With organic reach shrinking across the board, content marketers are scrambling for answers. See what media company Social Media Examiner has done to overcome the lack of reach and what you can learn from the steps they took.

Michael Stelzer is a social media expert, and a leading authority on the topics of writing and marketing white papers. He knows the secrets to helping businesses navigate the various social channels available today with strategies and tactics that translate to success.

Rich: So I’m about to do the introduction for our next guest, but there’s part of me that says that he doesn’t really need an introduction, because probably if you’re listening to this podcast you’ve listened to his podcast. My guest today is Michael Stelzner and he is the host of Social Media Marketing Podcast, he’s the founder of Social Media Examiner – a small little social media blog you may have heard of – as well as this event called Social Media Marketing World, which is the most ginormous social media conference that I’ve ever been to and probably the most well put on event that I’ve ever attended. He’s also a personal friend and a mentor to me. So I would love to bring back to the show, Michael Stelzner. Mike, welcome back.

Michael: Thank you, Rich. I remember when you first started this podcast way back when.

Rich: Yes, you were instrumental in that. I remember that you sent somebody to the first Agents of Change Conference who came right up to me and said, “Mike passed along a message, now that your conference is over, it’s time to get started in that podcast of yours.” So you’ve got spies everywhere.

Michael: I listen every week, just so you know.

Rich: I have to say to the audience, everybody who comes on my show says, “Oh I love your podcast, I listen to it all the time. “ But Mike will actually send me notes occasionally. Not all the time but he’ll say, “I really like this guest”, or “I’m hearing something that I think you might want to ask these kind of questions”. So Mike continues to give me advice and I continue to grow because of it, and I really appreciate all the advice you give me over the years, Mike.

Michael: My pleasure.

Rich: Alright, that’s it for this interview. No, we’re going to get to the questions. So anyways, we talked about a few things that we might want to talk about today, and what I really found the most interesting is this whole idea of declining organic reach. Now for people who are listening to the podcast that might not be familiar with that term, Mike, how would you define that?

Michael: Well I think first of all, let’s put it in the context of Facebook. Anybody who is a marketer or who has a blog and has been posting on their Facebook page and not paying for those posts, anyone who’s been tracking that has seen over the last many months, there’s been a really radical decline in lots of metrics that people care about.

For example, reach metric has gone down. The number of people that are clicking through has gone down. So when I say there’s a declining organic reach, organic is kind of a phrase that we use in the marketing world to mean, “non paid activity”. And in this particular case, I’m talking about the non paid activity that we as publishers or as marketers do. That is on a rapid decline.

Rich: Alright, and definitely something that we should be worried about. Because when you and I started doing social media, it was really easy to get visibility and that’s just not the case anymore, correct?

Michael: Absolutely. And by the way, Rich, a little factoid here – I don’t know if you heard this or not – but Facebook disclosed in their last earnings call that by mid 2017 they are going to run out of advertising real estate.

Now, if you were actually a real estate agent and you sold in a city that was going to run out of places where you could build homes and everybody wanted to live in that city, what’s going to happen to those homes? They’re going to get really costly, aren’t they?

Rich: Absolutely.

Michael: So there is no more real estate for Facebook ads, and if there is not any more real estate for Facebook ads, what that really means is that Facebook has determined that there is only so many ads that they can serve into their feed. And that the Facebook experience, they’ve declared, is really all about friends and family. So what does that mean? It means that the everyday person who uses Facebook doesn’t want to see stuff for business, they want to see stuff about their friends and family. Therefore, the only way – or one of the main ways – that our content is going to be seen is if they share that content with their friends and family. Therefore, the organic “posts” are going to be less and less seen. And even the paid posts are going to be less seen because you now are going to be paying an increasing cost to get access to a limited inventory. And really, Facebook’s artificial intelligence algorithm stuff is deciding what to show, and that’s a pretty scary proposition and it’s coming very soon for the world of marketers.

