Onalytica Interview Robert LevinRobert Levin – Chief SMB Officer & Editor-in-chief at RSL Media


Key Topics:
B2SMB Marketing, Sales, Content

Location: New York, USA

Bio: Rob is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of content development firm RSL Media, specializing in helping enterprise companies achieve their revenue goals through exceptional buyer-aligned content programs targeting small and midsize businesses (SMBs). As Editor-in-Chief, he oversees each strategic engagement and is passionate about helping enterprise companies achieve their sales and marketing goals. Rob has been helping big brands “speak SMB” since he founded The New York Enterprise Report (NYER) in 2003.

Rob has been nationally recognized for his small business journalism and leadership. He began his career as a “Big 6” CPA and has also held senior positions in several fast-growth entrepreneurial companies.

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND WHAT RSL MEDIA ARE ALL ABOUT

I started my career as a Certified Public Accountant then CFO then CEO in a few different business. In 2003 I decided to start my own business – the New York Enterprise Report – a media company that served the New York area small business market. I started it because at the time, as a CFO and CEO in different businesses I was always looking for best practices but, I didn’t find anything good at there. I didn’t think the media were doing a good job of getting real expertise.

So, I started the New York Enterprise Report, it was first a magazine. We did a lot of events. We had a website and webinars and all of that stuff of course. Within a few years we had a readership of over 100,000 business owners and executives and we attracted a lot of the top brands, as advertisers and sponsors.

The media business got a little more challenging when time went on. In 2014, we sold our media operations, keeping our content marketing operations. We have been doing content marketing projects for many different big brands. At the time it was called custom publishing and custom events.

So what we do at RSL media is we create programs that attract, engage, nurture, convert and retain small businesses and we do this for our clients who are typically some of the bigger brands out there, companies such as SAP, Charter Communications, Go Daddy, and over the years many many other companies in many different categories.

YOU’VE ALSO GOT SPEAK SMB, HOW DOES THAT FIT IN?

Right so to speakSMB.com is something we started early this year where we are creating a hub of content for executives of marketing, sales, product development that are  selling and marketing to small businesses – that it’s basically insights, interviews with executives that are in this market, best practices etc. So, it’s really our content arm if you want.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE B2B AND B2SMB SPACE?

It’s entirely different in so many different ways. First of all everybody in business is dealing with disruption and digitalisation. You have disruption even in HR when it comes to the changing workforce, there are so many different things that businesses are facing. When you’re a small business, even a mid-sized business, you’re dealing with disruption in every area and usually you don’t have a team of experienced people to help you deal with it. So there’s massive amounts of disruption right now – again very different than the way enterprise companies are dealing with it, which is to have a lot of people. In a small business you only have one or a few people.

So that’s a big difference. Also if you look at the way a small business buys, it is entirely different than a big business that has a procurement department. Small businesses are not professional buyers and in fact with small businesses they don’t know what solutions are out there. They also don’t know what some of the options are that you can use to deal with disruption, as well as the other day-to-day opportunities and challenges of running a business. When you combine all of that with the fact that everybody is doing a million things in a small business, you start to realize why the buyer journey for small business is anything but linear. If you imagine  kids scribbling on a piece of paper, there you have the small business buying journey. So marketing and selling to the small business is quite a challenge for all of all of those reasons. On top of that small businesses really require simplicity. An enterprise company might really want all the different features and benefits, a small business may want some of them, but simplicity is really important.

HOW DOES INFLUENCER MARKETING FIT IN WITH WHAT YOU’RE DOING?

So back when we had our media company, we kind of created influencers because we really believe in going to the experts. Even if we are using professional writers, we want them to go to actual experts, people who are working with business owners day-in and day-out. Now the big question is what’s the difference between an expert and an influencer? You guys are in the influencer world and I’d love to know what you think. From our perspective what we’re looking for is what we would consider micro-influencers. These are not influencers with huge followings, but these are the influencers with the real expertise and they typically have a small following. They’re very important to what we do because there’s so much content out there right now for small businesses that it’s really important to get the content that changes the point of view of the reader. The only way to get that content and not have that same content that has been published out there, is to work with real experts.

DOES IT MATTER THAT THE INFLUENCERS FIT YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE?

Yes, because again we want to deliver content for our clients that’s really going to make an impact on the small businesses. There are a few really big influencers in the SMB space that know their stuff, but if you really want the detail, to me it’s more the function and expertise over the size of their or their following. So that’s what’s really important to us, that these people really work in a small business or they are working with them daily. Our job is to make sure that we’re extracting their absolute best practices when we are producing content for our clients.

SHOULD YOU THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT INFLUENCER ENGAGEMENT DEPENDING ON WHERE IN THE BUYING CYCLE YOU ARE TRYING TO TARGET YOUR MARKETING EFFORTS?

Sure, I’ll tell you how we look at this. First of all, experts are really the core of where we get the ideas for our content, and the actual content itself. There are other sources of course, such as a company’s internal subject matter experts and this will vary by company. Then there are the small business customers, which to us are really a huge opportunity for a lot of companies. By the way some of them are actually influencers.

