that.
Andrew: You don’t even want to say starting a [inaudible 00:59:05]. That’s too much to reveal.
Michael: That’s too much to reveal.
Michael: Because I’m not ready to tell the world that yet because I don’t want everybody coming to me and telling me, “I want to help you start this.”
Andrew: You just don’t because you don’t want people to come in and say they want to help you because you’re not ready to do anything.
Michael: I want it to remain a mystery, because I will eventually reveal it, but I’m not ready to reveal it.
Andrew: And you want to have the big splash.
Michael: It’ll be part of The Journey when I reveal it. So, if we could, just edit out what you said it is. You know what I mean? But here’s what we can say. For sure, what I want to start is something I don’t know anything about, Andrew. And what I want to start is something that is in a domain that I have zero experience in.
Andrew: No, I get all that. What I’m wondering is, how much of this is you having the demons of the past failure and now don’t want to have that in public? Is it that?
Michael: No, that’s not it at all.
Andrew: That’s not it at all?
Michael: No. I plan on revealing what it is as a kind of part of the storyline for The Journey.
Andrew: But you don’t . . . But you were saying you have some hesitation about doing it and you’re not feeling . . .
Michael: Today I don’t want it revealed because it’s going to take a huge plotline out of my . . .
Andrew: Oh no, I get it. The plot . . . I get that. But what about the personal hesitation? I won’t publish it. I’m not going to publish even this. I feel like it’s going to have a couple of . . . I was sensing that you wanted to talk about it, so I gave you space to and then I didn’t realize [inaudible 01:00:24]
Michael: No. We could totally talk about it as long as you don’t say what it is. So it’s your call if you want to do it because I’d be happy to talk about that because . . .
Andrew: What about the demons? The demon . . .
Michael: So here’s the deal.
Andrew: Is that an issue?
Michael: The demons?
Andrew: Yeah. I feel like you’re hinting . . .
Michael: You mean my [inaudible 01:00:36] to this new thing?
Andrew: Yeah. I feel like you’re hinting at that, that the reason that it might . . .
Michael: Here is the thing, guys. Here is the struggle.
Michael: The struggle is like, okay, I made a mistake once before by not figuring out what I want to do in the business model before I invested money in it, and this time around, it’s a different problem. This time around with this new thing that I’m calling project Genesis is I actually just don’t have the time right now to invest in exploring this new business idea. And the challenge that I’m facing is that I have this audacious goal to grow the conference by like 50 plus percent year over year, and I don’t have a team around me that can operate without me.
So the demon inside my head is right now more about like, “Man, if I get distracted on this other project, the whole house of cards could come down.” That’s the challenge that I’m facing right now, so I’ve had to put it off. And the putting off of it tears me up inside, Andrew, because I really want to do something like this. I’ve wanted to do it for years and I’ve been told I can’t, and now I actually can’t. So the struggle that I’m doing is I’m waiting till the conference is over with so that I can revisit it, but my fear is that it’ll slip away. You know what I mean? And that I might just . . .
Andrew: Why would it slip away after this [inaudible 01:02:07]
Michael: I don’t know. Because I just know sometimes an idea when you have a lot of excitement, if you don’t, like, stoke the fire, sometimes it goes out.
Andrew: Okay. So if you wait till even after this next conference, this next event in early 2019, some of the fire might be gone in you.
Michael: That’s my fear, yeah.
Andrew: I see.
Michael: But at the same . . . And the company needs almost everything of me right now because we’re at such an important juncture point because the mission is so challenging and . . .
Andrew: What’s the challenge in the mission?
Michael: The challenge of the mission is to grow the conference 56% year over year. That’s a massive mission.
Andrew: It’s huge. And you’re like doubling it this coming year?
Michael: We’re grown from 4,160 people to 7,000, so that’s a huge jump.
Andrew: Got it. And so even after the conference you still have to get started with the next version with 2020 version.
Michael: Well, after the conference, I’ll be in a good spot depending on how well the conference . . . I’ll still be in a good spot to like at least spend a month or two on this other project and then decide what I’m going to do, if I’m going to hire some more people inside the company to allow me to stay distracted on this project. So I don’t know, Andrew, if you’ve ever been in a position where you have this amazing thing, everything is going well for you, and you know it’s going well because you’re investing so much time and effort into it and you love the work that you’re doing, but there’s . . . And it’s not that you don’t love the work that you’re doing, it’s just that there’s this other thing that you know you’ve been putting off, that really could take everything you’re doing to the next level. That’s where I’m at right now is that . . .
