Several years ago I started consulting for some businesses in The NC High Country. The country was in the very early stages of the “social media explosion” and businesses and organizations were having a really tough time trying figure things out.
As I got more acquainted with the community, I came to realize there was one business that seemed to be light years ahead of everyone else. I noticed right away that their Facebook audience, for instance, was absolutely exploding. That business was, and is The Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis, NC. I made a point to get to know the owner, Henri Deschamps and quickly discovered that HE was the mastermind behind The Mast Farm’s social media success.
These days, I am fortunate enough to call Henri a “friend.” I seek his advice often. Henri remains on the cutting edge of all things social media. His feedback is always honest and to the point. He doesn’t mince words when he knows something isn’t working. Henri agreed to an interview with me and didn’t disappoint. Enjoy reading this. I guarantee you’ll learn something…
When did you first realize that Social Media was going to become such a “big deal” for marketers?
I initially dismissed FaceBook as college students talking about awesome pizzas, and the intergalactic adopted home of Captain Kirk’s cats. I was a publisher, media owner and manager all my life, where we published serious content, so found it was initially void of any real substance, and mostly a self-indulgent pseudo-narcissism dance disguised as popular culture. In a nutshell, I found it kind of lame as practiced then.
Then I went to an industry trade show where half the workshops were on social media, so told myself I better take a serious look. When I got back home I started to do research. Started on FaceBook, and our page, and subsequent pages took off like rockets, and we eventually built a following of about ¼ million folks, and it was great, and great for business. Then FaceBook decided to commit hari-kari pre and post IPO by becoming the “gas station convenience store” of social media platforms, full of junk food which will make you obese and sick, but making a fortune. It has become a garish lowest common denominator space, so we consider FaceBook dead and buried for business other than for big corporations with big budgets and a big tech-staff. We invested massive amounts of time, energy, devotion, and dedication to FaceBook, and while I do not regret it, it was great while it lasted, but it’s over, and I have no faith or interest in further development there as I consider the company highly unethical as concerns its development partners.
Yep, it was free, except when we and 30 million other folks on business pages spent serious time and money to build pages, content, and followers, at which point it becomes a joint venture. In fact I question the legitimacy of any social media where the users create the content and then the platform censors through the feed what people see in order to hold hostage a business developer’s or individual’s hard won friends and fans. The spin about enhancing the user experience is just that, a pretext. People are perfectly capable of unfollowing or removing us from their feed when they find us of no use or have lost interest. It’s no longer social media, but an indecent and intrusive advertising platform, and I see most of the folks I know walking away.
Initially we focused on FaceBook but took a very quick liking to Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest, which at this stage represent 98% of our focus. We try to present and feature North Carolina, its entrepreneurs, artisans and independent small businesses, our area, friends & neighbors, because we get as tired of hearing us talk about ourselves as the next guy. We have now built up a significant number of followers on those platforms, and enjoy them a great deal. As such I am not so sure it is “a big deal for marketers”, as I for one do not market in that manner so much as present and feature others with a sort of “Good Karma School of Business” philosophy. If it works and we get some clients great, if not we prefer to at least be doing something we consider meaningful to support the community by featuring NC’s finest. It seems to work as we are by far one of the biggest online presences in North Carolina, as a website and on social media, and in our industry worldwide on social media the next biggest after us has less than 10% of our following. Business is up 50% the last 2 years, and we just purchased and launched a new venture. I think social media is a big component of our success, not sure how, but convinced it is, and we take it very seriously. I am the CEO of the company and I do 100% of it, and it is 50% of what I do.
You’ve always been an early adopter. How have you been able to become so proficient at all the social networks so quickly?
Thanks, I am not sure I am that proficient but compliments are rare so I’ll take them where I can find them. Appreciate it. I would say that whatever ease or edge I may have is because I have a lifetime of experience working in communications as a publisher. Most of my days were filled with people who communicate at the highest levels as professionals, whether by writing, drawing, painting, photography, illustration, producing books, magazines, daily newspapers, radio shows, TV shows, and then when the internet showed up, with designers, programmers and developers.
