MT: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and today I have the pleasure and the privilege of interviewing B.J. Mendelson, author of Social Media is Bullshit, and comedian as well.
So you wrote Social Media is Bullshit. It came out back in 2013, and I reviewed it here. The title came out of your breast cancer fundraising tour across America where you were sure your one million Twitter followers would give donations to your tour. In fact, you got basically nothing. So have you learned anything about fundraising since then? Or is it no longer an area of interest for you?
BM: No, it’s still very much an area of interest for me. I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits over the years and I’ve just felt like they do a lot of work that is underappreciated and often understaffed. They don’t quite have the resources to do the work that they want to do. So it’s something I’m very passionate about and I’m always looking for ways to help them whenever I can.
MT: Wow, that’s wonderful. So in your mind, what is the most significant thing that’s changed in social media since your book came out?
BM: I think the best way I can illustrate the change is that when I first started talking about the book, when they would introduce me on stage, people would kind of – you could see them shifting in their seat a little bit. They’d go, oh, he’s the author of Social Media is Bullshit, or they would fold their arms. You could tell they were ready to be defensive.
But then just recently I was out in Denver and I was giving a presentation and they introduced me. Everyone laughed. The second they said Social Media is Bullshit, everyone was like, yeah, it sure is. So I think that’s sort of been the major change. I was probably a little too early. So now I think people caught up to what I was talking about. Now it’s sort of this weird situation of, okay, I know it’s bullshit and you know it’s bullshit. But I’ve got a boss that wants me to use it, or what do I do if these things don’t work the way that everyone says they do?
MT: And in case people here haven’t read your book, your book says basically trying to get organic likes and leading that to action, or follows, or whatever it is, isn’t actually going to move the needle on anything you try to do whether it’s marketing or fundraising. Is that kind of what you said?
BM: Yeah. So one of my regrets with the book is I wish it has a subtitle. Because on the back of the book, it sort of lays out I’m not saying that the platforms are bullshit. I’m saying that the hype surrounding them is bullshit. I’m not dismissing the platforms outright, but I got the impression that not a lot of people read the back of the book, or if they read it electronically or what happened is a lot of people pirated my book, which is totally fine.
So I’m always careful to caution people and say look, I’m not dismissing any of the platforms, but I think what we need to do is we need to realize that the tail doesn’t wag the dog. So that’s sort of what the issue is. We’re fixated on using Facebook, but we’re not really sure why we’re using it. So just getting people to focus on why they’re actually doing something.
So it’s not that I tell people not to do it. It’s just that you have to have a reason to do it. There has to be a reason to go in. The funny thing about it is, this isn’t anything revolutionary. There were people from Facebook that were giving presentations in front of Fortune 500 companies in 2011 saying, you shouldn’t have a Facebook strategy. You should have a people strategy. So that’s sort of my big thing. I used to do work with an organization called Children Family Support.
So let’s say you’re talking to people who are what we’re calling middle America or Trump’s America. I don’t really like that term, but people that aren’t on the coast. You might find that they predominantly use Facebook, and so the question then becomes, well, of the money I have to spend, should I spend it on Facebook? The answer might be yes, depending on what your research tells you.
MT: Right. So people have to have a strategy. They can’t just say, okay, we boosted a Facebook post and now we’re good to go.
BM: Right. So what drives me crazy is that that’s sort of the default setting that a lot of people fall into. You get a lot of MBA douchebags who are obsessed with metrics. That’s all they understand. So that kind of trickles down to everyone else where they get fixated on how to game Facebook. That’ll become the entire strategy because they can measure it, because they can look to it and say, well, we paid X amount for these ads. This is what we got.
But that’s not a strategy. That’s just a short term win but it’s a long term loss especially for not-for-profits. You’re not building any loyalty or a sense of – I know it’s an overused word, but a real sense of community. All you’re doing is setting up something that’s completely transactional and that might be great short term. But in the long term, if you’re not building relationships, you’re not going to get those people coming back and considering to donate.
MT: That’s right. It’s all about the relationship. That’s what fundraising is. So if you have a million Twitter followers and they’re not used to talking with you and used to giving a little bit of money, then by the time you actually go on your tour, they’re not going to do it.
BM: Exactly. Unfortunately what I’m sharing with you is not often the mindset because it can’t be measured. I’ve always felt people do things you can’t measure and then they’ll typically come back with, oh, that doesn’t scale. So they don’t want to do it because they’ve learned from the engineers and the MBAs to do things at scale.
That’s now how you create relationships. That’s not how you get someone that donates like $3 million in their will to a nonprofit. They’re not doing that in a transaction. They’re doing that because they really felt like they were committed to you.
