Is social media bullshit and a complete waste of time? According to BJ Mendelson, marketing is entirely situational.
The same solution won’t work for everyone. Yet most companies get the customer experience all wrong because they’re too busy drowning in marketing data (like social media stats) to see the bigger picture.
In episode 67 of the podcast, author BJ Mendelson stopped by to discuss his views on why most consumer data is worthless and how marketers should take a step back to focus on the product when it comes to building a thriving brand.
Listen to this Episode:
- Why most statistics don’t give insight into your customer
- What happened when the largest consumer goods company in the world pulled most of their digital advertising
- The #1 reason chasing your customer persona is a waste of time
- What the future of data privacy looks like
- Why consumers may eventually get compensated for their data
- How BJ tested word of mouth marketing against popular social media tactics
- Why he’s promoting his latest book release by giving away for free
- Social Media is Bullshit – by BJ Mendelson
- Privacy: And How to Get it Back – by BJ Mendelson
- Online Advertising Is Dead; Long Live Traditional Advertising? – Episode 45 with Bob Hoffman
- DHH and Basecamp’s Guide to No-Bullshit Digital Marketing – Episode 1 with David Heinemeier Hansson
- Mark Ritson: 4 Steps to Creating a Rock-Solid Marketing Strategy
- Buyer Persona – Episode 50 with Adele Revella
- Basic Attention Token
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards
Louis: Bonjour, Bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier. We’ve talked a few times in this podcast about building a brand and why it’s so important, but my guest today believes that we are doing it completely wrong because we’re focusing on useless data instead of great customer experience. I tend to agree with my guest, so that’s going to be a fun conversation.
He has some very bold solutions and ideas to actually counter that and create a great experience, a great brand, by really giving the control back to users, customers and people alike, which is quite interesting, so I can’t wait to dive into the subject. My guest today is the author of “Social Media is Bullshit,” which is a book, and “Privacy: And How to Get It Back.” Those are the two books that he wrote. He has debated the Ambassador to Pakistan at the United Nations, traveled all over the world from Moscow to Boston to discuss the myth of internet marketing, and is a former branding and word-of-mouth marketing consultant. Finally, he’s also the writer of a comic book series called, “Vengeance, Nevada,” available on comixology.com. BJ Mendelson, welcome aboard.
BJ: Thank you so much for having me.
Louis: Right. Instead of doing the standard podcast intro that every other podcast interview guest will do, let’s dive into an interesting subject right away instead of going around the topic. Shall we? You wrote a book in 2012, and you said that you’ve been right about a lot of things that happened since then and six years since this book has been written is a long time in the internet world. What were you right about in this book?
BJ: Well, I think Snapchat gives us a great example of that, where I talked about the tech companies exaggerating their statistics and not quite divulging what it means to be a daily active user, a monthly active user, and doing basically whatever it takes to get you to use their platform, which may or may not be worth your time or money. With Snapchat, we saw a lawsuit in the run-up to their IPO where people that had worked at the company and then left were saying, “Your numbers are bullshit. You don’t even come to find how many people you actually had and of the people you have, it’s not entirely clear how you count them.” There’s a lot of this myth and hype, which this book works to dispel. That, to me, is the biggest thing. We talk about other stuff here in the United States right now.
We’re obsessed with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the use of Facebook to do that, but a lot of us don’t stop and consider that the amount of traffic on the internet, more than half of it is fake, or it’s created by bots in the first place, and most Facebook ads go unseen. Yet, we tend to think of social media as magic and so those are two recent examples since the book has come out that I think has kind of proven me right.
Louis: If you want to take care of your dog, let me know.
BJ: Oh yeah. No. She’s good to do that for another minute. I’m sorry about that.
Louis: No problem. It’s okay. It’s okay on my side. Yes, you talked about this interference and this 50% of bot traffic. I remember talking to Bob Hoffman at the Ad Contrarian on this podcast, and he mentioned something very similar. What are the stats right now? We are recording this episode in March of 2018. Do you have any recent stats around the quality of traffic and what’s the percentage of bots actually going through your website?
BJ: Nothing that’s been peer-reviewed. I know in the summer, Vice Media on the Motherboard blog was talking about the amount of traffic coming through and whether or not that was bots or people, but no statistical study has come out that I feel comfortable kind of hanging my hat on. That’s sort of the problem with a lot of the media outlets we have that cover tech and social media is that they just sort of run whatever they have, regardless of whether or not it’s been fact-checked or peer-reviewed.
Louis: That’s a good point. You can literally make up a stat now and be quoted as an expert and then the stat would be used everywhere, so be careful. You don’t want to do that in this podcast. It’s such a popular one. Joke aside, apart from that, what else did you foresee in this book?
