This essay is the second in a 3-part series: You Don’t Have to Be An Influencer.
In the first essay in the series we talked about what the business model of “influencer” is, how it is a business based on celebrity, and why people have felt like they have to be an influencer in order to have a viable service-based business, or a viable business period.
In this essay, we will be talking about using social media for marketing. I’m sure many of you do use social media to market your business, or feel like you (air quotes are coming out) have to or should use social media for your business if you’re not using it currently. And using it as a tool is different than using it to adopt the entire influencer business model wholesale.
So for those of you who listened to last week’s episode and thought, “Sure, sure, but I know I don’t want to be an influencer, and even that I don’t have to be an influencer, so what about using social media for marketing? “ We will discuss that in detail.
Before we do, I would like to out my bias in case it wasn’t obvious in the last episode:
I believe that, with some genuine exceptions, social media (or at least the way social media is monetized and therefore how the algorithm functions these days) is a plague upon humanity.
That does not mean that I judge people who use it either for personal or for marketing purposes. Many of the people and colleagues I respect the most use social for both personal and business reasons.
That does mean, however, that this essay will contain opinions which are not favorable to social media, which is different than not being favorable to people who use social media. Just to clarify in advance.
And, I won’t be just trashing using social media for marketing. No throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This essay will also take a serious look at the small business owner’s options, and what can work well for our types of service providing businesses.. as well as my own eyebrow raise sensibilities about social platforms as they function here in the year 2022.
If you’re a part of the 21st century economy and you are self-employed and run your own business, you have definitely, definitely been given the advice that you need to get your business posting on social media channels.
If you’re lucky you’ve been told to focus on only one or two social channels. If you’re unlucky you have been told you need to post everywhere, all the time, just to stay relevant. And you’ve tried to keep up with that. Which is for sure a full time job.
With all this “having to” and “shoulding” going on, let’s look at if that’s true, and what approaches work best both for effective marketing, and also for one’s sanity:
Let’s start with differentiating between content marketing and social media marketing; Because they get smooshed together often times and do have a lot of overlap. But they also diverge in important ways.
The difference is simple to spot: content marketing is creating content that is designed to connect with your ideal clients and to help them better find your services and suss out if you are someone they want to work with. Social media marketing is content marketing that only happens on social media platforms, which are affected by algorithms.
Some examples of content marketing that are not social media marketing are podcasts, newsletters, lead magnets on your website, blogging or article writing for other publications, webinars or in person workshops, live q and a sessions and more. These are all great ways to provide good content to potential and current clients for your business, and they get around the algorithm.
So if you are sending a newsletter out to the list of people who have subscribed to that, at no point can an algorithm decide not to send the newsletter to 75% of your subscribers. You own the list, and so you send directly to those who have given you permission to do so.
Similarly with podcasts like this one: My episodes are housed on LibSyn and from there are sent out to the many different podcast players, but I own the content, and whoever finds my episodes can listen to them. Sometimes major players in the podcasting space like iTunes can mess around with things but they can’t disappear my work because it’s also on Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, etc. People can share links of episodes on social channels, but the social channels at that point either show it or don’t. The work itself continues to exist in the podcasting spaces and on my own website.
Social media marketing, as I mentioned and to state the obvious again, happens only on a social platform: so it’s the posts to your Instagram feed, your Facebook page or group, your TikTok account. And if you grow followers there, you only have contact with them through that social platform. For example, you can’t email all your Instagram followers. You can only post to connect with them, or direct message them on the platform itself. Which is fine if you have a lot of followers and the algorithm does, and continues, to show your work.
But algorithms have bias in them, and tech companies and their algorithms are fickle, so things can change and you can suddenly find yourself “disappeared” by the platform, or if you aren’t shut down the algorithm can change in ways where your posts are suddenly shown to far fewer people, which is a sneakier and more subtle way of disappearing people. And the true definition of shouting into the void if you keep posting and don’t know why engagement has dropped off.
