#MarketersTalks: Pursuing Innovation in Digital Marketing – An Interview with Neal Schaffer

12 min read

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

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?

I started my journey with social media marketing. Before that, I had a professional career in B2B sales and business development. However, as a country manager or regional vice president of sales in a start-up environment, I often needed to wear many different hats, including, in many cases, the marketing hat.

I learned a lot about marketing on the job. Shifting my career to social media, I began to transfer that business knowledge more and more to marketing. It started with digital/social and Linkedin because of my B2B background. Also, at the time, it was the only social network for professionals. I started with teaching companies how to leverage Linked in B2B sales, but also sales for media marketing. 

Like today, marketing was the biggest driver for social media back then. There was much more demand for social media marketing than social sales or social selling. But, over time, I wanted to avoid becoming 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 in all social media. And that’s when I invested in learning and experimenting and creating my own brand across every social media channel that made sense. 

That culminated in my publishing of Maximize Social in 2013, which is about creating a comprehensive social media marketing strategy. Then, in March 2020, I published my fourth book, The Age of Influence, about the influence on marketing. This brought me into digital marketing. 

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. So I had to find ways to digitally market my book, and social media was only one piece of the puzzle. There is also search and email, and that’s where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years. I built up my blog to focus on the stuff many digital marketing experts are a little jaded by – search engine optimization, email marketing, and marketing automation. But with my social media marketing background, I see them in a new light. I’m trying to breathe new life and new perspective into these areas. 

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 the social media dashboards Agora Pulse and SocialBee. I use them for publishing different content on different networks, and both work well for me. 

I also use Inoreader, which helps me create custom buckets of RSS feeds. I can then import these feeds into a social media tool and use it as my content creation dashboard. This also helps keep me abreast of the latest news in digital and social media. 

Another social media dashboard I would add to the mix is Tailwind, which is very specific for Pinterest. 

Other must-have SEO tools that I use are Semrush and, obviously, Google Analytics. And while I don’t use much AI for writing, I use Frase.io for SEO analysis. When I need an AI tool for simple content ideas, I use Jasper. My favorite email marketing tool is ConvertKit, but I know a lot of clients prefer active campaigns. 

Whenever I need help with anything I am not an expert in, I usually find and hire experts on Upwork. 

3. What is the best digital marketing case study you’ve seen? What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the best? 

Well, I’ve written a few blog posts on digital marketing case studies, and many digital marketing case studies are in my own book. And the first thing that comes to my mind is number one: what was the actual business impact of the case study? Not how many likes and impressions they get but how they impact their business. How much more sales did they generate? And, compared to other channels, how much more effective was it? And then, overall, did this double their sales? Did it add to a one percent increase in sales? These are the first things that come to mind when I think about the best digital marketing case study. No matter what case study that is. I’ve seen too many good ones, but those are the things I look for. 

4. What’s one thing brands can do to step up their marking efforts?

There are 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 across popular digital marketing channels. And this means a lot of short-form content – YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, Tiktok videos – they’re all very different. 

The best way to stay innovative is to consume, analyze, reverse engineer, and then, at the end of the day, create your own content – or collaborate with influences to create that content for you. 

You need to be in line with the times and 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 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. But if your blog is about social media and you suddenly you start posting about cryptocurrency, you won’t rank as high as similar posts from a website that just talks about cryptocurrency because that’s what they’re experts in. 

Obviously, Google also said things like “add personal experiences” and what have you. But every time Google updates, it just sends the same message differently: post relevant content that looks like it was written by humans. So I don’t think that there’s anything new. They’re just responding and constantly 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, AI tools versus AI written content. 

AI algorithms determine what we see in social media news feeds. AI is already being used in the technology around us. I don’t think AI is necessarily evil. With the emergence of DALL·E 2, AI-powered visual content generation is a compelling use case. In a few seconds, marketers can create an image that looks better than any stock photo. If you’re looking for stock photos for your blog posts or PowerPoint presentations, it will save you a lot of time, so I am all for that, and I plan to do more with that as well. 