Initially all technologies related to all those things from Linotypes and Letterpress, to Linotronics, to Macs, require you be very hands on if you were going to invest serious money and energy using a new technology, so in tech I am very hands on by default. After that I have great curiosity and love to learn, so I pay attention when I am using a platform to see what it does, how it works and behaves, what each feature or option means. I drill down and click on every button to see what happens. As strange as it may sound, to me software platforms have personalities and I try to get to know them as they are rather than as I would like them to be. It’s maybe a lot like being a chef, the ingredients are there in the innate natural state, so the question then is how you put it together to do the best you can.
I think there is no secret sauce in anything, it’s about caring, dedication, respect for the person on the receiving end, paying attention and learning, hard work, focus, attention to detail, often learning from mistakes, and I am real good at making mistakes. I am for the most part quite the diligent nerd in all things including social media. I figure if I am going to bother people with my stuff, I should try to assure they learn something new that may be of use.
As to “proficient at all the social networks so quickly?”, it may seem quick but it is probably more because I work at it so much, and so many 16 hour days, and I have focus and stamina. I also use good tools and have decent work habits. As such nothing goes to waste. I have compiled so much information and documentation on North Carolina I really do not have to look too long and too far when I need to find or do something. I am an early adopter and try everything, because I figure if it exists, someone made it, and it deserves my serious attention. When you give things a go, you can see if you should continue, or if it is not made for you. I usually will not dismiss something until I have given it a decent try… from the most complex CRM, Accounting or Publishing systems and platforms to the dinkiest little utility that is awesome at one thing. If I am proficient it is probably because I believe in competence, and think anything less is disrespectful of folks on the receiving end.
What other types of digital marketing work best for you and Mast Farm Inn? Is there one in particular that is generating more business than the others?
Our most important digital marketing investment and asset is our website. We have over 900 pages of content, and while on the surface it seems to be a normal hotel website, underneath is a very in-depth magazine on things North Carolina. Of the visitors to our website, and it is one of the most visited websites in North Carolina, 92.5% of our referrals come from Google organic search, and the other 7.5% from all online directories, ads, and all social media FB, G+, Twitter and Pinterest combined. And we are huge on Social media, probably in the top five in the state. So if despite that we are getting 92.5% of visitors from organic search I know it comes primarily from our website’s content. If you want to see that in action just go to Google and type in “North Carolina Cheese” or “Carlton Gallery” or “Mast General Store” or “Revival Photography”. You will see as a rule that we come in immediately after the subject matter’s official website or the mega sites which list it. Take my word for it, I understand nothing about SEO, so for us it’s just a matter of doing a proper job in terms of content, doing the markup properly, and hoping for the best.
Many of us have of late become Social Media Nomads. Nomadism is a lifestyle adapted to infertile regions such as steppe, tundra, or ice and sand, where mobility is the most efficient strategy for exploiting scarce resources. And for business, honestly, social media can be very infertile. That does not mean you should not go to it, do your best, and take it seriously, but it is not the center of the universe. There’s no doubt that all social media is more akin to shifting desert sands than to brick, mortar or cement. Things come and go, social media companies open, close, change focus and move on to some shiny new feature trinkets to amuse and distract, turning your previous hard work into sand and leaving it exposed to the dust storms of “progress”. If the White House, which is an object of important focus in all our lives, was a tent moved randomly every few days to some new location in the desert, we would all be quite dismayed.
Facebook is legendary in its abilities to kill the last pretty butterfly it invented. And like some ADHD Juvenile touting the next new thing the latest and greatest, their attention span and commitment cannot be taken very seriously by businesses people who need to plan and rely on minimal consistency.
Three months ago I wrote the following as part of an article on Google+: “Recently Google+, where many of us nomads had pitched our tents escaping the debacle that is FaceBook for business, have seen what can only be described as a magnitude 10 quake in the aftermath of its chief architect’s sudden departure. Tsunami to follow. I, like most of us, will be in denial for a while as we progress through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. But make no mistake… something has died. It will no doubt be replaced within or without Google with the next new thing. I had thought Google+ a more stable platform where I could build my home, and it probably is, but I for one am remembering the value of the Oasis as the tornado of sand swishes about once again.” Today I would add as a postscript: “While as we speak things seem to be fine at Google+, and there seems to be little if any fallout, or negative consequences that we can tell, It does not change the fundamental problems and risks attached to all digital sharecropping.”