Rich: Alright, because I think we grew up believing that Facebook might be free forever. Now I think Facebook’s organic reach is where content creators feel the most – obviously the example that you just gave us – but are there other platforms that are being affected or are their platforms that you feel are going to be adopting change in their own algorithms soon, so all of a sudden the Facebook effect is going to have a chilling effect on other social media platforms too?

Michael: Yeah. I mean, I’m here to tell you that every major social platform has an algorithm. The only one I’m not sure about is LinkedIn. Twitter has an algorithm, Pinterest has an algorithm, Instagram has an algorithm, and of course Facebook does. So the challenge with all these algorithms is that, the reason they have algorithms is because they’ve got so many users vying for just a limited amount of real estate in the feed. So LinkedIn is the only one I’m not sure about, I don’t know, have you heard of such a thing, Rich?

Rich: I haven’t heard of it, but you know I go and check LinkedIn maybe every other day, and I definitely see certain types of posts rising to the top. So I feel like there’s some sort of algorithm. It’s usually one of those ones that would have done well on Facebook anyways, and it says like, “Michael Stelzner commented or liked this particular post”, so I do feel that there’s something algorithmically going on behind the scenes. But I haven’t heard anybody really discussing it.

Michael: Yeah, and for any of us that have been around for a while, and Rich, you and I have plenty of gray hair, we’ve been doing this for a while.

Rich: The hair I’m holding onto is all gray, that’s all true.

Michael: You know, it used to be pretty easy. A couple years back you put a post up there and all of your fans and followers saw it and it as like “gravy town”, I don’t know how else to say it. It was like gold rush time. But I think now that the whole world is there, those days are over with.

Rich: Alright, so obviously you’re in charge of Social Media Examiner – possibly the world’s biggest blog – the most well known blog when it comes to social media marketing, so as a media company, what have you done personally to change your strategies in face of this decline of organic reach?

Michael: I’m going to go through five different things that we do that I think anybody can and should do. First and foremost we track everything so that we actually know these declines are happening. Because it’s one thing to wait for a big publication like Ad Age to reference some sort of study that was done to show that Facebook declined 36% in the last x number of months, but another thing to actually know that it’s affecting you and that not every Facebook page is equal.

So the way that we track things is we use UTM parameters. Are you or your audience familiar with what that means?

Rich: Well we use it all the time here at flyte, but why don’t you go ahead and explain that.

Michael: So Google Analytics allows you to basically add to the end of a URL some code, which everybody has probably seen. It’s like “medium = on” and words like that. And we wrote a really good article on Social Media Examiner – and I’m sure you’ve probably done a podcast or two on this yourself – on how to actually use UTM parameters. But the moral of the story is at Social Media Examiner, we set up source, campaign, and medium parameters that allow us to track – for example – Facebook, Facebook page, and then new or evergreen.

So the idea is that we append these little parameters to the end of anything that we post on the social platforms. And then what this allows us to do is to go into Google Analytics and look at a time period and say let’s look at all the traffic that we sent to Social Media Examiner. Because we know it’s from us because it’s tagged properly, and it’s not just random traffic that came from viral posting of the post Because we used to make the mistake of that all the Facebook traffic that came to our site was ours, and it was not. Sometimes it’s just social shares happening from the posts.

So we began tracking this stuff quite some time ago, and then what we do is month over month comparison, and then we do month over year comparison. So we’ll compare October of 2016 up against October of 2015, just to kind of see whether or not things are improving or they’re getting worse.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense.

Michael: First we’ve got to know what our efforts are delivering. The second thing is we start experimenting with different kinds of parameters, if you will, For example, frequency. So we might try posting instead of three times a day, six times a day for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll compare how effective that was up against when we posted last. We know that these algorithms are constantly changing, just like Google search has an algorithm that’s constantly changing, so we also experiment with different types of content.

So we might upload a picture and then put a link, versus putting the link in and then pull in the open graph data. So we do tons of experiments every month, and then we compare whether or not things are getting better or things are getting worse.

Rich: Now so far Mike, at least on #2 – the experiment with different parameters – that sounds like a very Facebook oriented thing, but are you doing that on other platforms as well or os Facebook just the most obvious place to check these things out?