Or the algorithm can become akin to an abusive boss, like the example I gave in the last essay about YouTube creators burning out because the algorithm suddenly only prioritized those with long and frequent, near daily, uploads; Turning the treadmill those content creators were already on up to high speed. [Side note: I know those of us who are geeks about this stuff can split hairs on what different platforms actually are, like YouTube also being a search engine, and of course you could publish your videos elsewhere as well- but your YouTube subscribers, if you market through a YouTube channel, are only able to be connected with you on YouTube itself, so I’m calling it a social platform here]
In the good old days of early social media I believed, naively, that platforms would only suspend people if these people truly should be suspended. God knows there are plenty of people who shouldn’t be given access to a social media megaphone because they have hateful views, are trolls, or both.
But I’ve watched people lose an account for reasons that they could never sort out. In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd I saw Black activists get shut down for writing a phrase like “white supremacist delusion”. Or I’ve seen burlesque dancers get shut out because those images of them in pasties used to be just fine but are suddenly deemed too risque. If these channels are where you’re doing the vast majority of your communicating in relationship to your work and how you earn a living, that can certainly pull the rug out from under you.
All of these examples are basically a long way of getting to our first, of 4, cardinal rules for social media marketing:
Cardinal rule number 1: Use social platforms to connect with new people, and then make it easy for them to get onto your email list so that you don’t have the platform, and the platform’s algorithm, as the gatekeeper of your ability to communicate with them forever.
You could do that by using your social posts to point to a lead magnet you created on your website, and direct people there to download it for free when they subscribe to your mailing list. Or you could promote webinars you are teaching on social, and host them off social, which means people have to register to attend on your website and are then on your mailing list.
Cardinal rule number 2: (this is especially true for service providing businesses) Use the platforms to be teaching. Social media platforms can be an excellent place to educate potential clients about what it is you do and how you can help them. By using these spaces to teach, you are demonstrating your expertise and your value. You are also developing rapport because people can get a sense, based on what you are teaching and your teaching style, of if they may want to work with you at some point. You are growing your authority for the service you provide.
Prioritize teaching over things like making your life into the social version of a reality TV show (which fits the influencer business model but not service provider businesses). Recycling quotes or pretty images used to work ok-ish for at least letting people know you existed, but these days those feeds tend not to drive any true engagement. The algorithm does not prioritize those posts of recycled quotes, and also I think people’s attention glazes over at this point when they see another quote since that has saturated feeds for a while.
To use social platforms to teach, you could post video essays about something, create a series of slides that walks people through a concept, or post outtakes from longer teaching material of yours like an article you wrote, or a talk you gave.
Cardinal rule number 3: Build relationships (and make sure those relationships don’t only happen on the social channel forever).
Instead of just posting, also follow colleagues you would like to connect with and support them by having a conversation in the comments or by sharing their post to your followers. When people comment on your posts, communicate back with them in the comments so that it is more of a 2-way conversation. I will however, put an “unpaid labor” warning on this. This can wind up eating a lot of your time, attention, and mental and emotional energy, so also set boundaries that you are not providing free coaching or consulting in social comments.
Cardinal rule number 4: And that brings me to the fourth, and final, and most important, cardinal rule of social media marketing is MAKE SURE IT IS ACTUALLY WORKING FOR YOU and is not just a new, unpaid job.
Does your social media marketing connect to your paid offer? How many clients say they found you on one of your social platforms? What are some other benefits you either are or aren't getting from your social platforms- like opportunities to be on someone else’s podcast, or connecting with colleagues or speaking opportunities at professional conferences. Or… is it a lot of chatter, but no fruit is born from that labor?
In the Healing Arts Business Incubator I teach about how to spot marketing strategies that are actually just “shouting into the void” which is very depleting because you’re either putting a lot of energy into something that gets too diluted and goes no where, or you are making something that doesn’t directly connect to your paid offer. So people might notice you for it, but it doesn’t grow your business, just your to-do list.
Because social media is a market of billions of people it feels like it makes sense to go and post there. But if you are only posting and aren’t doing any other strategic things to get noticed in such a big market, it gets too diluted.