We prefer the Oasis. Everyone knows people gravitate to water, an essential ingredient for all life. The Oasis would seem to be the best place to be positioned, buy waterfront land, settle and build. All roads eventually lead to water. And online your website and mailing list, properties you own, can settle, and can develop, have been yesterday, are today, and will most likely be tomorrow, the water which can properly quench the thirst for useful information with substance and to conduct trade.
And while it has been said a million times, and in a million ways, and every one online feels intuitively this is the case, very few behave as such or devote their time, energy and resources to developing their websites and mailing lists. It’s so square. Amazon is square.
So while everyone, including me, was promoting 2014 as the year of Google+, for others the year of Instagram, or the year of WhatsApp… I would propose some food for thought… if you are in business, maybe it’s a good time to remember your best bet is to make 2014 the year of your website.
In what way? My sense is that if for example you are an artisan cheese maker, you might want to have more useful and fun content on cheese, the history of cheese, cows, goats, publish and post cute goat videos, instead of cute cats, and just generally have more cool and useful stuff than anywhere else in the known universe on your theme. The investment in time, energy and the efforts you are doing on social media, you can do on your website. If your website can have 1000 pages of fascinating content on all things cheese, I for one am sure you will do just fine, and it will take you less time, energy, money, distraction than what you currently invest in social media. That does not mean you dump social media, but it is not the Alpha and Omega some seem to think it is.
In our case tourism, and travel in North Carolina, everything we do in social media is on top of the close to 1000 pages of content we have on our website on everything related to our business, North Carolina, networks of friends, and our majestic area. In fact we even promote other noteworthy restaurants and Inns in our state. That’s very counter-intuitive. For example, why in the world would we feature 50 of North Carolina’s top wedding photographers on our website at www.themastfarminn.com/north-carolina-photographers ?
We do weddings. The Good Karma School of Business? I think so, but I really don’t know. What I do know is that I would just as soon spend our time and resources building something durable that we can be proud of, and that presents something meaningful and bigger than just us.
Yep, it’s very square, but it very works. I retreat now to be at one with my grief about the latest social media sandstorm and build a few more pages on our website like these www.themastfarminn.com/achefslife Let the water be with you!
Can you share with us which social network has been most effective for you and your business in terms of reaching new potential customers and guests?
The way we use our online digital assets it is impossible to say which is best because we use them together in synergy as if it was all one thing. In fact it is all one thing. Much like a car is composed of parts from an army of suppliers (they do not make their own tires)… That is how we use social media. The body may be by Google+, the tires by FaceBook, the battery by Pinterest and the windshield by Twitter, but the destination I propose to our passengers is our home, our website.
I think a lot of people think social media is about what you post or how many people click like or comment. For people and personal profiles no doubt, for business not necessarily. To us it’s just as important who we follow, who follows us, what we read and listen to, the folks we meet and work with, and the numerous behind the scenes utilities we use that are just tech tools but do a job. It’s a very complex beast.
Depending on subject theme etc… one social media platform may be slightly better than others. For example when we present restaurants we would tend to post a bit more on Twitter and a bit less on G+, but it will go to all channels regardless. In other words when we are promoting others we use all of them to point followers to other peoples’ websites and social media, if we are posting on FB we tend to point to their FB page, if on Twitter to their Twitter feed, etc… but we do a lot of cross channel posts. As a rule we will post on all our platforms about them as each platform has a different public.
