Talking Social with Social Media Explorer Jason Falls

Talking Social with Social Media Explorer Jason Falls

His name is commonplace in the world of social media. Guys like Chris Brogan, Guy Kawasaki, and Gary Vaynerchuk have become celebrities in this space. Jason Falls has too. He lives in Kentucky and does a lot of public speaking, but is also an accomplished author. His most recent book has a pretty daring title, and he is quite popular on Twitter. A few weeks ago I was listening to a webinar that he gave to promote his new book, and I noticed a few things he was saying didn’t quite add up. I started tweeting about it, and before long he and I were discussing this in real-time. I say that because one of the things I was against was scheduling tweets. Jason does that. We got into a pretty heated discussion about this, and before long he had written a blog post about the conversation. The post was a hit and comments spread like wildfire. That was when I knew I had to  interview Jason for my blog.

I reached out to Jason and asked for the interview. That was right before I went on vacation. I got back last week, and we scheduled the interview. Before it was over he was complaining about carpal tunnel. I expected nothing less from a guy that is such a wordsmith. Like I said, Jason is an acclaimed author and has worked with other authors to make his books a reality. He is currently working on a solo project. When he is done with that, maybe he and I can write a book together! This has been a long time coming, but it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Jason Falls, social media explorer.

You are a social media explorer. I guess that is better than a social media expert. What is a social media explorer?

Not sure that I’ve ever defined it. But it’s simple: This is a new world. We’re all exploring what the possibilities are. Exploring doesn’t imply that you’re an expert, experienced, inexperienced, foolish or anything… just implies that you’re curious. I’m asking questions, trying things and trying to help figure out what social media and social media marketing is and can be. Nothing more or less.

There are three of you. How do you know Aaron and Nichole?

Aaron and I have been friends for several years. We both did similar things (consult with companies on technology, digital marketing, etc.) and kept saying we wanted to work together on a project. When we started talking about doing so, it wound up that we found it would be smarter to join forces. His company (a small consultancy) folded into mine (also a small consultancy) and Social Media Explorer became more than just me.

Nichole has been writing for Social Media Explorer and speaking at our events for a while. I’ve known her for a couple of years and love her measurement-first, bottom-line orientation. It goes along well with my “No B.S.” mantra for social media. As Aaron and I began building the education side of SME, we were balancing several consulting clients but getting more and more leads. We needed someone to help us with the workload. At the same time, Nichole had ramped up Full Frontal ROI with the focus of building a full-service digital agency. We just had common goals with each of us having the right strengths and weaknesses to blend together to be good as a unit. It made sense.

You have over 55,000 followers. How did you do it?

I have a written Twitter policy on a paper hanging in my office that says, “Share Good Shit.” That’s it. I’ve never gamed the system, never asked people to follow me (other than dropping my Twitter handle in bios, etc.), never bought followers and so on. I just use Twitter to share good content with people, then interact with friends and followers as time permits. I don’t count followers, stress about Klout scores, measure my Twitter impact or anything. I just find good content and share it, jump in and have the occasional conversation with whomever is there at the time and that’s it. I guess my ideas and the content I share has been strong enough over the years that a lot of people find my Twitter feed useful. I wish everyone else built their following the same way.

You do a lot of public speaking. What events do you have coming up this year?

It’s hard to keep up. I love getting out and meeting people in the flesh, being truly social, so I do speak and travel a bit. Of course, it also helps promote book sales and the like, so there’s more to it than just liking being on the road. This year, we’ve got our own Explore events in Minneapolis (August 16-17), Irvine (October 17-18) and Portland, Oregon, (November 15-16). I’ll also be at SMC Chattanooga in July, Social: IRL in Des Moines, Iowa in August, Foodservice Social Media Universe in Chicago in September, Podcamp East in September, iStrategy Global Digital Marketing Conference in Chicago in October and probably 2-3 more I’ve forgotten about. Fortunately, I have an assistant to keep my calendar in check.

Do you like infographs?

I do. That’s one of the reasons I asked Mark Smiciklas to write for Social Media Explorer. He just finished his book on the power of infographics. (It’s AWESOME.) I think infographics are a powerful way for people to learn and retain information. Our brains are programmed to like visual cues and they work.

