Influence: It pertains to every industry, and it’s a hot topic in marketing right now. If you want to be one of the major players in your niche, you need to have influence.
As you build—and market—your business, you’re probably reaching out to the influencers in your field.
But why not become an influencer yourself?
Today’s guest, Chris Dessi, is the founder of Silverback Social, a digital marketing agency specializing in social media. The company manages the social media ecosystem and provides consulting for many different brands. He offers our listeners a lot of great insight on being an entrepreneur, being relevant, and becoming an influencer.
Some of the topics you’ll hear discussed in today’s episode include:
- Chris’s background before he launched Silverback Social, and how he’s gotten to the point of having developed a successful personal brand.
- Advice for people who want to begin publishing content and getting people to relate to them.
- Why it’s important to combine work and personal life within your content.
- How marketers can stay relevant if they work in drab industries.
- Where Chris sees himself going in the future.
Quotes by Chris:
- “Being an entrepreneur, it creeps into every inch of your organism.”
- “People that are generating really great content within social media and doing really great things within digital, they don’t wait for permission, they just go and create.”
- “Talk about things outside of the office. What are you into? What are the things that you’re interested in? That’s gonna help you get a sale.”
Nathan: Influence is a big word in the marketing industry lately. People are even using the term influencer marketing which as I know it means you reach out to those big names in your industry with some big love and a little ask to help your content reach a bigger audience. But how did those people become influencers? Instead of you reaching out to those folks, why don’t you just become an influencer yourself?
Hey, I’m Nathan from CoSchedule and in this episode of the Actionable Content Marketing podcast, I’m sitting down with Chris Dessi from Silverback Social. Chris is a regular inc.com columnist, he’s been on the news and TV a bunch of times, and he works with some of the big brand names out there to create amazing content. He’s got a ton of experience with personal branding and he’s going to share how you can put influence to work for your business in no matter what industry you’re in. Let’s check this out.
Hey Chris, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today. I think staying relevant is a really big deal for marketers in any industry, especially those that have maybe been mis-stereotyped as the boring ones. Anyway, I’m really excited to get your opinions on building influence.
Chris: When you talk about boring industries, if you’re in any industry, nobody ever thinks that their industry is boring because it keeps them cranking for 15 hours a day. Sometimes, there are industries that doesn’t immediately lend themselves to personal branding and things of that nature.
Nathan: Yeah, and I think that’s exactly what we want to talk to you about today, it’s just about this idea behind influence and how you can do this in any industry, not just the sexy industries for lack of a better word. Chris, could you just tell me a little bit about what you do at Silverback Social?
Chris: Sure, so Silverback is my digital marketing agency. We lead with social media, I launched the agency. It will be four and a half years, closer to five years. We do everything from managing brand’s’ entire social media ecosystem to training sales executives on how to leverage social media to consulting for major brands like Accuweather on how to deal with growth hacking and dealing with influencers in order to gain access to social media influencers entire ecosystems.
We manage individual executive social media accounts, I do lots of digital marketing keynoting and Silverback is definitively a social media first digital marketing agency and consultancy working with verticals that range everywhere from technical education organizations to energy corporations, all the way up to Legendary Pictures where we did community management for one of their summer blockbusters. It is a blast, it is the first real agency that is mine. I have a business partner, John Zanzarella, but previously to that when I was an entrepreneur, I had a 50/50 business partner. I peeled away from him seven years ago and then launched Silverback, it is my baby.
Nathan: You guys are doing a lot there. I can totally appreciate the baby behind it. It makes me curious about how you got there. What were you doing before you started Silverback? You mentioned a different agency.
Chris: It’s a great question and I think sometimes it’s a surprising question for some people because I do come across as one of these lifetime entrepreneur type guys but that’s only because I was a sales executive. I’ve been in digital for 16 years, I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, masters degree in direct marketing, got into digital early, 2000.