We also break things down to bite size pieces… because frankly, how in the world can you explain Old-Salem in one 140 character post? I just prepped a series on old Salem to be sent out over next 6 months and it takes 42 small posts to tell the story and show all of Old-Salem online. We try to tell a complete story in mini-chapters and episodes. Most people may not consciously see it but our posts tell a story. At least when we get it right. When we are posting about our own content the same applies. It usually starts by building a page on our website on the subject and then distributing mini-chapters with a link back to that page for more information, there again via all our channels. If a subject is too complex for a single post, I will break it down into 50 smaller pieces if needs be and schedule it out over 6 months. If you think about it, that is how we communicate, it’s impossible to capture the significance and substance of anything in one turn of phrase unless you are Einstein, and I for one am not. That synergy requires hard work, lots of preparation and planning. And while I do spend half my time learning, reading, reacting, and responding, the other half is very structured prep and schedule.
Gaze into your crystal ball for us and tell us what you think the next “big thing” might be. Where or what do you see yourself putting more time and effort into?
That is hilarious; the only thing I see when I gaze into the social media crystal ball is a crystal ball, if that much. I have no idea where it is all going, but I do know our website is the center of my universe.
I get up every day and see if I can understand social media, and I know I don’t. I am sure we are all subject to a weekly if not daily rounds of Unhs? Most of those are followed as surely as night follows day by WTF’s, lamentations and hand-wringing. Personally I used to spend 10 hours on FB a day, and now I spend 10 minutes a week. As much as I loved it I now find it truly despicable as a business, it has developed a dark side which concerns me, is garish and vulgar as an interface. So for me, on a business level, FaceBook is already in MySpace or AltaVista search engine league. AltaWho? I hear talks of mergers with the final company being MyAltaVistaFace. Well, Hasta La Vista! I’m there because I was there, but I never go there. I know people who use FaceBook just for personal matters will not understand that, but if you have a business page and use FaceBook for business, in my opinion you are dead man walking, and they are picking your pocket all the way to the final meal, final meal for which your credit card on file will be billed before the proverbial switch.
I love Twitter for a bunch of reasons, and it works really well for us, we have about 21,000 followers and they are all interesting people and people of interest, 80% are NC folks. I love Google+ for other reasons; it is a real communication platform the way FaceBook used to be. You can actually carry on a 6 month conversation with a friend right there on your wall that is private, and on that same wall publish something 100,000 people will see. For example we could have done this whole interview on your or my Google wall, and just clicked share to public when we were done.
The Google+ wall, circles and feed system is awesome. It’s a Porsche 918 to FaceBook’s Flintstones mobile. On FaceBook you just roll down the hill they push you, on Google+ you drive an elegant high performance work of technical art. And you decide who sees what and what you want to see. It’s everything the FaceBook feed is not, open, honest, user managed.
I like Pinterest and use it, we have a huge Pinterest presence and a lot of followers, and it sends a lot of people to our website, but it’s hard for me to not get lost in there. I go into dreamland and lose my focus.
I wish more people knew how to use Google+ because it is flat out awesome, but the learning curve is outrageous and to use really well requires a real skill set. The good news is that once you get the hang of it, it is truly marvelous and does everything every other platform does. It’s as if they put Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram in a blender and the smoothie came out perfect. The problem is that it’s hard to figure out where they put the straw.
Our biggest effort the last 6 months is Google+ where we have built about 15 pages, 10 communities, and have at this stage about 10,000 followers to the 300k+ we have elsewhere. You can check that out here: www.themastfarminn.com/mfi-on-googleplus and here www.themastfarminn.com/googleplus-themastfarminn. The thing with Google+ is that once you hit critical mass that 10,000 usually becomes 100,000 pronto. It has a weird snowball momentum effect, and once you hit the sweet spot you are in the big leagues. Unfortunately Google+ also likes to get in touch with its inner duct tape. In that regard it can be quite complex to accomplish a simple thing that is just a button on Twitter, and it sometimes reminds me of ham radio where it is more about the intricate marvel of the tools, and discussion about the tools, than about communication. So much on G+ is about Google+, tech and engineer oriented I miss other things like other North Carolina Businesses or things like music and art.