My main problem with most infographics is the data they use is often suspect at best and the conclusions drawn are exaggerated to the point the audience can be adversely affected by them. I use an example of one infographic I saw last year that claimed online video was killing television, yet in that very infographic, it showed the television advertising spend in 2010 grew by 8 percent. The bias of the data interpretation on many infographics is just appalling.

What did you study at West Virginia University?

I studied sports management at West Virginia University. I was a sports journalist and college athletics junkie and wanted to be either an ESPN anchor or an athletic director. At the time, that was the best path to either. I wound up as a radio producer at ABC Radio in New York, so I kinda made it. I then fell back on the college athletics background and was a PR guy in that industry for 12 years before moving into mainstream marketing and PR.

There are a lot of social media sites out there, but what is your favorite?

In terms of networks? I like Twitter. I can chat with people I know, don’t know and everything in between. I can use it when I’m able, but don’t have to be glued to it because I can scroll back through the mentions to see if I missed anything. It’s simple and fun. But also useful if you use it well.

In terms of blogs or resources? I’m not sure I really like sites as much as authors. Bob Hoffman ( makes me think. Tom Webster ( makes me smarter. There are lots I enjoy. I steer clear of the “media” websites for the most part (Mashable, Social Media Examiner, Social Media Today, etc.) because the content doesn’t really challenge the thinking. They’re focused on 101-type help and/or “news” of the industry. Doesn’t make me smarter the way I want a blog to. Don’t get me wrong – I still have them in my feed reader, share content from them and find their content useful to some people and in some instances. But I personally don’t get a lot out of them.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do social. How do you react when you see people misusing such simple services?

I don’t agree with your assertion. There’s not a right way or a wrong way to do social. There’s a right way for you, your audience, your industry, etc., but factors differ from person-to-person and industry-to-industry. That’s the biggest misnomer in social media right there – that there’s one way to do it. The echo chamber makes you believe you have to do things one way to be successful, but that’s largely because the early thought leaders in the echo chamber had limited experience with marketing, advertising and other methods of communications that are proven to work.

When people (in the echo chamber) call someone out for “misusing” social media, it’s likely because they personally think it’s spammy, unethical or impersonal. But those people or companies are normally doing one of two things: being more efficient with their time or resources OR playing the numbers. And neither of those are wrong.

Example: I share 10-15 pieces of content per day (typically) on my social networks. Yet, if I did it all at once, most people would be annoyed that I’m puking content every 10-15 seconds, then disappearing for chunks of time. (Unfortunately, I have a job, clients, etc., and can’t camp out on Twitter all day.) So, I use Argyle Social to cue my share-oriented tweets up throughout the day. My stream isn’t as noisy all at once, then quiet for chunks of time. On top of that scheduling, I jump in when I have time and see if anyone asked a question, pointed out a link was broken, etc., or generally participate in the conversations going on at that moment. I’m being more efficient with my time. And I would argue 55,000+ followers can’t be wrong.

As for playing the numbers – when a company sends out a direct mail piece, they know they won’t get a 100% return rate. But if they get a 15% return rate and the returns are people who purchase an average of $1,000 in product, then for every 100 pieces they send, they make $15,000. Depending upon your audience size, your return rate, your price point, etc., email blasting, direct mailing, etc., can be very lucrative, profitable and successful for your business. And contrary to the echo chamber’s assertions, email blasts are not illegal. Puritanical ethics may dictate you should never do X if you want to be considered human and a member of the “community”. But the simple fact of the matter is that sometimes a company just wants to sell stuff. They’re playing the numbers and succeeding whether the blogosphere approve or not.

Let’s say that I am new to social media. Where should I start?

As an individual, I’d say find a social network you can easily adapt to (user experience, etc.) and start following or connecting with people you know and want to keep up with or people who might be knowledgeable about something you wish to learn more about. For instance, if I want to be a better golfer, I’ll join Twitter and start looking for golf enthusiasts or professionals that share tips and tricks, etc.  As a company, I would get to know your audience really well and find out what they do online. If they’re gravitating toward certain networks, study those networks and figure out how you can be a relevant voice to that audience there. Think long and hard about why you want to use social media and connect the two – the relevant content with your business objectives. Approach it with goals in mind and you’ll find measuring and achieving success a lot easier.

