Friday, May 13, 2011

Jesse Stay- 11 questions for the social media expert

Jesse Stay is CEO and founder of SocialToo.com, a site that complements the social networking experience with useful tools and analytics. A speaker, author, developer, and entrepreneur, Jesse wrote two books, ―I‘m on Facebook, Now What???‖, and FBML Essentials (O‘Reilly), and was recently named one of 20 developers to follow on Twitter, as well as one of 10 entre-preneurs to follow on Twitter by Mashable.com. Jesse writes regularly on his successful blog, StayNAlive.com, and has contributed to the top two Face-book blogs, InsideFacebook and AllFacebook.

Recently, Ken Frei sat down to interview Jesse.

Have you been an entrepreneur your whole life? What led you to get into the social media space?

I’ve always had a bit of entrepreneur blood in me. Growing up, I was always the kid with the lemonade stand on the street. In high school I would get artists at my school to give me their drawings for free and I would create t-shirts out of those and sell the t-shirts for profit. I had another business where I would go to Sam’s Club and buy the bulk candy and then sell it for a lot more money than I bought it for. That was really popular. Once I graduated from high school, I was the idea guy. I was always coming up with new ideas for things that I wanted to go out and start. I never had the guts to go out and quit my job and do it though.

It wasn’t until about four years ago, that I started branching out on my own. I was working at a company called Media General and they owned newspapers and TV stations throughout the Southeast. We were paying very close attention to MySpace and to Twitter, which at that time was just barely starting to come out. Facebook was out in niche audiences in the University scene and there was another network, Pounce, which was out at the time as well as a few others. We were paying attention to those networks because we saw that they could be the future. Newscorp ended up buying MySpace and they were somewhat of a competitor with us. We were very interested with whether or not this could this be the future of publishing online and it turns out that it was. It got my interest because I was working in the division that was paying attention to that. And then Facebook opened up to everyone and I was finally able to get an account. I actually joined to be able to spy on my sisters who were a lot younger at the time. But the programmer and the marketer and the entrepreneur in me started asking questions like, “Well, what could I do with this platform?” Then Facebook released their platform to their website. It was at that point that I realized that I can actually do something with this and I can start making programs and write applications that not only work like a website, but that promote themselves because they get put in the relationships of all my close friends and family that are on Facebook.

I had a few ideas that I had been building and I decided at that point to build an app. I called it the LDS app. It was an app that I used to learn how to do Facebook development and it was targeted towards people of the LDS faith. I ended up selling that app and it was the modest amount that I received from that sale that made me realize that I could now go off and start on my own. So like I said, I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, but at that point I started trying all kinds of things.

So now you run SocialToo, a social management website. What has your growth been the last 5 years?

It has been good for the most part. When I started SocialToo, we started on the model of one-time payments for different features. We had our auto-follow feature where we would allow you to catch up on all of your previous followers and we would charge a one-time fee of five bucks for the life of the product. We still have another feature that allows you to get a nightly email of the people that followed you and stopped following you the previous day. We used to charge a one-time $20 fee for that. Once you bought it, it was enabled forever. We had several other features like that. We had a web feature that allowed you to delete all of your friends. That’s one that Twitter made us remove. We had one that allowed you to un-follow the people that had un-followed you. Twitter made us remove that one as well. We’ve had several over the lifetime of the company.

I was doing really well at the start. I was making up to four or five thousand a month, which is pretty good for one person in less than a year. The problem is that the one-time payment structure quickly trickles out. I had no problem hitting the blogs. We were on Tech Crunch, we were on Mashable, and we were on Venture Beat. You name the blog and we were on it. We were getting the attention that we needed, but eventually Twitter started removing features and we weren’t able to charge for everything we wanted to. The un-follow features were our most popular features and they were completely removed by Twitter.

I decided to move to a monthly payment model. Almost everything that we offer now is based off of a $30 per month payment plan. We have all those features, the auto follow, the daily email. We have some filtering mechanisms for direct messages on Twitter and we have some Facebook features coming out here really soon that will allow you to build a Facebook campaign on our site along with some other things. All of those things are included in the $30 a month and we continually allow you to add as many accounts as you want. We have stats that go along with that so you can track to progress of your followers over time. We’re not quite to where we used to be in terms of growth, but I’m trying to get back up to where we were. We’re still improving the site and adding features. It’s still a valuable service. That’s kind of where it stands at the moment.

How did you come up with your ideas for your apps?

A lot of it is solving a problem that I have personally. SocialToo started because I was on Twitter and I wanted to follow back all of the people that followed me to show appreciation for what they had done. I started doing it and I realized that it was getting to be too big of a burden for me to manage, to manually do this for everyone. I figured that I could automate this process rather than doing it manually, so I built a script that allows you to auto-follow people who follow you. Chris Pirillo was the first one who mentioned that he had an interest in an app that would be able to auto-follow people that followed him. I was following him on Twitter, and his blog, and I wrote him a blog post saying, “Hey, I’ve got this tool. Come use it.” So I open sourced it and released the code. Chris saw that and asked me if he could use it.