February of 2000 I worked at a company called Media Plex with my newly minted Direct Marketing Master’s Degree underneath my arm from NYU. Expeditiously, that stock tanked, the dot.com implosion began and I was like whoa, okay, that’s whiplash baby but let’s do this.
I stayed in digital for a bunch of years and I pivoted to social media in 2008 after hearing a guy that I’m sure your listeners will recognize, Gary Vaynerchuk, keynote the Web 2.0 conference back in 2008. I was in the audience that day and that was really Gary’s breakout moment. I was like oh my god, this social media thing is going to be gargantuan, I need to be in this ecosystem.
I did crazy things like I bought the URL facebookshouldhireme.com that got national attention and Fortune Magazine created ways to gain employment. I reached out to Gary after I heard him speak and I met with him. I eventually got a job at Buddy Media selling software, social media software. Introduced Gary to Mike Lazerow, the CEO of Buddy Media, and Gary incubated Vayner Media in the Buddy Media offices launching with his brother in our conference room. I was sort of inspired by Gary to be in social media and then learning from the guy everyday at Buddy Media.
I was unceremoniously fired from Buddy Media. I was there for a year and three months, I’m still scratching my head over it. It’s been a long time. After I got clipped, I was standing outside like the typical movie. It was pathetic, holding a box, what just happened? I just got fired. I can’t believe that happened. At that moment, I swore I’d never work for anybody ever again.
I started working with a business partner. We had been colleagues, both sales executives, and worked with him for two years. That just didn’t work out. He’s a wonderful guy, really smart guy, and we just had really different ideas about what we should be doing with the agency. I launched Silverback after that. I’m very much the reluctant entrepreneur, I wasn’t like Gary where he tells stories of picking his neighbor’s flowers and then selling them to his neighbor. That was never really me, I was more of a corporate career guy, get your degree, climb the ladder, and do well that way.
Nathan: I think that’s super impressive. You’re talking about pretty big names, you’ve talked about the brands you’ve worked with which are very recognizable brands too. Even though I was a reluctant entrepreneur, I’d say you’re doing pretty good.
Chris: Thanks, man. Listen, anybody that’s ever done it or tried it on their own knows how brutal it can be. I do mean the word brutal. I’m not saying that just to be bombastic about oh, this is a brutal thing. No, being an entrepreneur, it creeps into every inch of your organism. It is in your bones, it is in your brain, it is in your soul. That can be the most uplifting, magnificent, inspiring thing ever. It can also bring you to the edge of why am I doing this, what is going on? It’s fun, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Nathan: I think that’s a good transition for what I want to ask you, all that experience and where you’ve come from and that it’s been to your bones the way that you just said it. How has all of that experience helped you build a successful personal brand?
Chris: The personal brand, I look back and I say I wasn’t a born entrepreneur. I think I was a born entrepreneur, I think also I’m 41 years old, I’m a Gen X, frankly I view myself more of a millennial because I feel like there was a definitive line in the sand that I was taught from my father and that was that you have autonomy to create your own career. My dad was a traditional direct marketer. When he retired, he was the global director of direct database marketing for Avon. You can’t get more direct marketing than that. He always taught me, he would go from job to job and leap frog, double, triple his salary by going to another position. I’m like how do you do that? You seem so calm about that. He’s like it’s just the nature of our business.
When I had seen that, I knew that I can kind of leap frog and go to these different levels and continue to push my career. Back in 2004, I was a Director of Sales and I wanted to be a Vice President of Sales. It was purely out of my ambition that I decided to start leveraging tools. As a Director of Sales, I started going on interviews to be a Vice President of Sales. I loved my boss and my job, I didn’t have any intention to knock him off as a VP of Sales. I was like okay, I just need to go elsewhere, I’ve been here for three years, time to move on.
When I started going on the interview as a Director of Sales, head hunters kept saying you’re going to be a Director of Sales at this company and you’re going to make $10,000 more a year. I was like no, man, that’s not what I want to do. I want to be a Vice President of Sales, look up, that’s where I’m going here. My wife is pregnant, I need to go buy a house, I need the down payment for the house.