I also use AI tools for content analysis, which come in handy and save 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 unique – the same meaning but different. Technology has sort of always been there. I do think that AI is evolving, and I believe 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. For example, if you’re stuck writing a paragraph and need some fresh ideas, you can get inspired with AI-generated copy. This can guide you on what to write or not write about. AI-generated content has a lot more value for shorter texts, like ad copy, SEO titles, and descriptions. But the longer content you need, 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 AI more as a helper than as a tool that will 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 that type of content will be harder and harder to rank. And it will be harder and harder to get people to actually read it and want to take action after reading it. So it’s not going to serve your best interest.

7. How would you advise leveraging 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, customers, and people who follow you on social media. They’re not customers yet, but they have an affinity for you. They know you. They have engaged with you. And then, obviously, come partners, distributors, resellers, et cetera. I’d always start with those that already know you. And when you start with your customers and create partner programs, that is influencer marketing. Affiliate marketing is influencer marketing. You are leveraging affiliates because they have influence. 

So 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, you want to send them the product first and ask them: “What did you think about the product?” 

The influencer marketing industry has had a bad vibe for a while, but it 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 was before I wrote The Age of Influence on influencer marketing. It has changed significantly since then, and people can see through phony advertisements quickly. But on the other hand, when I look at my Gen Z kids and millennials, they don’t mind sponsored content from influencers if it adds value to them. So it’s 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?

I 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 and content categories, and they usually publish content according to these categories. I think it is not easy to do with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. But you get in the process of tagging the objective of each piece of content, and obviously, what the content is about and then organizing those tags, looking at engagement, looking at frequency, you can begin to look at your competitors’ social media content strategy. This is effective if you’re new to the industry, think you’re falling behind, or just want to reset your social media content strategy. And that’s based on my clients 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 that’s gone in a very different direction. TikTok is the most compelling because it’s the hardest for brands and people to understand how to create content 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 a YouTube video and create a short from it. So again, it’s very different from TikTok, which is 100% creative. 

I’m currently reverse-engineering TikTok to create my own strategy, and I’m a little late to the game. But still, you’re never late to do social media, and older people are consuming more TikTok. In addition, there’s more informational content and more B2B content. So it’s an excellent time to get started. 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 really understands 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, videos where people are silent, looking at the camera or away from the camera, and different types of text overlays. 

I’m currently doing this reverse engineering in 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 and their hashtags. But more importantly, looking at the visual ways in which that content was created, you’ll begin to see patterns. As I said, TikTok is a meme culture based on a lot of patronized content. And 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 and see how it drives business, and so on. 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 not to book any meetings on Fridays, which are my R&D days. Gary Vaynerchuk first advocated that, but many others have also mentioned this 80-20 rule: make 20% of your time your R&D time. 

This allows you time 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 full from here until forever. That’s one way to do it. If that is not enough, you 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. 

I teach influencer marketing at UCLA Extension, which will allow me to provide the 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 many 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. There’s a term called shokunin, which is a culture of craftsmanship. It represents not only Japanese culture but many Japanese creators and business people that I know – you’re always crafting your skill and sharpening your knife. The only way to do that is to get experience. And if you don’t have that experience, create it with your personal brand (like I did) or as an intern, or contact a local nonprofit and ask if they need 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, and you have more data to work with. 

It’s like my daughter, who is still a high schooler. She interned for a company and was doing influencer marketing for them as a high schooler. Every influencer with 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 valuable insight. Now, when she does influencer marketing for another company, she can start assuming that she will not pay anyone under 10,000 followers. And she can negotiate that with anyone with fewer than 10,000 followers. Gifts should be sufficient, and if that doesn’t interest you, she’ll find other influencers who would be interested in it because she knows that it works. 

With data comes knowledge, with data comes confidence, with data comes growth. So you need to generate that data.

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