Shortly after that, Guy Kawasaki had a similar need and I made the same offer to him. I realized that he was a little less technical than Chris and that we needed to build a user interface around this to make it easier. It was at that point that SocialToo was born. It started out as a site to build tools that compliment your social networking use. Now it’s moving more towards a social reputation management platform for companies.

The social media space is changing very rapidly. How do you stay ahead of the curve?

A lot of it is just doing what makes sense. Finding the right people to pay attention to and follow plays a lot into it. Follow the early adopters like Robert Scoble and Louis Gray, as well as the blogs like Tech Crunch and Mashable, and see what they’re talking about. If there is a lot of the same buzz about a particular topic then that’s generally a good product to at least get on your radar and understand what it is.

But then there is the other side of it. Early adopters are often wrong. You have to take information from those sources and determine how it’s actually going to help you. You have to ask, “How is that going to help a brand? How is that going to help a business?” And not just by increasing numbers, but how is it going to actually help gain customers and build value? How is it going to help improve your reputation? And once you can answer those questions with these popular technologies, then you know you’ve got something that is going to stick.

I also use Twitter and Twitter lists. The key to know what to follow is you have to find influential people and figure out where they like to hang out. Some of them like to hang out on Twitter. Lately, Robert Scoble likes to hang out on Quora. I actually met Scoble because he used to FriendFeed. He moves around and I just followed him on FriendFeed and we became good friends as a result of that. Some people prefer to communicate on their blogs. Find out where they participate and then start getting to know them and following them in those areas. That’s where you’ll get the really good information. Get a Google Reader account and start subscribing to your favorite blogs. I like to make it a point to subscribe to Utah blogs whenever I find a good tech blog from Utah that makes sense. That way, I’m helping to promote Utah when I can, too.

Then, start building friends on Google Reader and rely on their shares. Build a good strategy around managing that so that it’s not taking up too much your time. I get most of my information from Google Reader. With my Google Reader I skim most of my articles. I have numerous Twitter lists that I skim through. Once you’ve developed both a good group of people that you’re following on Google Reader and a list of blogs that you’re subscribed to, that’s often sufficient enough to get you the information you need to stay current.

How do you effectively use social media like Twitter and Facebook to improve your business and ultimately the bottom line?

Effective depends on your definition of the term. There are different strategies. You might want to just increase your audience. That’s one strategy. Improving your reputation is another strategy. Increasing revenue is another strategy. Improving communication is another strategy. Building community is another strategy. So, all these things are different pieces to the way that social media can help. As far as building numbers, that’s easy. Building numbers is something anyone can do.  You follow someone on Twitter and chances are that they are going to follow you back. A lot of people on Facebook, if you send them a friend request, are going to accept that friend request even if they don’t know you. That’s just a fact whether it makes sense or not. It’s easy to build numbers.

What is hard is to build relationships with those people. All of the other pieces like the reputation, the community building, the revenue increasing, will improve if you can focus on relationships. Relationships are the key. You don’t have to just do it on Twitter. In fact, Facebook is almost more effective now. If I were to start over again, I would probably start on Facebook, with a Facebook page in conjunction with my personal account.

You need to focus on genuine relationships with people, like I did with Guy and Chris. I noticed that they had a need and I offered to help. And I just genuinely wanted to help. I wasn’t doing it to try and gain their interest in me or anything like that. In fact, I didn’t even know very much of who they were at the time that I approached them. Business naturally comes from that and ideas flow from that as well. The same goes with any use of social media. If you’re going to benefit your business you have to focus on relationships and not numbers. When you’re focusing on relationships, the numbers will naturally happen. And even if you don’t have the big numbers, the conversion rate that you’re trying to get from that use will happen. Numbers don’t mean much. It’s what you’re getting from those numbers that matter.

When I consult with people, I don’t just look at how we can build a Facebook page or how we can add a Twitter or YouTube account. I start with their own technology. I ask them, “How can we use your own technology and integrate it with social media to build better relationships? How can we foster relationships within this environment?” That may or may not involve Facebook. Then, I look outside of their technology and ask, “How can we use external sites and technologies to build relationships? If we look at Facebook and Twitter and we can only devote time to one of them, which one are we going to choose? Which one is going to give us the best bang for our buck?” And that might be a different answer depending on what you’re doing. Often it’s Facebook, but the key again is to ask how you can build relationships with these people and which network is going to help you build relationships the best.