Michael: First and foremost is if you’re tracking, that you’re getting declines. Wherever you’re getting declines is where you start experimenting. So we’re doing it on Twitter as well.

Rich: Ok.

Michael: So for example, with Twitter and Facebook you can do square images, you can do a 16×9 style image, so we try all that stuff. We even experiment with video, so for example we’ll create a video where Erik Fisher – our head of social – might be talking about a little piece of one of our articles, and then he’ll have a little link to the article. And we’ll see whether or not that drives more traffic to our website than just a traditional link. And we even sometimes do a live video post.

So just lots of experimentation and what platform has different types of content that you can experiment with, and where you’re struggling to document that. We might run some of these experiments for a whole month and then shut it off and see whether or not if we shut it off it went back to where it was. And it is kind of a mad science, to be honest with you. So you think you’ve got it figured out and all of a sudden what used to work doesn’t seem to work anymore.

So step one is tracking the UTM, step two is experimenting, and then the third thing that Social Media Examiner did was we came up wit a stopping list, Rich. So we literally decided to stop some stuff in the last week. For example, we stopped posting evergreen content on Twitter. Do you know what I mean when I say “evergreen content”?

Rich: Yeah, basically content that doesn’t really go out of fashion, doesn’t go out of style. So something on leadership is going to be good for a thousand years perhaps, compared to something about the latest Facebook algorithm, which is going to die on the vine pretty quickly.

Michael: Yeah, so the old adage was to use tools and to repost over and over and over again your content on Twitter. And that has been a way to drive a lot of traffic to your site, which is basically put it into a queue and just let it work forever for you.

Rich: Exactly.

Michael: Now that Twitter has an algorithm, we are beginning to see that that is not serving our business objectives anymore. And in our case, we’re tracking conversions – which I should have mentioned earlier – so email conversions. So we want our goal is not to just drive traffic to our website but it’s to track how many of them are ultimately performing the action we care about. So in our case, that’s joining our e-newsletter.

We did an analysis and we found that for the entire first nine months of 2016, we got about 500 people opting into our newsletter, and as a result of our evergreen campaign. Now you have to understand, we have 525,000 people on our email newsletter, and we add 25,000 people a month to our newsletter, and all this work that we’ve been working on for 9 months only resulted in 500 email subscribers. And one person on my team spends 2 hours a week prepping that evergreen content. So we made the decision we’re just not going to do that anymore, and that is a decision that’s actually currently in process and we’re going to track to see whether or not it makes a difference. It’s one thing to drive traffic, but it’s another thing to get smarter and acknowledge that not all traffic is valuable.

Rich: Absolutely. And I was going to say, it doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but when you think about 2 hours a week for a paid employee, that really starts to add up quickly.

Michael: Yeah. I mean the way I look at it is we now have 100 hours a year that this person can now put into future activities that maybe we’re not doing because we never had the time to do.

Rich: Or better use of Facebook ads or even Twitter ads at that point.

Michael: Exactly. So we stopped doing evergreen on Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest across the board. The only one we’re still keeping evergreen on is Facebook currently. So that’s one way we’re dealing with the algorithms is we’re beginning to see that the algorithms are not rewarding repeat content, which is problematic for a lot of us marketers.

The fourth thing that we’re doing is we are putting a major focus on email growth. The way I think about this is if the social networks are not going to be delivering organically as much traffic to us, if we can make tiny incremental changes to the opt in rates on our website. For example, going from 1% to 2%, we can potentially double the number of email subscribers. So over the last 90 days we have been messing around with conversion rate optimization and techniques, and we have radically improved our email opt ins. As a matter of fact, like I mentioned we have 25,000 email subscribers in the last 30 days, compared to 10,000 in the last year just by tweaking the way we do what we do and improving those opt in forms.

Rich: And this is an ongoing theme on the Agents of Change Podcast that people come in as Facebook experts and Pinterest experts and Twitter experts and SEO experts, but almost to a person every single one of them comes back to the importance of building that list and not relying on any other platform – rather than just getting people on any list – where you can have that one on one conversation with them.