BJ: I think the issue going on now about brand safety and whether or not it’s worth putting your money to digital in the first place is something that only now P&G and Martin Sorrell, who is the head of WPP, has started to say, “We don’t really know if this is worth it. We don’t really know if the return is there.” We did this study with P&G where they pulled most of their digital advertising and didn’t even notice a change in the purchase behavior of their customers. I talked a lot about that in the book. I’m saying this back in 2011. It’s still not clear exactly what the dollar value is of an advertisement on a social media platform. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it, but it’s just not clear. Here we are in 2018 going, “It’s 2019, still having that same discussion.”
Louis: Yeah, and this is a big issue. I believe that a lot of marketers tend to think that digital marketing is so great because you can measure everything. That’s complete bullshit. You cannot measure everything. It’s incredibly difficult, and it is impossible, I believe, into the technology, to be able to track every single movement of every single customer since they ever thought about your brand for the first time. Therefore, it’s impossible to calculate the true cost of acquisition, because you don’t know exactly the amount of channels they’ve been exposed to and all of that. I think, it’s DHH from Basecamp in one of the first episodes of this podcast, who mentioned that a few times when you know that it cost you $7.96 to acquire every customer, something is wrong. You cannot be as detailed as that when it comes to your costs and revenues.
BJ: No. It’s very true, and I think that there’s a problem that comes from having so many of these brands and advertising industries run by MBAs where, and this is not to say that they’re bad people, but if you have an MBA, your training is to quantify everything and so we’ve gotten into this vicious cycle, at least in the advertising and digital world, where we’re just collecting data for data’s sake without actually looking at the bigger picture. We drown ourselves in all of these useless data points. Then just one thing. We talked about you can make up something people will repeat it as it’s true and let me give you my favorite example of that. How many times have you heard that the customer has to experience something six to seven times before they start to remember it and act on it?
Louis: I’ve probably heard it six or seven times already.
BJ: Well, there is nothing that backs up that study. You can find that quote repeated in pretty much every major marketing book that’s come out in the past 10 years, but there is no study out there that supports that.
Louis: There’s also this Henry Ford quote that he allegedly said that, “If I had asked my customer what they wanted, I would have built faster horses.” He never said that, so that’s another example of bullshit that you hear. Who said that? I’m not going to remember now, but I interviewed someone quite recently who mentioned that … Mark Ritson. Mark Ritson from Marketing Week, he mentioned a few times that if you mention this stat exactly as you mention it … If your brand agency, your digital agency, mentioned these stats and another one and another quote, then you know that they’re bullshit, and you need to move from there. It’s a great way to test whether the people you’re talking to are full of shit or not.
BJ: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Mark and also of Bob Hoffman’s, and they’re absolutely right. I mean, there’s also the other one, “50% of the advertising is wasted, but I don’t know what half.” He never actually said that either. The guy who said that, granted, I think his last name was Wanamaker, most of his empire was done through retail stores that were built entirely off of advertising, but yet here we are over 100 years later, and a lot of tech people will tell you that quote as a way to sort of justify the spend on social media.
Louis: Yes, exactly. We use this quote as an excuse to say, “Well, social media is an obscure channel. It’s a long-term thing. You can’t really measure it.” On the other hand, if you can, there are ways to measure how much you’re spending and how much money you’re making on the other end if you don’t really know exactly which channel contributed to each percent, but at least you should have an understanding whether you’re making money or losing money in your investments in marketing. I think we’ve painted the picture pretty well of what are companies doing wrong when building a brand. You said that they’re focusing on useless data instead of great customer experience, right?
Louis: What else is wrong in the ways companies are building a brand at the minute?
BJ: I talked a lot about this in the new book, “Privacy: And How We Get It Back,” where we develop these customer personas of people that may or may not exist, and we use the data to kind of justify that we think those people exist. Then we create these advertising and marketing techniques to reach those people even though that person doesn’t exist. For example, when I talk about a customer persona based around a young girl named Sloane who likes NPR. That little piece of information is then used to infer that there’s lots of women just like Sloane in this age range that also like NPR and therefore, we have to craft and tailor all of our tactics to reach that person.
I just think that if you have a good enough product, the persona might be useful at the top of the funnel to help kind of steer your efforts, but we waste so much time chasing these phantom customers and not focusing on the experience of the customers we already have. I mean, the trick to it really should be to have your current customers doing all the marketing and advertising for you instead of trying to go out there and constantly acquire people that may or may not exist.
Louis: I admire HubSpot for a lot of things, but I don’t admire them for the way they manage to make every marketer believe that you need to come up with some fake persona templates. I know that was a marketing right and I had Adele Revella, who’s the owner of the Buyer Persona Institute, on this podcast. I had the pleasure of talking to her a few weeks ago and she mentioned this exact point. Instead of trying to create those fake personas based on nothing but Google search and some inspiration from I don’t know where, it’s much better to build buyer persona based on your true buyers, people who are buying from you, and basing those profiles based on real data, interviews with people, and all of that.
