Why Social Matters: Unpacking Social Media Trends with Jeff Bullas
Jeff Bullas (of jeffbullas.com) hasn’t been a go-to social media guru for very long. As he relates in our recent interview, Bullas’ digital journey began just a decade ago—but his success grew exponentially. Now, 10 years into the exploration of social media, content marketing, and digital development, he weighs in on 2018 trends and how they’re changing the way we consume information.
Let’s start a with a little background. You say that your journey started in 2008—only 10 years ago. What were you doing before then?
My first career was as a high school teacher—for six years. But I decided I didn’t want to teach people who didn’t want to learn. They’re called teenagers, in case you were wondering [laughs].
Anyway, it wasn’t for me. I was worn out and honestly, not very passionate about what I was doing. So I jumped to the technology industry. The PC revolution was just starting—with the Aqua Mac and the PC XT—so it was a pretty exciting time. I just loved it—the strategic future, the opportunities for growth, disrupting the industry.
I’ve been in the tech industry ever since.
You’ve talked about the moment when you discovered Facebook, and in turn, Twitter and blogging. Talk about the revelations that followed.
I discovered Facebook back in 2008—in part queued by my kids’ use of social media—and was blown away. It was amazing. So authentic.
I remember the first time I logged in. All of a sudden, a collection of old college friends popped up as possible connections—all of them looking a little older, a little grayer. But it was global. The whole world was suddenly connected on equal footing, able to share their lives, their passions, their thoughts.
Twitter came later that year, after I had launched a blog discussing these crazy new social platforms (and several topics related to the democratization of content and marketing). It was so easy for me to push out my new posts via Twitter, and I got a lot of traction that way. In fact, a lot of my content was inspired by a book called “New Rules of Marketing and PR” by David Meerman Scott—he was one of the first to really dive deep into online content as the basis for inbound marketing.
All in all, I’d say the authenticity of the social world was what impressed me the most. I think we’ve lost some of that authenticity today, but it was certainly present then.
And this was all because of a personal fascination with the explosive social world?
Well it was more than that. I was inspired to start my own business, as many people were, because of Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Work Week.” I wanted that control.
Totally understandable. So let’s talk more about that blog. What did it look like early on? What were your goals, given your familiarity with content marketing?
I didn’t have a business plan. I just wanted to write about a topic that fascinated me. And I had read a HubSpot blog that basically said if you have an inkling of what you want your business to be, start blogging about it.
So really, the inspiration was threefold: David’s Meerman Scott’s book on marketing; Tim Ferriss’ advice on how to create a four-hour work week; and the opportunity to create my own content in this amazing digital world.
It’s important to understand this freedom, because a lot of people take it for granted today. I was no longer constrained by paying for advertising in other people’s spaces, and I didn’t have to chase down customers. Readers came to me organically—almost as soon as I launched my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Yes, in fact, you used Twitter early on to promote your blog. Why was that platform more successful than Facebook at getting traffic to the site?
It was just simple to use. Write a headline, add a link, and people could go straight through to the site. Facebook was more personal—a place to connect with friends and family. For me—and for many other bloggers—Twitter was a commercial distribution tool ideal for brand awareness and content dissemination.
Your site currently has a lot of content designed for marketers and professionals, but there is a personal category, too—what you call “Personal Growth.” Is there an intentional balance of professional and personal content on the site?
Well, my mission statement calls out that balance: “Win at business and life in a digital world.”
I don’t believe that there should be a clear separation between personal and professional. I think that you should be doing something you’re passionate about. The digital world offers a connection there, an opportunity to grow yourself and your business at the same time.
Here’s an example I often use. When you write a good piece of content for your website, you have to do research. You have to outline your thoughts and think through your argument. That process forces you to hone your analytical skills and improve your thinking. It pushes you to build structure and create clarity where once there was a cloudy idea. That demands personal development as much as it does professional development.
Then there’s the element of sharing the content we create—which can be a very personal experience. We crave validation, and so we put our work out there in the hopes that people give it a thumb’s up. But regardless of the response—negative or positive—feedback affects how we grow as a person.
If that research and writing process is one of self-understanding and discovery, it also takes a lot of time—time that the fast-paced digital world doesn’t often afford. How do you reconcile the need for thoughtfully prepared, well-researched content with the internet’s persistent demand for content produced at an impossible clip?
Well, first of all, I would say that deep work is undeniably important. I discovered this by reading Cal Newport, and I know Craig Ballantyne advocates for something similar. In short, you need to put away shallow work—like responding to emails and social surfing—and sit down with a single project.
That’s how I got the blog going actually. I found that I had some extra time in my mornings and committed to writing five days a week before going to my day job. How significant was it? Well, it changed my life.
Now, I will say that the web and social media almost demand that your create superficial content—quick 10-second videos and such—that you can easily digest and share. But if that’s all you create, then there’s no depth to your exploration. And I believe everyone’s journey in life is to explore their passions, their interests in earnest. You don’t do that with quick-hit social posts.
Do you think that everyone should be creating content though? I mean, we’re already suffering from information overload. How much more do we need?
One of my goals now is to encourage people to create and share. The reality is that maybe only one or two percent will. Does that mean the odds are against you and you should stop doing it or not aspire to do it? No.
If you really want to create content of consequence, you have to create something better or differently than what’s out there. Now, some people choose a medium to focus on, like Gary Vaynerchuk and his penchant for video. Mine was writing. Others pick a topic and dig deep—covering every issue and pain point they can think of.
