Michael Stelzner is the founder of Social Media Examiner, author of the book, Writing White Papers, and the man behind Social Media Marketing World—the industry’s largest conference. He’s also the host of the Social Media Marketing podcast, the Crypto Business podcast, and the founder of the Social Media Marketing Society.
Join Michael in this episode as he explains how he looks into the past, present and future to draw trajectory lines of where the Social Media trend is going.
Tune in for inspiration and practical insights that will help you chart your own path toward success in the constantly changing world of social media marketing.
Why you have to check out today’s episode
- Learn about the journey and challenges that Michael faced in building Social Media Examiner, and how he became a trailblazer in the industry.
- Discover Michael’s unique insights on entrepreneurship, relationship-building, and the latest developments in technology, including Web3.
- Gain valuable insights into the culture and practices that have contributed to the ongoing success and evolution of Michael’s business, including how he has built and nurtured his team.
“I’d rather sharpen the ax that I have than learn to fire a crossbow. As a team, we focus on sharpening our axes ….We constantly reinvent and refine ourselves.” – Michael Stelzner
00:33 – From Bumpy Beginnings to a Social Media Pioneer: An Inside Look at Michael Stelzner’s Journey to Success
02:52 – What inspired Michael to do Social Media Marketing World—His light bulb moment
04:24 – What Michael did to keep the business afloat during the Pandemic
09:18 – Talks about the Nature of Entrepreneurship
10:08 – How doing ‘nothing’ special got Michael international traction for his conferences
12:01 – Michael shares his relationship-building technique
15:48 – What happens inside the Social Media Marketing Society?
17:09 – Michael’s vision on the newest frontier— Web 3
20:43 – Michael’s unique perspective and forecast on Tech Trends and their potential
23;49 – The culture & practices inside Michael’s team that helped his business stay on top of
“When things change and you can’t do business the way you thought you were going to be able to do business, you have to get innovative.”- Michael Stelzner
You have to keep trying things. Nothing ventured nothing gained. – Michael Stelzner
“I believe that the future is going to be a decentralized world where the new technology that is confusing for a lot of people is going to make many things possible.” – Michael Stelzner
“So what I try to do is I try to look at the past, look at the present, and look at the future and draw trajectory lines and say, okay, I’ve seen this pattern before. This is generally where this goes. And you can either be there early or you can be there right on schedule, or you can be there late.” – Michael Stelzner
“…Entrepreneurs we always have things that can distract us. And I’m trying to discern dangerous distractions from opportunities. This is really, really important for anybody because there are always going to be bright, shiny objects that appear before you and me. And we have to choose to ignore them or focus on them.” – Michael Stelzner
- Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition https://www.amazon.com/Launch-Quickly-Propel-Business-Competition-ebook/dp/B005526E30?ref_=ast_author_dp
- Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged https://www.amazon.com/Writing-White-Papers-Capture-Readers-ebook/dp/B075G6XH4D?ref_=ast_author_dp
- Social Media Marketing World: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/smmworld/
- Social Media Marketing Society: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/society/
- Social Media Marketing Podcast: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/social-media-marketing-podcast/
- Web3 Business Podcast: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/web3-business-podcast/
- Crypto Business Conference: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/cbconference/
Connect with Michael Stelzner
- Facebook: http://facebook.com/smexaminer
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stelzner
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/mike_stelzner
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/smexaminer
Full Interview Transcript
(Note: This transcript was created with an AI transcription service. Please forgive any transcription or grammatical errors. We probably sounded better in real life.)
Welcome to the Excellent International Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Katrina Burrus. And today, we have a special guest, Michael Stelzner, the founder and CEO of the Social Media Examiner, Michael, welcome.
Hey, thanks so much for having me. I know, we’ve been trying to make this happen for a long time. So I’m glad we can do this finally.
Dr. Katrina Burrus
Yes. So am I very glad. So my first question is, what made you think of going from writing white papers, to creating the social media marketing, examiner, social media, examiner, and then the social media marketing world? What was your vision?