BJ: Yeah. I mean, I’ll give you a great example. With the privacy book, I decided to do something different in terms of the marketing because at heart, I’m a word-of-mouth marketer and so almost 99% of my efforts have been based entirely around people that are interested in privacy that I’ve already talked to and turning them into advocates for the book and passing around the book as a free PDF. I found that, in the brief amount of time that I’ve been doing it, to be more effective than when “Social Media Is Bullshit” came out, where I was running around and doing television and doing radio and just trying to get as much media coverage as I possibly could to sell the book.
Louis: Getting stuff for free and word of mouth, it’s just based on first principle of people and gaining their trust. You can’t really go wrong with that, but help me understand something and it’s something I’ve been talking about on this podcast for a while. I don’t believe that word of mouth is a channel.
BJ: Right, I agree.
Louis: I think it’s complete bullshit to treat it as a channel. I believe that it’s the consequence of good marketing and a good product.
BJ: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think that, like anything in marketing, if I can make a buck off of it, I will try to turn it into a channel and then from there, an industry. We saw HubSpot do that with inbound marketing and I think that word of mouth, especially since the viral marketing craze kind of took off a few years back, has also been pushed into a channel, but it’s not. You’re absolutely right. It’s just if you do your job right, people will talk about the product.
Louis: We talked a few times over email and I asked you, “What will be your alternative? What will be your solution to building a brand, building a web experience, and letting people control this, letting them run with it instead of you trying to control everything?” You came up with very, very interesting ideas and two in particular. Can you talk me through the first one, when you think about a model where you can actually pay a customer a small amount of money in exchange for their time and attention?
BJ: Well, the good news is that’s coming. It’s definitely not hypothetical. How I at least envision it working, and I could be totally wrong on this, could be … Let’s use my comic book for example. The comic sells for $2.99. It’s exclusively available on ComiXology. Since that’s an Amazon platform, they already know who’s going to buy indie comics and who’s not going to buy them based on purchasing behavior. How it should work is I should be able to go to Amazon or ComiXology and say, “Look. You have this data on indie customers. I will pay them instead of wasting my money on Facebook ads and getting potentially fake click-throughs, I will pay these customers 50 cents. If that converts to them actually purchasing the comic for $2.99, I come out ahead on that deal. Why would I not do that? You have the data to actually support it.”
There should be a very smooth process like that where you would go to someone who acts as a data broker, whether it’s an Amazon or, preferably, an ad agency or someone that’s not creepy like a lot of the tech companies, who can facilitate that arrangement between you and the customer. As long as you’re making money off of the exchange and you know you’re actually talking to a real person, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
Louis: Let me understand what you mean because it sounds so simple it’s almost weird. Let me rephrase it in my own simple language. I’m a consumer. I’m a person, but a lot of brands would treat me as a consumer because I do consume. I have money in my bank account most of the time and I can spend money on things. Instead of sharing, against my will, most of my interests, most of what I like, what I don’t like, my purchase behavior in the past, my purchase history, I would control that and choose who has access to this information in exchange for a reward.
BJ: That’s right and I think that that’s going to take a lot of different forms. Due to my own political bent, I’d prefer that it was a regulatory agency or a government agency that helped to facilitate that so that there was no profit motive on the part of a data broker to do things that might be underhanded, but I know some people may disagree with that and say, “No, Amazon should facilitate that.” Yes, basically there would be someone filling the role of the data broker who would come to you and say, “Look I know you’re really into cars. These people will pay you in exchange for you looking at ads for cars. Would you like to do that?”
Louis: But they will also pay you in exchange for having access to your information?
BJ: That’s right. The thing I talk about in the privacy book is that you should be compensated for your data. How that would work, for example, is something like a Facebook where, if they’re going to access all your data in exchange for you using the platform for free, then you should be entitled to a license fee of some kind that says, “We at Facebook pay you $365 each year in exchange for having access to this data to do X, Y, and Z with.”
Louis: Have you talked to Facebook about this idea?
BJ: They are already having this discussion. What I’m proposing isn’t new on both fronts, both on the part of having someone serve as a data broker, having you go to someone like Marvel Comics and saying, “Alright. Look, you can advertise to me and if you pay me, I will take a look at whatever you want.” Both of these discussions having been going on since about 2000 and right now, it’s not in Facebook’s best interest to do that for obvious reasons in terms of their profit motive. However, especially now overseas in the European Union with GDPR coming out, they’re going to have no choice, I think, to start moving more and more to this kind of model because with GDPR, it’s now firmly established that the citizen has control over their data, whereas in the United States, we don’t quite have that just yet. I do think what’ll happen is either Facebook will give you some kind of license fee or, probably more realistic, is that you would pay, let’s say $8 a month, in exchange for an advertising-free version of Facebook.
