Jim Tobin is the CEO and founder of Ignite Social Media, the original social media agency, and the president and founder of Carusele, the influencer content targeting system. Jim launched Ignite in 2007 and Carusele in 2015. In those roles, Jim has worked with many of the largest brands in the world, including Microsoft, Samsung, Walgreens, Chrysler, Nike and dozens more. He is also the author of the 2008 book, “Social Media is a Cocktail Party” and the 2013 book, “Earn It. Don’t Buy It.” You can follow Jim on Twitter at @jtobin.
How did you get into the industry?
In 2006, I was a partner in an advertising agency and after having had some success, I was having an awful year. I couldn’t seem to win new business that year and it was extremely frustrating. Almost as a coping mechanism, I started a blog about marketing both to learn about blogging and to help fine tune my “voice” online. It was good timing as social media was starting to really find its place as a “thing” just as I was realizing that it had a tremendous amount of potential for business. I first realized blogging had power to impact search engine rankings, but over time realized that there were so many other benefits.
Any emerging industry trends?
After a decade doing social media marketing, I can safely say that change is absolutely constant., We started Ignite Social Media before Facebook even had business pages and for our first several years there were no paid boosting options. If you ever feel like you’ve got social media marketing “down,” you’re wrong, because it’s changing again. Today, most of the focus is on content (both brand created and influencer created) and targeting of messages. Since organic reach has decreased so dramatically, the opportunity to really get noticed by the right people comes down to strong messaging and strong targeting.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
One of the biggest things we noticed in the last few years is that influencer marketing hasn’t really kept up with the advancements of digital media. We hire influencers, ask them to create content and then just hope that good things happen. At Ignite Social Media, we worked on that problem for about 6 months and ultimately came up with a new product called Carusele. We launched Carusele as a separate company in 2015 and it’s now growing rapidly. What we do is test each piece of content in real time and then syndicate the very best content using a variety of sophisticated methods. When you have proven content, put in front of an audience predisposed to be interested, lots of good things happen, including some pretty incredible sales increases.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Once I learned that blogging had power for business and that Facebook had several million users (at the time), it took me a while to figure out what to do with that information. I finally realized that businesses would start to look for help with social media marketing and there was almost nobody at the time prepared to help. So we launched Ignite and grew really quickly (100% per year for 4 straight years, landing on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row). Our goal then is the same as it is now: to be the very best agency for social media marketing helping great brands drive business results. We’re doing that very differently than we used to (remember Facebook tabs?), but we’re still very much doing it.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
The entire agency model is under pressure and has been for a few years. That’s unlikely to slow soon, so we’ve adapted both of our businesses to the new model. Carusele doesn’t have agency relationships with any clients. We provide specific packaged services. Many of our clients buy them all year, but we’re still not their agency in the traditional sense. For Ignite Social Media, we’re increasingly wrapping our team around internal social teams. For one client, we’re making content. For another, doing strategy. For a third, buying media. Working as an extension of an internal team requires different contract types as well as different ways to communicate with our clients. We’ve been making those changes the last few years and they’ll likely continue.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
In the early days, our most important strategy was blogging, for two reasons. First, it showed people we were serious about this industry. Our blog helped us get clients including Microsoft and Intel because their employees were reading what we were putting out there. At the time, we only had 8 people, but we were getting attention from the biggest companies in the world. The second reason it helped was that it helped us rank on Google for the phrase “social media agency.” We started working to rank for that word before anyone else in the United States, which certainly helped. As a result, we still rank at the top for that phrase, which is incredibly value.
The second big decision we made was launching Carusele as a separate company. That was also for two reasons. First, we have a very different buyer in a very different need state. A Carusele customer is generally looking for a good marketing program, not an agency relationship. Selling Carusele is a little more like selling ad space in a magazine than it is selling an Ignite agency relationship. Second, having separate leadership in the companies lets both teams focus on doing what’s right for their company. It helps us move faster at a time when that’s so important.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Without a doubt, that was when we lost the Chrysler Group account. That was a big chunk of our business and we had to let go over 50 employees. That was difficult on every level, but we tried to do the right thing as best we could. We let people know immediately that layoffs were coming. We informed those affected within days and then we were very public about what happened, including inviting other agencies in to hire folks who were impacted. We then offered a $5,000 reward to any company that hired one of our displaced employees and had to terminate them within one year for performance or character issues. It showed how much we valued those employees and they got jobs quickly. In fact, roughly 75% of them had new jobs before the layoffs even took place.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
I’ll focus on Carusele for this one. When you get very talented content creators showing interesting ways to use a brand’s product, the brand ends up with interesting insights. Not only does the brand see how the influencer took things, but because we can (and do) measure the reaction to each and every piece of branded content, the brand also gets a chance to see how the larger target audience reacts to all of these concepts. It’s a marketing campaign, but it includes a feedback loop that can be very valuable for brands in a position to learn from it.
How do you motivate others?
I’ve never been the youngest person in the office, so I quickly learned that a social media agency benefits from a wide array of perspectives. Everyone we hire is expected to contribute, which is a gratifying feeling (at least for the types of people I want on my team). We try to bring people along as fast as they are able. That, plus having a great workplace. In a normal week, we spend more time with our colleagues than with our own families. If it’s not fun and challenging, what’s the point?
Career advice to those in your industry?
One of our core values is Always Learning. In our industry (and many others today) the pace of change is just so fast. The winners are the ones with intellectual curiosity. Someone who keeps up with their industry, but also looks outside it to see what’s happening and how it might be adapted is someone I want on my team.