Michael Stelzner on Capturing Emails and Committing to Quality

From nothing to Technorati’s #1 business blog in a little over four months. That’s quite a story. It’s Michael Stelzner’s. And on the latest episode of The Lede, he shares two of the most important ingredients in his online success — ingredients that too often get overlooked.

Capturing emails and committing to quality … Stelzner has been steadfast with both since launching Social Media Examiner, and the site’s sustained success is a testament to their importance.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Michael’s early commitment to email
  • The specific strategies he used (and you can, too) to attract 10,000 email signups in four months
  • The “hardest part” about email campaigns
  • How Michael and his team get the information that lets them plan their editorial calendar
  • The meticulous editing process each piece of content goes through
  • Tips you can implement today to improve your own content quality

We also discuss the upcoming Social Media Marketing World event Michael is hosting in San Diego, where Brian Clark is among the loaded list of presenters.

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The Show Notes

[episode_ad] [episode_transcript]

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede: Interview with Michael Stelzner

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing brought to you by Copyblogger Media. If you want to get a content marketing education in the morning while you’re getting ready for work, or at night while you’re cooking dinner, this podcast is the way to do it.

In this episode I am joined by Michael Stelzner, the founder of Social Media Examiner and host of the Social Media Marketing Podcast. He is also the host of the upcoming Social Media Marketing World event in San Diego, where our very own Brian Clark will be presenting. Have a listen as Michael and I discuss the crucial role that e-mail marketing played in Social Media Examiner going from launch to Technorati’s #1 small business blog in under five months. Plus, Michael describes his meticulous editorial process and delivers advice you can begin applying today to improve your content quality.

The importance of email marketing

Jerod:Michael, you launched Social Media Examiner in October of 2009, and just five months later you had achieved measurable successes like traffic in excess of 100,000 visitors per month and a #1 ranking on Technorati’s list of small business blogs. You also had 10,000 e-mail subscribers, a number that has grown to over 230,000 today. Now, obviously a site called Social Media Examiner has used social media to grow, but how important is capturing e-mail addresses along the way been in growing and nurturing your audience?

Michael Stelzner: Well, it’s been essential.

You know, from day one — and I’ve had conversations with Brian Clark from Copyblogger about this — from day one I knew from my other businesses that in the end, what was most important was going to be e-mail, not RSS. And I started blogging back in 2005-2006. Social Media Examiner started in 2009. So I’ve kind of learned my lesson a little bit that RSS, unfortunately, was something you didn’t have a lot of control over, but e-mail is something that you did.

And to your question of how important was it, it was absolutely essential. Because our marketing plan, always, from day one, was to create some of the best content that anyone could find focused around social media marketing. And that content would, naturally, be shared over social channels and draw people to our website, and I knew that a subsegment of those people would say, “I want more,” and they would simply fill out the little form.

The idea was to try to get these people to be daily fed at our trough, if you will. And we knew that if we had them on the e-mail list, we would be able to e-mail them every day that we had a piece of content. And in the beginning it started out three days a week, and eventually went to six days a week.

So every single day, 230,000 people plus are getting an e-mail from us. And that is just a way, from a marketing perspective, to be extremely top of mind with your prospects, and I think that’s really been the key to our success.

Jerod: And despite the proven success of e-mail marketing, it still seems like there are people who either don’t believe it, or are uncomfortable with it; maybe fear that they won’t do it right. What advice would you give to someone who’s attempting to build an audience online right now about incorporating e-mail marketing into their strategy?

Michael: Well first of all, you have to have great content in order to ever grow an e-mail list.

So fundamentally, if you don’t have great blog posts, for example, that people say, “Wow, that was awesome,” then you’re never going to get them to the point where they’re going to want to get on your list.

The second piece of advice is, make sure that getting on your list means getting more content … getting more free content, not “Please sign up for my list and you’ll get a free consultation,” right? Which kind of sends the message that you’re going to pitch me something.

So what we did, another thing that we did, we’ve always done, is we’ve had a video tutorial. In the beginning it was a free one-hour Twitter marketing video tutorial that we had as an incentive to get someone on the list. Today it’s a Facebook video tutorial. But the idea is great content, plus a nice little carrot, if you will, are very, very powerful ways to get somebody on the list.