Louis: Yes. I think that’s what’s going to happen and not a lot of people are able to think ahead like you are. I know you said that it’s not your idea, a novel idea in your mind, but it’s sincerely the first time I’ve ever heard that particular aspect mentioned, which is quite interesting. I suspect a lot of listeners wouldn’t have heard of this. In this world, then, it means that people have control in their data. We do control little things, but we certainly don’t control our data about us. As you said, GDPR, which is the new law in Europe that is going to be enforced, I believe, in April if I’m not mistaken, or in May, is going to change a lot of things for companies. Have you seen some companies using some sort of a similar model in their business right now?
BJ: To protect themselves from GDPR or to compensate for—
Louis: —Sorry, yes, to compensate consumers in exchange for access to their data and to be able to talk to them, basically.
BJ: Since the privacy book has come out, people have sent me a few links, but nothing … I haven’t seen anyone substantial doing it. That’s not to discredit the sites I have seen where they’re saying, “Hey, if you come and enter information, we’ll give you a couple dollars,” but no one that I would say is a household name is really doing it. I think that that’s really what I’m looking for. However, I can give you another example that is out, live, and in the wild and that’s with the Basic Attention Token that’s been pushed out by the people behind the Brave browser.
How it works is you would download the Brave browser and as you surf the web, it keeps track of your time that you spend on sites and it says, “Your time is worth X dollars” and dollars is paid out in the form of Basic Attention Tokens. You can use those tokens to give it directly to a company or a media outlet in exchange for not having to see ads because what Brave will do is it basically blocks out all advertising, so it creates a one-way relationship between you and let’s say the media company that you’re visiting on the web. There’s things like that that are out there right now and I think as that starts to roll out to more and more people and we’re getting more comfortable with cryptocurrencies is really when you’ll start to see this take off.
Louis: I think it might just take one big name to take a gamble and do it for the others to follow. That’s a very interesting thing. How would you start as a small company? What type of ideas would you recommend companies or even individual startup founders or marketers to implement that would go towards this ideal of having people getting control of their data and how companies use them?
BJ: I think the infrastructure needs to be put in place. If you’re starting up and looking for a business idea, being a data broker is probably an excellent idea. I think that right now, it would have to come in the form of something like the Basic Attention Token. You could give the customer X tokens in exchange for them viewing, again, I’m going to go back to the comic book because that’s the thing I’m on right now, where I can give you Basic Attention Tokens in exchange for looking at my stuff and looking at my comics. The cryptocurrencies are out there right now for businesses to exchange with their customers, but when we’re talking about percentage of actual customers that probably use crypto versus people that might have only heard of it, it’s still small enough where I think the infrastructure needs to develop a bit more before I would dive headfirst into something like that.
Louis: I’m aware of that. I’ve done a lot of research in the past, customer research and panels, and there are a lot of services out there that allow you to have access to people and ask them questions. You can send them a survey, ask them the perception of anything or the knowledge of anything. You can literally really ask them anything you want. I feel that this is kind of the MVP version of version 0.1 of what you’re describing, but what you’re thinking about is really kind of much widespread. Instead of having a handful of people opting into the services where they are being paid for their knowledge or sharing their preferences, basically everybody can have access to it and any services that they use would use this system.
BJ: That’s right. I mean, what I talk about in the privacy book is that the general idea that we have privacy or control over your data right now is just nonexistent. Things like GDPR will help to fix that, but the system I’m describing, which has been described in the past by people like Jaron Lanier and other, I hate the term “futurists,” but other futurists for lack of a better description. I think that that’s really what’ll help us manage this situation where there is no privacy, but now we can take control of our data by monetizing it and saying, “Listen. I have no problem giving you my information in exchange for X, Y, and Z.”
Louis: It’s not about getting our privacy back because we are not going to get it back. It’s more about trying to control a bit more who’s going to have access to our data and what they’re going to do with it.
BJ: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I talked about in the privacy book is … For example, when we talk about government spying on people in the United States, that’s been going on since just before World War I and it’s been cyclical in terms of people getting upset about it and then the government backing off and then something happens and the government goes back to doing it. The position I take in the book is that you can’t stop these large entities like the government from collecting your data, but what you can do is we can look at all the data that’s now being collected by the private sector and that’s really where we can start to make these changes. I think the privacy thing was a nice temporary blip on the radar screen and now we just have to manage what we have.
Louis: Moving on from the privacy, this first idea you had, to the second one, and we’re still talking about how to build a brand that makes sense that people would connect with, you’re making the point that, as a company, we should get out of the way. What do you mean by that?
