Everyone’s on social media, right? It may sound crazy, but that’s not exactly true. Some people delete personal and/or professional profiles to simplify marketing and grow their business.
Today’s guest is John Meese from Platform University. John is one of few marketers and entrepreneurs without personal social media profiles. Why? He has his reasons.
Welcome, John. Thanks for coming on the show.
John: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. I'm glad to be here.
Ben: Absolutely. For our listeners, would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself and explain what you do at Platform University?
John: Sure, I'd be happy to. My name is John Meese. There’s a lot of John's out there, so I always put my last name on there. What I do with Platform University is I'm the dean of a self-proclaimed university where we simplify online marketing for professionals. Notice we said “simplify” because what most people are looking for today is not another pile of a hundred tactics or tips and tricks they can try, but wanting to know like, “Okay, where do I actually need to focus? What is actually going to drive results?”
I lead a team there where we're focused on creating training material to help people do that, to help them take their expertise online, usually in the form of either a blog, or a podcast like this, or a YouTube channel. The focus there is really how can we simplify marketing in the efforts to grow your business? That's what I do there.
Married with three kids. Platform University is one of three businesses that I run. It's the bulk of my attention, but I'm an entrepreneur in the pure sense of the word. That's a lot of what I'm up to.
Ben: Very cool. Something that we're going to talk about throughout the course of this interview is social media and the importance of having a strategy. Something that is really interesting that we should touch on—before we go any further—is the fact that you don't use any social media accounts. Would you care to explain why?
John: How dare I? I will say, at one point I did. I guess the shortest way to explain why I got off social media is not because I don't like it, it's because I like it too much. I think that there's really two different—depending on what your situation is—there's probably two different ways you need to think about whether or not to be off social media, but for me, I thought here, “Okay, there's the profession argument for, “What does this do for my business,” and then there's a personal argument of, “What does this do for myself?”
Personally, in my role, there are a lot of high leverage things I need to focus on. I started making a list of all the things that I felt like I should do that I wasn't doing like publishing more consistent content on my blog, writing more content for the Teach it Forward newsletter—which is a newsletter that I do through Platform University—leading my team, planning ahead, and also spending time with my wife and kids, and just being focused with them.
I couldn't really find a good reason why I wasn't doing those things, but I looked at what I was doing. It was Instagram stories, and browsing LinkedIn, and Twitter. I've been on Twitter for years and years and years. I read the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and this was already in my mind when this happened. That I was like something needed to change. He had some really good advice in there, which I took. He said, “Look, don't commit to just deleting everything, but take a digital detox. Take a detox.”
I took 30 days where I reset the password on every one of my social media accounts and didn't save it. Sure, I could have gone forgot password, and reset it, and gone back in there. We've all done that, but I essentially went for 30 days, and then 60 days, and then 90 days without having logged into any of my social media accounts: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I didn't miss it. At first, it was weird because it was weird downtime in my calendar—I mean not in my calendar—but I would just find myself sitting there and realize, “Why do I feel like something's missing? Oh, it's because normally, I would be scrolling Instagram right now.”
I didn't even know I had little two minute blocks of free time throughout my day because they just disappeared. After about 90 days of that, I reset my passwords just so I could login and delete them—delete those accounts. I deleted all of my social media accounts. I guess it was at the end of last year.
Ben: Okay. Wow, interesting. That's with your personal social accounts, and then for your businesses, is it the same deal?
John: I'll tell you what it is. What I've done with my businesses is I've changed our default thinking. In other words, the default is there is no social media versus most people today the default is you have all the social media accounts. I've changed it so the default is there is no social media. Then we evaluate as a marketing channel, just like any other marketing channel, “Should we be using social media?”
Until ultimately, for Cowork Columbia—the co-working space I owned—we decided that Instagram was actually a good marketing channel. I also knew that it still wasn't a high leverage for me to spend time on that, so I delegated that to my team. We have an Instagram account that they manage.