I love it though, like I love Einstein, and my backpack is full of books trying to figure it out, and I don’t understand a damn thing, but I know he’s right. I have faith in Google so I will keep on keeping on, and since Forrest Gump is my hero, I am sure I will Forrest Gump my way to moderate competence and hopefully success.
Can you share a basic overview or your mobile strategy? What are your plans, outside of having a mobile friendly website!
I think the answer to that question is very specific for us and has little value for others. Our working hypothesis so far has been as follows, but we may be 100% wrong. It’s possible that with the evolution of mobile we will need to get with the program. But as we speak, here is our uninformed opinion… The Mast Farm Inn is not a spur of the moment, or drive by shopping item. It is a very distinct and unique historical property and experience, almost a folk art museum. We do not fit in any box or category, much less one that has a 3×5 inch screen. Nor can we describe the place accurately in a sentence or slogan. Each room, cabin and cottage is different, decorated differently, some are cozy cubbyholes for newlyweds some are full blown homes suitable for family reunions.
People who are going to travel for vacation and spend upwards of $500 are unlikely to decide definitively using a phone or on the move unless they already know your place, the area and its characteristics well. They are most assuredly going to land on an iPad, Laptop or Desktop to book a two-three day thousand dollar getaway or vacation. If you are booking an overnight at a Hampton Inn near the highway mobile is fine, but you are not going to book a vacation to Paris & Geneva on an iPhone or Droid after a few quick scrolls, if you do you are looking for trouble. And if a person does, we may prefer not to have a guest arrive who thinks he is going to a Hampton Inn and just wants a soft bed, a TV and cheap rubbery eggs, as near and as cheap as possible. To begin with we don’t have TV’s and our eggs are expensive organic. It’s not that we can’t afford TV’s, we don’t want them.
Mobile seems for many people very much about skimming and scanning quickly across a shallow surface, and making spontaneous decisions. The average visitor on our website spends 10 minutes, and that’s probably the way it needs to be. We sometimes spend an hour or two on the phone with clients helping them prep their vacation. Our restaurants have mobile responsive sites because a restaurant is much easier to characterize quickly… days and times, price points, location, menu, phone number. The Mast Farm Inn is quite unique.
So in that regard, till we can see how to do something that works, we actually prefer to avoid a mobile orientation and would just as well be mobile invisible. We may or may not be losing a lot of business as a result, it’s hard to tell. It might be interesting to note that when the Visit NC site went completely mobile oriented referrals to members’ organizations, and individual hotels, dropped radically, as if the Visit NC site had dropped off the map, which it had not, it was getting lots of traffic but forwarded few referrals. Everyone was trying to figure out what happened, and it was the object of great deal of discussion in the industry. They have since fixed it, but referrals are still lagging historic levels, not because of traffic, but because of the inherent nature of designing for mobile. Not every hotel fits on Expedia or Priceline, and we have little if any interest in the commodity and discount hound travel client. Frankly that is not what North Carolina Tourism is about, that’s why God invented Vegas and South Beach so all the finer traveling folks could come here. That’s not being snobby because we are quite down to earth; it’s a matter of people making good choices that fit expectations. And we are not Vegas or South Beach for sure, nor do we want to be Vegas or South Beach. We like nature, simple, clean, crisp, and cool. Us simple country folk are scared of the big city.
Last question, What do think about the importance of a brand’s “engagement” on Social Media?
I would say that first and foremost, I do my best not to drink anybody’s kool-aid, including my wife’s, my kid’s or my own. And while I may express myself like I know what I am doing, I am clueless, so if you are looking for expertise you have come to the wrong place. Also all my comments are from the independent small business perspective. I have no idea what is right for Ford.