BJ: I think people are trying to put their company first ahead of the product and most people just don’t give a shit about the company. This myth of customer loyalty, “Do you have a customer for life?” I think is a nice idea, but it doesn’t ring true. If someone comes along with a better product at a lower price, I mean, the majority of your customers are going to switch. To me, the product is everything. We’ve sort of moved away from that. We’ve seen companies like Google and Facebook and everyone mirroring the tactic of, “Oh, well Google is friendly and cuddly and therefore, if my company is friendly and cuddly, I’ll have customers for life.” I just don’t think that’s the right approach. I think it all comes down to, “Is this product good enough where the customer’s going to go out and talk about it without you prompting them?” That, in turn, will drive the growth of the brand and then the growth of everything else. Right now, we just sort of have that a little backward.
Louis: What do people really give a shit about?
BJ: They care about money. I mean, listen, people were not rational. I’m working on a new book that’s called, “Don’t be Evil: A Guide to Being a Successful Human.” What I found is that most marketing and business books sort of operate on this belief that people will behave rationally and it’s just not the case. Throughout human history, humans are irrational creatures. This idea of, “If I do X, people will do Y,” really doesn’t work when it comes to marketing. People are going to do A, B, and C before they even get to Y and they’re going to behave in ways that are unpredictable. I think Steven Blank, who’s a professor at Stanford, said, “No business plan survives first contact with a customer.” We really have to get away from this belief of, “The company is the thing,” or, “If I do this, then people will do this.” It just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, what you have to do is look at what people care about most and it’s money and it’s sex and it’s their family. If it’s not any of those three things, then they don’t care. You might think you have them as a loyal customer, but if you find out that there’s this big scandal going on in the Starbucks, people are going to go and switch their preferences to the coffee shop down the street, they don’t have that loyalty. They think, “What’s in it for me?” If you’re not answering that question, you’re losing out.
Louis: I picture those managers and C-suite executives and board of directors of those companies wearing suits and being very serious with their company, how it’s so important to have a brand and to have people loving this brand. How do you convince them to get out of the way?
BJ: I would like to say you can’t. The reason why I say that is because everything that I talk about in “Social Media Is Bullshit” is quickly approaching 10 years. I mean, we’re not too far away from that book turning 10. It’s now 2018. We’re still talking about all these problems, so I don’t think you could convince all the people of it, but if someone listening to this understands, “Oh, well, people are irrational actors and they’re going to only behave in such a way that benefits them,” then I think I’ve done my part. I think if I get enough people to think that way, then slowly, probably not in my lifetime, but over time, I think that that’s where that change occurs, but there’s no way you will convince people to abandon what’s a multi-billion dollar industry because people don’t want to rock the boat. Again, it’s all about their security and, “What’s in it for me?” No one wants to stand up and be the person who’s like, “Hey. All of this is wrong,” because the odds are pretty good that you would be fired within a week of saying that within a corporate infrastructure.
Louis: For listeners who are really into this idea and most of them are, listening to this podcast, how do you convince them that if they work for a company like this, that they probably need to move on?
BJ: No. Well, you have a choice. I mean, choice A is you push for change in little increments because if you are a student of history, you’ll find that that’s how change comes. If you look at the American Civil War, the issue of slavery was something that was discussed right at the beginning of the country and right when they were putting together the Declaration of Independence and later with the additional Bill of Rights, it wasn’t just like we decided to have the Civil War, and then all of a sudden, slavery was gone. I mean, it was a discussion that took place over almost 100 years before that change occurred. Choice A is you push for incremental changes wherever you can, or choice B is you leave and you operate a business or an endeavor that actually follows what people do and that’s what you play to.
Louis: Right. Let’s switch gears to talk a bit more about you because I’m quite interested in your personality and character. Thanks for going through this in-depth diving into those marketing and society problems and challenges. You wrote this book called “Social Media is Bullshit,” which is quite bold. You talk about privacy, which seems to be a very sensitive subject. You also talked about a book that you are writing about basically being human and not being evil. You like to be contrarian, don’t you?
BJ: Yeah. I mean, I guess it’s not the bucket I prefer to … That’s not the role I would like to have, but I think that’s definitely your perception thing, but I like to see myself more in the role of someone like a Mark Twain or a George Carlin where sure, they’re contrarian, but what they’re actually doing is saying, “There’s a better way and we can actually do it. We can actually follow in the footsteps of creating that better way by doing X, Y, and Z.” I’d like to think that the books are more of a blueprint of, “There’s a better way than what we’re doing,” as opposed to just being like, “Everything is bullshit,” but yeah, I can certainly understand that perception. Laughs.
Louis: Based on this, somebody who wants to change things is not afraid to say things as they are and to fight for what he believes in. Can you pinpoint or remember a particular event in your life that made you and defined who you are today?
