How this trendsetting entrepreneur mastered the zen of social media
If you're a devout believer in social media, then Shama Kabani is a messiah. If you consider it merely a tool of our times, she is a master craftswoman. And if it's still an enigma to you, she might be able to shed some light on this new and ubiquitous part of society.
Kabani is the founder and president of The Marketing Zen Group, a digital marketing firm specializing in social media, and author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing. In addition, she hosts a web tv show (shama.tv), is an international speaker, and in 2009 Business Week named her as a top 25 entrepreneur under 25 in North America.
Today, social media seems integrated into almost everything, yet few were as quick to realize the potential of the trend as Kabani. After graduate school, she applied to 18 different companies, each of which passed on the woman who FastCompany.com would later call "an online marketing shaman" and a "master of the millennial universe." Instead of giving up on her passion she started her own company, and the rest is, well, on Wikipedia.
Social media marketing isn't like traditional marketing - and treating it that way only leads to frustration. In this book, Kabani teaches you the "zen" of social media marketing: how to get the benefits of social media marketing without the stress.
With a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Chris Brogan, The Zen of Social Media Marketing outlines the most popular social media tools, from Facebook to Twitter to Google+, and teaches you how to use them, step by step. Kabani provides proven strategies from the businesses she works with every day, along with shortcuts and tips to help you make the most of your time and energy.
This 2012 edition includes the latest Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn updates, along with new information on Google+, social media advertising, and more.
Color Magazine: On the rise of social media, how did you see it coming and how did you become an expert in it?
Shama Kabani: I was in graduate school in 2007 and I studied organizational communication. This was the time when Twitter was just emerging and social networking was just peaking its head out, not even in its infancy I would say, but I was fascinated by it. I had a graduate advisor who was extremely supportive of my decision to explore social media, which was not the phrase it is today - people didn't know what that was. In the academic world you're looking for trends and what's new. I had a very encouraging graduate advisor and I started following my passion.
I remember going to a conference in Las Vegas called BlogWorld and New Media Expo and it had just a few hundred people attending. I remember Twitter had 2,000 users - it has 275 million now - and just being enthralled by this whole new world that was peaking out. That same conference has grown so big in the last two years alone. that they now host one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast because of the thousands of people who attend.
CM: I remember when I first heard what Twitter was and I couldn't understand why it was becoming so popular. What did you see in it?
SK: It's a good question. I studied it from an academic standpoint, I did my thesis on Twitter because I had the same questions: Why are people using social networking? Why are the numbers growing by the hundreds of thousands by the day? What I found in my research was that this was more than people being in social networks, and people connecting, it was a dramatic shift, a changing in society. We were going from a culture of press doing media - which of course is huge - to people being the media. I saw that shift and that's why I started writing about it.
CM: Most company's were slow to pick up on this. How did they miss out on this early on, and how did they miss out on hiring you?
SK: Yup, 18 companies rejected me. When you are a big corporation, you have a lot of red tape. It's harder to move. Back then, social media wasn't that big and they didn't see all of the repercussions. I think they felt like it was a fad. Just think about websites and how long it took for a lot of companies to even get a website - the internet was a fad! Social media seemed like something the kids do. In that time that was partially true - Facebook was only open to college students - it didn't have the vast business potential that we see now.
CM: It seems like there's a new social medium appearing fairly often. How do we spot the fads versus the ones we should pay attention to?
SK: A lot of it is history and what makes a good social networking site. Google Plus, for example, that's going to be important. And here's why, it's run by Google and Google controls a big chunk of the search that happens. If it was any-other-company plus, it wouldn't have the same power. So you look at those kinds of things, who is behind a certain company, what kind of hold do they already have in the online world. There's another social network called Pinterest and their users have nearly doubled almost every single week since they've launched. You have to look at those trends to see what to focus on next.
CM: You're releasing a second edition of your book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing. What are the new trends that you discuss?
SK: Of course Facebook itself has changed so much, really going from a place where people connect to being the digital timeline and digital platform for people. Social advertising - things like groupon, group buying, Facebook advertising - these have really come to the forefront. We covered Google Plus extensively, online video has had a lot of changes happening in terms of the growth and different mediums available. If I could, I would write a new edition everyday!
CM: You emigrated from India when you were nine. How has your background affected your career?