That being said I am fundamentally allergic to the conventional wisdom which says businesses and brands can and should “engage”, like people do as individuals, or the corporate version of that, whatever it might be. That it’s all about likes, comments, shares on the platform itself and “the proverbial metrics”, so we can all seem popular. That’s very high school and country club. I don’t buy it for a minute, and on the contrary I believe it is the wrong way to go for small independent business unless one has a lot of staff and a lot of money. One man shows, personal businesses, where the one man is an artists, and/or seeking personal gratification and/or personal glory and/or has a one-man brand like a tech expert, chef or celebrity, can probably pull it off in that “engagement” and “relationship building” manner. The brand and the person become one, just like everyone knows F. Lee Bailey was an attorney and social media would have worked great for mim. But that is not the only business model. Some people sell restaurant supplies and unless they want to turn themselves into the Crazy Eddy of the restaurant supply trade they need other approaches. So there are hundreds of ways to do it right for yourself and your business, not just the one “engagement” and “relationships” way which is now dogma.
While on my personal G+ page I will have ten page exchanges with folks on anything they want and I enjoy that on a personal level quite a bit, a business is a public entity speaking to a private individual in a public space. I for one, as an individual, have zero interest in “engaging” with a business or brand in that manner, or discussing my personal business with a business in a public space. Nor do I seek a “relationship” with a business other than mutually respectful and amicable. I do not want to hear from any business on a daily basis. That goes even for our own businesses, and our best business friends and allies, many of whom are close personal friends, and who we love. What I want is a feed that delivers all the news, to glance on the fly, and see what captures my attention, and then hone in on just that one thing if I have an interest, and to go check out from time to time what a business I like is up to and spend 20 minutes looking at the last few weeks news in a serious manner.
In other words, I am not going to spend my time blowing kisses at you, and wait for you to blow kisses back, as we drive by each other on the info Autobahn at 155mph in our GT Silver 911 Turbos wearing cool shades, but I will make the time to stop in regularly, have a cup of coffee and chat. While this is a counter-culture-revolutionary concept because everyone who’s anyone drinks the “engagement” and “relationships” kool-aid based on social signals as defined by “the algorithm” and thinks it is the only approach, I am less convinced. I find I prefer to inform as well as I can, make things as interesting and educational as I can, and let the chips fall where they may in terms of engagement, likes, shares and comments. I do respond to every like, comment or share because that’s just common courtesy and we sometimes engage in a little friendly banter.
On the other hand I make a massive OCD level effort to make our posts really informative, attractive, tight, and compact so people can catch the drift, hone in or move on in 1-3 seconds. All my posts as a rule just present one thing, and include a link to find out more about that one thing if so inclined. What you see is counter-culture in that I may get a modest number of likes, comments, shares on the platform itself, but when you go to the page on our website it pointed to, you see people clicked 350 FaceBook likes or Google+ 1’s on the social media bar there. So while I may have 10 FaceBook likes on my page on FaceBook, I have 500 on my web page. That’s fine with me believe me, that’s my idea of success, because my primary objective is traffic to our website so they can see what’s new and proceed to the whole picture if they have the interest or time.
I understand that is not the conventional wisdom, much less everyone’s cup of tea, and does not compute to the algorithm. Some companies do pull it off by the book and I am glad they do for those who like that paradigm. There’s nothing wrong with it, but thinking that is the only way to be or “engage” is like saying the only music worth listening to is Eric Clapton and all other music including Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler & Yo-Yo Ma shall henceforth be banned from the social media nation as not fitting the dogma. I flat out love Clapton, but he is not the only musician alive.
The conventional wisdom is usually way more about convention, than it is about wisdom. I favor creativity on social media. A lot of time it’s not about the post, sometimes it’s way more important to assure you are following the right people, and that the right people are following you. That is behind the scenes stuff which no one sees but which is every bit as important as what is seen. We do the best we can with the resources we have, and there is no way on social media or elsewhere to please everyone. It’s better to be authentic, do the best you can, keep it simple, and relax. Those that end up liking it will most likely like your business as well, those that don’t won’t.
Like I said, I for one do not have the skill set required to achieve social media perfection by the book, so hopefully what we do, enough people will like. Mark Twain said “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And I believe that is sound counsel. I prefer those who find their own voice and path and work it out with original thought. Many do, and I think those are the ones we probably all prefer. There are legions of people doing it wrong, and making it work anyway. I know I am doing it wrong, so hopefully it will work anyway. If life doesn’t make you humble, you’re not paying attention.
Thanks Scott, that was fun!