Riding the Hashtag in Social Media Marketing
About once a week, Gary Vaynerchuk posts a Twitter message that reads, “Is there anything I can do for you?” He means it literally. He is inviting his roughly one million followers to send requests for any kind of help or favor. And if you respond, he will try to punch you in the face.
This will not be a conventional punch in the face, but a Vaynerchukian punch, which turns out to be the opposite of violent. Mr. Vaynerchuk, 37, is a social media marketer with some very big clients, and he’s a tireless self-promoter. Anyone fitting that description is all but required to find novel ways to win attention and coin catchphrases, and his new favorite is “jab, jab, jab, right hook.” That is also the name of his coming book, which is due out this month and is subtitled “How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy, Social World.”
A jab, in Mr. Vaynerchuk’s lexicon, is anything of value — a joke, an idea, an introduction. Or a meal. Not long ago, a follower in Minnesota joshingly responded to one of his can-I-help tweets with a request for a cheeseburger. The next day, a cheeseburger was delivered to the guy’s home. When a follower in Canada wrote “Just ran out of Tabasco,” Mr. Vaynerchuk overnighted eight bottles.
It’s unclear how a smack in the jaw came, in Mr. Vaynerchuk’s ever-churning imagination, to mean a gift. But after he delivers a few jabs, he — or the many companies that hire him to promote their brands through VaynerMedia, his agency based in Manhattan — can then hit you with a right hook, which in his world translates into a request to buy something.
Jab, jab, jab, right hook means give, give, give, ask. “A funny thing happens when you give value up front,” he is fond of saying. “You guilt people into buying stuff.”
On a sunny September afternoon, Mr. Vaynerchuk was sitting in the back of a taxi, jabbing one Twitter follower after another on his iPhone. He had just delivered a speech in SoHo at the 99U Pop-Up School and was on his way to lecture a room full of social data specialists at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
In between, he rummaged through postings with the hashtag #99school, many of them raves about the talk he had just finished.
“Great talk by @garyvee at #99school today,” one tweet read. “Helped me understand how Twitter has evolved & I really liked the ‘Jab-jab-jab-hook’ idea.”
As the taxi rolled uptown, Mr. Vaynerchuk wrote back, “That means a lot to me man.”
Naturally, this brief acknowledgment was strategic.
“I’ll literally jab, jab, jab, right-hook this guy,” Mr. Vaynerchuk explained. “I gave him good information, he then responded to it, I appreciated him saying something nice about me. I later will ask if he has pre-ordered the book, and he’ll say, ‘No, but I’m going to do it right now.’ ”
70 Tweets a Day
If reducing virtually all human interaction to purely transactional terms isn’t your style, you probably should avoid Gary Vaynerchuk. Since his childhood days hawking baseball cards at convention halls in New Jersey, and later pitching wine online at his father’s liquor store, he has dedicated most of his waking life to a single puzzle: What will sell more stuff?
In recent years, that puzzle has given ulcers to a lot of executives. They have watched the rise of Facebook and Twitter, along with the advent of commercial-skipping technologies like DVRs and hardware like the iPad, and realized that spending money on television, print and radio will no longer suffice. But how do you market to people in these virtual realms? Given that these platforms are supposedly about friends connecting — it’s called social media for a reason — will anyone listen and look? Is it too much to ask for a return on this investment?
These questions have produced an age of anxiety in marketing the likes of which have not been seen since television and Uncle Miltie landed in living rooms decades ago, and it has given rise to a new tribe of entrepreneurs, all peddling their own forms of Xanax. There are now so many social media experts out there that some of them renounce the label.
“Look at any tech conference,” said Peter Shankman, a social media consultant who rejects the social-media-expert tag. “Anyone can call themselves that. It’s just too easy.”
Mr. Vaynerchuk is not shy about embracing the title because he is not shy about anything. A small and kinetic man with dark hair that is starting to gray, he speaks with a warm, raspy voice, as though he’s been talking all day, which he usually has. He is funny and profane and gesticulates constantly, putting air quotes around phrases that he merely wants to emphasize. Among this favorite subjects are the New York Jets, which he has vowed to buy, and his own talents, which amaze even him.
“I have as big of an ego as it gets,” he said during a recent interview, in a tone suggesting that he was simply stating the facts, “but I have, stunningly, a lot of humility considering some of the accomplishments I’ve had.”
These accomplishments include the building of VaynerMedia, which opened in 2009 and now has 290 employees, serving clients as mainstream as Del Monte, General Electric and PepsiCo. They come in the hope that Mr. Vaynerchuk can do for them what he has already done for himself: build an online audience through pluck, ubiquity and charm.
