#MarketersTalks: Pursuing Innovation in Digital Marketing – An Interview with Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer is one of the most influential marketers in the digital world and the author of a few books on social media marketing. We asked him how to stay innovative in the ever-changing world and how to work with influencer marketing. He also shared some tips on how to re-engineer TikTok marketing and gave beautiful advice to junior marketers.
Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping companies of all sizes with social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. He is the president of the social media agency PDCA Social, and also teaches digital media to executives.
Neal Schaffer is one of the top 100 digital marketing influencers presented in Brand24’s report.
1. How did you start your journey with digital marketing?
Well, I actually started my journey with social media marketing, and I actually started before that with a professional career in B2B sales and business development. However, I was often playing the role of country manager or regional vice-president of sales in a start-up environment, which often required me to wear a lot of different hats, including, in many cases, the marketing hat.
I learned a lot of marketing on the job and it wasn’t until I shifted careers to social media that I began to transfer that business knowledge more and more on the marketing side. When I began in digital/ social, it began with Linkedin because of my B2B background, and because at the time, it was the only social network for professionals that was available. I began with teaching companies how to leverage Linked in B2B sales, but also sales for media marketing.
Back then, marketing, as is today, is the biggest driver for social media and there was a lot more demand for social media marketing over social sales or social selling. Overtime, I did not want to become a one trick pony. So, even though I published two books on Linkedin, I realized that my clients didn’t need just Linkedin. They needed support throughout social media. And that’s when I made the investment in learning and experimenting and creating my own brand acros every social media channel that made sense.
That culminated in my publishing of Maximize Social back in 2013, which is about how to create a comprehensive social media marketing strategy, and then, in March 2020, I published my fourth book, The Age of Influence about the influence on marketing. It was really publishing that book at that time which brought me into digital marketing.
So I like to say I am a social media market turned digital marketer, because when I published my book it was impossible to physically meet people. I had to realize how to digitally market my book and I knew that social media was only one piece of the puzzle. We also have search and we also have mail. That’s where I really spent a lot of time over the last two years and really built-up my blog to focus on these other issues where a lot of digital marketing experts are a little bit jaded by, because it’s very old things like search engine optimization and email marketing, marketing automation. But to me I see them in a new light from this social media marketing background that I have and I’m trying to breathe new light, new life, and new perspective into them.
2. Are there any must-have tools in your marketing toolbox?
If I was to name a few, must-have tools I would begin with social media dashboards. One is called Agora Pulse, and one is called SocialBee. I use them both for publishing different content on different networks but both of them together work really well for me.
I also use a tool called Inoreader, which helps me create custom buckets of RSS feeds which then I can import into a social media tool to allow me to easily use the social media tool as my content creation dashboard. But also it helps keep me abreast of the latest news in digital and social media.
I suppose, another social media dashboard I should add to the mix is Tailwind, which is very, very specific for Pinterest that I use.
Another must-have tools – this is for SEO – are Semrush, as well as, obviously, Google Analytics.
There’s one more tool that I like to add. It is one of these AI tools. I don’t use much AI for the writing, but for the SEO analysis it is a tool called Frase.io. When I do use an AI tool for very, very simple content ideas, I prefer to use Jasper.
Whenever I need help with anything that I am not an expert in, I tend to find and hire experts on Upwork.
My favorite email marketing tool is ConvertKit, but I know a lot of clients prefer active campaigns.
3. What is the best digital marketing case study you’ve seen? What is the first thing it comes to your mind when you think about the best?
Well, I’ve written a few blog posts on digital marketing case studies and I’ve source digital marketing case studies from my own book. And the first thing that comes to my mind number one: what was the impact? That was the business impact of the case study? Not how many likes did they get, how many impressions, but how did it impact their business? How much more sales did they generate? And, compared to other channels, how much more effective was it? And then, over all, did this double their sales? Did it add to a one percent increase in sales? I like to look at impact as well.
So these are the first things that come to mind, when I think about the best digital marketing case study I’ve seen without saying what case study that is, because I’ve seen too many good ones. But those are the things that I look for.
4. What’s one thing brands can do to step up their marking efforts?
There’s a lot of things brands can do, but I think that influencer marketing holds a huge key that allows them to be relatable and more deeply engaged with content creators that have an increasingly high share of voice in social media, where it’s getting harder and harder for brands to compete for a variety of reasons.
5. How to stay innovative in digital marketing?
You need to always be consuming content and if you’re consuming content across popular channels in digital marketing, you’ll know that today you need to be consuming a lot of short form content. That’s Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels, Tiktok videos, and they’re all very, very different.
So the best way to stay innovative is to consume, to analyze, to reverse engineer and then, at the end of the day, create your own content, and/or collaborate with influences to have that content created for you.
And that’s the only way to innovate. You need to be in line with the times, and I think from that you will be inspired to innovate. At least that’s been my experience.
6. How do you feel about AI-written content in terms of SEO and the latest Google Search updates? Do you think this industry will grow or will be frowned upon?