Andrew: Could it be better? Could it be . . . Like, it would be bigger financially, the new thing?
Michael: Oh, yeah, by a margin . . .
Andrew: And you’d enjoy it also even more.
Michael: Well, that’s the part I don’t know. I mean, like, because it’s in a domain I don’t have a lot of experience in. Obviously, that’s the big mystery. But just the idea of creating something for me is exciting, and I don’t have a problem with it not working.
Andrew: And you don’t have a problem with failing in public with all these people saying, “This guy knows social media . . . ”
Michael: Because I fail in public all the freaking time.
Andrew: You do.
Michael: I got no problem with that because it’s my lesson. It’s part of what makes the documentary so exciting is that I own my mistakes and I learn from them. Like, My Kids’ Adventures was a mistake, but I learned so much from it. I’m a better entrepreneur now. So it’s not like I didn’t learn things from it. I never want to ever go back and erase the mistakes because the mistakes make us stronger and smarter.
Andrew: All right. And the documentary is The Journey. And the reason that you wanted to keep a lot of this private is because you want to reveal it all in The Journey. I’m on your site right now. Let me mute this.
Michael: Yeah. That’s why because I want to reveal it on my terms. And by the way, if you want to cut some other stuff out of the show, go for it.
Andrew: No. I don’t edit out. The only reason I’m editing anything out of this section is because . . .
Michael: I’m asking.
Andrew: . . . I’m having a private conversation. Nope. I have people ask me all the time, like, we lose friendships over it and then they come back and we become friends. The only reason is because we’re having a private conversation. I said, “Can I just record it and include it in? And if you’re not happy, I just won’t use it.” But I wanted our personal conversation in there, and I think I see where you’re going with this.
Michael: So what are you going to edit? You’re just going to . . .
Andrew: I’m going to put it in, and then that one word, which I think is nothing, but I get it. You have a showmanship that you want to maintain.
Michael: Well, and I repeated it, so I would ask that you take that word out.
Michael: Yeah. You can just mute it and . . .
Andrew: Make sure that one word doesn’t get in there.
Michael: Yeah. And you know what I did in The Journey? I actually had my editor actually, like, put a little bleep, something over my lips, and then, yeah, it was just dead silence during that spot.
Andrew: All right. You got a sense of showmanship, I understand it, and I also feel like you’re . . . I feel also that there’s a little bit more to . . .
Michael: There really isn’t. Honestly, you got to understand.
Andrew: Oh, I thought you were giving me stuff before we recorded about, look, you’re saying that there’s . . .
Michael: Tell me more. What did I say without saying it?
Andrew: I wish I recorded this. This was our private conversation before I hit record, where you were saying that there was some kind of inner doubts that you had that you were wrestling with.
Michael: Oh, it’s true.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s it. Right?
Michael: It’s true. Okay.
Andrew: What is that?
Michael: But here’s the thing. Okay. So, back in the summer of 2018 is when I started recording The Journey, and at that point it’s like May or June and the conference hasn’t kicked into full gear, so I had the bandwidth to begin exploring this new business opportunity and I had a lot of doubts because of the amount of money it’s going to take to pull it off, because I’m operating in a domain that’s completely outside of my area of expertise. And my doubts were could this be . . . could the little voice in my head be correct? Could this be something that’s a huge distraction for me? Could this . . . Maybe I’m not supposed to do this. Maybe what everyone is telling me is true. Then there was another part of my brain that said, “Dude, you’ve been wanting to do this for years. You have no . . . Nothing is stopping you. You have the financial means. You have access to amazing people. You could just do this. You could go out and buy a company tomorrow if you wanted to and you could do this.” And that’s this struggle that I’ve had inside my head.
Andrew: And you’re giving into one because? What’s the thing . . .
Michael: Well, if I went on and bought a company or if I decided to start this thing, I know myself so well that I know that I would be all in. And the problem is that my business needs me to be all in right now, and that’s the struggle.
Andrew: And if you lost Social Media Examiner, if it stayed flat for a year, the pain . . .
Michael: Well, it’s not even about being flat. I mean, honestly, it’s just what’s at risk is my . . . Like, Social Media Examiner is the incubator for all future businesses.