Michael: Yeah. And the scary flip side of the list is there’s also algorithms at Google, Gmail, and there’s also algorithms that are at Yahoo and the other major social networks. So it seems like we’re getting squeezed from every angle, but not only are we trying to figure out how to better grow our email list, but we’re trying to be smarter about making sure that the content that we deliver via email is received by the recipient. Because if Gmail decides that there’s something in that email that it does not like, then it will automatically put that into either the “promotions” tab or worse yet in the “spam” folder, or in some cases never deliver it at all.

But this is the reality of the world of marketing today. And online marketing is that we need to be smarter about all the actions and activities that we do, because there are systems that are watching everything that we send and everything that we post, and if we can get smart about what we post and what we send we can increase the likelihood that it will be received by the intended recipients.

Rich: Makes a lot of sense.

Michael: The last thing we’re doing is community development. So we’re going back to the olden days, Rich. I don’t know if you remember but in the early days of social, everybody was called “community managers”. Do you remember that?

Rich: Oh yeah.

Michael: That was the job, and the job of the community manager was to do what? You tell me what you think the job of the community manager was.

Rich: I think to keep the conversation going to engage people and make everybody feel welcome and that they’re contributing to the group.

Michael: And I think we lost that. I think that the world of social media marketing has lost the community component, and I think we’ve gotten too focused on basically selling and promoting and we’ve forgotten perhaps one of the most important metrics, which is to make sure that there’s a place where everybody – kind of like that Cheers song – where everybody knows your name. And we are revisiting a lot of our community development efforts and creatively coming up with ideas – literally right now – on how we can up our community development game because we’ve been so focused on the metrics – which are just numbers – and we’ve forgotten that in the end this is not about metrics this is about people.

We have more than a million a month that come to Social Media Examiner, but we only need a few thousand of them to become customers and to come to our conference for us to be very successful. So we are kind of refocusing, if you will, on making sure those people that want  interaction are getting that in the way that we have not been doing.

Rich: It’s so funny that you say that because I just know that as a person – as a human being on this planet – that I have gone that same route as well. At the beginning I remember being on Twitter when I first got on, and there were like 30 people in the State of Maine who were on Twitter, so I got to know them all. And then everything starts to grow and explode and suddenly you’re talking marketing automation – which is still important – and looking at all the metrics. And then all of a sudden recently, and I remember making a distinct decision when I went to your Social Media Marketing World last year, that I wasn’t going to try and meet 1,000 people. I wasn’t even going to try and meet 100 people. I was going to try and have good conversations with about 10-12 people, and that any networking event – whether it was on the ship or wherever – I was just going to have 2-3 real conversations and I would never bring more than 5 business cards at a time with me. And I got much more out of that, even though I met fewer people, than I did trying to pass my card out to every single person on the ship.

Michael: I think it’s kind of a “back to basics”. I think that we’ve been blinded by what appears to be successful. And I might be getting ahead of myself here, but I think that as marketers we need to really step back and say what really matters. And it used to be what matters was ultimately developing really strong relationships that could lead to something. And now what matters seems to be how many fans or followers do I have or how big is my email list, or how much revenue can I squeeze out of the turnip. And I think it’s time to rethink a lot of that.

Rich: I would agree. And the only thing I’d add on to that is just the fact that each one of our businesses are different. I worked with an architecture firm that only needed 4 clients a year to be incredibly successful. Most of us couldn’t survive on that, so I think each individual listening to the show right now has to take into consideration how many customers do they need to be successful and what kind of relationships do they need to turn those prospects into customers, and make that part of the decision making mix in terms of how big you want to grow your list or how many people you want to connect with on Facebook or LinkedIn or anything else.

Michael: I totally agree. And if you really think about it, the chances are pretty good you don’t need as many as you think you need. I need about 6,000, which is probably bigger than most businesses.

Rich: Although vanity metrics do play a part. I mean, the bottom line that you have half a million email subscribers on your list is going to draw a certain amount of attention to every single thing you do. It’s going to get your book published, it’s going to get you on TV or whatever else you may want to accomplish.