Let’s take a look at these separately.
Google Helpful Content update. Clearly, Google is sending the message that not only should your content be helpful, but it should be relevant to your niche. That’s what I read out of that. So it’s easy to use AI tools to quickly generate decent copy about anything you want to. But if you are a blog about social media, and all of a sudden you start talking about cryptocurrency, those cryptocurrency posts probably won’t rank as high as posts about cryptocurrency coming from a website that just talks about cryptocurrency because that’s what they’re an expert in.
Obviously, Google also said things like “add personal experiences” and what have you. But I think that really, every time Google does an update, it just is sending the same message in a different way. It’s always been about relevant content, it’s always been about content that looks like it was written by humans. I don’t think that there’s anything new. I think they made a response. And they’re always tweaking their algorithms. I definitely saw an increase in my traffic and I am a user of AI tools.
So let’s look at the other issue, which is AI tools versus AI written content.
The algorithms that determine what we see in social media news feeds, that’s AI. AI is already being used in the technology around us. So I don’t think that AI is necessarily evil. And I think when we look at the use of AI and visual content with the emergence of DALL·E 2, and the ability to, in a few seconds, create an image that’s going to look better than any stock photo, but it’s purely generated by AI is something that is really compelling and can really be helpful for marketers. If you’re looking for stock photos for blog posts, if you’re looking for unique images for your PowerPoint presentations, it’s going to save you a heck of a lot of time. And it’s going to help you really depict visually what you wanted to pick. So I am all for that. And I plan to be doing more with that as well.
In terms of content analysis, I also use AI tools for that, and they come in handy, they saved me a lot of time.
When it comes down to written content. We’ve already had tools like paraphrasing tools, where you take a sentence, and it spits out something that is unique – same meaning but different. So the technology has sort of always been there. I do think that AI is evolving and I think that AI should be seen from a content creation perspective, as a helper.
I think that AI for content creation is most effective when you’re looking for various ad copy when you want 20 variations of the same thing. AI can come in handy and generate those for you and give you lots of ideas. If you’re stuck writing a paragraph, you need some ideas, you can create AI generated copy to help inspire you and give you direction on what to write, or maybe what you don’t want to write about. So I think that for shorter texts, like ad copy, SEO titles, descriptions, that AI generated content has a lot more value, but the longer form content you get, I think the less value it has.
At the end of the day, it may not be compelling compared to human written content, although that gap is shortening. So the net net is that AI written content has a place, but I look at more of AI as a helper, than as a tool that’s going to write all the content for me. If every time you write content, it’s just a summary of what’s available on the internet, then AI can write that for you. But I think that that type of content is going to be harder and harder to rank. And it’s going to be harder and harder to get people to actually read and want to take action after reading it so it’s not going to serve in your best interest.
7. How would you advise to leverage influencer marketing in current times?
I define influencer marketing as leveraging people that have influence. If your Twitter account has 500 followers and someone has 1000 followers, that person has more influence than you.
I also look at influencers in terms of brand affinity. Who are people that have some influence in social media that like and/or trust your brand? It begins with your employees, and then your customers, and then perhaps people that follow you on social media, your fans, they’re not customers yet, but they have an affinity for you. They know you, they’ve engaged with you. And then obviously, partners, distributors, resellers, et cetera. So that’s always where I start is with those that already know you. And when you start with your customers, and you create brand ambassador programmes, that is influencer marketing, affiliate marketing is influencer marketing, you are leveraging affiliates, because they have influence, right?
So I think when you look at influencer marketing holistically like I do, it’s not about fake Instagram followers. It’s about companies deciding who they want to engage with as influencers. And they should always start by asking: “Are you a user of our product?” And if they’re not, then you want to send them product first, and you want to ask them: “What did you think about the product?”
I think that the influencer marketing industry, this bad vibe that it’s had for a while, wasn’t caused by the influencers. The Influencers were incentivized to buy fake followers because the brands were only interested in vanity metrics, but this is pre-COVID influencer marketing. This is pre when I wrote The Age of Influence, influencer marketing. It has changed quite significantly since then and I think that also people can see through phoney advertisements really quickly. But on the other hand, I look at my Gen Z kids, I look at millennials, they don’t mind sponsored content from influencers if it adds value to them. So just something to think about.
8. Do you have any tricks or hacks on how to remember or reverse-engineer, as you said, good content from YouTube Shorts, TikTok, or other channels?
So I actually presented at Content Marketing World on how to reverse engineer your competitors’ social media content strategy. And I’d say with general social media – how do people work? They have content calendars, they have content categories, and normally they publish content according to these categories. So I think with like LinkedIn, and Twitter and Facebook, it is not easy to do. But you get in the process of tagging the objective of each piece of content, and obviously, what is the content about and then organising those tags, looking at engagement, looking at frequency, and you can begin to sort of look at your competitors social media content strategy. Which is really effective, if you’re new to the industry, if you think you’re falling behind, or if you just want to do a reset on your social media content strategy. And that’s based on client work. And they were the ones who wanted to do a reset on their social media content strategies, it was perfect for them.
