Neal Schaffer is a recognized leader in helping businesses Maximize Your Social as a global keynote speaker, university educator, social media agency owner, author, and social media marketing strategy consultant. From Fortune 50 enterprises to Grammy Award-Winning musicians, Neal has helped leading brands reach their next level in social media marketing.
As a top business influencer, Neal provides a wealth of knowledge in this Spotlight. Check out our interview video and accompanying transcript so you can learn how to maximize your social!
In addition to being recognized as a Forbes Top 50 Social Media Power Influencer and a Forbes Top 5 Social Sales Influencer, you’re also an educator, speaker and author. When did you begin to focus your career on social media as a monetization strategy?
You know, it’s funny… Social media is sort of an industry that found me. So my background is B2B sales, marketing, bizdev in high-tech… In Asia, no less. I speak Japanese and Mandarin Chinese and do business in these languages. I came back to the U.S. after living in Asia – living in Japan, actually, for about fifteen years. It was really in 2008 when for the first time in my life, I was looking for a job in the United States because after I graduated from college, I went straight out to Asia. At that time I realized that I needed to build a network and I utilized something called LinkedIn.
A lot of us joined back in 2004… 2005, you know. I was one of those people. I never really used it but I realized that I needed something to help me expand relationships in the industries I worked in Asia to here in the United States. I really started leveraging it as a tool because one day I realized that as I was doing searches on LinkedIn, I figured out the algorithm for the search which was at that time basically: those that have the most connections would show at the top of the search results. So, anything you wanted to appear in the search results for, the more connections you had, the better. This started the whole LinkedIn open networking lion movement, what have you and I realized, “Wow, LinkedIn is really this incredible tool that can really be leveraged once you have the right mindset.”
Very few people had that mindset at that time. So I began sharing my ideas with people. That led to beginning, after I found my job, it began to launch the blog in July of 2008, which launched into my own book in September of 2009. which led to speaking engagements. It was really January 2010 when I had four different companies here in Orange County, California from a variety of industries who reach out to me and say “Hey Neal, you know we need help with our social media. We don’t know what we don’t know. Can you help us?”. Then I realized at that time because I didn’t have an agency background I was more working at the enterprise level, but for business that what I felt the companies needed was not for me to do their social media for them. But really they needed a lot of education and they needed a strategy.
That’s when I launched my social media strategy consulting company in January 2010 and it’s funny cause at the same time I was interviewing for another job. I was offered a position but they said “Neal if you take this position you need to unplug from social media” and that was really the fork in the road for me. [laughs] That’s when I thought to myself… Well I could go back to the corporate world or there’s so much upside and so much potential. But what’s really interesting… I know it’s been a roundabout answer to your question but since January of 2010 really things have changed dramatically, as you can imagine. How social media matures as more and more companies use it. As we have gone from pure social media for PR to social media reputation management to social media marketing to social selling. We have gone from organic social to paid social.
Now we are making that same sort of leap from paid social to influencer marketing. So, all along I have kept to those two cornerstones of education and now some Universities have hired me to teach executives social media marketing and social selling as well as the strategy, which I still do for companies in a wide variety of perspectives. I still blog and haven’t podcasts in awhile, I try to do that. Writing my fourth book right now on influencer marketing so yeah. The monetization… Every year the balance shifts. You got speaking, consulting, I’d say starting last year I can consider influencer marketing a new revenue stream. That has been really really interesting to see and grow.
I think anybody that has that tries to monetize their [intellectual property] through social media, they often find they need to pivot and find different ways of monetizing but I think as long as you stay true to your mission and are always educating and giving value, you’re always going to build a large community for the community, it’s always going to convert and you’re always going to have brands that are interested in working with you because you developed that act of community.
I noticed on your website you mention 15 types of influencer marketing campaigns that will be outlined in your upcoming book. How did you come up with 15 different types?
It may go up to sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen [laughs]. First of all I think marketers have been.. they have not learned influencer marketing right. I see influencer marketing as a huge mainstream thing that any business should be doing…
[Intellifluence CEO Joe Sinkwitz interjects: We agree!]
Right? [laughs] I reached out to a local Kombucha brewery, right. My wife started drinking kombucha and I’m always interested in things that benefit my health and it’s like you know what, maybe instead of that fourth cup of coffee in the afternoon, maybe I should switch to kombucha and see what difference it makes….