I realized that the only people that knew how good I was where my current clients and my boss and that was a problem. That’s when I launched my blog. It was really just being part of that digital ecosystem at the time I was working at an ad network, so there was all pay for performance affiliate marketing. I refer to it as the grumbling underbelly of the internet, the kind of tooth whitening, colon cleansing, ringtone getting ads in the internet.
I was like okay, I know that I’m smarter than some of the content that I’m reading out there, my colleagues are writing guest blog posts on major publications. I wrote a blog post, I’ll never forget, it was about MySpace. I coupled that with an idea that I had read in the Harvard Business Review about the fatal flaw of pay for performance for CEOs and how they find themselves in trouble with cooking the books and things of that nature. I wrote an opinion piece, it was my first blog post. Again, we’re talking 2004, 2005 here. I went on the interview to be a Vice President of Sales, first interview to be a VP of Sales, and I got the job because all the hiring manager wanted to do was talk about my blog post, didn’t even look at my resume, didn’t care about my resume.
He read the blog post because I forwarded it to the head hunter and said please send this to the hiring manager, and I call it my $260,000 blog post. I got a $200,000 base and a $60,000 signing bonus for that job. I was like oh mama, I am on to something. This technology and leveraging this, and it’s coupled with the idea that my father had burnt my brain that you can create your own reality and create your own career. Somehow, you forget that.
When you’re in a large corporation, sometimes you forget it. You get it brow beating out of you. You’re like okay, I’m going to stay in this little myopic cubicle and do my job over and over and over every single day and be great at it. But then all of a sudden you pick your head up and you look up and you’re like huh, I can do that, I’m just as smart as that guy, why not me? It was very empowering.
From there, it snowballed and that’s when I bought facebookshouldhireme.com and I started leveraging content from there. To be able to have the guts to reach out to Gary and then go out to New Jersey and meet with him at Wine Library and be like, “Bro, you need to hire me at Vayner Media.” He’s like, “Dude, you leave in [00:12:00], you have a mortgage and you have a family. I’m hiring 20 year olds right out of college. Go do social media and then we’ll talk.”
Two weeks later I got a job at Buddy Media and introduced him to Mike Lazerow, it worked out. It’s like alright, I don’t need to wait for gatekeepers. I think that’s something that people that are generating really great content within social media and doing really great things within digital, they don’t wait for permission, they just go and create. I think that’s the most beautiful thing that you can imagine for a human being. There’s a connection there.
On my first book, I lose the fact that I think social media is more of a spiritual awakening rather than a technological one. It’s just us trying to connect and create. I think that can be a pretty powerful thing to understand when you’re creating within social.
Nathan: Writing a blog post or an article for a huge publication might sound a little scary, what advice might you have for someone looking to build on a topic in their industry just go start, or what is your best advice?
Chris: Yeah, man. Nathan, you know this. Just start, baby. I started at a necessity but what I realized was I never tried to say okay, I’m going to write a blog post today. I wrote when I felt like writing, I wrote when something came up. As a sales executive, you’re on the front lines. You get asked a lot of questions. I would go through my frequently asked questions, what do prospects ask me when I’m taking a meeting with them? I would answer them one by one on a blog post.
At the end of the meeting, I would say and if you’re curious to learn a little bit more about how my brand works and how we approach things, go to chrisdessi.com. They did and they would read it. It would get the sale and I would also get job offers from those companies. “Wow, this guy knows what’s going on, this guy is paying attention to what’s happening within our industry.” If you’re good at what you do, you’re going to have an opinion. People freak out about it, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do. Sure, you do,
And then I encourage people to get more personal, to be a little bit more vulnerable when it comes to sharing content. I wrote all business all the time up until it was the night before my second daughter Olivia was born. She’s going to be six in December, six years ago. I’d only written about business until the night before she was born, I had a couple of glasses of wine in me.