Yeah, I was a writer. And I’ve been a writer for a very long time. And I was working with a lot of high tech companies. And I had a big newsletter. But 20,000 people at the time, which I thought was big, and I was emailing marketers about how to create white papers and how to market white papers.
And this was in 2000, before 2009, and I started to notice this thing called Twitter, coming on the scene. And I started to notice Facebook, which is mostly for college students, I thought, but I was like, oh, this could be a new platform that business people could use to promote their white papers and white papers or like article needs brochure, persuasive documents, typically used by a sales team, to help them generate leads and sales. And I just started diving headfirst into the social media world.
And I began to realize, wow, there’s a big space out here. And because I had grown to be the leading expert in the white paper world, you know, and before that, I had an an agency. So I thought, hmm, this looks like this new could be the new frontier, this thing called social media, and social media marketing. So I started in kind of as a hobby, if you will, and I started creating content. And I reached out to a lot of my writer friends and asked them if they would contribute to this blog that I was writing, and then all of a sudden, the thing took off. And in a couple of months, I had 20,000 email subscribers, it took me years to get there. I’m like, wow, I’m onto something.
And you know, that’s the short end of the story. I’ve been doing that now since 2009. And two social media marketing world in particular, separate story, I had been doing online events. And that’s how I funded Social Media Examiner in the early days, I was one of the first that I’m aware of, to do online conferences back in 2008.
This is when they weren’t really very popular that people would do online events. And I was going to do this event. And but I went to, I went to a conference called Content Marketing World, and about my friend, Joe Pulizzi, which was in Cleveland, Ohio. And I was never going to do a physical conference.
But I went there and I saw a call my friend Joe was, and I said, Joe, how are you so calm when you’ve got hundreds of people here? He’s all oh, well, you see that person over there, she’s an event planner, there are people that do this for a living, I’m like, what? And then all of a sudden, like, light bulbs went off in my head, I started taking pictures and I’m like, alright, I think I’m going to do a conference.
And about a year and a half later, I started Social Media Marketing World, he had Content Marketing World. And that thing just blew up. And we had 1100 people there the first year, and we’re coming up on our 10 year anniversary here in 2023 so it’s exciting. It’s supposed to be 11 if it wasn’t for COVID.
Dr. Katrina Burrus
Yes, it was. It’s fabulous for I’ve been going there since 2013. I’d really learned the latest ideas, you do a fabulous job of doing research work and, you know, jump starting the conference with what are the biggest trends?
So you’ve been there since the first year then you remember when it was just in a hotel?
Dr. Katrina Burrus
Yes, that was great. And, but okay, so you survived COVID but tell me how did that challenge come about? And how did you overcome that?
Michael Stelzner 05:01
Oh, boy. Well, I think were you there in 2021? We had it on March first, second and third, just before the world shut down. I don’t, I think have you been every year?
Dr. Katrina Burrus 05:10
Just about, during the 20, I was half sick so I went when I was feeling better.
Michael Stelzner 05:15
So in 2020, COVID was starting to be a thing in Asia, and it wasn’t yet in America. And we decided to proceed with our conference, and a lot of other people were shutting down. And we had our event on March first, second, and third. And then in America, at least on March 10th, is when the President came out and said, hey, we’re shutting everything down.
So we were lucky because we got our event in literally one of the last big events in America in the business and marketing world. But I remember a lot of the big speakers, you know, the ones who this is their career, public speaking, we’re getting text messages, I just lost 10 gigs, I just lost 30 gigs, like literally everything, you know, was shutting down.
And during our event, the very first person died of COVID in America, you know, and it was like, wow, okay, this is the beginning of something. We didn’t understand what it was. I thought, just like so many people, this would be like a three month thing. But no, no, no, it’s not over right? A couple of years later. So it really did hurt the business, I ended up not being able to do the conference in 2021. But we did come back in 2022. And it wasn’t as big it was about half the size of what it was. And even when we had the conference, the Omicron strain was still out. And there were still a lot of people that weren’t ready to come back to go into physical conferences. So to say that it hurt our business is a radical understatement.
