Mari Smith has made a name for herself as a social media marketing expert, especially in the realm of Facebook realm. Last year, she began feeling overwhelmed by the always-on, constantly connected nature of her technology-laden life. So, she locked her iPhone in a drawer, stepped away from her computer, and went on a three-day spiritual retreat.
“I was on a digital fast,” says Smith, who spent 72 hours offline, with no access to Facebook, Twitter, her blog, or even a TV. “It was wonderful and extremely rejuvenating!”
Since then, Smith says she tries to take spiritually-oriented, digital time-outs several times a year to recharge and rebalance her life. Of course, she always plugs back in to the modern media world eventually: She continues to believe in the power and value of social media tools. But her focus, she says, is on the human relationships that are built through these tools — the connections one makes with the real people behind the Twitter tags; that business is important, but comes second to human contact.
This people-first philosophy has defined her career and helped her build a Twitter following of nearly 120,000 users. It’s also the theme of her new book, The New Relationship Marketing: How to Build a Large, Loyal, Profitable Network Using the Social Web. The book is a compendium of advice learned over her career, showing how businesses can drive success by first building relationships with customers, rather than using a hard-sell approach.
Smith has written or co-written six other books that deal with social media or business topics. She also works as a consultant and speaker, sharing the stage on occasion with such luminaries as Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama.
Smith’s success is the product of more than a decade of hard work. The Canada native moved to the U.S. from Scotland in 1999. At the time, she was 32, had no college degree, and was “flat broke.” (She says she arrived with 50 British pounds to her name.) Smith had been working in marketing in the U.K., where she’d fine-tuned a plan to launch her own business as a marketing speaker and trainer. A friend invited her to San Diego, Calif., where she made connections that led to her career as an internet marketing consultant.
In 2007, Smith discovered Facebook. A friend had asked her to test his new platform, so she signed up for her first Facebook account. She quickly became fascinated with the then-fledgling social network’s potential as a marketing resource, immersed herself in it, and soon became known as a Facebook guru. As Twitter grew, she became a leader in that medium, too.
However, Smith cautions that social networks are mere tools or means to an end — and not ends in themselves. “To me, relationship marketing transcends the medium,” she says. She advises businesspeople to approach relationship marketing on many fronts, not just online; she touts the value of in-person connections and suggests that her clients attend conferences, trade shows, and other events.
In a recent interview, Mari gives us some tips from her latest book that businesses can follow. Here are the three best:
Help people, don’t sell people. “You need to focus on connecting with people in a manner that doesn’t come across as, ‘Hey, buy my product,'” she says. She recommends finding out what people need, then offering to help them meet those needs, which may involve offering free goods and services. “I call it ‘moving the free line.'”
An example might be a real estate agent who monitors Twitter traffic to find people who are considering moving to his area of the country. He might message them with a list of good schools and shopping centers in the area, for example, rather than a set of house listings.
Become an authority. Whether it’s through blogging, participating in conversations on LinkedIn message boards, or writing books, businesspeople need to focus on building themselves as a center of influence, Smith says.
Simplify your brand. Specialize in one thing and be consistent in identifying yourself as a specialist in this area, advises Smith — even if you have several facets to your business. “Pick the one you are most passionate about.” This is what should be emphasized in your Facebook profile, Twitter account, and elsewhere. Later, after you are established, you can branch out.
“I made a name for myself specializing around Facebook in 2007 and 2008, but now that my platform is built, I can expand from there,” Smith says. She says she has never been happier or more fulfilled in her career than she is now, but she won’t stop learning or pursuing new opportunities.
“Internet technology is speeding up rapidly. Where it’s going to go from here, who knows? I will keep following my heart and being a person of high value and integrity in all that I do. I want to grow my business — and myself.”
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