You have to figure out if your audience is even on Twitter or on Facebook. You’ll see a lot of news organizations on Twitter because much of their audience is on Twitter. You’ve got to figure out where your audience is. You have to figure out ways that you can connect to your audience and ways that they can connect to you and build relationships.

So clarify a little bit more what you mean by “relationships”. What does it mean to build relationships?

Let’s start with a website for instance. Traditional websites are organized by content. They’re organized by categories and by a directory type of structure where you have one main page and then you have topics that have been pre-chosen by the organization as to what goes there. Well, rather than that, why not take the user’s Facebook friends or Twitter friends and organize the content that way? What are their friends sharing? What are their friends interested in? That presents a much more fascinating architecture than the traditional “this is what we want you to read” architecture. It builds relationships as users use it because these people are seeing what their friends are doing and then talking with their friends about what they just read on your site. And now you’ve put your site into their conversations and into their communication. Now you’re a part of their culture. That’s one piece of the relationships side.

When you deal with Facebook and Twitter and third party sites you’re kind of doing the same thing. With a Facebook page you’re putting your message out there, but you’re letting people talk about it and you’re letting them like it and share it with their friends. Again, your message is getting injected into their conversations and it becomes a part of their culture as a result. Once you’re a part of their culture they will naturally want to purchase your products. They will naturally want to share and your reputation will naturally grow because your community will grow and your community will stand up for you. As a result, people will be more aware of you.

You should focus on each individual user and ask yourself, “How can I use relationships and foster relationships to help improve this particular thing that we’re trying to fix?” And you’ll find that the really good social strategists will focus on this and not just on the Facebook page or the Twitter account. That’s the key.

So talk specifically for a minute about entrepreneurs. What is some advice that you would give entrepreneurs about how to implement what you’ve just talked about?

It’s easier now for entrepreneurs. When I started my business I was a programmer type. I didn’t have a whole lot of marketing knowledge. I didn’t really know how to promote my site and get visibility for it. Well, once Facebook released their platform and I could start integrating Facebook API into what I was doing, suddenly I had a platform for promoting what I was doing and it would naturally sell itself without me having to buy an advertisement or hire a PR agency. It would naturally share itself amongst my peers and their peers and it would spread that way. So these platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allow you to interject into these relationships. You can really use them to your advantage.

For technology entrepreneurs, you can now integrate Facebook into your product to enable your product to naturally share itself. And it’s really simple. Your programmers shouldn’t need too much additional knowledge to be able to integrate this. At a minimum you go to http://developers.facebook.com/docs/plugins/ and there is a whole list of what they call “social plug ins” where you can copy and paste code into your website and immediately see the most liked items on your website. So, there are some very simple ways now that you can start integrating these tools into your own technology to have it naturally share itself. It’s a lot easier than it used to be to spread word about your product.

And at the same time, the advent of blogs and the advent of social networking enable you to go out and build relationships and get in touch with these people in ways that you weren’t able to before. You can now talk to Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, Mike Arrington and others and you can do so openly and easily in ways that you weren’t able to before. So go out and build relationships using the social networks and through blogs and stuff like that. You can be building relationships with these influencers and the bloggers to get word out about your product.

So, to get into it a little bit more, how do you make sure that what you post online is seen by others so that you can start building these relationships? It’s easy to just post something online. How can you make sure it’s seen?

Follow smart people. Seriously, as you start to follow others, they will pay attention. I recommend having a blog. On your blog, link to these people and they will pay attention. They will start to pay attention and a lot of them will follow you back. As you start to post more information and information that is interesting to them, they will start to pay attention to you. But start by following them. Get to know them first. They’re not going to get to know you until you spend some time getting to know them. Once you spend some time getting to know them, you will have done your investment and they will naturally start to build relationships with you. You will start to know how you can get in better contact with them. You’ll start to know what their likes and dislikes are. You’ll start to learn how to pitch ideas to them because you will know how they like to hear things. They’ll recognize you when you try to contact them. The more you get to know these people and try to build real relationships with them, the more they will start to pay attention. And that’s the secret. That’s all that I’ve done.

I was looking over your LinkedIn profile and I saw you had some slides posted about a concept that you call “Fishers to Farmers”. Tell me a little bit about that.

There’s a concept in social media called fishing where the fish are. It’s actually a marketing term. The idea is that you go out to where your audience is naturally and you inject your message there so that your audience naturally shares it and brings it to their friends. An example of this would be a Facebook app, or allowing users to share information on their Facebook, or even email their friends about your product. An even more traditional model would be giving them a t-shirt to wear amongst their friends or something like that. That’s all fishing where the fish are and it’s an effective model for getting your brand out there. It’s a model that isn’t going away.