MT: You’re right. People who say that doesn’t scale, well, that’s the point. That’s why you segment your audience so that you can be like, okay, these 50 people, I’m going to focus on them for the next six months and see what happens. But you can’t say, our relationship moved from A to B to C and now it does to D because we did A, B, C. Relationships don’t work that way. So you’re currently writing a book called The Internet is Magic, about what marketing and advertising truly works.
Can you share some of the ideas you’ve gathered for this book?
BM: Yeah. So I’ve been traveling around giving presentations and living out of hotel rooms and doing consulting work for organizations big and small. Nonprofits and large corporations. I kept hearing the same things over and over again, okay, now what do I do? Because it’s all bullshit. What if I’m in a situation where my boss wants me to use it, even though I know it doesn’t work?
So the entirety of the second book is really answering those two questions in a way that I probably should have done it in the first book. I was really worried about people reading it and saying, alright, well, he’s trashing all these marketing people but then he’s giving me marketing advice. I was really caught up in that. That’s always a bad thing. You should never get caught up about what other people think.
So to me, this whole second book is basically resolving what does work. Some of it is what we touched on where you’ve got to get out of this transactional MBA engineer mindset of I’m going to do this social media ad spend, and maybe it’ll be great short term, but over the long term I have no community. I have no relationship. These people don’t care about me. They’re going to go to something else if they get a better price.
So how do I fix that? I think it’s just getting people to understand you have to have a plan. You have to know exactly where you’re going to be five years from now. You have to reverse-engineer that. It’s like, alright, well, how can I be this big successful person five years in the future? This is what it looks like in 5 years. You’ve got to break down each step to get there. So that’s really what the book is doing, it’s saying we’re going to break down those steps. We’re going to help you be able to tell the story that you need to tell in order to get there.
MT: Wonderful. That’s actually something similar to what we taught last year at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit. It’s called Fundraising the SMART Way (and I interviewed the author here). It’s like, hey, break down your goals. Don’t just wish and hope that you’re going to get these relationships. You actually really have to break it down specifically. So it sounds like this is a nice counterpart to the traditional fundraising by saying, this is something you can do to build relationships online.
BM: Yeah, and it’s not just online, too. It’s a huge, huge thing that I touch on in the new book and a lot of the presentations I’m doing now, where the online stuff is sort of like you do it at the end. You worry about that stuff last. So it’s sort of the opposite of what we’ve been doing for the last twenty plus years, where now everyone is like oh, you’ve got to do the internet first. Then we’ll figure the rest out. It’s like, no. For example, right now, I am looking at a spreadsheet.
In that spreadsheet are all 11,000 emails I’ve ever collected of my Twitter following, all 47,000 active accounts. I didn’t bother with the inactive accounts or accounts that people have abandoned. All of my LinkedIn contacts and their contact information, all of the media I was ever featured in– I built my own wire service. The reason why I did this is because from these relationships, this is what’s going to create a New York Times bestselling book. So I compiled this stuff to give myself a resource of offline connections that I can mine and develop and put things in place.
When I do the online stuff, I don’t have to worry about cold pitching. I don’t have to worry about, hey, I haven’t talked to you in like two years, but here’s an email about my new book. So my focus is on developing and building the relationships I need now offline so that when the time comes to activate the online stuff, I’m ready to go. I think a lot of people just don’t view it that way. They don’t think to take all their LinkedIn contacts and put it in a spreadsheet and make sure they’re actually talking to those people.
People think that you just view LinkedIn once and never come back to it. But there’s an actual offline thing that you can do that we don’t think to do.
MT: It’s so true. A lot of people have different complicated databases to give them ticklers to remind them to contact people. But a spreadsheet works too.
BM: Exactly. I always tell people there’s all these expensive options out there for managing contacts. But Google Sheets is great. So all you need is just Google Docs. Go in there, open up a new sheet, export your stuff from LinkedIn. Twitter, that cost me some money to analyze the 700,000 accounts I had. But once they were in the sheet, they’re in the sheet. So I only had to pay that cost once.
MT: Yeah, and you can start talking to people. I like that. I’ve noticed that as you are on different platforms like Facebook, you actually write back to people. You have people who write back to you from your newsletter because I was one of them. You’re starting a podcast now to talk to people and get their advice about life in general, which is pretty neat. That’s another great way to build a relationship. Nonprofits know this. Go on.