SK: In a big way. The school system in India is very different. The focus there is much more on discipline, memory-based and very analytical skills. The U.S. education system is more about creative thinking, teamwork, independent critical thinking. Different skills are weighed differently. I think that because I came here at the age of nine, I got the best of both worlds. I felt like I had that discipline ingrained in me from doing the Indian - well Catholic school really - then coming here and having a very different skill set emphasized. I certainly think I grew up a little faster than other kids my age.
CM: When you started your company you were an expert in social media, but you had to learn to become a CEO and leader. Can you talk about that process?
SK: The expertise, that's the easy part, being the CEO that's really challenging. Everyday is a learning process. With a bigger organization I think you have more structure. When you build a company from scratch and and you're used to wearing many hats, and then you have people who take away those hats, you have to really figure out what your job is within the company. I feel like mine's not so much a CEO but really a chief value officer. I measure my work as, how are we adding value to our clients, to our internal team, and then providing value to a greater audience. We have a global audience who reads our blog, watches our videos, so we serve a much bigger audience than just our clientele.
CM: Do you now see yourself as a mentor?
SK: I do see myself as a mentor. I actually mentored a group of young Egyptian women entrepreneurs who are starting the equivalent of iVillage for the middle east and the Arabic speaking part of the world. There's lots of startup competition and they are doing very well. I've been mentoring them using Skype. [Laughs.]
CM: Is social media one field where being younger increases your credibility?
SK: Certainly age has its advantage no matter where you are in the spectrum. My husband is a lawyer and he's young. Clients will say, 'You're young to be a lawyer,' even though he's essentially paid his dues. In my case I've had clients say, 'Oh good you're young. You grew up with this stuff, this stuff is innate to you.' I don't know if being younger makes me better at my job, but there's certainly that perception and it helps us. If I were starting a law firm instead of a cutting-edge web marketing agency, it would be a lot harder to grow it, because you're judged using a different bar.
CM: What are the most successful social media strategies you're seeing right now?
SK: The smartest companies are doing two things. One, they're integrating social media as part of their bigger picture, because that's where the [Return on Investment] really lies. Meaning you don't get anything for tweets, you don't get anything for your Facebook page, but you do get something when, for example, you do an event, and PR works with social media to leverage those platforms. Or take search engine optimization for example, that team works with the social media team to make sure that the stuff that they're doing is not only good for building relationships, but also it's helping get ranked in Google [searches]. There are so many nuances that I think the best companies are the ones that are integrating it.
The other thing that good companies are doing is realizing that social media is about the individual, not about the company. One of the things that I found when I was doing my thesis, was that the number one reason people use social networking is to showcase their own identity. It is very much a digital mirror. The companies that are good at that are saying, 'How can we be that brand that people want to connect with?' It doesn't have to be sexy, it doesn't have to be a consumer brand, it's all about providing value. The biggest mistake I see companies making is mistaking the medium for the message. Great, you're on twitter, but what do you have to say?
CM: I feel like the generic advice to professionals is to not post anything online that you wouldn't want an employer to see. Is that still the case?
SK: You absolutely have to be very careful, now more then ever perhaps. I was speaking to a group on social media and parenting. One of the statistics I came across in my research was a survey done by ADG, the anti-virus company. They found that 82 percent of kids, by the age of two already have some sort of digital footprint. That's staggering. But think about grandparents posting pictures of their grandkids, people now put up sonograms, I'm not sure what that's all about! [Laughs.] But people share things, and it starts long before you are even able to consciously control it.
Especially people looking for jobs have to realize that the web is like a digital canvas and the idea isn't to avoid getting paint on it, but how can I really create a masterpiece. I think that people are asking, what do I need to hide, when they should be asking, what do I want to showcase.
CM: You've stressed giving back as a part of your company and something that all companies should do. Why?
SK: Because its a really short life! I feel like if your business isn't doing something good and you're not giving back, then your impact is so limited. As cliché as it sounds, I realized that to whom much is given, much is expected, and I've lived by that. For successful business owners and CEOs, so much is given. Even just living in this country, the infrastructure we have, the resources we have. If we don't give back it's really sort of a waste isn't it?
When I was in Cairo and we were talking about this very subject with a bunch of CEOs, one of them said, 'Social entrepreneurship is almost a misnomer, because to be an entrepreneur is very much to give back.' Maybe the new wave of thinking is that its not just about the bottom line, but the bottom impact you are having on the world.