But where things are evolving towards now, is what I call farming or going from “Fishers to Farmers”. Instead of going out to where your audience is, you are building farms for them to come back to your site and to your turf and to be able to have those same experiences that they have with their friends in an environment that they’re familiar with. It’s like when I was talking about organizing the content by relationships instead of by categories. That would be an example of building a farm and bringing them back to your site. You should build experiences on your own site rather than having to put out your message where they are. I recommend a combination of both fishing and farming, but that is what I call farming.

You’re going to start to see more and more sites do this. Right now, if you go to huffingonpost.com and you click on either the Twitter link or the Facebook login link, once you associate either account it will automatically organize the content based on who you’re friends with. Digg does this too. Instead of having to go to Facebook to try to sift out Digg information, I can now go to Digg.com and it’s all sorted by my Facebook friends which I’ve already established on Facebook. So that’s the idea. Does that make sense?

Yes. And this is where you see a lot of websites going in the future?

I think it’s going to move more and more towards that, yes. Social media will be ubiquitive. It will follow every experience and permeate every experience that you participate in. You won’t have to go just to Facebook to get what you want. You’ll go from site to site to see it. I call this concept “the web with no login button”. It’s where, in the future, the web will follow you. And not just the social experiences, but the web in general will follow you from site to site and use your browser to identify who you are and who your friends are. And your browser will automatically adapt those sites for your experience. You’ll never have to login or anything because your browser will already know who you are. And you’ll immediately get a completely contextual, very relevant experience targeted just to you.

What do you like about having your business here in Utah and why would you recommend for other people to start tech businesses here, as opposed to places like Silicon Valley and Boston?

So the question is, do you go to Silicon Valley where you’ve got the networking opportunities and the rich talent, or do you stay in Utah? It’s a tough question, because I’ve been tempted a few times myself. The answer for Utah is that Utah is cheap. It’s a good family environment and it’s a good place to operate a business at a low cost. There is a much greater potential for high profit. And now you can do almost everything you need to remotely. If you know how to use the social networks, you don’t have to go out to Silicon Valley and meet those people in person. You can do it virtually now. It’s becoming more and more possible for people to be able to operate a business in Utah and have that Silicon Valley environment and never have to actually meet that environment.

I do recommend that if you start a business in Utah, a tech business, that you go out to Silicon Valley every so often and meet some of the people out there and introduce your business there. There’s a good chance you probably won’t get in front of Robert Scoble unless you actually go out to Silicon Valley. And if you want to get an interview with any of those guys in person you’re going to have to go out there eventually. Unless you’re an investor, you can pretty much get away with building a business in Utah now and networking with the people in Silicon Valley. I think it’s completely possible, I used to not think that, but I think it’s more and more possible today than it ever was.

Utah just has so many opportunities. We have one of the highest employment rates in the country at the moment. Twitter is here now, Omniture is here, Oracle is here, EBay is here, and a whole host of others. It’s becoming a hot bed, especially in the hosting area. It’s becoming a really strong hot bed for tech and I don’t think you’re going to have much of a problem finding a job here. In fact, you’re going to find a pretty good job with good experience and with a big name company if you need to. Or, you can start up a new company and I don’t think you’ll have a problem finding the investment you need either. There are plenty of investors here.

There are two problems here in Utah that I can see and that we can improve on. One problem is that we have plenty of entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs aren’t holding it through. We have no Google or Microsoft or Facebook, where the entrepreneur starts a company and holds it through and doesn’t sell out in the end. Silicon Valley has a great advantage in that respect. They also think more in terms of causes, and not just businesses there. I’d love to see Utah do this more. Be crazy. Think of what is going to change the world and not just what is going to make money. Build those ideas even if you can’t figure out a way to make money at first. Those are the good ideas to get investment for and move forward with. Those are the ideas that often become a Google, or a Microsoft, or a Twitter, or a Facebook.

So there is that side of it. The other side of it is promotion. We don’t have a lot of tech bloggers in Utah. We have a few, but not a whole lot that have an audience outside of Utah. It’s a very tight, niche audience. People outside of Utah aren’t fully listening to us. We need more tech bloggers that are targeting audiences outside of Utah and are trying to build audiences on a more general basis to highlight the companies within Utah. Once we have that then we’ll be able to get people paying attention to Utah.

5 comments:

kenfrei4 said...

Thanks for the interview Jesse!

Jordan Calder said...

Was this your inspiration to start this blog? Awesome interview!

kenfrei4 said...

It actually was. I figured I better follow Jesse's advice :) Thanks for the post Jordan

SP5 said...

I'm an artist. I would be pretty pissed if I game someone my art and they turned around and sold it for profit. That's crap!

kenfrei4 said...

I can understand your point of view SP5. I guess you'll never be giving any of your art to Jesse!

There is a lesson to be learned though about being entrepreneurial. Some people just go out and make things happen.

Try to do it legally though! ha ha