But what business in the world didn’t get hurt, other than maybe zoom and some of these online businesses that really thrive during COVID? But yeah, you know, the good news is, we have a sense that people are going to be going back to physical conferences. But now we have a new problem, which is a global recession, right?
So we never really know, you know, when you’re in the event business, and the economy globally is strong, it’s great. But when it’s not, you know, budgets get cut. And one of the first things that get cut is discretionary spending. And often that includes professional development, and conferences and flights and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, it was a, it was not easy. But we survived. And we’re still here.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 07:27
Yes, thank God, but how did you manage during COVID? I know you gave a fabulous cloud class that’s called, you know, how to become a thought leader.
Michael Stelzner 07:41
So I tried a lot of stuff. So during COVID, whenever, and it could be COVID. It could be anything like when things change, and you can’t do business the way you thought you were going to be able to do business, you have to get innovative. You know, there’s this quote that says, necessity is the mother of innovation, which I think is so powerful, because I did not have the possibility of the conference like, like, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, right.
So first thing I did was I started creating new products. So we started doing something we didn’t plan to do, which were these online summits, we had done them for years, we did a Facebook Marketing Summit, we did an Instagram Marketing Summit. And I think we might have even done a YouTube Marketing Summit and we spun up a bunch of these live online events, to try to get some revenue coming in to kind of keep our operating costs covered.
And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I had planned to do this, by the way, pre COVID, which was an Ad Social Media Marketing World in 2020, I taught a class called becoming well known a session. And I wanted to gauge the interest in that to see whether or not I could do a course, the interest is good. I launched the course, it was a massive undertaking, as you know, because you were part of it twice. I think, if I’m not mistaken. We didn’t sell as many as we would have liked, because I realized that selling courses is very different than selling conference stuff.
And I’m not known personally, as someone who is a teacher of helping people grow their business. I’m more known as somebody who is a marketing person, you know what I mean?
So I realized very quickly that I didn’t have enough credibility in my audience to be able to sell the quantities that I wanted to be able to, you know, make that work. So I did put an enormous amount of effort into it. I think it was a high quality course. But it didn’t result in the metrics that we needed to continue. So I just kept trying new and new things.
And my gosh, I mean, like, if you know me, you know, if you’ve been following me for a while we’ve done things and we’ve stopped things and we’ve done things and we stopped things.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 09:53
You’re a real entrepreneur.
Michael Stelzner 09:55
Yeah, that’s what you do. Right? You have to keep trying things. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you don’t know, if, you know, like, if I never started Social Media Examiner, I wouldn’t be where I am right. And I didn’t need to start Social Media Examiner, I just had an itch to start something new.
The other thing that happened during COVID was because we couldn’t have our conference, I was an exploration mode. And I began to start exploring new industries. And eventually, you know, I know we’re gonna get to this in a future question. But I got to a new industry. And I decided to go all in on that while also still maintaining the existing business. It’s just the nature of entrepreneurship.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 10:33
Before we go there, I just wanted to tell you, because I found out about your Social Media Marketing World, when I lived in Switzerland, and I came for many years from Switzerland. How did you get people from abroad like Europe and Asia, to come to your conference?
Michael Stelzner 10:55
I’ll be honest with you, it was a surprise in the beginning that we had so many international people come in. I think part of it is the name of the event, I think the fact that it had the word world in it, Social Media Marketing World was kind of a signal that this is for the whole planet. I had partly inspired that by Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing World, also Macworld, which used to be a conference, you know the word, I’ve been in these big events where the word world was in there. But I think the other side of it is I’ve always had an audience in the free content that we publish.