That’s a great place to use influencers or subject matter experts – whichever term you want to use – that’s a great place to do that. As you are getting closer to the middle of the buying journey, we are going to start to bring in some more internal subject matter experts – again, this will vary by company. When somebody is in the middle part of the buying journey, they are starting to be interested. They’re now past the idea and they’re starting to look into a solution – which could be our client’s product. In this case we might want to bring in some internal subject matter experts, whilst still using some external subject matter experts. This continues as the buying journey is going down to the later stages – we then want to bring in customers. Why? Because customers represent that social proof. Business owners love to see what other businesses are doing, it’s really important to a small business. They want to know what worked for this company – particularly if it’s in their industry. We are probably using the influencers a little less at the end of the buying process and leaning more towards the internal subject matter expert, as well as customers.

YOU HAVE SPOKEN ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE FOR B2SMB BRANDS TO BUILD AN AUDIENCE. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT AND HOW DO INFLUENCERS FIT IN?

Let’s take a step back and think about why is it important for brands to build an audience. So if you think about how a brand is typically marketing, their messaging is typically for those people that are ready to buy. If you are not ready to buy then their offerings are not going to be helpful. Most research shows that only about 3% of a company’s target market are ready to buy today. That’s 97% of companies that are not ready to buy today but might be buyers at some point in the future.

When you also think about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of conventional advertising today, it’s really critical for brands to start building their own audience, almost to be in a sense like their own publisher or their own media company. It’s really about how do we serve this audience? And who is in that audience? Who is in that audience is like a community, its customers, its prospects. It’s certainly going to be – if you’re doing things right it’s – experts, these micro-influencers that are providing insight into this audience. This is the consistent content that a media company or publisher is always pushing out there. So I think influencers are a very big part of building an audience because it’s really where the expertise is going to come from.

In some companies, they have really strong internal subject matter experts. The challenge is that a lot internal subject matter experts are often very product-centric. You can’t be product-centric when you are building an audience, because a small business doesn’t start out by looking for a product in a lot of cases. They start looking for ideas, and how they can deal with the opportunities and challenges; and that’s where these external subject matter experts and influencers can really make a big impact, because again they are the ones working with small businesses every day.

AS WELL AS BUILDING AN AUDIENCE IS DEVELOPING AN INFLUENCER COMMUNITY A KEY STRATEGY FOR YOU?

First of all, the concept of building an audience is still relatively new. There are a few companies that have done it, Open Form from American Express is one example. They actually started doing it about 10 years ago. There’s very few companies that are doing this now and it’s really a new concept. That said, I can go back to nearly ten years ago when we were working with Constant Contact when they were the dominant email marketing player for small businesses in the U.S. We developed a program for them were – and this was after a couple of years of doing events of marketing directly to small businesses. We wanted to bring in the marketing consultants that are working with small businesses and this was a very, very powerful program for Constant Contact. We did it for them in New York and they actually rolled some of this throughout the country and the idea was to answer the question who are the people working with small businesses? Well these are the people we want to bring into the conversation and we want to engage with them for Constant Contact. It was a very, very successful program because we were getting their expertise, they are getting exposure and again and when somebody is getting published by a big brand that has got a big audience, they are going to tell their network about it. It just makes sense all around. It becomes mutually beneficial.

As I mentioned earlier, when we started the New York Enterprise report we literally created influencers by going to people who weren’t necessary writers, in some cases we would ghost write for them, or in some case they’d send us a draft and the information was great but it’s not written well so we’d have a team of editors that would fix that. That was a big part of our success, we were able to unleash this great content and we turned these experts into influencers, who were household names in the business screen.

Here are some easy questions to ask an expert that will help unleash their expertise: “When you are sitting down with a brand new client what are they currently doing now? What are you working on with them so that when you are done with them, they are now at a much better place.” You’ll find they will start talking about what they are actually doing with clients and that is exactly what you want. You could take that one step further and ask them “I’d like you to think about a client that is really killing it, and what is it that you are helping them with, what is it they are doing that’s really helping them crush the competition and see incredible rates of growth?” They will just start talking and there are your answers, because you are just asking them what they are doing every day. If they are truly an expert – and that’s the big if – all of that stuff will come out when you are asking the right questions.

HOW DO YOU FIND THESE INFLUENCERS AND SEPARATE THE REAL EXPERTS FROM THOSE WHO ARE JUST GOOD AT SOCIAL MEDIA?

It’s not easy. It is critical that brands learn how to do this. As brands start to build up their audience, they start to build up a network of influencers. I will give you an example, we did a project for a client in the area of small business finance – lower-mid-sized businesses, upper-end of small-sized businesses. You can’t go on Twitter and find people with 100,000 followers that are experts in this area. Over the years, we have built up an informal network of experts. Some of these people may not have big followings. We also look for people who may have written a whitepaper for their company. We start searching by topic and see who comes up. This is after we have looked at our internal network that we’ve built up. We want people who have had some experience in terms of writing or speaking at an event, but these are not necessarily the people with large followings. This audience that we are working on for this client are going to demand real expertise: if you give that audience the same routine stuff, you are going to alienate them which could be very damaging for the brand. You have to get that real expertise.

WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST WAY FOR A BRAND TO CONTACT YOU?

Feel free to reach out Twitter or LinkedIn or you can contact me through the website

If you would like to listen to the interview in full here is a link to the podcast: