You can spot Brent Stirling at Ryerson University’s startup incubator by the looks on the faces of the people meeting with him. They’re often overwhelmed, nodding furiously while jotting down Brent’s advice: the faces of non-Twitter people learning how complex and powerful social media can be. Brent Stirling has been at the Ryerson DMZ (Digital Media Zone) since 2014. He manages the incubator’s social media and advises its startup founders on their strategies: how they can use social platforms to help their companies grow on a shoestring budget.
Before he became the resident social media guru at the best incubator in North America (according to UBI Global), Brent taught high school English in Japan. A disaster launched his social media career: in 2011, Brent used Twitter to crowdsource and relay vital information to foreigners in Japan during the Fukushima quake. He was subsequently asked to write a chapter for 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake alongside contributors like Yoko Ono, with all proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross. Back in Canada, Brent found his first client: a friend who opened a bar and wanted social media help to drive people in. Brent’s success with the client sparked his own social media consultancy that he still runs on the side today.
Now, Brent can most often be seen at the incubator jumping between startups like a hummingbird, offering suggestions and answering questions — including the ones below, from Katie Meyer at Crowdbabble.
Katie: How do analytics help you develop social media strategies?
Brent: Analytics, for me, kind of tell me when I’m on the right track going towards my target demographic. I don’t take analytics just by themselves because numbers only tell you part of the story when it comes to social media. You also have to look at developing your creative […] as you are working through a strategy process. Nobody writes a social media strategy and then executes it and it works perfectly. I’m always guessing, testing, measuring, and adapting to specific trends. Even the time that you’re pushing things out at and positioning different articles—you could position one piece of content marketing or thought leadership or even a newspaper article in a thousand different ways, and just based on the image that you attach to it, it can do so many different things.
Katie: Is there any metric in particular that you find useful?
Brent: Obviously, the standard twitter analytics will give you a rough idea of impressions, engagement, and engagement rate. Impressions are more along the lines of who is online at what time, and every demographic is different. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the best time to post on Twitter is Wednesday at 4 PM because every demographic is different. At the DMZ we have a very entrepreneurial demographic, so they’re online at a very specific time. But I have restaurant clients who I would never subscribe to the same posting times, because their demographics are engaging at different times.
Katie: The metrics that you look at really depend on the project.
Brent: With larger channels that you’re managing, you get different engagement rates and you can’t look at every single engagement rate and say that, “this account is better than this one, because it has a 12% engagement rate rather than a 1.7%,” because it all depends on what kind of space you’re in. The DMZ itself gets a lot of bot followers or SEO people, or anyone that’s into entrepreneurship. But that can get really large and it can skew your numbers.
For me, impressions are important because they tell me how much my content is actually getting out there. Then, engagement and engagement rate kind of show me [that] if I hit only 1,000 people [while I have] 15,000 followers, am I still getting legitimate engagement? So those two things are kind of what I look at, but then the creative side changes everything. I’ve tested Facebook posts where I’ve put the same copy and the same title of the article and everything and just switched the image and put it out at the same time on the same day. And based off an image alone, I did seventeen times the engagement. Just from the image. So, you can’t just look at the hard numbers of, well, this content theme is underperforming […] maybe it’s your creative and the writing that is actually hurting you.
Katie: How do you help startups develop a social media strategy that’s personable and engaging?
Brent: With most of them it all comes down to, you know, a Venn diagram when you’re coming up with content with them. Your content themes are back to your target segment and [they] achieve a goal, but you pick those three kind of circles that kind of make sense for you. If you’re a social media analytics company [like Crowdbabble!], you’re probably talking about social media, analytics, and where you’re at: a hyperlocal side to it. Again, people want to identify with a personality and startups have this ability to showcase their personality behind their brand. Because they don’t have a legal team or an HR team, it makes it easier to identify with founders and cofounders. If you take a picture of your two cofounders and say, “we’re out there pitching these people,” generally the crowd tends to get behind you.
The major pitfall that startups fall into is that they’re either in stealth mode, where they don’t like to talk about thought leadership or anything, or they don’t like to put themselves as the brand. They want to be a global brand immediately. But that runs counter to everything that social is now. Everyone wants to want to back the underdog, they want to back the local team. Showcasing that and building from there builds a really good success story that should be highlighted throughout your social.
Katie: Recently, Harvard Business Review published an article about marketing in the age of social media, about how content marketing is going downhill but engaging in what the author calls “crowdcultures” is becoming more important. What do you think about that idea?
Brent: I essentially agree. This is why I love working in startup culture: it’s easier to create a brand personality, and it’s harder for bigger brands to engage on social—and the HBR article talks about how there are specific personalities like kewpiedie that are doing really well.
Katie: As opposed to Coca Cola.
Brent: Coca Cola is a large, faceless corporation. If you look at the overarching trends as to who does well on social, it’s the Taco Bells and the Old Spices, where they pick a specific person that will be their spokesperson. The idea that you change your actors for each commercial is dying, and everybody wants to… I always say that it doesn’t matter if it’s B2B or B2C, it’s all P2P: it’s person to person. If you look at Taco Bell’s Snapchat, it’s the same people every day. So you start to engage with their personalities overall, as opposed to this idea that this overarching brand exists.
Even with the DMZ, a lot of the stuff that we do I try to insert myself in it, so that people can identify with the person behind the brand, as opposed to just, “this is the DMZ brand.” And you kind of have to make it personable. That’s why Taco Bell does so well on Twitter, because it sounds like a person, because it sounds like a person is talking—as opposed to a marketing machine that is churning out the next big tweet. As soon as you start to automate things like that, there was a bot recently that taught…
Brent: Yeah. There was a bot recently that was taught all of this hate, because they were trying to automate online conversation. Online conversation is just an extension of what we’re doing right now. Unless you’re like this online, then generally you’re going to tend to lose.