Catherine McLean Journalistin/Texterin/√úbersetzerin

Social media can pull in clients

October 20, 2009
The Globe and Mail

After exchanging greetings, the first thing I do when I get digital marketing guru Mitch Joel on the phone is fess up: I have no blog, no Facebook account, nothing beyond basic e-mail.

"You're the one," he says. "I found the patient zero."

But he doesn't question my old-fashioned Web habits; he's used to preaching to the unconverted when it comes to doing business on the Web.

Instead, he spends the next 45 minutes energetically explaining his belief that businesses must participate in the social media movement that has forged connections between millions worldwide with everything from silly YouTube videos to Mommy blogs to Facebook friends.

He outlines this gospel in a new book called Six Pixels of Separation, a reference to the phrase "six degrees of separation," and the theory that it takes only six links to connect to anyone in the world.

It's the name of the blog through which he has built up a strong personal brand, snagging him speaking gigs at events that feature stars such as former U.S. president Bill Clinton and self-help authority Anthony Robbins.

The blog didn't just bring the book deal, though. He believes it also helped him and his partners build a "multimillion dollar" digital marketing firm called Twist Image, whose customer list includes corporate bigwigs such as the Bank of Nova Scotia, Telus Corp. and Dairy Farmers of Canada.

With these achievements proudly displayed in the book's introduction like a trophy rack, Mr. Joel holds himself up to his pupils as an example of how time invested in the social media space can reap big rewards.

"We're sitting in an office with three people and not one single client," Mr. Joel says, referring to Twist Image's start earlier this decade. "We start blogging. The blog starts getting attention, starts bringing clients in, starts getting media attention."

Surprisingly, Mr. Joel is a relative newcomer to the Web. His previous career track was rooted firmly in traditional media; he published music magazines and as a freelancer wrote for newspapers and other publications. The bridge between the two worlds appears to be his interest in communications and willingness to take risks.

One telling example was the Montreal-native's decision to ditch his philosophy studies at Concordia University after less than a semester in order to pursue a budding publishing career.

"My family said if [his magazines] don't work out, you can go back," Mr. Joel recalls.

He didn't have to. In addition to writing, he also co-founded a music label. In 2002, he joined Twist Image, where he is now president and one of four equal partners who run a business with 90 people and offices in Montreal and Toronto. Earlier this year, Mr. Joel received one of Canada's Top 40 Under 40 awards. He turned 38 in May.

The book, though, was always his dream. What his book tries to do is to make sense of a new, topsy-turvy advertising world, where a blue-chip company may spend big bucks on a TV commercial that falls flat, while thousands of people eagerly watch a charming home video posted online of a baby or kitten doing something adorable.

His book is for those businesses that want to expand beyond the traditional media world , explaining how new social media services can be used to reach prospective clients. Along with the chance to build up an online community which tunes into updates on the latest yogurt or jeans, it's also cheaper.

In addition to his own company, Mr. Joel provides other examples of success stories. There are firms such as Blendtec, which has attracted millions of video viewers by putting wacky items such as an iPhone or golf balls into its blenders. It may not be a household name like KitchenAid, but Mr. Joel says Blendtec's Web exposure helped create a "multi-million dollar" company.

John Stevenson, head of Fujifilm Canada's corporate marketing group, said Mr. Joel appeared as a speaker at several conferences he attended and challenged his traditional approach to the Web. Google is the first place consumers learn about your company, not the website. After my talk with Mr. Joel, I notice that even my local fish shop has Twitter updates. Still, how many companies are really pulling in new customers and valuable dollars with these online tools? How many new brands are emerging thanks to a captive Web audience?

Mr. Joel admits he doesn't have all the answers when it comes to the future of digital marketing.

"We're in the middle of a Renaissance period," he says. "If we had this foresight, there would be many more people making a lot more money and things would change faster."

Mitch Joel believes small- and medium-sized businesses have many opportunities online. Here are some tips.

Use it as a focus group

By scouring Twitter feeds and Technorati blog searches, firms can learn what customers are saying at little cost. Mr. Joel calls it a "free focus group."

Narrow it down

Companies don't have to do the whole smorgasbord of videos, blogging, podcasts, etc. Instead, they should pick a few areas so they'll focus on things they're good at and it won't be too time consuming.

Leave fear behind

Companies shouldn't let the technology scare them away from engaging in this space. Facebook wouldn't be so popular if it weren't so easy to use, Mr. Joel says.