BM: So the podcast sort of came out of my own need, because I’ve had OCD for most of my life. I’m now treating that. So a large part of that is this crazy social anxiety that I feel when I talk to people in non-business settings. So I thought that was sort of – I didn’t do the podcast thinking, this will be good for the business. I did it because I need to talk to people without feeling like I’m selling them something or feeling like that’s the purpose of the conversation. But from that, I mean, as you point out, there’s a great tie in to treating those interactions as relationships.
Those are certainly people that when the time comes, I am going to go back to them and say hey, I do have this new book. So yeah, it’s certainly one way to do it. But I don’t want anyone to think I was doing it for that reason. That’s sort of like a happy bonus that came out of doing it.
MT: Yeah. When nonprofits highlight their donors and their major donors and their volunteers in their communications, people remember them in their will. So what you’re doing is actually best practices for nonprofits. Whether or not you meant to do that that way, you do it well.
BM: If you’re listening to this and you’re a nonprofit, It’s all about really just working with what you have first. There’s one organization I’m thinking of. They’re a large citizens group that represents about 14,000 voters, maybe more, if they got their act together. But they have never once stopped and said, are we doing all the things we need to do to serve the people that we’re currently in touch with? – so my advice to you is forget new people.
Forget new donors and new resources and new contacts. Of those 14,000 voters that they work with where they’re able to organize and communicate with, are they doing everything they need to serve them? The answer is no. They are not so great. This is not a slight to them because it’s true for a lot of organizations. They’re not so great at organizing themselves. They’re not so great at communicating why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’ll tell you what they’re doing but they won’t tell you why, which is really important.
So if you’re a nonprofit listener, you might have made that same mistake at some point or you might be making it now. So I definitely just want to let you know best practices kind of thing.
MT: Right. It’s so true. If you keep communicating with them and say this is why this is important, and this is why you should give now, or why you should care. Even not why you should give, but why you should care. People will tend to be more responsive when the time comes, when you do ask. But one of the things nonprofits don’t do very well is advertising and marketing.
So most nonprofits don’t spend money on advertising and spend minimum money on marketing. Why is this a mistake?
BM: I think people have been burned pretty badly from bad advertising. I think a lot of people have that mindset that this stuff doesn’t work, or if you’re an MBA, engineer, you don’t have to measure it if we don’t do it. It’s a mistake on two fronts. It’s especially for nonprofits. First is that book Contagious by Jonah Berger. I don’t agree with everything that he says, but one of the phrases I really liked that came out of that book was
“Top of the mind, tip of the tongue.”
What he meant by that was when people are constantly aware of your existence and what you’re doing, then they’re going to talk about you. That’s a product of advertising. You can’t just assume that when the time comes in December, to write a check for the charity of your choice, someone will be thinking of you. You need to be present. You need to be constantly banging that drum.
There’s a reason why Salvation Army is as effective as it is. It’s because they’re everywhere. You can’t escape them at a certain time of year. So a lot of not for profits don’t have that presence. To be clear, you might not see a direct return on it immediately. But you will eventually see a return on it from people talking about you and going to the website and making their donations when the time comes. I think it’s a mistake to not appreciate that. I understand that money is tight. I’m very mindful of that. I grew up broke and I still penny pinch whenever I can.
So I certainly understand wanting to save money. But when you’re in the business of getting people to build a relationship with you, they have to know that you exist. More often than not, that comes from advertising.
MT: It’s so true. They need to know you exist. So many nonprofits are just sitting there wondering, why aren’t we getting donations? Why don’t people know about us? Oh, but we can’t spend any money. Well, you have to, and it’s necessary to get people to know about you. You can’t just volunteer. You do have to do more. Now more and more nonprofits are realizing this. They’re starting to invest in Facebook ads. They’re starting to try.
That leads me to my next question for you. What would you spend $1,000 on if you were a nonprofit with a year end giving campaign to promote? Just in case you don’t know what year end giving campaign is, it’s people send letters and they send emails, please give at the end of the year. Give because it’s a tax write off, or because it’s Christmas, or another reason.
BM: So it would be a lot of stuff that doesn’t scale. If it’s a year end giving campaign, for me it would sort of be handwriting postcards to current donors. Because you can do that on the cheap. That doesn’t cost a lot of money if you’ve got your database all set in terms of addresses. So that’s sort of typically the kind of direction I would go in where if I’ve only got $1,000, I would say, OK. I’ve got everyone’s address. This is what we’re going to do. It might be very time consuming. But I’m convinced that you’ll see a better return on that for your money than you would if you just spent $1,000 on Facebook ads.
MT: That’s fascinating. Handwritten postcards to people from board and leadership volunteers. That’s a revolution. Wow. Going back old school.