And for those that don’t know, we publish original content every week, multiple articles, videos, and audio podcasts, every single week, all of it is long form media, and it’s free. And when you publish as much as we publish, you attract an English-speaking audience from all around the world. So we have the obvious since I’m in America, America, Canada, Mexico, but when you start thinking about the United Kingdom, Australia, and then you start thinking about all the European nations where English is, you know, taught, like it turned out to be a really global audience. And we were surprised. We didn’t do anything special to be honest with you to target internationals, other than kind of promote the fact that San Diego is this amazing tourist destination. And they just came, it wasn’t really ever part of the plan. It just turned out that it was a fascinating part of the community. We had already developed organically over many, many years with our free content.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 12:26
Well, wonderful content, which is an attractor. And also you created the social media podcast, which I had listened, too, even before coming to the conference. What instigated you to do that because you were a precursor in that field, yet again.
Michael Stelzner 12:43
So we just celebrated 10 years with that podcast. So um, I had seen people like Pat Flynn, smart, passive income, and others, and I eventually became friends with these people. But I started to notice these podcasts popping up. And I started to realize, you know, I’m a writer, but I actually love podcasts more than I do reading, because I’m dyslexic, believe it or not. So for me, it’s harder for me to learn by reading. And I started thinking to myself, what if I interviewed people, I had done it on video camera for years and published little videos and stuff. But I wonder if I created long form media and I interviewed people with this be attractive. And I started the Social Media Marketing Podcast, nine months before I launched Social Media Marketing World that was strategic, it was a marketing initiative to promote. So they have no word, right? And I intentionally use the podcast to recruit high quality people that hopefully some of them would come speak at the conference, right. So it was a relationship building technique.
But then it took off. And all of a sudden, it was one of the top business podcasts in the world for many, many years, which shocked me, you know. And it turned out to be one of my favorite forms of communication. More than the written word, I don’t write much anymore. I just love doing podcast interviews.
And I also learned along the way, Katrina, that there are people that learn differently. There are some people that learn by reading. There are some people that learn by watching, and there are some that learn by listening. And I began to realize I attracted an entirely new audience to Social Media Examiner. And when I started the podcast that weren’t readers, there were listeners, they were active, you know, had boring work at home to do or they were running or they were at the gym, or they were in a commute or they were on an airplane right, and they had time to kill them. They wanted to educate their minds. And it turned out to be one of the biggest things I ever did really, which is the podcast.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 14:48
So in the last Social Media Marketing World, there was much fewer themes on podcasting. What is your vision of how the trend will be in podcasting?
Michael Stelzner 15:02
So, in the beginning was Social Media Marketing World, we would cover blogging and podcasting and a lot of content that’s focused on non social media focused. But over the years, we began to realize that there are other events that specialize in podcast and like Podcast Movement. And there are other events that specialize in blogging. And I began to realize that actually, we specialize in social marketing, which really focuses on the major platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, you know, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn. So we just decided to stay specialty focused, and to stop focusing on podcasting, because when we did have podcasts and started noticed over the years, less and less people were going to the sessions, they weren’t as interested in that kind of content. Now, we did have social audio content at Social Media Marketing World, which is like podcasts and things like Twitter spaces clubhouse. But it’s just one of those things where we’re very data centric, and we let the data inform us. And if our audience says they’re not interested in something, then we’re not going to go to the expense to actually recruit and put tracks together on those kinds of topics. It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It just means that this our audience is not as interested in it.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 16:13
Interesting, you also started the social media marketing society. So tell us a little bit about that. And why you started that.
Michael Stelzner 16:21
We started that in 2015. One of the things we noticed was a lot of people that went to Social Media Marketing World wanted ongoing training, they don’t want to have to wait until the next year. So the social media marketing society was designed to be the place where you could get live monthly training on various topics related to social media, because it changes a lot, and it changes fast. So instead of waiting until the next year, to learn all the newest techniques, you could get ongoing training every single month, and it was our essentially designing a membership, where you would pay a monthly fee or an annual fee to join. And we’ve had great success with it. And we still have it going on right now. You know, 2022.