The same thing goes for Platform University. We realize, “Okay, we actually really need to. We rely on paid advertising—a decent amount—and so let's go ahead and prioritize spending some time and money building out a team who can build content for the Facebook page and the Instagram page for Platform University.”
By changing the default, all we've really done is we've said that you have to evaluate the channel. You have to say, “What does this do for my business?” Which is not what most people are doing. Most people are just saying, “I'm on social media because everyone's on social media.” Actually, I have a hunch why that is. Could I share a little bit on that? I don't know if I’m allowed.
Ben: Absolutely. Go for it.
John: Okay. I have a hunch. I don't think social media is evil. I think it's a tool just like everything else, but I think that there's a really clear reason in the system baked into it in terms of why so many people have rushed to social media as the answer to growing their business. It's because it's not the most effective marketing tool available today, but it is the most visible marketing tool available today.
If you look at your competitors—if you're succeeding and you look at other people. If you're not succeeding—if you're just starting, and you're looking at other people who are succeeding—you're saying, “Well, what are they doing?” The other people that are succeeding, the only thing that they're doing that you can see is their social media activity because you can see they're posting, and they get comments, and shares, and likes.
Part of your brain turns that correlation into causality—sorry, my economic squeeze coming out—but part of the perception it just becomes like, “Oh, well A plus B equals C, right?” They have active social media, and they're successful, so therefore active social media account must lead to a successful business.
A lot of people who follow that path get frustrated. We see that so many times with people who come to Platform University and say, “Look, I've been trying to build my platform. I've been posting on Instagram stories every day, and I'm just not making money. We're like, “Well, yes. That is actually common.” It's because there has to be a bigger strategy. While social media is the most visible marketing tool, it is not the most effective today—as I'm sure you know with CoSchedule on everything you guys are doing.
The reality is what you can't see when you look at your competitors. What you can't see is how many are how many subscribers are on their email list, and how many people are opening those emails, and clicking from those emails over to their website. You can't see how many people search for something on Google that led them to your website. You can't see how many people jumped on the phone and did a sales call.
If you're not part of that company—from the outside looking in—you can't see any of that. All you can see is social media, and so it becomes this visibility bias that the only thing you can see is social media, so, therefore, that must be the only thing they're doing. The reality is, it's probably part of a much bigger strategy.
Ben: What you're saying is short of committing some sort of corporate subterfuge where you were stealing your competitor’s data. It's easy to be misled by big numbers and a flashy presence that may not be impacting the bottom line in the ways that we might see.
John: Totally, totally. We can look at these companies and see that they're financially successful without having to hack anything. Sometimes it's just they're on the Inc. 5000, and so they've you know disclosed their financials, which you guys have been on the Inc. 5000, and we've been on the Inc. 5000 for a couple years as well. You can see some of these financials, and then you can see their social media, and that's all the information you have, so you don't really know where that's coming from.
I can say from us and from all of our students, where they're seeing success is first and foremost is email. It’s the old tried-and-true tool that's worked for more than 20 years in terms of having an online business that generates revenue, in terms of email subscribers being more likely to actually buy products and use them than social media followers. Then search engine optimization—for most of us—is this invisible thing that drives a huge amount of traffic into blog post content that leads to subscriptions, which leads to sales. All of that stuff.
I view social media, and we tell our Platform University students this, “It's great to have an outlet, an outpost, or an embassy.” We often call it an embassy where you think a social media embassy is where you can connect to people who aren't already part of your tribe. You can actually bring them back to your audience. You can bring them back to your website and back to your email list, but don't think of it as the core thing. You think of it as an outpost because that's what it is.
Ben: Sure, sure. That makes sense. I'm a marketer, and I'm hearing this. I felt that I was led to believe one way or another that one social media platform or another was going to be the magic bullet for my business growth, but now, let's say you've convinced me to take a more strategic or a more thoughtful approach maybe to channel selection or figure out why you're there, like what is your purpose for being there and investing your time and energy into it?
What could a marketer do in that position to determine whether or not a particular social media marketing channel makes sense for their brand? What could they do to narrow down which ones maybe do and don't for them?