For more creative platforms like YouTube Shorts, TikTok, I won’t even talk about Instagram Reels because I think that’s gone a very different direction. I think TikTok is the most compelling because it’s the hardest for brands and people to understand how to create content for if you’re not consuming it five hours a day like my kids are.
So with YouTube shorts – why is it different? Well, within YouTube Short, you can actually create a short from a YouTube video, right? You can take a snippet of YouTube video and create a short from it. So once again, it’s very, very different from TikTok, which is 100% creativity.
So what I do when I reverse engineer TikTok – and I’m currently doing this to create my own TikTok strategy because I’m a little bit late to the game but you know, we’re never late to social media and I think that older people are consuming more TikTok – there’s more informational content, more B2B content. So it’s a good time to get start. Just like Instagram has become more B2B over time as well. Or rather, it’s okay to publish more B2B content there than it would have been 10 years ago.
With Tik Tok, it’s really understanding that it’s first of all, based on memes. A lot of popular videos are based on trending audio. It used to be based on trending dances and I think now it’s turned to trending audio, where a lot of people are given their own spin on audio and I’m not talking about music. I’m talking about people talking, like “Help me! Help me!” and then seeing how all these different people create content around that.
What you’ll notice is it’s really a combination of a few things. You have talking heads, you have things where people are silent, looking at the camera or away from the camera, text overlays, you have different types of text overlays.
I’m currently doing this reverse engineering the category of blogging. What’s really cool about TikTok is you don’t need to enter a hashtag. You enter a keyword, and it just introduces your video after video after video. So if you had an hour to spend, input a keyword and take a look at the first 10 or 20 videos that pop up. You can look at their descriptions, you can look at their hashtags. But more importantly, what are the visual ways in which that content was created? And I think you’ll begin to see patterns. Because, like I said, TikTok is very much meme culture based on a lot of patronised content. And once you see those patterns, well, what are the most frequent patterns? What makes sense for you to create content on? And that would be my starting point. After that, you want to do different formats. You want to collect data, you want to see how it drives business and cetera, et cetera. But that is a good starting point.
9. You told us your recipe for staying innovative – but how to find a time and place in a fast-paced environment? What are your suggestions on when to find the time for improvement?
I tend to not book any meetings on Fridays. Fridays are my R&D days. I think Gary Vaynerchuk said that, but there’s a number of people that have mentioned this 80-20 rule. Make 20% of your time, R&D time.
We have a chance to experiment with different platforms and consume new content. I try my best to make Friday that time. If you go to my calendar, these Fridays are completely full from here until forever. So that’s one way to do it. If that is not enough, you literally need to go into your calendar and block out time. And that is another effective way of doing it.
But there’s no secret recipe. It requires time to stay innovative, and you need to make that time you need to invest in it.
10. Do you have any exciting plans you can share with us? Any new books coming soon?
Well, I am right now in the process of creating my first cohort based learning class. It will be on the topic of influencer marketing.
So I teach influencer marketing at UCLA Extension and this will allow me to provide my teachings that I do at the university level to everybody. So I’m really excited about launching that.
I am also still in the process of writing my fifth book, which is going to be a digital marketing playbook for the post-COVID economy. And I am taking a new look at old digital marketing topics like SEO, email marketing, marketing automation, but also including my newest tips on social media marketing, influencer marketing, and content marketing.
I also plan to do more with my YouTube channel. Video is going to be a strategic focus. And YouTube is where I plan to start over Tiktok, for a lot of different reasons. We can talk about that separately
11. Do you have any advice for beginning marketers?
The only way to learn is to do.
I spent the first 15 years of my career in Japan. So there’s a term called shokunin, which is basically like a culture of craftsmanship. And it’s something that I think represents not only Japanese, but a lot of Japanese creators, and business people that I know. You’re always crafting your skill, you’re always sharpening your knife. The only way to do that is to get experience. And if you don’t have that experience, you need to create it either with your personal brand (like what I did), or you need to intern, or you need to contact a local nonprofit, ask if they need your help. Most of them probably do. So you get experience and confidence you learn when you start to manage multiple brands, because then you see trends, you have more data to work with.
It’s like my daughter, who is still high schooler. She interned for a company and she was doing influencer marketing for them as a high schooler. She said that every every influencer that she contacted and had over 10,000 followers on Instagram wanted to be paid, but everybody under 10,000 followers agreed to do the influencer campaign just for a free product without asking for additional money. This is the type of insight. Now, when she does influencer marketing for another company, she can just start out assuming that she’s not going to pay anyone under 10,000 followers. And she can negotiate that if you don’t have 10,000 followers, normally gifted products should be sufficient. And if that doesn’t interest you, she’ll find other influencers who would be interested in it because she know that it works.
With data comes knowledge, with data comes confidence, with data comes growth. So you need to generate that data.