So I immediately reached out, I found a local brewery here in Orange County. They don’t see me doing much on social media and Instagram. They’re sort of a craft kombucha house and I’m like “Hey, maybe we can work together? I’m not looking for any money I just.. really want to try a product and I rather go to a local business and is there any way we can work together? You know, I’m more than happy to try out your kombucha, share my experience with my followers, what have you…”
To them that was very very new. If I was a local business now, I would immediately start by reaching out to those that have influenced my community. Whether it is consumer facing or B2B, it really doesn’t matter. So a lot of the book I’m realizing that I believe people have not taught influencer marketing correctly and I am gonna try to do a reset on that. Another thing is that I want to give businesses a lot of ideas because a lot of marketing is really thinking out of the box/thinking creatively. You can’t just do what everyone else has done and expect the same results.
So part of it is there is a lot of different ways of leveraging influencers for a lot of different things. Let’s go back in history. Affiliate marketing, it is absolutely a type of influencer marketing. It’s based on a different business model but the fact of the matter is you’re working with affiliates because they have influencing community, they traffic whatever it is. The art of curating content is the number one way in which every business should be leveraging influencer marketing. Beginning with curating the content of influencers. It a very popular tactic that’s been used. I don’t think people realize it can be used strategically as part of an influencer marketing program. So when I started going through things I realized that one third of what I would consider influencer marketing campaigns are sort of this old school traditional product giveaway, affiliate marketing, what have you…
I’d say another third, what we see a lot in B2B (and I think B2B influencer marketing really started to emerge early Q1 2017), I’ve seen a lot of that. It might be more event based. It’s definitely more content based, right. Then we have these newer types of influencer marketing: the influencer shout-out, the account takeover type of campaign as well. Neatly, as I started analyzing these I realized they pretty much fit into three different buckets. They’re traditional, they’re sort of content-centric, really for B2B but could be used for anybody and then these new types of going so far as saying product collaboration.
If you were to go to the biggest Chinese e-commerce platform and analyze the top fashion brands, you’d find that five of those top ten fashion brands were started by influencers. These days it’s so easy to create, outsource and drop ship product. Any influencer and I think that’s when they want to monetize that’s really the ideal end goal is to have your own product. Well why don’t brands strategically reach out and co-create products? [I’m] waiting for it. We’re gonna see more of that. We are already seeing it happening in China. This is another type of campaign, so it’s really opening the eyes and hopefully some light bulbs go on with a lot of marketers. Really think creatively because if you’re engaging with this huge community of hundreds of millions of social media users there’s so many things you can do. I want to help open people’s eyes and have this be the book that says “WOW! Influencer marketing/influencer relations has to be an integral part of how we do business, or how we market.” I think we are gonna get there. I think some consumer facing brands, especially startups that don’t have the legacy of traditional marketing get there a lot faster but I think everyone is going to get there over the next five to ten years…
So, when is your new influencer marketing book coming out?
Yeah… My apologies. [laughs] I went through a period where I get a lot of speaking in April, May, and even the first half of June. Whenever I speak influencer marketing is also a topic, so it helps me sort of confer my thoughts as well as add new ideas as I get new questions. I’d say I spent a little bit of time sort of brewing the contents. I have been since… I’d say May first in really aggressive content creation mode because I’ve been late. I originally wanted to finish June thirtieth, finish the manuscript.
Right now I’m looking at July thirty first, but I’m going to be sending out an announcement very soon. I’m at about the forty fifth percent mark or writing the book and I’m gonna be over that fifty percent mark in the next week. I’ve really changed the table of contents. The outline that I have has been significantly revised and changed. I think it’s only come for the better. Now I’m really in the mode to try and finish. Like I said more than half way through, going through all the case studies of different companies.
Then it comes to…Well do I self publish or do work with a publisher? If I work with a publisher it’s going to take a little bit longer. So if I work with a published I’d like to aggressively try to get it out by the end of the year. If I self publish, obviously I’m going go more aggressively. Regardless of what I do there I want to start to unveil more and more of these contents slowly over my blog as I get closer to actual publication. I’m really hoping to get it out this year. It’s been my challenge. I sort of started that pre-sale a little bit early because I wanted to market and validate the idea, which I was able to do. I thank those thank those that have waited that long. It is coming. It is being written and you’ll get an update very very soon.
As someone who has undoubtedly received many influencer review requests from brands, what has been the strangest one you’ve ever received?
I talk about this and it’s even gonna be about it in my book and I don’t want to even mention the name at this point. It was car rental company. So, maybe because I post a lot of photos…I do a lot of travel for business. I do a lot of business travel, hashtag posting on Instagram. Maybe that’s why…I don’t know. But a car rental company, well I should say an agency represented a car rental company reached out to me [and said] “hey so and so car rental company really likes your work. We’d like to send you a little something.”
