How to Attract More and Better Clients with Valuable Content: An Interview with Michael A. Stelzner

In this interview, Mike Stelzner, founder of Social Media Examiner and author of the new book Launch, explains how freelancers in all professions can use rich and valuable "how to" content to attract more and better clients.

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Ed Gandia:

Hey everyone! Ed Gandia here, and today I'm speaking with Mike Stelzner who's the founder of socialmediaexaminer.com and author of the new book Launch: How to quickly propel your business beyond the competition also the book Writing White Papers: How to capture readers and keep them engaged.

Mike is also the author of the popular Social Media Marketing Industry Report, and the man behind some of the largest summits on the web today, including the social media success summit. So Mike it's great to have you here, man!

Mike Stelzner:

Hey Ed, thank you so much. We've gone back for quite some time and it's just an absolute pleasure to be talking to you today.

Ed Gandia:

Likewise. So before we get to my questions, why don't you tell us a little bit about Social Media Examiner and your latest book, Launch, for listeners who may not be very familiar with you.

Mike Stelzner:

Yes, so Social Media Examiner is what I call an online magazine. We publish one article a day, and it's all catered to help businesses-and in particular small businesses-figure out how to navigate the crazy social media jungle. You know things like how to create more fans for your Facebook page or you know how to create great content. All the kinds of things that are relevant to the world of social media and business.

Launch is a book that's designed to help small business people to figure out how in the world to grow, how to get more followers and how to do it quickly.

 

Ed Gandia:

Perfect and that's what a lot of our people are looking for everyday, so that's a big concern. And you know... one reason I love talking with you (a lot of people may not be aware of this) is that you were actually a freelancer for a long time. So you know our world, you know what we face everyday and especially what we face when it comes to attracting clients and maintaining a steady flow of work.

So I guess a good place to start is, what's wrong with marketing today? What's wrong with the way most of us (small businesses and solo professionals) market our services?

Mike Stelzner:

Okay, well there are two problems that are going on today, Ed. The first problem is that the people that we want to reach are inundated by marketing messages everywhere. It's like a horrible rainstorm and they're seeking refuge.

It's almost impossible to not be exposed to marketing. It's obviously on the websites that we visit. It's on our cell phones, it's on the television, the radio, it's when we're driving down the street. It's even in bathroom stalls. There's no way to get away from marketing and it's gotten so intense, that means even on Facebook.

It's gotten so intense that basically people are completely ignoring it. And in some regards, they're seeking refuge from the storm, the onslaught of marketing. So that's a big challenge for you as a freelancer, how can you stand out?

The second challenge is that people don't trust us. There's a really interesting study by Adelman that found that only one in three people trust businesses, which is pretty bad.

 

So if people don't trust you and they're not paying attention, what the heck are you supposed to do?

 

That's the problem now, that's the problem that we all face. Now to your question what's wrong with marketing? Traditionally, we've been taught, to treat people like fish. We've been taught that if we can climb into this boat, silently paddle out onto the lake where all the people are hanging out, and take this expensive rod with this fancy lure and jiggle it just the right way, we can pull them into our boat against their will.

Essentially, we're not really treating people like people. Instead, we're treating them like tools for acquisition, and that's the problem with marketing.

I mean very simply that's the reason why people don't trust us anymore. It's because everybody sees through this stuff and everybody sees what we're doing is just simply a reason to get us to do something.

And I'm expounding today that social media has made it so that that this traditional marketing approach doesn't work anymore. People are smarter, they see through it and they can connect in ways that they never did before. And that means we need to change the way that we market.

 

Ed Gandia:

There's no doubt. In fact, you know it's funny because you think, "Well, yeah, but freelancers don't really market that way." I actually think freelancers copy everything that those big companies do.
We've all been brought up to think that this is the way you're supposed to promote yourself-that's the way you get your name out there.

Mike Stelzner:

I will give you a great example what freelancers do. They write an interesting article and at the very end of it they say, "Hire Jack to be your consultant." That's referred to as the "call to action." We've all been taught to have a call to action at the end of our articles. But what it does is it takes that article and changes it now. So instead of it being a gift that is given to people, it's now become a lure.

They see it for what it is and they no longer want to share it because it's simply just something that's designed to get me to do something else.