BM: A lot of people who hear that are kind of like, oh, that doesn’t work. It does. So the example I always give people is Genuine Scooters out in Chicago. A friend of mine started that company. His name is Phil McCaleb, and so his company is basically what I’m talking about here. It’s not a transaction when you buy a scooter from Genuine Scooters. Back when Phil ran the company, anyway. You were buying into a community. You were buying into a family. Phil would send out these handwritten postcards and they became a multi million dollar company just from getting something in the mail that wasn’t – there was no sales pitch to it.
It was just, “Hey, it’s Phil. How are you doing? Write me back.” From that, he engendered loyalty. He engendered people wanting to come out. He used to do these rides. He would organize these rides and he would travel around. He was like the mayor. He would come out. Everyone would be following him.
So that all came from the postcards. So for me, for a nonprofit, why would you not do that? What could it possibly cost you to get a bunch of postcards and send it out to your list and not sell them? I know we’re talking year end giving, but you shouldn’t wait. You should be doing that right now.
The trick is not to pitch. You’re just saying, hey. I run this nonprofit. You’ve donated in the past. I just wanted to say thank you and see how you were doing. Write me back. Just build that relationship. It does not scale. I know that makes engineers and tech people crazy. But that’s the kind of thing you want to do if you’re on a limited budget.
MT: Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah, I would agree, people. Start now. Build that relationship now. It will pay off by the end of the year. People will be like, oh yeah. I heard from them. They didn’t ask me for money. They care more than this other nonprofit that only asks me for money. So I’m going to give them something.
BM: Right. That’s a big thing. There are so many not for profits, especially now. Especially with the politics going on both in the United States and around the world where everyone is civic minded and everyone is getting organized for 2018. So you see a lot of requests for donations, but you need to do something to stand out. It’s good noise but you still need to stand out above that noise. Doing things that don’t scale is how you’re going to stand out above that crowd.
MT: That is really true. Doing things that don’t scale really does work. I wanted to ask you, just in case people did want to use social media to do outreach to their donors, if they’re struggling with that, do you have any advice for them?
BM: If they want to use social media?
MT: Yeah, to get outreach to their donors.
BM: I’m trying to think of how I want to phrase this. I don’t want to say don’t use it. Sometimes if you’re on a limited budget or if you’re understaffed, the last thing you want to be doing is social media. If you’re going to do social media right – and you can do it right. Don’t let the takeaway of this be don’t use social media. If you’re going to do it, it’s expensive and time consuming. It’s resource intensive.
What I would say is I would look at how your donors are currently using it and try to fit into that. Don’t just be like, hey, I’m here on Facebook and here’s my page. You should like it. By the way, don’t tell people to like your page because Facebook will penalize you for that. A lot of people are not aware of that. You do not tell people to share your posts or like it because Facebook will crack down on that. So what I would do is I would say, all right. If I’m already in a situation where I have a page, how do I get these Facebook users to go down the sales funnel with me?
So the answer to that would be set up a landing page. Start capturing their emails. So you would run ads. Boost posts and run ads to people that were already following you. How do you use social media? You’re taking people off social media. So you want to develop a relationship further. The way Facebook is set up today, unless you’ve got a big budget, you’re not going to be able to develop a great relationship. Twitter is great if you want to be able to tell a story that you want to share with the media.
So if you’re going to use Twitter and you’re a not for profit, that’s sort of how you use that channel. You say, alright, the journalist is writing about me on Twitter. Something like 90% of American journalists use Twitter. I’m sure the number is actually higher, especially now with the president using Twitter the way that he does. So there’s a specific purpose for using that platform. Instagram is the same deal where unless you’re doing a PPC campaign on Instagram, you’re not going to do great on there.
But if you want to be able to tell a story through pictures, you can certainly do that. That’s fine. But I would find ways to drive people off this platform and get their email address.
MT: Yeah, that’s completely accurate. I think that’s true. I haven’t seen people get money from Instagram in any meaningful way, though I have seen people do their annual report on there.
BM: They’ll click. If you’re doing a PPC campaign on Instagram, I have seen results. But you’re talking about spending like $15,000. You’re spending a lot of money to get results on social media. So if you’ve got the budget, great. If you don’t, then what are you doing?
MT: Right. Get off. Make a plan. But then do the offline touches that mean so much to people. You put your phone number in your first book. You’re like, call me. A lot of people did, and we talked about that in our last conversation and I love that. I wish more nonprofits would make it easier to contact them.