How do you personally measure social media success?

How much revenue my company brings in. I don’t use traditional advertising or marketing (typically) to promote what I do. I rely on inbound marketing… people find me. When they do and hire me to speak, train their staffs or help build strategies to help their business succeed online, that revenue is my success.

How much do you charge for a public speaking engagement?

My speaking rate is $7,500 plus travel, but unlike most speakers on the circuit, I make myself available to the client or event for a full day, not just an hour. I’ll do a keynote and a break out, serve on a panel, go to private or open dinners with sponsors, network with participants, etc. I try to be a participant in the event and serve as a resource the whole time I’m there. I’d feel guilty asking for that fee for an hour talk.

What did you do before social media became popular?

Watched ballgames for a living. Seriously. I was a PR guy in college athletics and a sports journalist for 15 years prior to jumping into mainstream marketing and PR. Of course, I started blogging for my own personal amusement (actually to publish a newspaper column I started writing) in 1997-98, so I’ve played online for a long time, too.

Tell me a little bit more about “The Girlfriend” video contest.

Jim Beam was running its first television advertisement in some time and wanted to drive some extra interest and buzz around the ad online. So they put that challenge to me and a team of agency partners – what can we do to amplify this commercial? The spot was humorous in nature – a woman saying she liked it when her boyfriend went out with the boys, etc., then claimed she was “THE Girlfriend,” then associated Jim Beam by saying it was THE bourbon – so we decided to ask fans to create a fun parody of the original concept. We built a site where they could download assets (music, graphics, etc.), edit their own video and submit. The winner got a Vegas vacation or something. I think the final total was something like 98 million impressions (we used PR metrics because it was a buzz/PR campaign) for the effort. It was a lot of fun and the video submissions were hysterical. And no, we couldn’t show all of them. We deleted quite a few because they skirted the lines of appropriate spirits advertising, which by industry regulation prevent ads that are sexual in nature, feature cartoons and so on.

You have a pretty impressive client list. Who are some of your favorite clients that you have worked with?

Well, you can’t not like working with bourbons! Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark were two of my favorites from the Doe-Anderson days. I especially appreciated the access and friendship with Bill Samuels Jr., and his son Rob, who now runs the brand. They both taught me a lot about bourbon and business. I’m also close with the gang at Expion (a social media management solution) and enjoy working with them. We’re all friends, so it makes work fun.

Is it possible to be successful online without social media?

Absolutely. There are hundreds of companies, e-commerce sites, retailers, education companies and products, that advertise traditionally, acquire customers traditionally, yet base their revenue and activity through online sales. Apple is the biggest, of course. But even tax experts selling DVDs online on how to get out of debt are doing so successfully without an inkling of what Twitter is.

Let’s say I only have 30 minutes a day to dedicate to my social media campaign. What sites should I focus on and what types of content should I be sharing on these sites?

Depends… when you say campaign, that makes me think there’s a specific goal and time frame in mind. That changes things because your 30 minutes need to be focused on the tasks at hand. But if you’re just trying to build an audience, presence and reputation online, I say you identify the network or networks that your audience will most use or engage with you on and spend that 30 minutes finding and sharing awesome content that helps them fill some void in their information or entertainment landscape. What problem can you help them solve, simply by sharing content and answering questions? Do that for 30 minutes. Not much can go wrong there.

You live in Kentucky. Do you drink a lot of bourbon down there?

Well, yeah! What’s funny is that I’m certain people assume I drink more than I do. I enjoy bourbon, but probably only drink 2-3 times a month and seldom more than 2-3 glasses at a time. I don’t typically say “no” to a good bourbon, though.

How do you know Erik Deckers?

Erik helped recruit me to speak at Blog Indiana when it was first created. I wound up coming back the next year and keynoting. He was in the content business, I had clients in need of content, so I brought him and Pro Blog Service in to help and we just got to know each other over the years. He texted me one night saying something like, “I think you should write a social media book and so do I. Want to write one together?” And for some reason, I said, “Yes.” Must have been the bourbon. (Laughs.)

How often do you send out a newsletter?