Michael: While that’s true, I don’t have to disclose that information to still be successful.

Rich: Absolutely, you’re 100% right.

Michael: And if I needed 6,000 customers, I could still do it with 10-20 thousand email subscribers depending on how I did it.

Rich: So we talked about these five things, just to bring it back to the original conversation. We talked about tracking everything, experimenting with different parameters, you’ve got the stopping list where you determine something is not working anymore, focusing on the email growth, and also focusing on community development, which I think are all incredibly strong ways to kind of deal with declining organic reach.

One thing you didn’t really mention in specifics is advertising. And obviously as people shift away from a focus on organic, it seems like most of what I’m seeing in digital marketing these days is focusing on digital advertising. How has Social Media Examiner changed your focus on digital ads in the past few years and going forward?

Michael: First of all, we used to promote Social Media Marketing World organically and with paid. And we began to realize that every time we posted it organically it hurt all the other content that we published at the media company, so we made the decision not to post any organic anything about our conference, it’s all paid now.

Rich: Wow.

Michael: Maybe one thing a week at most. So what we did is we just decided that the social networks have made it really clear, if you’re selling something we want your money. Otherwise they’re just not going to show it, right?

Rich: Exactly.

Michael: So we’ve just decided we’re putting money behind all of our updates on social media when it comes to selling. And that has worked for us. We don’t get the lion’s share of our revenue from social, so if I can explain the way it works. Social is a way people discover Social Media Examiner, and then they get on the email list and they get fed multiple times a week for us, and through the email they learn about the products and services that we have to sell. Or while they’re on the website they’ll see the ads for what we’re selling but they won’t see any ads for anything else because we only sell our own stuff.

So the whole purpose of social up to this point has really been traffic driving to free content, with the hope that a portion of those people will even see the ad or opt into the email newsletter, and then receive more and more value from us over time. So the lion’s share of our revenue comes from the website and the email, the social stuff is only a little part of it and always has been.

Rich: Interesting. And it’s interesting to hear that obviously from an organization called Social Media Examiner. So what else besides “pay to play” makes sense for businesses and media companies today? Facebook Live, are there new platforms that you guys are playing around with – obviously you’ve got a live event – how does that all fit in to kind of defeat this declining organic reach?

Michael: Well, there’s a couple things that I just want to…first of all I think we all need to be – like I mentioned early – we all need to be okay with the smaller number of whatever that number is. We’re going to see declines in traffic to our website and we need to be okay with that.

So first and foremost, reach the right audience not the bigger audience. So I think narrowing our focus to the audience that ultimately matters to us is important, and therefore that means a smaller audience, so that means whatever it means for your business. It might mean that you need to do more posts just for the audience that ultimately is your buying audience and stop doing the posts that just purely drive the most amount of traffic to your blog, but ultimately don’t convert. Search optimization is important now, right Rich?

Rich: I would argue that it’s always been important, but I’m just going to leave that alone for right now.

Michael: It’s more important, let me rephrase that. It’s more important now than ever because the way social media works is as a marketer we are interrupting people’s social interactions and trying to persuade them to act on something they had no intention to act on. You know this to be true, because you have a background in this.

Rich: Absolutely.

Michael: Search is intent, so there is an intent to ultimately discover information or to buy. So search optimization now, I think, is even more important and frankly I think we’re pivoting back where anybody who’s been around for a while is like, “Ok I’ve got to figure out this search optimization thing again”, because the declines in traffic from social can potentially be made up with search optimization. So I strongly recommend finding someone who can help you with this, it’s definitely not my expertise, we have someone helping us.

And then the last thing of course is email is also more essential than ever. I think it continues to remain the bright side of all this, as you mentioned earlier. Conversion rate optimization is really the most important thing. I cannot stress this enough that if you know you have 1,000 a month coming to your website and you have 100 of them converting, that is a 10% conversion rate, which is incredibly awesome. But if you can increase that by a couple of points, that could really add up over time. And when you have a much larger audience like 10,000, and you have 100 of them converting, that’s a 1% conversion rate. So if you can double that conversion rate to 2%, you could be growing like crazy.