In many ways we love the promise of growing a business by posting on social media because it feels like doing something, and doing something kind of easy. Someone else built these huge spaces filled with potential clients’ attention, and all we have to do is show up. But that leaves out the more intimate relationship-building of marketing if we’re just firing off non-strategic posts. And relationship building is really what makes any marketing effective. This is especially true for service providers.
One of the things I hear frequently from people is that they hate having to use social media. So before I conclude this essay, I’d like to share a little more about my bias that I disclosed at the beginning, which is that I am not a fan, to put it mildly.
First, here’s where am I at with my own social media use: I currently do not have any social media accounts except for LinkedIn. I’ve let LinkedIn sit dormant for a long time, but I have decided that I will be re-engaging with it in the coming months because it has a lot less of the performative and mob mentality aspects that so many other social media spaces have right now.
It’s also a great place for me to- yes- do marketing on a social media channel that is the right fit for my business which is working with other very small businesses like my own.
I could even chuck in another cardinal rule here: if you are going to use a social platform, make sure it is the platform your ideal clients are hanging out on. If you skew older, Facebook, if you skew younger, TikTok. Artists will do better on a visual platform like Instagram. Writers and pundits, on a wordy platform like Twitter, etc.
But for me, other than that, no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok etc etc.
I got off of social for both personal and professional use in March of 2021 - exactly a year after the pandemic had forced us into lockdowns and into our screens and social accounts much more than we had been.
The pandemic was trying for a multitude of reasons, and the pandemic wasn’t the only thing going on that was challenging in the collective, particularly here in the US where I am, so it wasn’t only more time on social media that was impacting my life, but the way I felt when I was on social media just didn’t feel good. It was like why do I keep eating this food that is making me feel so sick every time I eat it!?
I tried changing how I curated my feed. I tried only posting for business marketing and not posting personally. I tried limiting it to only tiny windows of time. I tried planning posts in advance so I wouldn’t have to be on there as much. And eventually, I tried a month cold turkey. No social media. I didn’t even peek or lurk on the feeds.
It was humbling to notice how addicted I was and how much I longed for the scroll (a woman I know who is a social worker who works a lot with teenagers once described smart phones as “grown kids’ binkies or pacifiers. I definitely felt like I wanted my binkey at the beginning of the 30 days)... but as the days progressed: peace. It was the beginning of reclaiming my own mind from social media.
At the time that I got off social media, I did a podcast episode on my show Liberated Being about it and said the following: I’m reading it here in case you can relate:
Things I’ve noticed in myself with social media:
I spend more time in despair
I spend more time in contempt
I’m losing faith in our species
I feel like I have to perform myself instead of just being myself
I spend more time with other people who are mostly strangers in my head. (I love to learn so you could say I spend a lot of time with strangers in my head anyway- but these are people I explicitly invited say, by choosing to read their book or article or listen to them on a podcast or a TED talk. Scrolling means loads of people- and ADS- are popping in without an explicit invite).
I doubt myself more
I fear being hated more
I spend a lot more time thinking about how I can fix and save the horrible fucked up world. What I call my “co-dependent relationship with all of humanity” has a hypervigilance to it.
It serves as a cardboard cut out for my activism. If I feel despair and outrage on social, I can trick myself into believing I’m doing something useful in my community, when in fact I am not. I’m just feeling big feelings. My actual activism is very disconnected from the social space and really connected to my personal spaces like my son’s schooling, or what organizations in New Haven, my city, need support
I always feel behind, like I need to keep up with the machine or risk not existing, this is mostly a business and not a personal point of view, but still
I find that when i have to do something that requires long deep thinking, I pick up my phone a million times instead and don’t even realize I’m doing it
From that same episode, In regards to what I was noticing in the collective as a result of social media I said:
The world has always been crazy. Spend even a little bit of time with history and you will discover what you already know- that this human species that we all happen to be a part of is… complex. And challenging.
And, we are also clearly finding ourselves within a moment where that troubling challenging nature that humanity can have is really heightened globally. Sure Covid is a part of that, but this predates that. Why are there so many authoritarian rulers? Why is democracy on such thin ice?