I try to be weekly, but since I still write all the content myself, it’s more like every two weeks. As with everything I do, I’m constantly experimenting and changing it up. But the audience appreciates the digest of content (mine and that of others) and idea starters I share there, so it works.

In your opinion, what is the point of social media?

To connect, share, learn and be useful.

How important is mobile going to be over the next five years?

If it’s not mobile, it won’t fly. I honestly think almost all computing and communicating will be done on “mobile” devices in 5-10 years. Though I think our definition of “mobile” won’t just be limited to the phone. Tablets, laptops, etc., are all part of a mobile experience.

What is Bloomfire?

Bloomfire is the software we use to house, our learning community. It’s a platform that allows us to provide lessons on any topic (we focus on social media marketing for business how-tos, etc.) and provide videos, screen casts, resource files, etc., as part of the lesson, but also allow the users to ask questions – not just within the content (think commenting) but as stand-alone content brought to the administrator’s attention (think forum thread). It’s pretty neat for a subscription-based learning community.

How many badges do you have on foursquare?

I have no idea and would worry about anyone who did.

You worked with DJ Waldow on The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing: Grow Your List, Break the Rules, and Win. You worked with Erik Deckers on No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing. When are we going to write a book together?

(Laughs.) I’m sure we could find a topic to tackle. I’m currently working on some concepts for my first solo book project, but nothing is out of the question!

How much focus do you put on search engine optimization when blogging?

I’m so glad you asked that question because my answer might shock you: None. Zero. While I have done several deep dives on search engine optimization so that I know it, understand it and can help clients with it (directionally, not as an SEO practitioner), my best practice for my own SEO is what I think Google really wants: Just write compelling content.

Are there keywords in there? Sure. Do I sometimes think to include a keyword in the title? Sure. Do I tag my posts, etc.? Sure. But I have never written a post with the intent of winning a search result. I have never taken a written post and engineered it to win a search result. All I’ve ever done is think, “Here’s the topic. Now let’s write a post that makes the audience say, ‘Holy Smokes! That was useful.'”

That’s my guide to SEO.

Should the average user care about how many followers or how many friends he or she has?

The average user? Only if they don’t want to overwhelm themselves with noise. They should care on the low side, not the high side. For the business user or someone who is trying to build a platform to promote themselves, etc., sure you should care. But you shouldn’t obsess with it or think that more is always better. I’d rather have 5,000 really relevant followers on Twitter than 55,000 irrelevant ones. Fortunately, the way I’ve built (or technically not built) Twitter followers over the years, I’ve got 55,000 relevant ones. (Okay, at least the majority of mine are relevant. I’m sure there’s some random irrelevant ones who have followed me for whatever reason.)

How many blogs to you read on a regular basis? Do you like to comment on the blogs you read?

I subscribe to over 400 and peruse the headlines daily. I have a few folders I focus on more and read more intently. I’d say there’s about 15-20 that I make sure to know what they’ve posted. And I don’t comment very often (sorry to say) but it’s more out of prioritization of time rather than want. If it’s an issue I’m passionate about, I’ll dive in.

Twitter and Facebook won’t be around forever. Something new will come along. Services like Pinterest are already starting to make some noise. Based on the research you have done, what trends should we expect in the coming months in regards to what’s next in social media?

Honestly, I think Twitter and Facebook have more staying power than you think. What I see coming is the consolidation of what’s out there. Facebook bought Instagram. Someone will probably buy Pinterest. We’re in an era of consolidation in social media right now. The Microsoft/Apple/Oracle/SAP giants of tomorrow are being formed. That’s good in that we don’t have to worry as much that Facebook, for instance, will go away, but also bad in that there will be less options and more homogeneity in the networks we do have.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Jason. I know you are a busy guy. In all of the interviews I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.

Last word? If I were to have one it would be to remember that there’s a dozen ways to skin a cat, so to speak. There are no rights and wrongs, no matter how ethical you are or want to be, in marketing. (Barring regulations and laws that dictate there is a right and wrong, of course.) Traditional still works, especially to drive a message to a lot of people fast. Social has its strengths, too. Finding the right blend for you and your company is what I focus on. Regardless of the way other people are approaching social media, I like my chances there.

Jason Falls on Twitter

Jason Falls on Facebook