John: It's a little different depending upon if you're already there and you're thinking about getting off, or if you're just getting started and you're thinking about getting on. There are a couple of things that are similar, which is you want to back up and just forget about platforms for a minute. Forget Facebook, Twitter, and all that exists. Just think about the people in terms of who are the actual real people that you're creating real solutions to solve real problems for? That's what we're doing in business. You're creating real solutions to real problems for real people.
If you back up and you think about that, get clear on—you probably have some framework for how you already think about this in terms of calling it your avatar or your target customer—how does your product make their life better? Get clear on that. Just take what you already know or can find out about your target customer and work backward. Where do they already spend time online? Don't make your social media selection about you, make it about them. Where are they already spending time online?
Then secondarily—this is totally related though—recognize that your resources are limited. Your time and your financial resources are limited. You will have more success if you hyper-focus on one or maybe two channels than trying to be everywhere. I would say recognize, “Okay, where is my audience? Where are they spending a lot of time already where I could get in front of them in order to share with them, and how I could help them?”
If you come at it from that attitude then it becomes a lot more obvious. Because then if you get clear in your target audience, you realize, “Okay, I looked at the demographics for my audience and found out that according to this research study.” Maybe even a new audience you can just look at research and you can say, “According to such and such research study, it looks like that women between the ages of 35 and 45—who are part of my target audience—spend a lot of time on Instagram.”
I'm going to figure out what pages they're following, and what accounts they're already following. I'm going to pay attention and create content that matches what they're interested in because you also have to vary your content by platform. You can't just take the same message and copy and paste it in every social media platform. We're all over that, everyone's over that. It doesn't work because people just tune it out. You want to be personal and relatable.
That's what I would say philosophically, and then I would say data-wise—in terms of actionable data—if you already have social media presence and all, get clear and what's the conversion that you're tracking? Don't track follows or likes. Are you trying to get people to come to your website and join your email list? In which case, make sure you're using a tool like Google Analytics to track your conversion rates from platforms.
Maybe you realize you get a ton of traffic from Instagram and you get less tracking from Facebook, but maybe Facebook is a higher conversion rate. Then all of a sudden you're like, “Well, that's interesting. What if I spend some more time on Facebook?” You want to look at what percentage of people coming from these platforms become email subscribers, or become trial customers, or book a call. Whatever the conversion is you're tracking, that you really just need to track those results just like you would if it was paid advertising because, with paid advertising, it’s the same idea. You're paying money and time somewhere. Even with quote-free social media marketing.
Ben: It's worth remembering here that John isn't saying that social media is bad, or that you shouldn't do marketing on social media. What he is saying though is that like any other channel or tactic, you need to have a strategy for what you're doing on social media, and you need to know exactly why you're on any given channel in order for that channel to really provide any meaningful benefit for your business. Before you go burn down your entire professional or business social media presence, instead simply ask this one question, what is my strategy here? The answers that you get from that question will help guide you into what you should be doing next.
You've gotten past the channel selection phase, you know where your people are at, you have a sense of where you can find where people are already hanging out, and how you can just meet them there. What would be the next step in developing a social media strategy? Going beyond just figuring out which channels to be on and who you're trying to reach, what's the next step beyond that?
John: I started to allude to this, but I'm happy to dive a little bit deeper. The next step is to identify, not just the platforms where your audience already is, but what are the profiles they're already following? Let's use Instagram as an example. You can look at the most popular accounts in your industry, or you can look at accounts that seem to have a lot of comments from people who look like your target customer. It's a little manual at first, but you can use that even if you just identify 10 accounts that are really perfect examples of the kind of engagement you want. You'll find out what's already working.
I really love to find what's already working and not trying to recreate the wheel, but then I would go from there and figure out what's your version of that? I wouldn't duplicate their content exactly, but if they're posting a lot of content that seems very—well, so here's a real-life example from Platform University.
For years, we've had very polished content. Hire the video crew, have them come into the studio, have actors and make, and the lighting setup, and then just create this really amazing phenomenal content. We've been a membership site online for seven years. Five years ago, that was a big deal because nobody was doing that online, so it was a differentiator.