So once you get someone on the list — and the hardest part, Jerod, is getting someone on the list — you don’t have to e-mail them every day. You don’t have to e-mail them, hardly, at all. The key is to get them on the list.

Jerod: So you don’t necessarily just want them on the list, where you’re just sending them links to your blog posts. You want to give them something extra, like you said. An incentive to actually sign up in the first place.

Michael: Absolutely. And there are a lot of e-mail marketing people that are a lot smarter than I am, but what we do at Social Media Examiner, at the bottom of every single article, we have something that’s, you know, psychologically when someone gets to the bottom of the article they have a choice. They can leave, they can leave a comment, or they can respond. And basically, we say “Get Social Media Examiner’s future articles in your inbox.” Then we say how many people are on the list, and then we say, “Get our free Facebook marketing video tutorial.”

So we’ve got that, literally, at a logical location at the end of the post. And yeah, I I think if we didn’t have that free little bonus in there, I know we wouldn’t have as many people on our e-mail list.

The importance of a meticulous editorial process

Jerod: Social media marketing, e-mail marketing … all of these different tools and ways of promoting content and building an audience, it’s all got to come back, and you mention this, to good content. You have to have quality content, and clearly the quality of your content has played a huge role in your site’s success, and it’s no accident.

One of the most important lessons I learned as soon as I joined the Copyblogger team is the importance of planning ahead and paying attention even to the most minute of details. Describe for us, and for the listeners if you would, your editorial process, which I know is similar.

Michael: Ah. Well, first of all, we survey, every year, thousands of our readers, and we ask them what they’re most interested in learning more about, and we ask them where they plan on investing their time in the future in various different categories, and we use that to plan out our editorial calendars. So we give them exactly what they want.

Secondly, we have a massive editorial team. There are at least seven editors that touch every single article. We politely refer to it as the “beautification process” here at Social Media Examiner. Because everyone who writes for us, for the most part, are volunteers. They are experts in the community that want to be in front of our audience, which I think is different from what you guys do over at Copyblogger, because I think you have mostly staff writing.

We have probably 20 to 50 people a month who want to write for us. So we actually have more people who want to write and be in front of our audience than we do actually available slots, because we only publish one article a day. So the end result of this is all these people have different levels of experience in writing. Some are spectacular, some are not; and in the end we have a very detailed, eight-page editorial guide that helps people, in very easy language, understand what our standards are.

Once they actually get to the point where we have accepted their article, then it goes through all these different editors. And they all serve different roles. Some people are basically working on the structure of the article to make sure there is a thread or a story line. Other people are actually working on the copy to make sure the language is perfect grammatically. Other people are fact checking. Other people are actually involved with creating the visuals and putting it into WordPress, writing headlines and intros. All of these different things.

The end result is something that’s very attractive. It takes an enormous amount of work, but our standard is extremely high, and because of that people share the heck out of our content, and our list grows. And it’s all kind of a nice perpetual circle.

Jerod: So what would you suggest for someone who is committed to improving the quality standards of their site, and maybe it’s just a single-person blog, or maybe they’re trying to accept guest posts, or trying to create an online magazine like you have. What would you suggest if they may not have the budget or the assembled team like you do, or like Copyblogger does, to where they can still implement some of these steps like you have?

Michael: Well first of all, make sure that you are accommodating the skim reader. This is the biggest mistake that most writers make: they have big, big paragraphs.

One of the things that we almost always do at Social Media Examiner is, we lead with a question. For example, I’m looking at one today that says “Three Ways to Boost Your Lead Generation with Social Media.” First question: Are you looking for new ways to generate leads with social media? Next paragraph. So the idea here is to actually create some short, one-sentence paragraphs to lure them in.

Secondly, we use lots of subheads. Lots of bullets. Lots of bolding of key points. Lots of graphics. And the end result is something that is a longer article physically, but is much easier to read.

And if you look at any one of Social Media Examiner’s articles you’ll see that they’re very long. They’re at least a thousand words, sometimes longer. But even if they’re not a thousand words, they’re just super easy to digest.

And you don’t need to be hiring an editor to be able to pull this kind of stuff off. Think about when you were in college, and when I was in college. What did you hate the most? Reading those books that had a paragraph that was three pages long, right?