Some nonprofits, they put out, here’s our mistakes. That’s another thing that you do really well, which I appreciate about you as a person and how you put yourself out there in your branding. You’re like, “Here I am, warts and all. I like comic books and I had a heart attack. This fundraising campaign didn’t work.”
BM: I think it’s sort of unintentional. This is the way I present myself but I realize it’s also sort of a backlash to this movement of personal branding. Because saying you’re so cultivated online, there’s a point where everybody now sort of sounds the same. They all sort of do the same things and look the same way and present. So to me, if you want to stand out from that, then it’s not a secret. You just have to do what I do basically.
I’ve got OCD. This is the struggle that I have with it. This is what it’s like having depression when you’re a writer. It takes forever to get things done. So being able to do that, one, it makes you stand out. But two, people also lower their guard. Sometimes this is bad. So I’ve now been in the unfortunate position of going out with someone and the next person they date, they marry. This has happened five times now. So it’s not just with marketing but it’s also in life.
So by presenting things the way I present things, there’s a calming effect where people are like, there’s no play here. He’s not faking anything. This is just who he is. So that helps people relate to me better than they would a Gary Vaynerchuck or a Tony Robbins where you’re like, wow, look at how smart and successful these guys are. Everything is so perfect and polished. It’s like the Superman problem. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Superman might have been great in 1937 but today Superman is boring because Superman is perfect. It’s very difficult to relate to Superman. So writers are constantly struggling with how do you get a modern twentieth century audience to relate to Superman? The answer is you don’t. You’d have to put him in situations where there’s other characters you can kind of relate to.
MT: A lot of nonprofits actually are so afraid of admitting weakness. But one that isn’t is called Givewell.org. They have a whole section of the website called mistakes, and they list all their mistakes they’ve done in rating nonprofits and trying to understand what makes a nonprofit effective. They also have quarterly phone calls with the CEO where you can just listen in and talk to them and say hey, what’s up? What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Then they put those recordings up online as well. Also, Engineers without Borders does the same thing. Our Mistakes Report. You know what I mean?
BM: Which is really smart. I understand the fear factor. I get, all right, what if we say something embarrassing and you lose people? So like with me, I’m constantly joking about porn. It’s a constantly reoccurring theme in all of my writing revolving around superheroes being in porn. So I’ve got people saying to me, what’s the purpose of joking about that? What’s the purpose of exposing that side to you? What I tell people is, if you were turned away by anything, that or the OCD or anything else that I talk about, then you’re not someone I can build a long term relationship with.
So that’s sort of what I think not for profits should feel. They should be okay with talking about their failure. You can’t just be like wow, that really sucks, and then not acknowledge that. You can’t do that. No one is saying do that. But there’s nothing wrong with saying, this is the thing we did. We messed up. These are the things that we learned from it and these are the things that we’re now doing better. Being able to share that shows people that you’re human, that you make mistakes, and they invest in you. They invest in the long term.
So you should actively push people away who are here for a transactional relationship.
That’s not how you win long term. It’s bad. Anything you can do to drive those people away, if it’s just talking about the things that you messed up on, then fine. Go for it.
MT: Yeah, I’ve done it, and I notice that Penelope Trunk did it way before it was cool. She wrote about her having a fight with her husband. She put a picture of the lamp that she threw at his head and broke on the floor. She’s like, this is our life. But she also gives business advice and career advice and homeschooling advice. I don’t agree with everything she says. I just like that she was brave enough to show that. So I put my life into my newsletter, and some people are like, I don’t want to read a Facebook post from you. That’s what they think of it as. Like if you share something personal, it’s a Facebook post. But that’s the whole point of having your own business or running your own thing is to be able to be yourself without some sort of corporate veneer.
BM: What I try to get across to people is that there are 300 million plus people in the United States. There are billions of people on the planet. So don’t get hung up at all if you lose one or two people because you’re being real or you’re talking about weaknesses and worried about losing a donation or two. There are so many more people out there than there are people that you would lose. Do the thing, one, that makes you happy, but two, do the thing that kind of shows that you’re human, as opposed to being a personal branding guru type.
MT: I completely agree. Life is not about Instagram posts. Life is about moments with people that you care about. So yeah. I love that. Well, I don’t want to take up all your time today, B.J. But is there anything else you’d like to add? Or where can people find you?
BM: People can find me at bjmendelson.com. That’s the hub for everything. The other stuff doesn’t matter to me. So bjmendelson.com is the place. Eventually there will be a new book at some point, and when it’s out there you can learn about it at that website.
MT: Excellent. Sign up for his email. It’s so good. I love getting it. He synthesizes books for you as he’s writing his book. Thank you so much. It’s been super fun.