BJ: Oh, God. Yeah, the big one is probably … I was married for a hot minute during the height of the Great Recession here in the United States. I was a true believer in social media marketing because in the past, I had seen a lot of this stuff being described with a different name. I had seen it work, so I, for example, got a show syndicated to about 44 million homes in the United States using viral marketing tactics or what would now just be social media marketing tactics. When we had that initial wave of Gary Vaynerchuks and the Seth Godins and Guy Kawasakis and Chris Bergens coming out and saying, “Social media is this revolutionary thing,” I was a true believer, so much so that I built this nationwide breast cancer outreach tour based on a lot of the things they discussed in their books. I found, in doing the tour, it was a complete failure.
Then I took a step back and I got a call from this army colonel who says, “I heard about this tour that you did using social media to raise awareness. Do you think you could do that for us?” I said, “Sure, but let me do it differently. Let me do it the way I know how marketing and word-of-mouth and these different tactics work.” I did basically the same tour using different tactics. The tour for the army colonel, which they’re still doing today, people could see it at highfivetour.com, that was a big success, so much so that it’s seven, eight years on and he’s still doing it, whereas the breast cancer tour using all of the social media stuff or at least the popular ideas that were being promoted by the social media marketers was a complete collapse.
That, to me, was one of those moments where it changed my life, obviously. That adversely impacted my marriage, but I realized that I can be alone in terms of reading this stuff and going, “Hey. This is bullshit,” and that’s what I found. When I went out and did the book tour for “Social Media Is Bullshit,” I traveled all over the world and I kept hearing, it didn’t matter if the person was from Brazil or if the person was from Russia or the person was from Idaho, they all have the same story of, “I read all this stuff and I tried it. All the social media stuff, it just doesn’t work the way that it’s advertised and I feel stupid.” I would tell them, “No. Don’t feel stupid because you’re not alone.”
Louis: That’s interesting. Tell me more about those two different approaches. You mentioned this approach that was using social media for the breast cancer research tour and the other one for the army guy that was another approach. Can you just briefly describe the difference between the two approaches?
BJ: Yeah. The big difference was at the time, I had almost a million followers on Twitter and I was part of that … I don’t know if anyone remembers this. It’s going back some years, but there was a race with Ashton Kutcher and CNN and Oprah to who would be the first with a million followers and I was number four in that race. At the time, I was like, “Wow. I have almost a million people. I bet if I can get even a fraction to donate or participate in this tour in some money, it’ll be a huge success.” Everything we did was entirely dependent on using Twitter and using the broadcasting announcements and telling people to come out and meet us. Although we did have a few people come out and meet us, it was nowhere near the numbers that you would think, and so much so, I later tested this point with “Social Media Is Bullshit,” where I was like, “All right. I’m going to try to sell copies of my book exclusively to these 800,000 people that follow me.” Can you guess how many books I managed to sell?
Louis: Can you give me a plus or minus?
BJ: It’s less than 100.
Louis: Holy shit.
BJ: Yeah, and that’s with 800,000 Twitter followers. That was the breast cancer tour, whereas with the Wounded Warrior Family Support tour, it was entirely based on spectacle and word of mouth. The colonel went to the largest Independence Day parade in America, which is in Philadelphia every year, and he set the Guinness World Record for the number of high fives. He drove across America in this custom wrapped Shelby Mustang that people could sign with messages of support to our troops. Using something that was a big visual and using something that people could actually physically engage with offline, I think, was the key factor in making that tour a success, whereas we were entirely dependent on digital with the breast cancer tour.
Louis: The skeptic in me would ask you, “Okay, you have 700-something thousand Twitter followers and you said that you tried to sell this book exclusively using this network, right?”
BJ: Right. That’s right.
Louis: What was the message? Was it just a blatant sale? It was like, “My book is on sale. Buy it,” kind of. Was it?
BJ: Yeah. I wanted to do what the brands were doing. The brands at the time were very much in terms of just broadcast. I said, “All right. If I had 800,000 people and 1,000 of them buy this book, that’s pretty good because most books don’t sell more than 300 copies in their first year or in their lifetime, and so 1,000 copies right off the Twitter would be pretty great.” I tried broadcasting it throughout the day. I didn’t do what I was doing now with privacy book, which we’ll get into in a second.
I was just sort of tweeting people saying, “Hey, look at this cool thing. Would you promote it?” whereas with the privacy book, I have a list of about 10,000 people on Twitter that are interested in privacy and one by one by one going to each of them, talking to them. It’s going to take forever, but I’m doing it with the comic, too, and it works. I mentioned that it works because I don’t want people to think that I’m entirely dismissing the platform, but there’s certainly the right and the wrong way to do it. The wrong way was just broadcasting stuff and asking people to tweet about it and the right way is one by one by one making these connections and giving the people the book for free and saying, “Only if you like it, could you pass it on?”
Louis: This is a fantastic lesson, I think, for people listening. It goes back to the root of what I believe people really crave. They crave for trust and they crave for human relationships and connections. Social media, like any other marketing channels we can talk about in this podcast, is just a way to build relationships and if you forget that people looking at those numbers that you see on Google Analytics are people like you and me, except the bots that you need to remove from that, but they are just people like you and me, then this changes your entire perspective. You have a list of 10,000 people and basically every day, you contact, what, 20 people maybe or something like this?