So this is the thing that a lot of media companies and publishers are doubling down on, which is if we can either increase our traffic from search or increase our conversion rate from email optimization, either one of those is going to be a win for us. But if we can do both it can be a double win and the compounding effect can be massive.

Rich: Alright, I have one little follow up question to that. So you mentioned email marketing, obviously we’re both huge fans of email marketing. I recently saw some research – of course we also talk about reach – so email has on average a 22% open rate. SMS text messaging has a 98% open rate. Again, opt in only. Have you guys considered doing – or are you doing – any sort of SMS text messaging , or does that just not feel right for a media organization like yours?

Michael: Well, I’m going to throw SMS messaging and also browser alerts in there, because I think they both kind of are disruptive alerts when there’s new content. I try to always think like a reader, would I want a text message from Rich Brooks saying he’s got a new blog post. I don’t think so.

Rich: What!?

Michael: Or would I want my browser window to pop up on Chrome or whatever with an alert that says “Rich just published a new post”. I don’t think so either. I think the problem is that these are disruptive – even though you’ve given permission – I just don’t think that people want more text messages or more alerts, so I’m not a big fan of that. Now I might be willing to do that if there was a sale and your business is all about “we have special offers” and flash sales and if you put your phone number on here we’ll text you the next time we have a flash sale. I mean, something like that might interest me, but I’m not sure I want to receive content in my car while I’m driving and I get a text message. I’d be concerned, frankly, about possibly creating car accidents, Rich.

Rich: Absolutely.

Michael: Or waking people up. That might be worse than actually getting the message through, I don’t know, what’s your response?

Rich: Oh that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about the waking up. I would think that probably would cause accidents because unlike you I think that most people would be like, “Oh my God, there’s an article from Rich right now”, and they would try to read it while driving which would be a terrible waste of human life. So I don’t want that to happen, I’m not going to do it.

There’s a message therapy place in town and they send out emails every time they get a cancellation, and I’m like, if you texted me I would get every single one of them, because I love these people who do it. But I agree with you, I don’t think content is necessarily the right thing, but I do think in certain situations that I would want to be alerted for a sale or a cancellation if I was waiting for a haircut or a massage or something like that. That might be a place where it might make more sense for certain types of companies.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely.

Rich: So, this has been great, Mike. You’ve got a lot of places you mentioned – and we’ll have all of them in the show notes – but where would you like to direct people primarily online.

Michael: Well, if you listen to podcasts and you have room to add someone else – if you don’t, then ignore what I’m about to say – but if you do then add me, Social Media Marketing has a weekly podcast that I produce where I interview people, 45 minute show. And then Social Media Examiner is where you can go to find out about Social Media Marketing World and our live show we have every Friday morning – 8AM Pacific, 11AM Eastern – called The Morning Social Media Marketing Talk Show. On that show we literally break down the news that’s happened in the last week with social media and kind of bring on correspondents and give our take on that.

Rich: Awesome. And I will say that I’ve gone to every Social Media Marketing World so far, great event happening in San Diego. What are the dates on that, Mike?

Michael: March 22-24, and if you get your tickets before the next few weeks, you’re going to save quite a bit of money. The price ratchets up over time, and right now it’s significantly discounted, so check it out. I’m sure Rich will have some sort of link that he’ll provide.

Rich: Absolutely. And I will say that that is one of the few events where I still go and learn brand new stuff every single time when I go to it. So definitely something worth checking out, people do travel all over the world to go to Social Media Marketing World, so it’s definitely something that you should put on your agenda for this coming year.

Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

Michael: Thank you, Rich.

Rich: It’s always a pleasure my friend.

Show Notes:

Mike can be found all over the web. Be sure to check out his blog, podcast,  and talk show, and follow him on Twitter.

Mike’s world-renowned conference is one that Rich Brooks highly recommends, and attends himself. Grab your tickets now!

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design and marketing agency in Portland, ME. Did you miss his recent Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference? Prevent that from happening next year and get your tickets now!

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