Today, if you look at what's working—and not what we're doing—but just look at what's working, then it's a lot of this raw organic content where people are just pulling their phone. They're dressed, and they're just jumping out there and be like just to talk to a friend.
We've started changing that where even the last video shoot we did—we actually did a video shoot for a video series we were doing. We left the angle so that you could see some of the lighting and equipment. There's a point where the crew—we planned it so the crew walks behind. We just try to find ways we could actually still emphasize that we're investing in the quality, but bring it down a notch in terms of making it feel professional or sterile.
I would say do something similar. That's just our example, but look at what's working online, and then replicate that for yourself.
Ben: That sounds like a great approach to figuring out what works and not spending a whole lot of time and energy trying to reinvent the wheel upfront. Let's say you've gotten to that point, you've figured out what works, you know what people like, but you find maybe that's not really differentiating yourself. If a brand or a marketer was interested at that point maybe in trying to stand out rather than to blend in, what would you recommend they try?
John: Anybody who really spends a lot of time managing paid social media marketing campaigns will tell you that in today's market—right now at least—your priority is to stop the scroll. They're actually looking at like we’re running ad content. We're not trying to be jarring or in people's faces, but we are trying to figure out how can we be just different enough from everything around you?
You got to think, “What is the person doing? They're sitting there on their phone probably—more than half of people are on social media, are on their phone—and they're scrolling. They're just scrolling past posts from friends, and family, and businesses on Instagram, or Facebook, whatever platform they're using. You got to figure out, “Okay, what can you do to stand out?”
If it's a video content that you're creating, then that can be a comical thumbnail. Maybe it's you catch yourself in a weird facial expression or something. You got to just be human because this is what people are looking for is that when they're in social media, no one thinks, “You know what I’m going to do? I'm going to open my phone and see if I can find an ad.” No. Maybe marketers do that. Sometimes marketers do that. We do that because we're curious.
Ben: Let's be real, we're nerds.
John: We're nerds, yeah. We're not normal people. Yes, we are total nerds. If you can instead back up and say, “Okay, no. These are people who are looking for—I mean they're craving connection is what they're doing.” They're craving some sort of human connection in social media, especially—well, I won't say too much about the current platform we're in, but especially right now, people are just craving connection. How can you connect to them? How can you connect to what they're doing?
I would say, think about content that sticks out because you're willing to be vulnerable, because you're willing to put yourself in less than polished state with a funny thumbnail, or an image, or a headline that just grabs attention without being misleading. That's really key. One thing that's really important to remember about social media is I like to think about social media as this metaphor of the coffee shop.
It's the place where everybody's going to get coffee, and they've got a couple of minutes. They just sit there at the bar, they're drinking their coffee. They look around, and they're open to conversation because they have a five-minute break. In a coffee shop, it would not be appropriate to walk into a coffee shop and be like, “Excuse me, everyone. I am doing a live training right now, right here in front of you, and I want you to tune in and stop whatever you're doing because this is going to change your life, and it's $10,000.”
It just doesn't work. Imagine a lot of marketers are doing right now that aren't working. Imagine them in a coffee shop setting. You got to think, “Well, what would I do in a coffee shop?” I might find something of interest of conversation with whatever they're already interested in looking at and find a way to connect that back to my business or what I do. Then I would say, “Let's take the conversation further.”
I wouldn't do the whole sales pitch right there. I would just give them something of value. I might give them a flyer that's like, “Oh, actually we created a free training on that. Here, you can have a copy of my book. Go ahead take that, and if that's helpful let me know. By the way, can I have your email address, and I'll follow up with you in a week or a day?” Who else waits a week?
You want to think through what would work in a coffee shop because people have their guard up. You got to figure out how do you disarm them by really just caring more than the next guy, and being a little more human, and relatable.
Ben: Got you. I love that coffee shop metaphor, especially because when you actually think about—I mean you see things like this all the time. If you're still on social media.