BJ: I try to move through 200 a day.
Louis: Shit, okay.
BJ: If I can. Sometimes, I can’t because there’s some digging. For example, I was looking today at the people who run the RSA Conference and they don’t have the best Twitter presence. Something like that, I have to stop and do some research and find them and maybe hit them up on LinkedIn or try to dig up their email. Sometimes, I lose time and I don’t get through all 200, but I try to do 200 a day.
Louis: And you just spend the time to get to know who you’re going to talk to, send them something personalized enough, and then send them the free book? Is that it?
BJ: That’s right. What I do is I make sure every message is slightly modified. I do have a template email that everyone gets, but at the bottom of each email, it says, “Look, even though you can tell this is formatted a certain way, I am a human. I am individually emailing you,” and then I give my cell phone number and say, “Now, you’re not on any mailing list. For proof of humanity, you can give me a call any time.” I do. One thing I want to point, though, is that I think people don’t understand time when it comes to marketing. I think that there’s this belief of, “Wow. I can get everything I want right now within three months,” and I take the long view, particularly when you sell a luxury item like a book because no matter how cheap a book is, it is a luxury item because a lot of people don’t read.
You have to understand that it takes months if not years to really build up a presence and get people. You want to sell a million copies of this thing, it’s going to take you two or three years to do that. Step one is getting that list and going down it and making those individual connections.
Louis: So far, I can guarantee that you’ve kept on track of your metrics on sales. How many people have you contacted so far?
BJ: On the privacy book, I have contacted over 1,000 and I have sold maybe 500 so far, so I’m doing a little better than half, which is good because every 100 people you contact, and this is true with any kind of direct marketing, maybe 10 of those people are going to get back to you with interest and maybe one of those people are going to be super excited and become your biggest fan. I’m actually outperforming what my expectations were so far.
Louis: It looks like maybe for every 100 people you contact, you get 50 sales?
BJ: Yeah. It’s been pretty good, but the reason why I think it’s working as well as it is, I’m researching these people. I’m relatively certain that this is a book they would buy, so it’s not some random pitch. I’m doing the same thing with the comics. I have a separate spreadsheet of all of these people that have either used the comics hashtag or have tweeted about comic books. I research them and I make sure, “Okay. They like independent comics that are not from Marvel or DC and I think I have a good probability of a sale.” There, the sales are more following that 1 to 10 to 100 ratio that I mentioned with the comic book, whereas with the privacy thing, it’s performing better than I expected.
Louis: How much are you making per book on the privacy book?
BJ: Oh, I don’t make much at all. I make less than 20% on the book. The big secret and I talk about this in “Social Media Is Bullshit,” you don’t make money from books. It’s nice to have. It’s a source of pride, but if you are signed up with a major publisher or even, in this case, a smaller publisher in the UK, where you’re going to make any money from is the speaking engagements and the consulting. Since I don’t do any consulting anymore, I make most of my money from speaking engagements, so it’s kind of great. As I mentioned, I had 10,000 of those contacts. I only need six of them, six paid speaking engagements, and then I’m okay, financially, for the year. As long as I get those six from that 10,000, I’m great. That’s sort of the lesson for anyone that is interested in writing a book is unless you self-publish the thing, you will not make money from it.
Louis: But it’s a fantastic way to build credibility and trust and this is kind of the point that you’re making. I’m so glad you didn’t ask me to pay you for your time on this podcast.
BJ: Laughs. I charge quite a bit.
Louis: How much do you charge per speaking gig at the minute?
BJ: At least $11,000.
Louis: Nice. How long do you speak for?
BJ: I only speak for about 45 minutes. The reason why is because I’ve found with the topics I present, there’s a lot of questions. I really try to do more Q & A than I do speaking because my attitude is at that rate, I’m going to buy books for everybody in the room, so they’re already going to go home with a copy of the presentation I already did. I think it’s more valuable to talk and say, “Look. What questions do you have that I can answer right now?” Doing that has led to some really interesting things. I was invited to speak to the top staff for Subaru North America because I did a Q&A format and a presentation that they were watching. I try to answer more questions than I do actually speaking.
Louis: Well, thanks for being honest with me and being transparent about everything so far. I’m trying my hardest to ask tough questions, but you don’t seem to be fazed.
BJ: No. I’m all for … That’s, I think, part of the problem with the marketing and advertising industry is it’s in our interests, often, to not be transparent. With me, if you look at my site, bjmendelson.com, I’m open about everything.
Louis: Yes, and I would recommend listeners to go to your website, bjmendelson.com because your copy, as I mentioned to you before we started to record this interview, is pretty refreshing and pretty good. Thanks so much for spending the time to answer all my questions. I have a few left that I usually ask every single of my guests. What do you think marketers and listeners should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, or even 50 years?
