A sense of urgency ripples Gary Vaynerchuk’s raspy New Jersey-accented voice. The 38-year-old self-made social media marketer is sitting at an office table, looking intently into a video camera as if you, the viewer, are seated directly across from him. This is important, his demeanor signals.
Before we get to what he has to say, know that Vaynerchuk’s wisdom commands five figures for speeches and has brought his VaynerMedia digital consulting agency big clients, including General Electric and PepsiCo.
Vaynerchuk is a social media savant who has loudly extolled its virtues for years. Every day, every week, he says, you must engage with your social media fans through stories that may make them giggle or possibly educate them about your business (which initially for him was selling wine). Otherwise, you’re being drowned out by the massive volume of content and ads put out by competitors, media companies and more.
This particular video rant, as he calls it, is destined for his YouTube channel and GaryVaynerchuk.com audiences. To be relevant in society today, you must produce content that engages your fan base, says the native of Babruysk, U.S.S.R. (now Belarus), who grew up in Jersey. “If you’re not putting out stories, you basically don’t exist.” To emphasize the point, he bangs his fist on the table. Then he pulls off a tennis shoe and bangs it on the table three times (“Khrushchev-style, since I’m Russian”) to drive home this point: “Every one of you is a media company.”
If you don’t understand his message—that giving away wisdom, laughs or other value to fans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere will pay off later by guilting fans into buying your stuff—then Vaynerchuk has bad news. His normally fast-paced speech slows: “You… will… be… left… out… in… the… cold. You will be Blockbuster Video. You will be the person who owned a ton of horses before the car…”
Vaynerchuk has a name for his four-step technique—jab, jab, jab, right hook, a boxing reference that is the title of his latest HarperCollins book. It means give, give, give, then ask. Don’t make the mistake of always bragging or trying to sell your stuff on Facebook and Twitter and the like. Think of social media as you would a conversation in a bar or social setting: Aim to entertain or engage. Don’t straight out ask for a date or sale. When you jab, the key is to NOT expect something in return.
Vaynerchuk’s unrelenting approach has won him steadfast fans among some of America’s biggest corporations. Beth Comstock, GE vice president and chief marketing officer, says Vaynerchuk has an “unrelenting focus on what is going to work.” He was “incredibly quick” to see the potential for brands to engage with customers on Vine, a now year-old mobile app that lets users create and post six-second video clips.
So GE, on his advice, launched its first tiny video the day after Vine debuted. An early GE video that really caught on was a simple science experiment showing fans what happens when you combine milk, food coloring and dish soap—“hardly a costly production,” Comstock says—which has been shared more than 170,000 times. “Incredible,” she says. “We credit Gary’s tremendous feel for emerging platforms for getting us there.”
Vaynerchuk’s strategies are just as relevant for entrepreneurs and small businesses. In a conversation with SUCCESS while driving from New York (he’s now a Manhattanite) to a see a client in New Jersey, he says he understands if at first blush you recoil at his jab, jab, jab advice because you’re already spending long hours running your business.
Yet, until a couple of years ago, he answered every email he received that wasn’t spam, as well as every message he received via Twitter. He still answers a substantial number but can’t get to every one: “Eventually the math caught up with me.”
Today, he occasionally asks his million followers: “Is there anything I can do for you?” And when he shares a link to a blog post he’s written, he is known to include a message: “A very important 3 minute read—your thoughts?” People flood him with replies.
While he recognizes everyone is short on time, Vaynerchuk—whom Bloomberg Businessweek considers among the Top 20 people every entrepreneur should follow on Twitter (along with Virgin conglomerate head Richard Branson)—thinks it’s worth the effort. The ideal is for everyone to answer every email and tweet.
“I get why this stuff doesn’t sound attractive,” Vaynerchuk says, suggesting this statement be boldfaced for emphasis. “I get why, if you’re a small business, that the idea of spending an hour on Twitter just replying to randomness doesn’t make sense. I also want everybody who reads this article to know that I am a businessman and I want to sell first, and that the long-term value of those customers is incredibly important to one’s business.”
To him, Yellow Pages ads and TV commercials don’t make sense. They’re like flushing cash down the toilet. Better to engage with people by spending time on free tools: Twitter and Facebook are musts for small businesses, he thinks, while B-to-B outfits may benefit from LinkedIn and the new blogging platform Medium. When you personally reply to someone on Twitter or say thanks for liking your post, you’re giving them effort. “You’re creating higher emotion. You’re setting yourself up even better for the next sale.
