Ian Cleary on the Ever-Changing Digital Marketing Landscape

Ian Cleary

Ian Cleary made the move from just another “tech guy” to internationally renowned digital marketing thought leader. How he made that leap is a tale of technical know-how, Irish charm and just a bit of stalking at industry conferences.

As a content marketing professional, I follow many thought leaders in that space. One of my favorites is Ian Cleary, whose Irish lilt is charming to my American ears and whose positive energy is contagious. He often evangelizes for digital marketing tools that make the lives of marketing folks like me much easier. Watching his livestream conversations on Periscope, broadcast from his home office in Dublin, has become one of my favorite ways of learning new things about content marketing. Cleary is incredibly accessible and generous with his knowledge of social media and digital marketing.

After years of working for technology companies in quality assurance, IT and R&D roles, Cleary switched gears and quickly ascended to become a foremost figure at conferences like Content Marketing World. (You can read more about his personal story and how he created his company RazorSocial here.) He writes for Social Media Examiner, Entrepreneur and other major outlets. I wanted to know more about Cleary’s entrepreneurial story, so I gave him a call. Not surprisingly, he was charming and gracious. “I’ll talk to anybody,” he laughed.

Yes! I made the cut!

TCG: There are a lot of social media and content marketing thought leaders out there — Mari Smith, Brian Fanzo and Joe Pulizzi to name a few — and you’ve established yourself as one of the best-known speakers and consultants. How did you do it?

Ian Cleary: My background is in software, managing software teams. I left and started consulting and doing project management, and then I just drifted into social media. With a background in technology and knowledge of social media, I researched all of the top influencers in the industry, and I saw that most of them didn’t have technology backgrounds. Most were journalists or traditional marketers, and they didn’t really have a tight focus on the tech side. That’s why I initially focused my blog on social media tools, because it made mine the only site focused on that kind of thing, and it resonated with people. I understand technology and architecture and frameworks and coding practices and all that sort of stuff.

Beyond the blog, I really concentrated on the relationship side. I identified 100 experts — people like Mark Schaefer, Jay Baer, Kim Garst and Mike Stelzner — and I said, “I’m going to build relationships with these people because I know then I can get up on stage and speak at top digital marketing conferences. I created a Twitter list, interacted with them regularly and followed them to conferences in the U.S. But I didn’t go to any of the sessions; I stood out in the corridor to just network and meet people. I found that speakers at these events stood in the hallways before their talks, and I could chat with them there.

In these discussions, I always looked at how I could help them. Could I write content for them? Could I promote their content? Could I give them advice on tools or tech? Over time, I became friends with Mark Schaefer and I got a lucky break to speak at his conference. Once you speak at one conference, then it’s easier to get the next one and the next one, and it just grew from there. Now we’re starting to evolve the RazorSocial site over to marketing tech and not just pure social media tools. We want to take people from building an audience on social media to driving traffic to their site and then converting at the end.

I’m sure at some of these conferences you’re lining up consulting business that keeps you busy the rest of the year.

Yeah, exactly. We have some clients that come to Ireland as well. We’re doing a lot of work with a large global organization at the moment. They have around 120 offices around the world. One of their representatives asked me, “Hey Ian, would you do some social media training for our staff?”

They have Facebook pages with millions of fans already, so I said, “Why did you choose us?”

He replied, “Well, I’ve been reading your blog for six months and I’ve seen you speak at a conference.”

So, it’s at that point that people see you as a thought leader. They like your content and it becomes a very easy selling process.

For people who are considering social media and/or content marketing as a career, what advice do you have to offer?

The first thing I would do is build your personal brand.

Ian Cleary


The first thing I would do is build your personal brand. When you’re going into new positions and new companies, people will ask, “What is your personal brand? What is your audience? Who’s listening to you?” Your starting point is having a really good LinkedIn profile, but also probably your own website and blog. You’re demonstrating your expertise and building your audience. So, as you move between companies, you already have an audience you bring with you.

You specialize in introducing people to wonderful social media tools. How do you discover all of them?

Because people know that I’m the techie guy, I get emails on a regular basis from companies that create these tools. And because I’m writing content about tools and tech, people in the comments section of my blog mention tools to check out. Or I’m doing a podcast and someone tells me about a tool they’re using. As a specialist in that area, recommendations come from many directions. If friends hear of a new tool, they think, “Well, Ian’s the tool guy. I’m going to send him an email and ask if he knows about it.”

I’m always on the lookout; I’m reading and watching for what other tools or technical solutions people are coming up with. I recently wrote an article for LinkedIn Pulse about social media technology trends for 2016, and at the end of it I asked, “What do you think is going to happen?” That will lead to more ideas.

Many companies today are dealing with a broad range of digital marketing tools and struggling to identify which ones meet their needs. What is the best way for them to do that?