BJ: Understand persuasion and influence, I think, is the most valuable things you can do. I know those terms have been horribly abused, but you should absolutely read books like “Influence” by Robert Cialdini. I mean, the book is 40 years old at this point, but that’s the book on influence. You can say there’s more readable because Cialdini’s text, it’s not easy to get through, but it’s worth it, but there’s books like “Captivate” by Vanessa Van Edwards. Then there’s the guy who writes Dilbert. I think it’s Scott Adams. He writes about persuasion and influence and that, to me, is the most valuable thing because once you understand that, you realize, “Oh, wait a minute. Nothing works the way we describe it on paper because people don’t behave rationally. They behave irrationally and so it’s in my best interest to learn what they care about most” and answer that question, “What’s in it for me?” If you can do that and you can do that over a sustained period of time, you’re golden when it comes to marketing, but unfortunately, we don’t teach people that. We’re too busy teaching Facebook ads.
Louis: Yeah, I feel like I’m listening to myself speaking. It’s great to hear a very famous speaker in conferences all over the world to be able to vouch for what we’ve been fighting for in this podcast. I’m teasing you, by the way. I know that you’re down-to-earth, which is great. What are the top three best resources you would recommend listeners, outside of the one you already mentioned?
BJ: Books is definitely one. I was really hesitant about their service, but BuzzSumo is actually where I was able to generate those lists that I mentioned. Right now on my desktop, I have about 15 spreadsheets, each with different categories of people and each of about 10,000 entries, that all came from BuzzSumo. Some of the data is garbage. You just have to use your head and look at some of the entries and realize, “Oh. This person might have written about comic books once in the past four years. It’s a bogus entry,” but I do highly recommend BuzzSumo. I am pleasantly surprised by their product. Like I said, if you look at Noah Kagan’s stuff on the web, it’s very easy to be skeptical of him and some of the stuff that he says, but it’s actually a good product.
That would be number two and then number three is just plain old YouTube. I know that that sounds very basic, but I think it’s important to understand the fundamentals of some of the new technology that’s coming out, things like augmented reality and virtual reality and cryptocurrencies. YouTube is a really great resource to actually listen to lectures from people that have talked about it. For example, Jaron Lanier’s books, if I’m being blunt, kind of suck. They do. I mean, they’re not readable. It’s not written in any intelligible way, but he’s a great speaker and he’s very intelligent and I have a lot of respect for him. I found by watching his lectures, I learned more from him than I did reading his numerous books, which I really struggle to get through. YouTube is great for things like that and if you are a young marketer or someone who is maybe changing careers into marketing and you’re curious about VR, I mean, there’s so many resources on that on YouTube and they’re all out there for free.
Louis: All right. That’s resource number two?
BJ: Yeah. Oh, well, books is number one, BuzzSumo’s number two, and then YouTube would be three. If you want a bonus one, I think that just reaching out to academics in marketing. Most of them will write you back if your question is succinct and it makes sense. Sometimes people write them these long screeds, which you absolutely shouldn’t do, but I mean, there’s people out there like Dr. Jonah Berger and Dr. Duncon Watts who, before I was even writing books, I was emailing them with questions and they were always good about getting back to me. Don’t hesitate to actually ask for help from people that actually research this stuff.
Louis: I think one of the points you’re making here is really that information, all of the knowledge we need, is available for free if you know where to look, which is very interesting. Just to make a small comment, though, Noah Kagan is not behind BuzzSumo. He’s behind sumo.com.
BJ: Oh, yes. Thank you.
Louis: BuzzSumo is led by a guy called Steve Rayson, whom I met. He was a very nice guy and they are a very small team, I believe. I think they’ve grown recently but they are bootstrapped and they probably have less than 10 people still, but yeah. It’s a great software. I completely agree with you on this. BJ, you’ve been an absolute pleasure to talk to today. I really mean it, a lot of interesting ideas there and a lot of transparency, which we definitely need and I definitely crave. Where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?
BJ: At bjmendelson.com and if you go to the contact page, there’s a phone number there. That’s actually my cell phone number, so if you text that number with the word “sheetrock,” I will send you free PDFs of the books that we talked about in this presentation. Honestly, I don’t have a mailing list. I won’t. I’m too lazy for that, so if you want to text me, you can text me. If you want to email me, you can email me. I mean, it’s just bjmendelson.com.
Louis: Oh, I’m going to text you, just for the sake of it.
Louis: Right. BJ, you’ve been, once again, a pleasure to talk to and thank you very much for your time.
BJ: Yep. Thank you.
How to stand out: 9 bullshit-free lessons from world-class tech marketers
Insights from Seth Godin, Rand Fishkin, David Darmanin and 6 other world-class tech marketers.
I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).
I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.
I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.