As for answering the questions about the mysteries of why the species is like this- I don’t know obviously. I in particular I’m not an anthropologist or historian.
What I can say, and what I’d like to call attention to, is that something is making us crazier. Most likely, many things are making us crazier. Any affliction is nearly always going to be multifactorial and complex, and the current mass psychosis and loss of shared reality and truth is no different, it’s complex. I don’t have all the answers. Not even close.
But there is one thing that is for sure a huge contributor: the algorithms. Social media. It is designed to make us crazy. It is designed to switch off our prefrontal cortex- to make us more dualistic, more contemptuous, suspicious, outraged. Less humane, less nuanced, less heart centered, less compassionate.
And if I’m coming across as too extreme, like cmon, it’s just a way to reconnect with people from high school, or to promote my next workshop, or to delight over hilarious memes, first, I’d say social media used to be absolutely perfect for that. It’s changed and it’s changed our world as it has changed.
That’s what I said in March 2021, and my opinion remains the same.
A recent article in the New York Times, titled The Future Isn’t Female Anymore had the best succinct description of how social media is functioning these days, so I’ll quote Michelle Goldberg here:
“Social media strengthens the forces of entropy, it magnifies anger, rewards trolls, and encourages conflicts to spiral.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. For me, it was worth it to leave.
As a business owner though, people usually ask me if it’s been a problem for me in regards to making a living. The answer is, so far, no.
Some business models- even in addition to the influencer business model- really do need more social media marketing than others. For example, if you have a low-priced, high volume offering, you will probably benefit from being more visible as many places as possible, bringing it back to the celebrity numbers game again.
At this stage of my career, I decided I did not want to be a part of the social media ecosystem and then actually tailored my business model to not needing to rely on it. What this means is that I focused on business models that have more intimacy, and therefore more robust word of mouth referrals, and offerings that do not need to attract a high number of clients in order to be viable.
I also, as you can probably tell from this podcast, love to write, speak, and teach and adore podcasting. Voila- content marketing that is not social media social media marketing.
Historically too, as I reviewed the benefits or lack of benefits to my social media presence when I was posting regularly, it never really grew my businesses. That is partially ineptitude on my part: I really never liked social and so never dedicated myself to getting good at it.
But it’s also partially skill: I’ve been in business for almost 22 years- before the dawn of social media- and I fully sucked at marketing for the first several years. My need to roll change to pay rent and to live off of frequent peanut butter and spoon sandwiches are a testament to how lousy I was at being visible and growing authority.
But when I moved to Brooklyn in 2003 and was faced with the prospect of working retail for $9 an hour in one of the world’s most expensive cities, a temp job working for wall street bros, or getting my act together and growing my business, I began my love affair with content/ teaching marketing and relationship building.
In looking at numbers, the vast, vast majority of people who have paid me so that I can pay my bills did not care about, or even know I had, a social media presence.
And if you’re listening and noting, accurately, that I feel like social media never did much good to grow my businesses and thinking that it’s easier to step away from social media when there isn’t a financial impact, that’s true. It is indeed harder to walk away from anything that pays the bills. So if that’s the case for you, I’m not arguing for destabilizing your income. But rather, looking and seeing if social media marketing is in fact having a beneficial impact on your revenue or not. And if it is, thinking through how you engage with it so that it is both satisfying and useful, and/or if you want to re-tool your business to rely on it less.
In my next episode I will have a special guest on who did grow a successful business using social media as their main marketing strategy, and they chose to walk away from the platforms even though that would impact their revenue. So you’ll get to hear a different point of view than the “I never really saw the point” experience that I had.
As business owners we have a lot of tasks to attend to, so if posting to social media is one of your tasks, or one of the tasks for another team member within your business, make sure it’s benefitting you and your business, and not just the mega conglomerates. As the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you probably are the product. Which is something really important to keep in mind in regards to social media platforms.
We’ll tuck into that much more deeply in the 3rd and final essay next week.