“I’d much rather engage with 13 people and one of them feel the effort and become a long-term customer than engage with 700 people short-term and none of them feel it,” Vaynerchuk continues. “Scale is attractive, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the depth of the relationship or the business that you’re going to get.” Too many people “are just doing the yin; you need a little yang.”
If you ignore social media or spend little time with it in 2014, it will set you up for trouble later as proliferating social media platforms further disrupt the already massively changed advertising and media landscape. It’s time to learn to engage effectively with content tailored specifically to each platform, whether Facebook or Pinterest, Tumblr and others. “I’m just worried [that] by not doing it at all, or very lightweight, what that exposes you to in relevance in 2016, which comes quick. Got it?” Vaynerchuk says. “It’s insurance, right? Like, life insurance is actually about death. But there’s actually a pretty good reason to do it.”
You can farm out social media to an intern or agency—but that person has to be good. “The problem is everybody just assumes that if you’re 22, you can do this, which is ludicrous.”
When should you communicate via social media? There is no perfect formula, in Vaynerchuk’s view. Maybe you’ll find that you should post to your Facebook fans in early morning before they start work and again at lunchtime. “A story is at its best when it’s not intrusive, when it brings value to a platform’s consumers and when it fits in as a natural step along the customer’s path to making a purchase,” he writes in Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World. Realistically, he tells SUCCESS, time constraints will dictate what you do: “I think it’s like working out, right? You got to find out what works for you. Some people work out in the morning; some people work out at night.”
Vaynerchuk does it as opportunities arise, such as “literally even walking down the hallway to go to the bathroom. It’s scheduled for every crack within my calendar in an 18-hour day.”
First and foremost a businessman, Vaynerchuk wasn’t always a social media darling. His intent has always been about selling. He sometimes says he got his start in sales by selling lemonade, managing seven lemonade stands across his Edison, N.J., neighborhood as an 8-year-old. But it goes back further.
“My first business was really at 4½. I used to go to people’s yards, rip their flowers out of their yard, ring the doorbell and sell it back to them,” Vaynerchuk says in a speech, eliciting audience laughter (a clip is on YouTube). He sold baseball cards at 12. As a teen, he worked at his dad’s liquor store but found only wine interesting, so he later started WineLibrary.com, growing the family business through email.
But he didn’t start on his path to fame until he took a Flipcam and started Wine Library TV on YouTube in 2006 to share his wine wisdom by sampling wines on camera and spitting into a New York Jets bucket every day for the next 5½ years. “It wasn’t long before 100,000 people were watching my videos every day (shout-out to my Vayniacs—love you guys),” states GaryVaynerchuk.com. Chalk it up to what New York magazine described as his “unpretentious, gonzo approach to wine appreciation.”
So what if the spare videos “had all the production values of a hostage video,” as The New York Times put it. He got calls to appear on talk shows such as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he set about to train Ellen’s palate by having her nibble potato skins and lick a rock before trying a $13 Pinot Grigio that he said had subtle flavors of bluestone and saltwater with a little potato skin action. “I never heard of anyone to describe wine with any kind of rock or potato skin,” Ellen said, playing along and soon licking leather and eating cherry juice-soaked cotton candy before trying other wines. She eventually drew the line.
“Gary is going to make me eat what looks like dirt,” Ellen grimaced as Vaynerchuk put in his mouth a concoction of dirt, cherries and crumpled cigar. “Anything,” she quipped, “is going to taste good after that.” (Her producer did eat it, earning the show’s first Employee of the Month honor.)
Wine has taken a back seat since Vaynerchuk and his brother AJ opened VaynerMedia in 2009 to help clients as large as Del Monte build audiences on social media. Social media is a marathon in their view, not a sprint.
“I have bad news: Marketing is hard, and it keeps getting harder,” Vaynerchuk writes, noting that days before his book deadline, Instagram launched a 15-second video product that competes with Vine, further changing the landscape. “But there’s no time to mourn the past or to feel sorry for ourselves, and there’s no point in self-pity anyway. It is our job as modern-day storytellers to adjust to the realities of the marketplace, because it sure as hell isn’t going to slow down for us.”