My suggestion is that you get rid of all that. Instead, make your call to action be something like "If you want to learn more, click here to get a free presentation." So the new thing is to give away stuff-give it away for free-and not to sell.

Frankly, people are repelled by commercial ad. Have you ever been to a wedding that's sponsored by Nike? Have you ever opened the present and you have to watch the commercial before you can dig in to the present. In personal life, of course, you would laugh. This would be ludicrous.

So why are we doing that with our content? If we wanted to be shared, if we wanted to be bookmarked, if we wanted to be something people talk about, we need to take those marketing messages out of the mix.

 

Ed Gandia:

So you're saying that the answer is to give gifts, basically give of your knowledge, give of your expertise. But how do you that? What's the practical way of doing that, especially considering the fact that I have a limited amount of time available as a freelancer? I can't be giving away advice to every prospect I come across, right?

Mike Stelzner:

You do it through content, because content is highly scalable. So the good news is you don't have to give the gift of your time because you can instead create great content.

For example at Social Media Examiner, we write really detailed how-to articles. It's the kind of content that's so good that people can't believe we're actually giving it away for free. So your content is your gift out of people, but the only way it becomes a gift is if it has no strings attached.

Gifts are given without any expectation of something in return. If you gave your child a gift, would you expect them to return something to you? Of course you wouldn't, and that would be crazy. It can't be wrapped in commercials. It needs to be free and it needs to be with no strings attached. If people do receive that content as a gift, they'll love you, they'll want more, they'll come feeding at your trough time and time again, it is highly scalable.

 

Ed Gandia:

Now, there's a nuance here too because a lot of people might say well I already have a newsletter and I send out a weekly newsletter, a bi-weekly newsletter, I'm giving that stuff away now, how come it's now working?

Mike Stelzner:

That's not a gift. So let me give you an example. On Social Media Examiner, we have a little box that pops up for first time visitors that says, "Subscribe to our newsletter and we'll give you the free Facebook marketing video tutorial." That Facebook marketing video tutorial is not a gift, it's a lure. They're buying it with their email. If someone's on your list, that means they've already purchased something from you, they're giving you permission to contact them. That is not a gift.

A gift is the content that you produce that does not live via email, typically it lives on your website. And I know it's a subtle nuance here, but the gift has to be just that-a true gift. It's like if you sent someone a check for a thousand dollars in cash in an envelope randomly. Or if you're at the drive-thru and you said I'm going to pay for the guy's meal behind me, that's a gift. Now those are just random situations, but you know that's a gift that you're giving someone. People know what that means.

In the sake of content, if we can produce this great incredible content, give it away on our site and give it away for free, that's what people want because at their core, everyone wants great content... everyone wants access to great people... and everyone wants recognition.

If you can give them one of those three things, great content, access to great people, or recognition-and you can do it for free and you can do it on any marketing messages without any strings attached-they'll go crazy. And they'll want more. And as a result, they'll decide to sign up to get more. And when they do that, this creates a secondary channel in which you can market to them. But your primary channel needs to be completely commercial free.

So that when people go there they'll say "I can't believe you're giving all this stuff away." We do it. Social Media Examiner has absolutely no advertising. We have 84,000 subscribers and we send out an email six days a week that has a 25% to 30% daily open rate-and we don't do any advertising at all.

 

Ed Gandia:

Wow! So you're saying that it's okay to offer something of value initially to entice prospects to give you their email address. But once they do that, once they subscribe to your newsletter or RSS feed or what have you, then surprise them right? You know send them stuff that they wouldn't have expected in terms of content.

Mike Stelzner:

Okay let me back up for a second. If your business is a rocket ship, the fuel for your rocket ship is content. And people consume the content, that's what moves your rocket ship forward. So if you can produce the right kind of content, more people will consume it, it will move your business along faster.

So what I'm saying is that if you can publish something like every couple of days on your website that is great. You know that people are going to be naturally attracted to that and they're going to share it on Twitter. They're going to share on Facebook. It's going to bring an audience to you.

The trick is, how do you retain the audience? Well, you retain the audience by encouraging them to sign up to get more of your great content email to them. Once they sign up for the email newsletter, what we do at Social Media Examiner is we send them an automated blast every day that has about 70 words and a link for them to go read the rest of the article. And then inside that email we'll occasionally have an ad for something that we're selling. But, see, they've already decided that they loved our content first and they want to get more of it. So what we're doing is every day giving them a link to more of it, and in that link is a little ad. And that little ad allows us to sell. And that's how we grow our business.