She was going to do a C-section, I knew that she was coming the next day and I wrote an open letter to her. I was like this is what I wish for my baby girl. I wished there that you’re fulfilled in your life, that mommy and daddy provide you a wonderful home. I need you to know that you were wanted, that we tried to have you, that your sister can’t wait to meet you. The response was overwhelming. I was like oh wow, this is really interesting.
People freak out about that. They freak out about adding their own personality, they freak out about writing about things other than business and I think that’s a mistake. I get why, I get that they get concerned. Listen, don’t disparage your boss, don’t be a knucklehead, write things within the parameters of your interest. I write about cross-fit because I’m a little obsessed with crossfit. I write about motivation because I’m a very good self-motivator. I write about health, I write about diet, and I write about all the things that affect me as a family man and as a business owner because this is the stuff in my ecosystem.
If you’re a senior level executive at a major corporation and you’re encountering all those things as well, you don’t have to write just about your job, you can write about all the tertiary things that you encounter that have made you you, that have inspired you, and that your mentors taught you along the way.
Nathan: Why do you think it is then that that’s a good thing to do to combine work and personal life in the content that you create?
Chris: Because that’s business. I’ve never done business with somebody that hadn’t spent time with me and that I hadn’t spent time with as well. I say time, I don’t mean just in a conference room. It’s rare that you just go in and you sign a deal. What happens? You take two, three, four, five meetings. Over those two, three, four, five, six meetings, ten meetings, two years, one year, I’ve literally closed deals after four years of having conversations with people and I’m not kidding. When those deals close, what happens? You have conversation. In the conversation, what do you talk about? For starters, sometimes you talk about what you had for breakfast. People are like I don’t care what you had for breakfast. Yes, that’s how you bond as friends.
You talk about how good the coffee is, you talk about how amazing the Eggs Benedict is at that one particular restaurant, you talk about the weather. And then when you get a little bit warmer, you talk about your kids. You talk about coaching the soccer team. Then when you start really talking, you talk about going on vacation. Then, you mention going to South Carolina and playing the ocean course. And then they go oh, you play golf too? Then you say yeah, I play golf. When I was down there, I did crossfit. Wow, you’re a crossfitter too? You bond with somebody.
These are the things that I encourage people to talk about. What happens? When you finally meet that person, instead of being on the first impression, you’re now on the tenth impression. When I walk in a room, I know people Google me. You type in Chris Dessi, you’re going to see the first two pages of those results, I own them. When I say I own them, I mean they’re not all from me but I’ve created 90% of that content. That is my best Chris Dessi, that is the Chris Dessi that met his future father in law when I was dating my wife. It’s like Hey, Mr. Gallado, great to meet you.
It’s because it’s my blog post, it’s my Inc. articles, it’s video content that I’ve done, it’s my television appearances, it’s my books. This is all curated content. You can do it on a much smaller scale starting with blogging. People are like that sounds like a lot of hard work, life is hard. Oh, what’s the ROI? Here’s the ROI, I start here. I say it took me six years of blogging before a television producer Googled the term Social Media Guru and he found my blog. The reason he found my blog when it said social media guru was because I had written a blog post saying if anybody calls themselves a social media guru, they’re full of shit. The reason why I wrote that is because it changes so quickly.
CoSchedule, you guys do updates all the time, everything is changing, algorithms are changing, the hype social media platform is changing, nobody heard about Snapchat and all of a sudden it’s all about Snapchat. Things change so quickly.
He read that, he laughed just like you laughed, he copy and pasted my name into the Google search engine. He saw the results, he saw that I was on a video where I did a quarterly earnings report because the company that hired me, the VP was a German based company and I felt that me doing video was more of a connection instead of me just writing an update because of the language barrier. He saw that I could string a sense together on video.