It’s very challenging. If you want to implement an email automation tool, there are easily 30 to 40 tools you should evaluate. Then you must tease out all the differences in functionality. A lot of times, that’s not explained clearly in the product description so it’s hard to do a comparison. You end up having to pick one, install it, test it on your own system, etc.

Because of this difficulty, I think you need to get some external help for an investment in expensive tools. You need someone with the expertise in implementing these tools across different organizations. Even if there isn’t a big, expensive upfront cost, there’s a big cost in implementing the tool, changing your work processes, retraining your staff, getting up to speed and learning from all the mistakes that commonly occur with a new tool.

The more complex the tool, the more you’re probably going to need external help unless you have someone on your team with extensive experience implementing these tools across different environments. A lot of these tool providers are good at selling their products, so you can't solely go by the messages on their websites to make your decision. You may be convinced by their superior copywriting skills that this is an amazing tool for you, but it may not be the right tool at all. There may be another tool that would drive much better results for you.

It seems like there are companies that are acquiring digital marketing tools but not thinking very strategically about how to use them. What are some common strategy-related mistakes you see?

People selecting a new tool need to evaluate the range of tools and get down to a short list. Then they need to test the tools within their environment. Then, when they adopt the tool, they need to implement a proper rollout plan. Once you’ve acquired a tool, it’s not over. That’s the starting point.

You need to work out your processes and educate your employees because a lot of times companies will buy a tool, then end up using only 25 percent of its functionality.

Ian Cleary


You need to work out your processes and educate your employees because a lot of times companies will buy a tool, then end up using only 25 percent of its functionality. There needs to be an evaluation of processes so companies can get the best use out of that tool. Without that process in place, you’re buying a very expensive tool because it has a good name — but you’re just not getting the full benefit.

Facebook has become a pay-to-play channel. It’s difficult to get into their news feed with organic content. If other channels like LinkedIn and Twitter have success in monetizing the news feed, then will the job of social media manager essentially become social advertising manager?

Absolutely. Unless you have super-viral content on Facebook, you’re not going to get on the news feed organically. They decided, “Let’s filter the content,” so you end up seeing a small amount.

On Twitter, they don’t filter so you have the other extreme: The vast majority of people don’t see your content because there’s so much of it. So, the only way to get people to see your content there is if you aggressively share and reshare the same content. You have to do that. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are not seeing success with Twitter ads. If you want people to see your content as they do on Facebook, you really should be advertising. For Twitter, the problem is that advertising is expensive. So, when they get that right, then more people will advertise on Twitter. If I send an organic tweet right now, 95 percent of my audience doesn’t see it. So what is the difference between Twitter and Facebook? Most people won’t see it anyway. So, yes, I think social advertising skills are extremely important.

That may be disappointing news for people who love managing social media but aren’t interested in advertising.

There are a couple of different sides to social media. There’s the one side where as a content marketer you’re sharing content, you want people to click on it and come to your site. That’s becoming increasingly challenging without paying money to these providers. The other side is connecting with people all over the world, building relationships. You can connect with people and businesses relevant to your brand. For example, on Twitter I can do a search now for “planning a trip to Dublin,” so anybody who is on Twitter talking about an upcoming trip to Dublin, I can say to them, “Hey, come to my restaurant or hotel.” There are plenty of opportunities to reach out and identify relevant conversations and people, and develop those relationships, partnerships and selling opportunities.

Influencer marketing is an increasingly popular practice these days. What do you think are the best ways for brands to identify and engage with influencers?

There’s a good range of tools to identify the influencers. You can track them yourself if you’re a small business. You can use a tool like Twitonomy, which allows you to find out who a person is talking to on a regular basis. That’s a way to identify influencers one by one. Or you can use a tool like Traackr, which is all about identifying and engaging with influencers. So it helps to identify the different communities the influencers are involved in, and which are relevant to you. Then you can produce your master list and use the tool to reach out and interact with these people. There are plenty of good tools out there.

Your audience is largely marketing and communications professionals who often rely on IT to bring these strategies to life. In your consulting work, is collaboration between these functions typically a problem area?

On the marketing side, you’ve typically got more non-technical people. From the technical side, they’re not the creative people. What’s interesting is that the skills you need as a marketer are a cross of the two. You need to have the creative side, new and interesting campaign ideas, but it’s moving more and more toward the technical employees. The technical people are getting away with building online sales funnels and not having as many creative skills. A mix of both skills is important, but it’s hard to find that.

I’ve seen it in software companies I’ve worked with. Technical guys hate marketing; they think it’s useless and a waste of time. The marketing guys hate the technical guys because they want the project done next week and the developers are saying it’s impossible and won’t be delivered for six months. So there was always that marketing-tech stuff, and now it’s interesting that digital marketing is so much about tech. And that’s why we attract marketing people who want those tech skills.

Has Ian Cleary got you thinking about evaluating your digital marketing strategy and team? Check out our Guide to Digital Marketing Strategies & Staffing