John: I peek. I still peek. I have to know a little about what's going on.
Ben: Sometimes, you'll see things and you'll just think, “If this was a real human in a real physical space, this would be insufferable.”
John: Don't be that guy.
Ben: Yeah. As simple as that sounds, I really do think that that's a very transformative piece of advice. To play off that thought, I think there are some things in what you have to share that have touched on some of these things already, but in your mind, what would you say are maybe one or two of the biggest mistakes that you commonly see brands make when it comes to developing a social strategy?
John: Some of this is just going to be recapping things that I already said not to do. The first is defaulting to be everywhere. Literally, there are tools out there that help you do this where you go, “Okay. I'm going to buy a domain, and I'm going to set up 12 social media accounts.” It's the same step. It's the same process. I would say don't, back up from that. Default to no marketing channels, and then evaluate each one.
Should you focus on SEO? Should you focus on Facebook? Should you focus on YouTube? Don't think of social media as one channel, it's not. YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are all very different social media platforms. Oh, sorry, Snapchat. I think you still exist. They're all very, very different platforms. Default to none, default to having no marketing channels and evaluate each one as you go.
Then the second thing I would say is to really focus on—I don't know what the second thing I would say is. I think that's the biggest piece of advice I would give because if you do that, if you default to having no social media accounts, then you have to make the case. You have to make the argument. It may seem like a strange conversation to ask the guy next to you and be like, “Okay, make a case for why we should be on Instagram.” Because their first response is going to be like, “What are you talking about? Everyone's on Instagram.”
That was not a good argument in preschool, and it's still not a good argument just because everyone's doing it. It hasn't gotten better as an argument.
Ben: It hasn't aged well.
John: That's not aged well. Just because everyone's doing it is not actually a good reason to do it. Anyway, it's like working against yourself because you don't want to be like everyone. The average paid advertising campaign on social media has a -50% ROI. 85% of businesses fail within the first five years. You don't want to do what everyone else is doing. You want to be different. You want to be the exception, so then push a little bit further into those.
Then the second thing I would say is track your results. You don't have to go full nerd. There are lots of really cool tools out there. You can get all into UTM, those urchin tracking metrics that we all love so much. You can get into all of that, or you can just set up a Google Analytics account and just literally do nothing to it other than create it and it starts tracking something. It's not super advanced, but it gives you the basic idea of what's going on with your website. Connect that to whatever email marketing tool you're using whether it's ConvertKit, or HubSpot, or what-have-you.
I would say if you treat organic social media just like paid social media, you need to have an ROI. That's just the only way to do ads is you have to have an ROI. It's the only way that they succeed. If you really just put organic social media in the same category and treat it the same way, then you'll differentiate yourself from 90% of the markers out there.
Ben: That's awesome, and that also does it for all the questions I had prepared. Before I let you go, John, is there anything else that you wanted to add or maybe anything else that you feel is important that you haven't touched on?
John: Oh, wow. So much. What we're talking about social media is one piece of the bigger strategy of how do you succeed in your business? This really comes out of just a philosophy of work smarter, not harder. I am fully intending to succeed, but I am fully intending to succeed not by hustle, not by working crazy hours and making my family and kids suffer, but by working smarter. By saying like, “Where are the few things I do that drive the most results?” I would encourage you to do the same that just to recognize that there's this fly out there which says, “The only way to succeed is to kill yourself.” It's a lie, acknowledge it as such, and behave differently. It's the first thing I would say.
Then secondly I would say, if this conversation has been helpful and you want to dive a little bit deeper, I write a weekly newsletter that’s called Teach it Forward—that's free—where we dive into a specific tactic or tip at the very, very specific something hands-on you can do immediately, and it's written mostly for professionals who want to grow in on that audience, but it's almost all marketing tips.
It's probably helpful if you're interested in diving a little bit deeper. That's free. It's just something I want to give away and just highlight as an option. We're all marketers, we know how this works, we’ll get your email address. You can go to a platformuniversity.com/actionable if you want to sign up for that.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.