So that just was a way of us diversifying our revenue into different kinds of things. Plus, Social Media Marketing World, as you know, is very expensive. It’s a premium product, you have to pay for airfare. And you have to pay for travel, which is out of the reach for a lot of international people and even people on the other side of the United States. So this was just a lower cost option for people to get really high quality community and training. And it’s one of the few products that has lasted in the you know, for many years.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 17:34
Yes and so now you’ve shifted and now you’re not shifted. Let’s say you have another sphere of interest, would you say? That’s crypto business podcasts and the conference that you are doing on cryptocurrency. So tell us what’s the shift? What brought that to your?
Michael Stelzner 17:56
Okay. I kind of teased that a little bit earlier that during 2020 into 2021. There wasn’t really a lot going on because we weren’t going to have our conference. So I had time to begin looking into new opportunities. And I started to notice the world of crypto as a fascinating frontier. I was active on clubhouse. Somebody on clubhouse recommended I should get a social token. I didn’t know what it was. So I said no, thank you. And then I began exploring NFT’s and all this kind of stuff. And I I just started talking to people in my network that are friends that are already there. And they started explaining it to me and I started to realize, wow, web three, which is this kind of macro term, which compasses cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFTS, the metaverse, all this stuff. I see it as the future. So what I decided to do was I decided to launch this crypto business podcast in January of this year, with the hope that I could maybe do what I did for social media marketing, right to interview people that were project founders, metaverse experts, NFT marketers and I wanted to try to basically grow an audience. And then I decided to do something crazy to launch a conference, right. And it’s a small conference. It’s like a couple 100 people but I believe that the future is going to be a decentralized world, where the new technology that is confusing for a lot of people is going to make many things possible, in the same way that Katrina, you and I are old enough to remember what it was like before the internet, right? And then the Internet came out and change the whole world, right? And then social media came out and changed the whole world again, right? So there’s been technological innovations that have allowed small businesses to compete with really big businesses because, for example, the invention of the internet and Amazon is a great example, you know, started as a small business now it’s one of the biggest businesses in the world. And it’s taken on the biggest companies in the world. This new technology, this web three concept, built on the blockchain and smart contracts and automation and technological innovation that’s over most people’s heads, is going to repeat this, I believe in the next three to five years. So I might be a little bit early. But I am trying to explore that frontier, from a business perspective, not from a financial perspective, and not from a technical perspective. But from a business perspective, like what is it going to mean for businesses? What is this going to mean for creators? What is it going to mean for entrepreneurs, leadership business, right? And it is going to literally change everything. And again, a lot of people are like, yeah, right. But remember, what people used to say about Twitter and Facebook are like, why would I ever go on that? That’s for kids, right? Or why would I care what someone is tweeting about their, their cat or their lunch, right? And now, obviously, these are world changing innovations. So I’m exploring this new frontier, it is a side hustle. It is not the main initiative, but is definitely under the umbrella of Social Media Examiner, and we’ll see where it goes.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 21:08
Wow, your always is creating. So how do you get people to embrace your vision? Because from white papers to cryptocurrency, you’ve done a lot of different changes, how do you, you know, engage them? Maybe they don’t see the changes as you do?