I’ve never used that car rental company before. I’m like , you know whatever, here’s my business address. Feel free to send me whatever it’s going to be. I got some, I guess you could call it swag, but it really wasn’t relevant. I didn’t really find it useful. If you were to go on to Instagram recently, I keep seeing this ad for this… In fact I ended up buying one, let me show you. I didn’t buy it on Instagram cause I realized there’s a lot of arbitrage going on at Instagram ads. They were selling this for thirty dollars. [shows device]. Then I went on Amazon and found it for like twenty. But it’s one of these, international power adapters but what’s cool is that it has four USBs and it even has a separate one for Australia. Now if they’d sent me something like this that had the car rental branded on it, I’d be using it all the time.
Part of it is trying to understand what makes…what would make me tick? If they had reached out and say “Hey we would love to send you some swag. We have this, this and this, what would you like?” But it wasn’t just the fact that they sent me irrelevant things that I couldn’t even give my kids, cause they weren’t cool enough. It was a letter from the agency on behalf of the car rental company and it was copy and pasted. It was literally a copied piece of paper that they just wrote in my name and a signature in sharpie. It was very clear that they’d just sent the same thing to tens, hundreds, thousands of people.
I’ve had another company because part of my personal brand is having…I’m always dressed in like a black suit with a blue shirt. So I had like a custom suit company reach out to me [that said] “Hey, you’re such a fashion influencer, we’d like to give you a free dress shirt.” I don’t really post about fashion at all. So while I appreciate you want to give me something for free, it’s not really gonna benefit your company. I call it the Hail Mary approach to product giveaway, is one of these fifteen types of campaigns. It is just blindly reaching out to people in a mass mailing of whatever it is, a swag offer, not really knowing who they are or what makes them tick. That just ends up spending a lot of money.
Maybe an agency somewhere is saying “hey we were able to engage with X number of influencers.” This is a success story and out of one hundred influencers maybe ten posted the swag with a hashtag and that’s the success story. I don’t think that’s very successful, I think that’s a waste. I think it’s really, before you do that about really understanding these people and even beginning relationships beforehand and understanding what makes them tick.
Some people get married, very few people get married after a one night stand. Most people get married after a year, some take six years, some take six months. You’ve got to get to know someone if you want to have an effective relationship. I think that really sums up influencer marketing in a nut shell. Even if you’re to use a platform, like Intellifluence, and you want to reach out to people, it’s still a matter of – there’s gonna be back and forth. Getting to know them, them getting to know you. No one is going to accept terms and conditions right away. Well some might but I think very few will.
You think that these people might be appropriate based on searches and platforms, but are they appropriate or not? I think you need to take another deep delve into how they engage with you, how quickly they respond, what’s the quality of their work, what have you. [Services such as] Intellifluence allows brands a very very easy way to get access to influencers, easily message them, [and] easily pitch them.
I think the real work happens after that. That’s the science and the art. The platform is the science. Art is gonna be that one and one and figuring out the best win-win situation.
Do you have any advice for influencers who are just getting started or are struggling to grow their audience or engagement? Are there any resources you recommend (don’t be shy, it can be your book!)
It’s funny because one of the chapters in my [upcoming] book is How to Become an Influencer. In fact, another chapter was going to be Why Every Business Should Become More Influential in Their Industry because the more influential you are, the more that other businesses and influencer want to work with you. That “how to become an influencer?” is a popular question, as you can imagine… I’m starting a mastermind for those who purchased a few copies of my book. I think that part of becoming an influencer is really having a niche. When I look around on Instagram… I look at what people are posting. [I ask] why do people have more followers or less followers? Even other peers that are social media marketers… I think that people on Instagram, for the most part, are still posting neglectingly. They’re not posting strategically.
If you are a foodie and a food blogger, you’ll want to be posting about what you ate at a restaurant. If you are not, once in a while, sure, but for the most part, that really doesn’t help you. Think of Instagram as if it were your blog. If you were going to blog, it would be about a subject. It’s bringing people into your marketing funnel. It’s bringing a community of prospective buyers and going from there. That’s really the start – to reset and really think about what you’re posting online. Does it meet your strategic objective? If you’re just talking to your friends, it’s one thing. If you want to become an influencer, you need to be able to build a community and you need to attract brands.
Think about it from the brand’s perspective… Is this person aligned with our brand or not? I always say, “think niche” and think about the brands you would like to work with in an ideal world. Do you want to work with the Ritz Carlton hotels? Do you want to work with Tiffany’s? McDonalds? Target? I don’t know, right? If you can answer that question (and maybe it’s a few different types of brands – that’s fine), you begin to think about what sort of content would attract them and what sort of content would help me build a community with other people with similar interests and affiliations. I think that strategic part and actually aligning your content with that strategy – I think in all honestly, that’s half the work.
If you’re not doing that and you just want to grow your community, it’s going to be an irrelevant community… When you start posting on behalf of brands, you’re not going to get the engagement that the brands are looking for… That’s really step number one.