“When I think about Gary, I think about scrappiness before anything else,” said Linda Boff, G.E.’s executive director of global brand marketing. “He lives his own life out loud.”
This year, he challenged himself to grant 365 interviews, to anyone who asks. (He’s given about 215 so far, which is not on pace, to his great irritation.) In a typical day, he will post 70 tweets, and in a typical week, he’ll post three essays on Medium — a year-old blogging and sharing platform — along with six YouTube videos and a dozen Facebook posts.
About 90 percent of Mr. Vaynerchuk’s tweets are direct replies to people who have written to or about him. Ideally, these people will become acolytes or, better yet, will post a video describing the wonder that a knock on the door and a free cheeseburger can induce, as the guy in Minnesota did.
Let Them Eat Pie
There is little question that Mr. Vaynerchuk is a master at promoting himself. But what about his clients? They tend to regard him as a colorful savant, pointing to his immense online following and his track record in spotting companies like Twitter and Facebook, both of which he invested in long before they went public. (You hear less about Yobongo, a social discovery app that he also “spotted” but that flopped.)
Given his status as a guru, some of the rants he posts on YouTube are surprisingly banal — conventional wisdom framed as blazing insights. A recent one, titled “Every Single One of You Is a Media Company,” argued that the Internet had reduced the cost of publishing to next to zero, and he beseeched viewers to produce content of genuine value. Subtract the panache and the urgency of his delivery and there is little left.
His clients, however, rave about his work and adore him personally. One of his services is ensuring that a company stays on top of the latest trends in social media; he’s like a friend who knows the addresses of all the cool parties. He is the reason that G.E. had a Vayner-produced video on Vine, the six-second-video-sharing app, on the day the platform went live.
He is also the reason the company mailed out 314 pies in March.
“How do you thank people on Pi Day?” asked Ms. Boff of G.E., who was talking about March 14, or 3/14, which is as close as the calendar gets to a numerical representation of pi. “Gary came up with this idea.” G.E. sent 314 pies to 314 people who tweeted about pi that day.
It may come as a surprise that a company with $147 billion in annual revenue would consider sending a few hundred pies across the country to be an important part of its marketing strategy.
“Most people still associate our brand with appliances and lighting,” Ms. Boff explained. “But that’s a very, very small part of G.E. We are early adopters; we are a brand that is about innovation, invention, discovering things. And early adopters are the kind of people we want to be talking to, the kind of people who might want to work at G.E., or partner with us, or invest with us. And we want to humanize the company. We want to throw open the doors and behave the way a person behaves.”
And it’s not just about the 314 people who got the pies. It’s also about the people who read about the pies — perhaps, for instance, in The New York Times.
Mr. Vaynerchuk’s clients also include companies that just want to sell products. In the foyer of the main entrance of VaynerMedia, which is spread around two floors of a high-rise on Park Avenue South, there’s an enormous blackboard where a writer with fine penmanship has chalked — and this is the G-rated version — “We love social media because it sells things.”
For many, that premise has yet to be proved.
“People always ask if there is return on investment in social media,” said Mr. Vaynerchuk, sitting in his office one afternoon. “Does an ad before this article work?” he asked, pointing to a magazine. “Does an ad on TV? Our clients on those media don’t know. What they know is that there’s a spike in sales after they run an ad on TV. The same is true with social media. So my answer is, social media ads are bound by the same logic used to justify ads since the beginning of radio.”
Pivoting Off the News
Much of what is produced at Vayner, in fact, looks like a digital version of the kind of work ad agencies have produced for decades. The company’s employees include dozens of “micro content producers,” who make images and videos for clients, using Photoshop and other programs. Zach Lansdale, a senior art director who oversees content producers, was at his desk one day in late October, creating GIFs for Furby, a brand of electronic doll sold by Hasbro.
“People are going to be scrolling when they see this,” he said, looking at a Halloween-themed Furby ad emblazoned with “Toastbusters” across the top, a riff on “Ghostbusters.” “Our goal is to catch their eye for a split second.”
There is little difference between this ad — which, it should be noted, is a word rarely used here; it’s called “content” — and one you might see in a magazine. But thanks to the endless demographic and lifestyle information spun off by sites like Facebook, the Furby ad can be aimed at consumers who are likely buyers, or fans of the brand.
“We have a client who sells dog food,” said Chris Gesualdi, a Vayner supervisor who handles paid media. “We can get so granular on Facebook that we can find people who are interested in specific breeds. Like: ‘Hey, you’re interested in cocker spaniels? Here’s some content.’ ”
Where VaynerMedia starts to look really different from conventional ad agencies is in its emphasis on speed. Social media are also interactive and immediate, so everyone here is on high alert for any event, any news that could be leveraged by any brand.