 

Ed Gandia:

OK, so that brings up another question. What if I'm not a writer? What if I'm a designer or translator or photographer? How can I make this work?

Mike Stelzner:

Okay so I talk about this thing called the "Elevation Principle" in the book, which is great content plus other people minus marketing messages. We've already talked about the "minus marketing messages," and we talked about the "great content." But the "other people" component, we didn't really talk about. When I started Social Media Examiner, I made a commitment to only write at most one article a week. Everything else is written by someone else.

So we have 60 people that regularly contribute to Social Media Examiner. None of them are paid. And we're producing content 6 days a week. So you don't have to be a writer. But what you could do is try to create a movement.

In the case of Social Media Examiner, we went out to people that we're pretty high profile in the world of social media. People like Mari Smith who is the queen of Facebook, Chris Garrett who co-authored the book ProBlogger, Denise Wakeman from the Blog Squad and Jason Falls from Social Media Explorer. They were friends of mine, so I told them, "Guys, I'm developing something. I'd love it if you could share some of your knowledge with my audience. Maybe you could write an article a month, and then if it ever becomes a waste of your time or not valuable to you then just bow out."

As soon as these guys became part of this project, other people came out of the woodwork. Everybody else wanted to be part of this because there were no commercials. It became something that appeared to be a movement. And before you knew it, I had all sorts of people contributing content for me so it didn't really matter.

And you want to know what kind of content I do Ed? I do video. So almost everything that I produce, I go to a tradeshow with a camera crew and I identify experts and I get them on camera and I interview them. Sometimes I bang out 10 video interviews in a day and then just release that content over the next few months.

So the moral of the story is that you don't have to be a great content producer. But you do want to work with those that are. And that's the way you can develop something that's really exciting for the audience.

 

By the way, there's nothing wrong with bringing your competition to the table. You mentioned I wrote a book on white papers. Back in the day when I started whitePapersource.com, I reached out to everyone who is high profile that was my direct competition. I was a freelance writer, so I reached out to other freelance writers. And I said, "I'm creating something exciting here that's going to be a hub for the industry. As a result, you know all ships will rise. Do you want to be part of this?" And of the three high profile people, two said "yes." (Coincidentally, the guy that said "no," his business ended up going under.)

The two that said yes became part of this amazing movement that we created for freelance writers and for marketers called White Paper Source. One of the many incredible things that came out of this project was that the publication MarketingSherpa ended up crowning me the "grandfather of White Papers."

So the lesson here is to think a little outside of the box here. You don't have to be an incredible content creator.

 

Ed Gandia:

That's really a good point because I think what you're talking about here is definitely going beyond just having a weekly newsletter. This is really about figuring out as a freelancer what your prospects and clients are really looking for and then developing awesome content that's going to be relevant that they're going to find valuable. Then, it's about finding ways of bringing other people in to create win-win situations all around, which is what you did with Social Media Examiner and White Paper Source.

Mike Stelzner:

Yes! And, Ed, if I can share how you and I first met: You were a subscriber to the White Paper Source newsletter. And you reached out to me and said "I'd love to contribute a few articles to your publication." So if you're listening to this and you're a freelancer, why not try to find out where your prospects are hanging out and write for them?

When I was a freelance writer, I did the same thing for the super-popular blog, Copyblogger.com. I approached the editor, Brian Clark, about contributing some blog posts. He said, "yes." And I got some great business from that exposure.

So at first, you don't have to develop an entire website or blog on your own. Maybe what you do is you try to develop some content for another blog, just to get your feet wet and to see how your content resonates with your prospects. From there, you can eventually leverage some of that content and start something of your own. Which is exactly what you did, right?

Ed Gandia:

That's right. I did some of guest blogging and providing content to other very targeted publications that were already established and where my prospects were "hanging out."

You know, I want to talk about something you said earlier: this whole concern about why anyone would want to give all those ideas away. After all, that's your own proprietary stuff. You know, I don't want anybody to get a hold of it.

I think there really needs to be a mind shift here, because those days are over. The way I see it, we're increasing the size of the pie. It's not a limited pie where if I gave you a couple of slices, I don't have that much left.