He calls me up at 2:00, 6:00 that night I was on television on 6:00 news. That is definitive, deep ROI. Why? Because I took the opportunity, I was ready for it, and I ran with it. I did a television appearance that night at 6:00, this is years ago, and I’ve gone from Fox Local Affiliate in New York, to Good Day New York Local Affiliate, all of a sudden I’m sitting on the couch in the morning talking in the green room with celebrities and I’m chit-chatting about social media. This is back when Charlie Sheen was drinking tiger’s blood and all of that stuff.
We took commenting on that to being Fox Businesses Barney & Company to being on CNBC to being on MSNBC to talking about Facebook Stock IPO then to talk about Twitter’s earnings call. I don’t know anything about finances, I’m not a finance guy, but they call me up because they like my perspective. All of this, everything that I just went through, everything is because I started that one blog post because I was a director of sales and I wanted to be a vice president of sales and I knew that nobody knew how good I was except for my clients and my boss.
Nathan: If you had just let your articles be strictly about business and not personal, there’s this thing in marketing where people buy products from people they know, like, and trust. It sounds like exactly what you’ve done with some of this more personal stuff, sharing those stories about the open letter to turn daughter. I know you’ve written more stuff about that, obviously, but that definitely hits that deeper level of just the relationship through content.
Chris: It doesn’t have to be so personal. Listen, I get it, I’m a mushy Italian guy from New York, this is just me. I’m a bleeding heart. Yesterday was September 11, my friend was murdered on September 11th, he was the captain of my rugby team at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m sitting there and I’m crying. I’m watching TV and there’s tears coming down my eyes, my eight year old and my five year old are sitting on my lap and they’re concerned. “Daddy, why are you crying?” I’m saying because today is a sad day. It was a sensitive conversation, very difficult for an eight year old and a five year old to understand, but those are the type of things that I blog about. I’ve blogged about Shawn before in the past, but some people aren’t comfortable with that is my point and that’s okay. You don’t have to be a bleeding heart Italian guy from New York, you just got to be yourself.
That’s the bigger lesson. When I say talk about personal things, I mean talk about things outside of the office. What are you into? What are the things that you’re interested in? That’s gonna help you get a sale, that’s going to help build trust, that’s going to help people come back to your blog when it’s not just all business. Or listen, if you’re an accountant and it’s all about taxation, super. Talk about taxation, but listen, you’re going to get a lot more readership or a lot more viewership if you’re talking about I can make numbers sexy. How do you make numbers sexy? Do neat things with numbers and then give us all tips and tricks about how to do our taxes at the end of the year so we get a few more thousand dollars from Uncle Sam.
Nathan: I’m really sorry to hear about your friend, by the way.
Chris: Thanks man, I appreciate it.
Nathan: Tying this back to all the great advice that you’ve provided recently, how can marketers use some of this to stay relevant in these presumably drab industries?
Chris: I had a meeting. I can’t say who the CEO was, somebody that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. He’s running a multi-million dollar organization that deals in construction. We were having this conversation. We become very good friends and we’re talking about it and he’s like, “Chris, I don’t understand what’s the ROI here.” I said well, have you ever made a sale where somebody just hired you guys? No. I said okay, how can you make the sale? Well, because I’ve known them, I have a reputation, I’ve been able to talk about my expertise, they understand, everybody of the project managers and what they bring to the table, and the architects that we work with understand how we operate and it’s all about internal processes and operations.
I said okay, is any of that in any of your marketing material? “Not really. Well, this is more about the soft touch, it’s me, it’s my conversation.” If you can take that qualitative stuff that you just spoke about, not the meat and potatoes quantitative this is how much we’re going to build your building for or design your restaurant for, the qualitative stuff. You can articulate that not just to the people that have hired you in the past but the possible people that would hire you in the future. Guess what? Potential clients that you have never ever ever conceived of or thought of before, then do you think that this will be of value. He was like oh, okay. Now I get it, cool, thank you.