“The people I’m trying to hire here are journalists and improv actors,” Mr. Vaynerchuk said. “Creative today is more about breaking news. We need clever, funny and quick. If orange juice trees burn down in all of Florida, is there a play for our Tropicana client?”
A “play” in this context means some kind of post that pivots off the news, most likely on Facebook or Twitter. Three weeks ago, a team of employees gathered with Mr. Vaynerchuk in a conference room to discuss a brand they oversee, a cookie that the client did not want named. The team spent much of the meeting trying to figure out how this brand could exploit topics trending on Twitter. They call it “riding the hashtag” here.
Unfortunately, most trending hashtags at that moment were about the government shutdown. Not really cookie material.
“It’s a good challenge for all of you, and I think it’s a brand that can do a lot of stuff,” Mr. Vaynerchuk told the group. “Everything that’s, like, running through your minds, you can ping me on it. I want to O.K. it. Every idea I’ve got brewing, I’d like to force down this account’s throat.”
A woman overseeing the account — the “community manager,” as the job is known in this business — said she had been sending direct replies to anyone on Twitter who mentioned the cookie, saying hello, and perhaps sending some product samples, as a representative of the brand.
“Are you searching for people, like, bored in class?” a colleague asked.
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “I’d say that 10 people I talked to this week were in class. Clearly not paying attention to math, but they know what’s important.”
‘The Crowd Lost Its Face’
Gary Vaynerchuk, the man, was born in Belarus and emigrated when he was a child, with his mother and father. He lives today with his wife, Lizzie, and two children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Gary Vaynerchuk, the brand, was born in Springfield Township, N.J., the site of the 35,000-square-foot Wine Library, a store his father opened in a much smaller iteration 30 years ago. In February 2006, the younger Mr. Vaynerchuk started a daily video blog, posted on YouTube, called Wine Library TV, “a.k.a. the Thunder Show,” as he shouted in countless introductions, “the Internet’s most passionate wine program!”
The show, taped five days a week for five and a half years, had all the production values of a hostage video. It was Mr. Vaynerchuk sitting at a table in his office, demystifying chardonnays, rieslings and other wines by describing them in terms that any mook could understand. He made reference to Big League Chew, a brand of bubble gum, in a riff about a zinfandel. One pinot noir, he said, was “hot doggy in the mid-palate. And I’m not talking about the Hebrew National. I’m talking about the 99-center.”
He meant this as a compliment.
His Jersey guy persona — he used a Jets souvenir as a spit bucket in his office — and his entertainingly informed opinions brought his YouTube videos a regular audience. Eventually, Wine Library’s revenue soared to $60 million a year from $3 million.
Local coverage led to an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show, and then Mr. Vaynerchuk became a sought-after speaker at tech conferences. His first was in 2009, at the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami.
“It was magic,” he recalled. “I killed it. I crushed it. The crowd lost its face.”
An early speech, before a crowd at the Javits Convention Center, became an online hit. In it, he begged those in the audience to quit their jobs unless they truly enjoyed them.
“If you love Alf, do an Alf blog!” he shouted, pacing the stage. “You collect Smurfs, Smurf it up! Stop crying and just keep hustling. Hustle is the most important word ever.”
Book publishers called, and a maven of online commerce was born. Mr. Vaynerchuk has since become a kind of folk hero to a generation of Internet entrepreneurs. His speeches fetch $40,000 to $50,000 apiece.
The more speeches he gives, the more executives approach and ask for advice. He has done work for the Nets of the N.B.A., the Campbell Soup Company and Fox Broadcasting, to name a few.
After watching Mr. Vaynerchuk deliver a few variations of his go-to lecture, you can see the appeal. He starts with his origin story — born in Belarus, built Wine Library TV, signed to the same talent agency as Oprah — to establish credibility. Then he criticizes a vast majority of social media marketing, a message delivered with head-scratchers like “it’s not the content, it’s the context,” and “everybody cares about hunting, what nets out is really farming.” His tone slips quickly back and forth from comic to cautionary, and his patter is laced with obscenities, which is both a way to get laughs and to establish intimacy. He speaks without notes and caroms from one topic to another.
Not everyone is impressed. “A lot of bluster,” said an attendee after Mr. Vaynerchuk finished a recent speech in Rhode Island. But many executives hear this spiel and are both amused and terrified. Its subtext is this: What you are doing online won’t work. And if you’re not online and on mobile, you’re doomed. You are the next Blockbuster. Or the next Borders. Maybe we should talk.