But there’s so much life experience, wisdom, and knowledge out there that’s not being shared. There are lots of people who have what I call “positional authority” in a company—a manager or expert of one sort or another—but they don’t distill their wisdom down and share it with the world. And in my experience, that’s where the magic happens, because it starts a global conversation that anyone can be a part of. It can accelerate our evolution as human beings.
What about the growing concern around digital addictions? How do you address this while also advocating for engagement in the social world?
Digital addiction is real. How we cope with that is a difficult question, and one we haven’t answered yet. I still ask myself if I have an addiction struggle, but I do take steps to disconnect. I have no social media alerts turned on on my phone and I make a point to put my phone down when my attention is needed elsewhere.
I think you have to be conscious of your behavior and make decisions accordingly. That includes digital courtesy—not answering your phone in meetings or texting others when spending time with friends. It’s a muddy space now, and we need to make sure there are boundaries.
I want to jump back to blogging as a practice—which really is your foundation. I started blogging back in 2004, and at the time, it was basically a form of public journaling. Since those days, however, we’ve seen the rise of countless social networks and apps—not to mention easy-to-use web platforms like WordPress, SquareSpace, and the like. In this increasingly diverse digital space, what role do blogs play? Are they as relevant as they once were?
Oh absolutely. I think blogs are where content is really created, where brands are developed. If you really want to understand what a brand is about, you don’t only go to their about page—you go to their blog. That’s where you can see conversations about relevant topics that aren’t created in snack-sized pieces.
I really do believe blogs are the heart and soul of companies. It’s how Google finds you; it’s how you share your expertise and thoughts with the world; it’s how you promote your brand.
And sure, social media gives you opportunities to share different kinds of content—Facebook live video, podcasts, photos. But blogs are still were a lot of relevant content lives.
What about the nature of that content, though? You mentioned earlier that it’s important to be vulnerable when you blog, to be personal. That sharing of personal history gives readers something to relate to. In fact, it might be the most effective way of engaging an audience. But how does a monolithic company do that? How do they make a personal connection with the reader?
That’s a great question. When I started my journey, the online world was very much about facts, figures, and information. But I’ve come to realize the power of story; that’s where brands can really thrive. And the best brands find a “hero” to tell their corporate story. That hero is what sets them apart from the information clutter we’re now facing. It makes them unique.
But they don’t have to reach for fictitious characters to make that happen. CMOs, CFOs, and CEOs can share stories easily on a world stage now. And they can choose to be vulnerable. Many business leaders have told personal stories openly—some in Ted Talks, others in cross-industry conferences. But there are many who still choose to keep their stories from the public.
This actually hit me not long ago. I was doing an interview in Sydney, and the interviewer asked me several questions about my personal history. So, I shared. And when the interview was over, she said, “Wow, you should share that story more often.” It dawned on me that I had kept my story in the dark.
The real connection with an audience, whatever your goal, happens when you share your honest thoughts and feelings. That’s incredibly powerful and can incite change more quickly than a well-rehearsed presentation on sales or industry trends.
I absolutely agree. I was actually talking to a venture capitalist for the ETR podcast not that long ago and he said that the two biggest things he looks for in a startup are story and talent. I see “personality” having an even greater importance these days in an environment that suffers from clickbait content.
There’s a push now to create longer-form, more meaningful content. And sure, as we talked about earlier, there are different kinds of content and there’s tension between quick-hit content “bites” and content of consequence. But I think there will be a lot of focus on quality, long-form content this year because there’s so much crap online. People want content that is real, that has value.
What’s the role then of social media in 2018, then—particularly as we develop longer forms of content? Will social media be at odds with that?
Social media is great because it gets people’s attention. They see a headline they like and click to read the full article. From what I’ve seen, social media won’t become a place where you publish content. It’s just where you create the awareness. So no, I don’t think they’ll be at odds.
You don’t see social media platforms becoming ends unto themselves?
It’s a danger. I mean, we’ve already seen studies that tell us X percent of Americans get their news straight from Facebook. That’s scary. It emboldens fake news creators.
But any company in 2018 has to have a multi-channel approach, in part because it’s unclear how these different platforms will fare in five to 10 years, or how their algorithms will affect the content we create and share. I call it having “healthy paranoia.” And because of that, I doubt any company will harness the power of only one platform.
What about print in all of this digital development? Will it soon be dead?
Not at all. I think print media will help companies stand out. And sure, the digital form of content will always have some advantages, but there’s something unique about being able to physically hold a book or a magazine. It gives users a premium experience that companies can leverage.
So what else do you see developing in 2018? What opportunities will social media offer?
I see two big developments this year: automation and artificial intelligence (AI). AI will likely become increasingly “human,” allowing more human-AI interaction. It’s still at the embryonic stage of development, but as it improves, it will have a much bigger role in publishing, marketing, and business.
The challenge is keeping our humanity intact. We will need to learn to balance the human storytelling with advances in technology.
Do you see yourself leaning on one particular social media platform this year?
Not one; each has its own advantages. Twitter is what I continue to use for sharing information about my company. Facebook continues to be a platform for connecting with friends and family. But the really interesting platform is LinkedIn. Since the acquisition by Microsoft, we’re seeing more viral content—and more storytelling in the post area itself (as opposed to sharing articles). That said, there are character limits, so we’ll have to improve our distillation of important information. That takes time and effort, but it will be necessary to craft impactful stories that touch hearts and really make a difference.
For the latest in digital dish and social media advice from the social guru himself, visit jeffbullas.com.