Michael Stelzner 21:29
Well, I’ve always believed that, that we as humans tend to stick with what’s familiar to us. Until, you know, like if something new comes across us, and we don’t understand it, we by very nature tend to ignore it, right? It’s not till we understand something, that we began to embrace it and see what’s possible. So it’s always been my mission to help people understand the world of social marketing, so that they can embrace it from a business perspective and see what it could make possible for their business. And I, before that was a writer. So I used to meet with technical people, and I would translate their technical gobbledygook language into something the rest of the world can understand, which was white papers. So I’ve always been in the business of translating, that is my business. I am a translator of technical stuff, to more complex systems and things into everyday language. I’m a simple talker, I tried to boil things down to their essence, I don’t ever claim to be the expert. Instead, I’m just the messenger. So what I tried to do is I try to look at the past, look at the present and look at the future and draw trajectory lines and say, okay, I’ve seen this pattern before. This is generally where this goes, I can show the data to people. And then and you know, I do this every year at my keynote, right? I show the data, I show the trajectory, and I show them where it’s going like this last year, I talked about tick tock, you know, and I talked about some other stuff as well. And I showed everybody that this is where it’s going, right? And you can either be there early, or you can be there right on schedule, or you can be either late, and there’s advantages to being there early, there’s not a lot of competition. If you’re there late, well, then it might take a little bit longer. So I’m just a translator and not everybody is going to follow my vision. Katrina, believe it or not, there are still people today that do not see the value of social at all, you know what I mean? And there’s plenty of people who have a band said, it’s not for me, and I understand because it can be a caustic environment. But you know, there’s still businesses that do not operate, even with websites today, which sounds crazy, right? So you’re never going to persuade everybody. But what the way I typically do, as I say, here’s the problem, we all have problems. And here is a possible solution. So one of the problems might be you’re struggling to grow your business, you don’t have enough revenue. You don’t have dot dot, dot, dot, dot, right? And then I show how traditionally, that’s been solved. And then I show how maybe that’s reducing in value, it no longer works. Therefore, we need a new way. And then I show them the new way. So that’s that’s the way that I go about persuading people. And I think it’s just a proven model that works over and over again.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 24:14
Well, it seems to be working very well. So all the best. So what’s your next passion? I mean, you are.
Michael Stelzner 24:22
God only knows to be honest with you because I mean, where I am right now is where I am right now is like I want to be entrepreneurs. You know, we always have things that can distract us and I’m trying to discern dangerous distractions from opportunities. This is really, really important for anybody, because there are always going to be bright, shiny objects that appear before you and me, and we have to choose to ignore them or to focus on them. I was talking to my coach today, I’m really good at ignoring everything, and only focusing on what’s going to get me where I need to go. Which means I constantly reject things as they come across my plate. But it allows me to be completely focused on what my mission is right. And the only time that I really allow myself to be distracted, is when all of a sudden my time frees up, right. So because my time freed up with COVID, I let myself go down the rabbit trail of crypto and NFT and all that fun stuff. Now, what I have to discern is whether or not I’m early, too early. Because if I’m too early, then what I have to do is I have to go back to my prime thing, because I believe that whatever you put your attention to, and whatever you focus on is what you can achieve. And if you’re focused on too many different things, and distracted, you want to achieve anything. So my main focus for the next few months, is really to double down sharpen the axe, I use this metaphor a lot, I’d rather sharpen the axe that I have than learn to fire a crossbow. Because like crossbows are powerful. I don’t know how to use a crossbow. So I’ve got this tool that called an axe and I can chop a tree with it, I can throw it, I can do all sorts of great things with it. And I’m really good with axes metaphorically. Right. So what I’m trying to do is focus my entire team on sharpening our axis. What is our institutional knowledge that we’re really good at? How can we get even better at it? How can we be the best in the world at what we do? And that applies to our sales and our marketing? How can we get better with our email marketing? How can we get better with our content creation? Because if we’re constantly getting better, we don’t have atrophy. Because when we have atrophy, guess what happens? We die. Right? So we have to constantly be reinventing ourselves refining ourselves. And you know, right now we’re in a season of refinement, because I believe all businesses go through seasons, right? Like back in the day with software development from you know, they would have like a season of of like improvements where they get all the bugs out, right. And then they would have a brand new innovation with brand new stuff, then they will get all the bugs out for a season. We’re in the getting the bugs out season right now. That’s the season that’s really important for everybody to have.
Dr. Katrina Burrus 27:17
Yes, but to get people engaged is an on the vote is not that easy. But obviously you’re very persuasive. And you’re definitely an entrepreneur. So here we come to the end of our podcast, I want to thank you, Michael, very much for being on our podcast. And I’m delighted.
Michael Stelzner 27:37
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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