Actually, Mr. Vaynerchuk doesn’t explicitly pitch VaynerMedia in his spiels. He doesn’t need to.
Lesson of the Nilla Wafers
There is no opting out of ads on Facebook or promoted tweets on Twitter. And as of Friday, Instagram started posting ads that were just as unavoidable. Which all means it will be even harder to avoid the output of VaynerMedia and its many rivals. Social media are free in only the most literal sense.
“Information online is paid for in terms of cognitive resources,” says Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford. “How you do pay for Google, Twitter and Facebook? You pay with your brain. You pay with attention.”
This does not trouble Professor Floridi, because he thinks that some kind of currency is needed to fund social media — and if attention worked for TV, why not Facebook? But a vocal minority is lamenting not just the growth of social media ads, but also the way sites like Facebook and Twitter are nibbling away at the amount of quiet and reflective time in our culture, which has long been in decline.
“We’re talking about over 100 years of the industrial and postindustrial era in which our sole preoccupation has been accelerating consumption and production,” said David Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington. “If there is any good news in this story, it’s that what began more than 100 years ago has so intensified that more of us can stand back and say: ‘Is this really what we want? Where are the places for greater, noncommodified connection?’ ”
It’s safe to say that the “more of us” referred to by Professor Levy are outnumbered by people who quietly tolerate online ads and others who embrace them. Now more than ever, both categories are sought by companies desperate to connect in a place where friendship and commerce are easily conflated. It’s worth noting that the Oreo page on Facebook (though Mr. Vaynerchuk had nothing to do with it) has more than 34 million “likes.”
Whether those likes convert to sales dollars has been hard to gauge.
Most of Mr. Vaynerchuk’s clients split their marketing dollars between social media and some combination of television, radio and print, making it hard to divvy up credit (or blame). But in August last year, Mondelez International, a snack and food conglomerate spun out of Kraft Foods, started an experiment. It spent every single ad dollar for one brand, Nilla — those little vanilla wafers — online, and put VaynerMedia in charge of the account.
“No other marketing,” said Bonin Bough, the company’s vice president for global media and consumer engagement. “No TV, no in-store. This was a brand using social in isolation.”
VaynerMedia created a campaign called “Momisms,” a series of Facebook ads aimed at mothers, the key Nilla audience. Many ads had the brand’s yellow background, and in red lettering offered cute homiletic quips like, “The best families are like fudge, mostly sweet with lots of nuts!” Vayner would try five different ads at the same time, aiming at a small group of Facebook users. Once it learned which ads were most “liked” and “shared,” Vayner spent more to push those ads to bigger audiences.
It worked. The Nilla Wafers Facebook page grew from 15,000 to 356,000 likes. More important, Mr. Bough says sales are up 9 percent so far this year compared with the same period in 2012. And the advertising costs for that increase are a small fraction of a conventional media campaign. (He declined to get specific.) The reason is efficiency. Instead of huge outlays for campaigns that would be seen by vast audiences, on television for instance, Mondelez spent small sums on people who had demonstrated an affinity for the brand.
“All of a sudden,” Mr. Bough said, “you’re talking about a new paradigm of marketing, built around microcontent.”
It’s hard to draw long-term conclusions based on a sample size of one. But if campaigns like Momisms build sales, you can be sure that there will be more of them. Which gets us to the tricky part: The more campaigns there are, according to Mr. Vaynerchuk, the less effective they will be.
One of his favorite lines is “marketers ruin everything.” What he means is that marketers take methods that work and then beat consumers with them until numbness sets in, at which point the methods stop working. He proved this adage at Wine Library, he will acknowledge, by sending emails to a list of customers — first one day a week, then every weekday, then on Saturdays, too. Yields plunged, especially as competitors jumped in and emailed to excess right along with him.
This sets up the ultimate paradox for anyone selling advice about how to sell. The day that a critical mass of companies are jab, jab, jab, right-hooking is the day that it becomes passé. The more that companies bombard Facebook with Momism-style ads, the more those ads will be tuned out, just as pop-ups and banners were before them.
Mr. Vaynerchuk has thought a lot about this quandary, and it doesn’t worry him. He will always find new tactics if his current ones grow stale because, as he put it, dreaming up new ways to sell is in his DNA. But it won’t come to that.
“I’m not influential enough,” he said, standing on the street in SoHo after his 99U talk. “And, anyway, some people won’t do it, even if it’s good for their business. Look, I know how to get bigger muscles, but I’m not going to lift weights.”
Then he returned to his iPhone and punched a few more of his fans.
Courtesy of Nytimes.com