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How Free Content Can Quickly Grow Your Business: Interview with Michael Stelzner

Has your business been sluggish for some time? Are you worried that you’re not experiencing the growth you expected?

Well, there is no shortage of business advice, of marketing gurus and self-help literature out there. In fact, the number of self-acclaimed ‘social media experts’ continues to grow at a mind-boggling rate.

But you and I know that Michael Stelzner is, without question, the real deal.  He is the founder of Social Media Examiner, the author of the new book Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition and a keynote speaker at Content Marketing World. His remarkable success story over the past decade is the stuff that dreams are made of.

I recently interviewed Mike and we talked about the phenomenal accomplishments he has made with Social Media Examiner. He shared some very interesting strategies that he used to realize his goals.

Mike is a very pragmatic person, and when he says things like, “Here’s what I did, go do the same,” you get a sense of his authentic and uplifting personality. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Here are some of the topics we discussed:

A formula to grow your business

Patricia: Your book is centered on “the elevation principle.” Explain what it means and how content marketers can use it to propel their businesses beyond the competition.

Mike: If you’re using content to market your business or if you own your own business, the big challenge is that we’re being over marketed to.  We’ve gotten to the point where it’s numbed us and we completely ignore marketing messages.

Secondly, people don’t trust us.  There was an interesting study by Edelman Trust Barometer that showed only 1 in 3 people trust businesses.  If no one is paying attention, and they don’t trust you, how in the world are you going to stand out?

The way to do that is to focus on the needs of people. At their core, everyone needs or wants 1 of 3 things.  They want access to great information, they want access to great people and they want recognition. There is one thing that is highly scalable that will allow you to provide that without taking an enormous amount of your time and its content.

So the elevation principle at its core says, ‘Instead of focusing on your business needs, focus on the needs of your prospects and your customers,’ and I’ve come up with a simple formula to accomplish this:

Great content + other people – marketing messages = growth.

And if you think of your business like a rocket ship, great content is the fuel for your rocket, it’s the how-to articles, and it’s the success stories.

Other people means working with experts who have great knowledge that you can bring to your community; these are people who have written books, people who speak at trade shows, people who are bloggers who are really writing incredible things.

The third thing is minus marketing messages.  Figure out a way to take those marketing messages out of your content.  Everyone hates to be marketed to, so why surround your marketing message with content?  That’s the essence of the elevation principle.

Patricia: You used this principle to grow Social Media Examiner, and in the first twelve months you made over $1 million. Were you blown away by your overnight success?


Mike: I knew it would work. I knew that when I started Social Media Examiner in October of 2009 that there was this pent-up demand for rich how-to articles.

Our goal was to have 40,000 email subscribers in 12 months, and exactly on our anniversary we got 40,000 subscribers.  So I was not surprised, actually, that we were able to grow as fast as we did.

What I was surprised by was that when we were only 3 months old someone wanted to buy us.  Since then, on four different times, people have tried to buy ‘Social Media Examiner.’  What I’ve been surprised about is all the people who have come to us wanting to pay us money to market their products and services on our site.

That kind of thing has surprised us; but no, this actually has always been my plan, believe it or not.

Patricia: Someone listening to what you’re saying might be thinking, ‘But will the elevation principle work as quickly for me as it did for Mike?

Mike: Well, I wrote the book specifically with that objective:  To help any business figure out how to rapidly grow a very loyal and repeat following.

I am training businesses to become publishers, to bypass the middleman, to create stuff that’s sharable in social media, and to become big in your industry.

But I’m not going to lie to you. It requires a lot of sweat, a lot of effort.  I worked my butt off and everybody who knows me knows that. (laughing)

How to get rid of the marketing message

Patricia: You also talk about ‘minus marketing messages’, or caging the marketing messages. How does someone who depends on advertising monetize his or her blog?

Mike: Here’s how you do it. In the same way Social Media Examiner does it, you use your blog as your entry point. When people come to your blog and they read your great content you have some mechanism to get them to sign up to get more great content.  So your blog is your primary channel and your email list is your secondary channel.

So at Social Media Examiner with first-time visitors, a little pop-up box comes up that says, “Would you like to sign up for our Facebook marketing video tutorial?” or “Would you like to sign up to get our updates of our great articles? And as our way of saying thank you, here’s a free one hour video tutorial.”

Once these people have opted in to what I call back channel, or secondary-channel, we’re emailing 86,000 people every single day, and we get a 25-30% daily open rate.  Inside those emails we have about a 50-word summary and a link to the day’s article. Below that we have a sponsored post or an advertisement, so that allows us to monetize the email channel. One thing marketers will tell you is there’s absolutely no more powerful channel than email.

And there’s no money in display advertising anyways, so the real money is in the email channel because it gets delivered to people’s inboxes as often as you hit the send button.

Using social media to get the word out

Patricia: Talk to us about the social media success summits that we’ve come to depend upon for our “social media education,” if you will.  How do you use social media to promote these very large online events?

Mike: We use social media in a major way to help get the word out about that. Since we have 86,000 email subscribers and 46,000 people on Facebook,  it’s very easy for us to just say, ‘Hey, come get a free sample class on our sales page from one of our other summits, and if you really want to learn a lot, sign up.’

Twitter has this cool little widget that allows you to take any search term and then put the widget on your website; At  Social Media Success Summit, we show all the tweets that are happening in real time on the sidebar of the site, which gets people excited about it.

We have retweet buttons, Facebook like buttons and LinkedIn share buttons at the top of the sales page, and all these kind of things get people excited about it.  We’ve got little badges that people can put up on their site that say ‘I’m attending Social Media Success Summit.’

We’ve set up private LinkedIn groups where people can come to socialize and network; so we’re leveraging every conceivable form of social media that you can imagine to just make these events be incredible.

A success story


Patricia: Mike, is there a specific company out there that you feel gets the elevation principle and is successfully implementing it?

Mike: Proctor & Gamble is a huge corporation, but P&G started They recruited dad bloggers because they realized a lot of dads are out of work and taking on new roles in the home and they are shopping.

They built as a place for the 25-45 year old man who has young kids at home.  They encourage bloggers to write articles about how to barbecue a burger, to answer the question, “Am I too old to wear ripped jeans?” or how to build a man cave (a place where a guy can play video games).

They’re just writing about stuff that guys are interested in. They have more than one million people come into their site every month; the site is nine months old, P&G has done no advertising on this, and  it’s completely grown organically.


Patricia: Mike, do you have any closing thoughts for our audience?

Mike: Well, because this audience is so interested in content I would really encourage you to rethink the way that you create content for your business and for your colleagues.

Instead of trying the old product marketing spin on things, which is: “Here’s why our product is great.  Here’s what its features and benefits are.” I want you to step outside the box and instead ask yourself what do people really give a hoot about? What do they really care about?

Start persuading your company and your clients to see the value in creating stuff that people love and that’s highly sharable. These are the ways to stand out today and realize that people are never going to buy a product or service from you until they first trust you and know who you are; and the best way to do that is to give them exactly what they want.

So just make people the center of your marketing plan and I think you’ll have amazing growth.

Patricia: Mike, where can folks find you online?

Mike: Well if they want a free chapter of the book, no registration required, they could go to They can also find me on and that will link them to my Facebook page, my Twitter ID and all that fun stuff.

For the complete interview:

Listen to the podcast

Download the transcript