Jerod: Oh, yeah.

Michael: There’s no way to get through it. And most people have time not on their side. So you’ve got to create content that really makes it easy for people to read, and this is just something anyone can do, just with a simple carriage return, and bolding, and subheads.

Jerod: Social Media Examiner is not the only web property that you have. Do you treat all of your sites, from a quality perspective, exactly the same way? Do you have the same checks in place before a piece of content goes out?

Michael: Yes. MyKidsAdventures.com is our parenting blog, and it’s exactly the same, except it’s more complicated because it’s a consumer blog. So in that case, we actually have graphic designers that are creating Pinterest-friendly images, and Facebook Open Graph images, and stuff like that.

In some regards, because they’re not marketing professionals, they’re just everyday people like you and me that have creative ideas to do with kids — we have to edit even more. So we actually have an extra layer of editorial on the My Kids Adventures property. But yeah. As far as the way we format things, it’s exactly the same. They almost always open with a question or two.

Another little tip is to create a little graphic, and I’m pretty sure you guys do it at Copyblogger. We do it on My Kids’ Adventures and Social Media Examiner. It’s a little graphic that sits at the right side of the page, right justified, and it’s a graphic that somehow implies what the theme of the article is.

So for example, if it’s an indoor article we’ve got a kid with a mixing bowl. If it’s an outdoor article in the city, we’ve got a kid hiding behind a deli sign. And we use these graphics kind of as visual indicators to our readers what the theme of the article is about. We do the exact same thing at Social Media Examiner.

The key thing here is, what it does is it takes the first column of text to the left of that graphic and makes it narrower, which forces the reader down the page quicker and into the article, and actually increases the likelihood that they will remain with the article, because it’s a very narrow, easy-to-read column. It makes that one-sentence paragraph look like it’s a little meatier.

Social Media Marketing World

Jerod: Yeah. Now, coming up March 26th through the 28th in sunny San Diego, is Social Media Marketing World, an event, as you describe it on your site, designed to provide highly valuable pitch-free content. Our own Brian Clark is among the Who’s Who list of presenters that you have who will be there. What else can you tell our listeners about that event?

Michael: Well, Brian and I are going to be on a panel about how to actually build a multi-author blog. We’ve got, gosh, pretty much like you said, the Who’s Who.

First of all, it’s in San Diego. So if you’re somewhere cold, this is somewhere warm. (laughs)

Jerod: Yeah. (chuckles)

Michael: Secondly, we have — and what I think differentiates this conference beyond the fact that it’s social media marketing, is the networking.

We’re having our opening night party on an aircraft carrier, so you literally walk onto an aircraft carrier, are handed networking bingo cards, and you have to try to find people that have — you know, maybe people from Canada, or people that are on Facebook, or whatever. And it forces you into this really great opportunity to get to network and meet people.

We have dedicated, what we call networking ambassadors, that we hire. And their job is to do nothing but to assist people in finding other people of similar interests.

We have a big space called The Networking Plaza. We literally bring up the lights after the keynotes and do networking exercises. We’ve just got tons of stuff going on.

But as far as the content goes, there are nine simultaneous tracks. Social tactics, social strategy, community management, and content marketing. And then underneath content marketing, we’ve got blogging, podcasting, and video marketing. So it’s a huge conference. Two thousand marketers from literally 35 countries all around the world. And it is a blast.

Jerod: Wow. It sounds like it will be. It sounds like a great event. We will link to the event page in the show notes, certainly, and would encourage everybody listening to check it out. Michael, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Michael: Jerod, it was my pleasure.

Jerod: Thank you very much for listening. If you enjoy what you hear here on The Lede, please consider telling a friend about us, or giving The Lede a rating and a review on iTunes.

Tune in next week when Demian Farnworth and I continue our series on The 11 Essential Ingredients of a Blog Post. Our next topic: Using persuasive words. You absolutely won’t want to miss this new episode because it’s free advice that will instantly make you a better communicator.

See what I did there? Listen next week, and I’ll tell you.

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*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.

Coming up …

Next week, Demian and I resume our series on the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post. We’ll discuss persuasive words … and you won’t want to miss it.