That’s all it is. We work with companies that are energy companies, Blue Rock Energy up in New York, Phil Vanhorn is the CEO of Blue Rock Energy. That is the least sexy topic that you can possibly talk about but there are ways of making it sexy. Phil Vanhorn didn’t start as an entrepreneur, he started as an intrapreneur in a major corporation so we talk about that from his blog. We talk about his ideas about different legislation and rulings around energy.
We talk about how they power the Buffalo Bill Stadium and the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclay Center. We combine that with things that we’re doing with social media influencers. We had Brodie Smith doing frisbee trick shots saying power up, the Blue Rock Energy tag line wearing a Brooklyn Net Shirt to tie it all back into Blue Rock Energy. It takes thought. This stuff is hard, this takes a lot of work. I’m not saying that any of this is easy but you can take a very drab industry and you can make it very sexy.
People are going to say, “Chris, I’m in finance and I can’t do that.” I get it, I’m going to shake your hand and I’m going to say, “Super, because Silverback also writes social media policy and compliance statements for major financial organizations. There’s certain things they can’t say. Why? Because they can potentially sway markets.” But, that’s also not to stop anybody from writing content about them or them not to be able to be included in certain articles or for them not to be able to blog within the restrictions and the parameters of that organization that might just talk about business but maybe a little soft touch, maybe a little bit about a state planning when somebody’s parent is terminally ill.
I wrote a blog post about my former financial planner who I had a really good personal relationship with because part of that really good relationship was born from the fact that the way he spoke to my mother when my father was diagnosed with ALS Disease and was terminally ill, we were talking about their estate. It was a very difficult conversation to have so I wrote a blog post about he and his business partner, how impressed I was, and they were able to use that in their newsletter. They didn’t write it, it was somebody from the outside.
You can potentially solicit feedback and constructive content like that so that you can use it in your newsletter if you are from a boring industry, be aware of it. Say every time you have a great experience with somebody, ask for that feedback. “Hey, can I get you on video for two minutes? We’re going to use it for our blog content.” It’s content marketing.
Nathan: Definitely is. I think the idea of the energy company tying it back to something that people really care about with sports or I think other people can relate to some of those entrepreneur stories for someone who’s in a large company. There are other people in those shoes. You connected the dots between what people know and what their audience may care about. I think that’s content marketing at its finest.
Chris: Yeah, and again it is hard. That stuff doesn’t happen in the breadth that I just said. We’ve been working with Blue Rock Energy for four years, that’s four years of strategy meetings, a lot of time of kicking ideas around and getting things wrong a lot of the times. It still can add a benefit to be able to get to that certain point, find those different common grounds, and have a piece of content that will resonate with the potential audience, with current audience, or a new audience that you never conceived of before.
Nathan: Definitely. Chris, it looks like it’s about time to wrap this up. Before I end, I want to know…
Chris: Man, where did the time go?
Nathan: I know, it’s gone so fast. I want to know what’s the next big thing on your to do list?
Chris: The next big thing on my to do list, like literal, tactical this week what’s the big thing that I’m doing? I’ll do different. The next big thing that we’re doing is top secret and I can’t talk about it. There is one top secret project that maybe this time next year I can talk about with you. The literal, this week, I’m going to keynote MBO 16 in Indianapolis and I’m really excited about that with a bunch of really intelligent digital marketers out there in Indi. I’ve got family out there so my wife and my kids are going to meet up with me, we’re going to hang out in Indianapolis, so I’m really excited about the MBO 16 event.
Other stuff that we’re doing is just continuing to do great work on behalf of our clients. I am hitting the pause button on writing any more books, I’m not going to do that for a little while I think. We’re just going to head down grinding away. That’s the big project, do the best possible work that we can on behalf of our clients.
Nathan: I totally get it. Chris, thanks a lot for being here. I think it was just fun to hear that all of this starts with one blog post. You don’t have to think about it further, and I think that’s my big takeaway. Start, get better at it, and improve. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today and for sharing where all of us marketers can look to just start building our own influence in whatever industry we’re in. This was fun, man.
Chris: Thanks, Nathan. I appreciate it, buddy.