[These days] I’m really talking Instagram-centric, because I think that really is where the action is today – if you have 1,000 friends on Facebook and 1,000 followers on Instagram and post the same photo, you just see way more engagement on Instagram for a number of reasons. It’s why all the brands are focusing on Instagram for influencer marketing… If you’re a blogger in B2B industries, obviously it’s going to be very very different and there is a different strategy but vis-à-vis Instagram, you really need to be thinking that for those who are in social media and have been for a while…
Think Twitter. On Twitter, you’re one person in a room of hundreds of millions of other people, but you have the ability to send social signals for free, you can follow people, you can comment, you can retweet. And Instagram is very similar… So if you’re sitting there and waiting for things to happen, they don’t happen – until you go out and engage with other people. You actually like other people’s photos. You comment on other people’s photos. You engage with other people. You follow other people. You send messages, whatever it is. I’m not saying send spammy messages but you really try to create one-on-one relationships. If you are to do this one a regular basis, and monitor that, I guarantee you that you’re going to be able to create a larger community over time. Instagram, I do believe, (and this is the really interesting thing when I analyze how people get influential on Instagram)…
There are still a lot of question marks in my mind because with Twitter, you often see other people retweeting tweets, with LinkedIn you see a lot of people when they comment or share something (you see it in your feed), with Instagram, you only see people who you follow on your feed, unless it’s an ad. So, the whole concept of how do you get viral spread of your name and how do you build large community… I really wonder how a lot of these influencers built their large communities [laughs], I’m not going to call out every influencer out there but it does put that into question. So if you’re feeling frustrated, I do believe that Instagram is one of the hardest platforms to really build a large community on. It takes a lot of hard work and time but I think if you have that niche and you’re regularly engaged (you set time out regularly every day to engage with people), I think you’re going to be really successful over time.
Where do you see influencer marketing in five years? How will brands be interacting with someone like you?
I think as it becomes harder and harder for brands to cut through the noise (we have to remember that Instagram is owned by Facebook), it’s going to be harder and harder for brands to post on Instagram. It’s also the reason I have yet to switch my personal profile to a brand profile. Every data point shows me that once I change to a brand profile, my EdgeRank is going to get screwed…
I call Influencers the “media” in digital media. You think of all these companies that had media relations departments to reach out to journalists, analysts, what have you… I think that influence has become part of it over time. It becomes an integral part of doing business. I think that those who are really influential and really have a deep relationship in the community, they also have a lot of knowledge of what makes people want to buy things. They probably have a lot of product ideas. I think there’s going to be a lot more collaborations. There’s going to be a lot more importance placed on influencers, I think that there’s going to be a lot more transparency that’s going to come to influencer marketing as well.
With Facebook, if you’re working together with branded content, you’ll be able to boost and see the results of content posting… I think every social network at one point or another is going to have that. I think that brands are going to demand that influencers make sure that they note that when they work together with a brand that it’s sponsored, whether it’s with hashtag ad, what have you… I think there’s going to be a lot more enforcement coming in the next five years.
I think it’s all good, I think there’s going to be a lot more transparency… I see a whole generation of Millennials that want to become influencers, that love talking about the brands that they love, so I think we’re going to see a greater and greater number of people that are regularly talking about brands and I just see influencer marketing, with micro-influencers and nano-influencers, becoming more mainstream over time. In the old days [it was] send this in and you’ll get the free CD of the month. I see those mass market programs almost being for social media users because just one post a week… One post a month has intrinsic financial value for companies. I think if they work large scale, there’s tremendous benefit.
Social media is made for people, not for business. I think we’re coming back to that. I think it’s an awesome thing… And there will be other social networks that will emerge. We’ll see if WeChat goes for the American market. We’ll see what happens with Snapchat – they’re trying to make the content more discoverable. LinkedIn is trying to be everything and everyone… Facebook is sort of losing steam but it’s still the gorilla worldwide… Twitter’s still there… We’ll see if they get bought out or not. The names and networks might change but that core functionality is really not going to change. You might have more interactive types of content, there might be a VR social network or an AR social network that emerges, I don’t know. I still see the current social networks going strong for the next few years . So yeah, it’s all just going to become more popular, more mass market. I think that when people post on Instagram and they start talking about brands, they realize that the word-of-mouth has value to brands. I think it’s going to be a changing mindset on how people use social, beginning with Millennials and Gen Y. I think it’s going to become more mainstream as time goes by. I think it’s going to be a great world where anybody can compete with anybody. Anybody can build relationships with anybody and those that get it and do that are going to be successful.
Note: Intellifluence Influencer Spotlight interviews are edited for clarity and time.