Mike Stelzner:

Well let me respond to that, because as a freelancer back in 2002 I wrote this thing called "How to Write a White Paper: a White Paper on White Papers." And I gave away what I thought were all of my secrets on creating White Papers. So my editor said "Are you crazy? Those are your own insider secrets." And I said, "Well, I have this strange suspicion that this is something I need to do."

I put it out there, and in the first week I had 400 leads coming from that White paper. The first month, I had 4,000 leads and I have since had more than 85,000 people register for that White paper. This eventually led to the development of White paper Source. It led to my bestselling book Writing White Papers. It led to my landing clients like FedEx, Dow Jones, Hewitt Packard and Motorola.

Yes, it has helped some people to potentially become competitors. But the rewards far outweigh the risks. And what I learned along the way is that I thought I wrote it all in a that 10-piece paper. But then I ended up writing a 250-page book. I thought I wrote it all in a 250-page book. But then I created so many other articles that I could have written two more 250-page books. So the bottom line is that you can never fully reveal all of your secrets in writing because nobody can do it the way you can do it. And you have nothing to lose.

Plus, when you do demonstrate your knowledge this way, it's going to convince a lot of people to say, "Wow, this person really knows what the heck he or she is talking about. I'm going to hire that person."

Ed Gandia:

Yes and that's more important. I think people want to see that you really are full of valuable ideas and insights.

Mike Stelzner:

It's your calling card so don't hide it.

Ed Gandia:

If you walk away with anything here, I hope it's that because I think that's absolutely key-and I think that's what most people miss. Hey heck, I grew up with a very traditional marketing and sales education, and that's not what we were taught. So I had to kind of re-learn the fact that giving your knowledge away, through the right channels, will only help you.

OK, I have one final question for you. What part should social media play in a freelancers marketing mix?

Mike Stelzner:

It's a great question. Back before there was the internet, how did freelancers get business? Can you answer that question Ed?

Ed Gandia:

Word of mouth, referrals, events.

Mike Stelzner:

So it was all about relationships, right? Well, the Internet has sped everything up. But it has sped everything up so much to the expense of relationships that where we used to pick up the phone and talk to our friends for an hour, now we send an email at midnight when we don't really want to talk them. Or at least that's how it was five or ten years ago.

Today, social media has finally enabled the social relationships to happen extremely efficiently. It embraces our time restraints. And that is essential for a couple of reasons. Number one, you as a freelancer don't have a lot of time. But number two, more importantly, you can rapidly develop rich relationships via social media that are not costly and don't require you to physically get dressed up and go down to a local event and deal with the rejection, all that kind of stuff that comes with it.

All your prospects are probably already using sites like Facebook and Twitter, and it just is an incredibly efficient way to network with people.

For instance, just this morning, this guy that wrote a book about the Serengeti, a New York Times bestseller, reached out to me on Twitter. And I responded by telling him that loved the Serengeti metaphor he used in his book, the animals and all that stuff. And he responded back and he said "Well, I love the little Safari dude you have on Social Media Examiner." And then he responded 10 minutes later and said, "How I can help you?" I mean literally in a span of few minutes we developed a relationship.

And that's the cool thing about social media. The stuff can be done, and it happens all the time. It's just a very, very exciting medium, and I do believe that it's a perfect medium for freelancers to develop relationships that could lead to opportunity.

Ed Gandia:

Couldn't agree more. So, Mike, where can people learn more about your book? I know there's a chapter they can download for free on a special website you've set up, right?

Mike Stelzner:

Yes, the website is www.elevationprinciple.com. If you go there, you can get the free chapter of the book. No registration required, just immediately you can open it up and read it. And of course, you can find it in your local bookstore, you can find it on Amazon, and it's available on Kindle and Nook formats.

Ed Gandia:

Thanks, Mike! I just finished reading it two days ago, and it's awesome, awesome stuff! Lots of very practical advice for solo professionals like us. Frankly, I'm tired of these books where they talk about all these abstract principles. It all sounds good, but then you're left with this feeling of "Okay, how do I do that? Can I even use any of that?" This is not that sort of book. I've highlighted action items all over the place.

Mike Stelzner:

Well Ed, thank you very much. I love what you're doing. I actually do believe that you're practicing many of the principles in the book with what you guys are doing. So I'm very grateful to you for this opportunity to come and talk to you today.