Andrew: Oh. So it’s not just that you would lose the extra attendance and extra revenue, it’s the next future thing won’t be as great because this is the fountain that will allow all great things to spring from.
Andrew: Got it. And you don’t want to lose that. The bigger this is the bigger than next thing could be, the bigger all of these other ideas can be.
Michael: Yes. So the struggle for me is like putting off something for the greater, bigger picture. But the challenge inside me is like, “Man, am I just using that as an excuse to not do it?” That’s the struggle.
Andrew: And if you’re using it as an excuse, what would you be trying to avoid by giving into the excuse?
Michael: Me not being present for my family, me not being present for my children, me, potentially going off the deep end because of this desire to do this thing.
Andrew: You’re saying, “Look, this thing could just ruin everything that I’ve got going on. Why would I do it?”
Michael: I believe there’s a time and a place for everything. I don’t believe in coincidences, and that’s part of, like, my struggle is like I thought I was ready for it, but I’m not, and that’s part of the struggle.
Andrew: And that’s the problem with being successful that you’re kind of locked into your success.
Michael: Yeah. I think I told you privately, success can be a chain.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: The more successful you are, the harder it is to go out and start something new because there’s this desire not to ruin what you’ve got.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. Like people who sell their companies and then they get paid to stay there and do nothing and it’s hard to give up that money.
Michael: Yeah. And I get a great reward in making things. You know what I mean? And, like, I have an incredible platform that allows me to make things in a way that I don’t think is repeatable.
Andrew: Like what? What have you made in the last couple of years that’s new that you’ve been excited about it?
Michael: For example, the Social Media Marketing Society, Social Media Marketing World, the Social Media Marketing podcast, Social Media Marketing talk show, The Journey. These are all either business properties or media entities that I have created that are making a big impact on the world.
Andrew: Got it. So you can watch, the way a lot of us do, someone with a vlog who’s got really high production values and not just say, “That would be nice. I like to have that,” but actually do it and create it. And that’s the power that you have because . . . By the way, why is it that your videos have such few views on them? Everything else you touch has tons of people.
Michael: Oh. This is a funny little story. I made the mistake and published on Facebook. So, if you go on Facebook, you’ll see crazy high views. And I decided after about episode . . . After about the sixth episode, I decided to no longer publish The Journey on Facebook. So we were getting like 15,000, 20,000 views on Facebook, but the reality was no one was actually watching them past a couple of seconds. So I have to retrain my social media tribe to embrace this old network called YouTube. But here’s the thing, Andrew. I don’t need but 1,000 people to watch The Journey to the end.
Michael: Because of my way of thinking.
Andrew: What’s that? I look at that, by the way, and I go, “Oh, no, I failed. And everyone sees that I only have like 1,000 or 2,000 views and there’s . . . ”
Michael: Oh, man. For me that’s a huge . . .
Andrew: What do you think of that? What’s your math behind it?
Michael: That’s a huge win, because while I have 40,000 people that listen to my podcast episode, like after the first two weeks to the end for 45 minutes, I know that with video to get someone to watch an episodic documentary, where it’s got like 20 to 30 episodes, that means they’re committing hours and hours of time with me to watch a video series. At Social Media Marketing World I asked people to raise their hand if they’d watch The Journey. Excuse me, about a third of the audience raised their hand.
So I know that if people watch The Journey, the reason I only need 1,000 of them is because the people that watch The Journey are the most loyal, fanatical fans that I have. They want to know how the sausage is made at Social Media Examiner, and they, in turn, go out and evangelize to the entire world everything that we are and what we stand for. So the multiplier effect of those right 1,000 people watching that is gargantuous for us. We’re not trying to rank in YouTube. We’re just trying to get people to watch the series, and once they get hooked, then they’ll go back and watch the whole thing. So each episode is, if you will, an advertisement for the whole series.
Andrew: And an advertising for the cult of Social Media Examiner.
Michael: Well, the cult of Social Media Marketing World.
Andrew: Of Social Media Marketing World. Okay. All right. I’m glad that we recorded. I like getting inside your head. Thank you so much for being on here. And . . .
Michael: Welcome in, my friend.
Andrew: [inaudible 01:12:28] to the past one. Hang . . . Sorry. Don’t say anything else. I’m going to hit stop right now.