Are you one of the 2,000 people who’ve been to a Collab Digital social media event? Brent Ireland is an entrepreneur whose product has exploded in popularity far beyond his expectations. Now he’s touring the country, with thousands queuing up to buy tickets to his events which teach businesses about social media strategy.
INTERVIEW JENNY RUDD / IMAGES JAMES SALES
Jenny: In the last year I have seen your Collab Digital breakfasts all over Facebook — they look impressive and fun. What are they?
BRENT: Aha. You’ve seen them because you’ve fallen into our audience targeting. You are who we want at the event!
I noticed the same social media-related questions were being asked all over the place, and no one was answering them in a satisfactory and fun way. So I formalised what I was already spending much of my time doing, and set up Collab Digital, a tool to help businesses get results on social media. We have the resource and ability to either do all the actual work, or teach people how to do it themselves. So, as well as the events, we run social media accounts and campaigns for anyone from start-ups up to multinationals. Social media’s all we do, and we love it!
The events addressed a need that was really not being met. I decided to only use beautiful, sophisticated, huge venues, serve really delicious food, and pack the room to capacity (anywhere from 250– 350) with business owners, marketers, managers and salespeople, and well-known, fantastic guest speakers. Everyone gets solid, dependable data, insights, shown how to achieve results, and it’s delivered in a way that makes you feel like you’ve had a great time, and learnt something which will make a difference to your business. You actually leave with a strategy in place. We do stuff in real time at the events and look at the results there and then.
Jenny: What do you mean, you do stuff in real time?
BRENT: OK, I’ll give you an example. At our events, we discuss the importance of identifying ‘like’ brands to your own. Think about Whittaker’s Chocolate and Lewis Road Creamery: two premium brands that collaborated on a product that had been around for years — chocolate milk. It stopped the country. They had to put security guards at the milk section! Crazy, huh?
So we do this cool thing where we point out that the room is FULL of possible partnerships. We add some sugar to the mix to kick off the conversation and the room gets loud pretty quickly! We’ve had feedback that this has started some meaningful conversations that are on their way to becoming full blown partnerships — how cool is that?
JENNY: There are lots of other events which teach social media strategy. But no one else seems to have had the rapid and growing success that you are enjoying. Why do you think that is?
Yes, there has been an explosion of entrepreneur-style programmes which are delivered at physical events, or in a webinar format. And many of them come with a rub: the sales pitch at the end. They give you just enough to whet your appetite, then stitch you up when you are hooked. I don’t like that feeling of being sold to when I’m trying to learn.
The other reason why I think we are doing well, is that we went big straight from the get-go, and that makes the events more useful to everyone who’s there.
For a bite-sized investment, you get fed well, in a beautiful place, with some clever people around you, and we give you enough strategic direction to completely change your overall marketing approach and bring it in to this era, using one of the single biggest tools on offer — social media. Pulling from the strengths of my background and the understanding of what makes an event really good, the Collab Digital experience is memorable, enjoyable, and it works. We’ve got about 500 reviews already, and most are 5 star, so we must be doing something right! I see Collab Digital as THE social media resource for New Zealand businesses.
Jenny: The way your business has boomed all sounds very entrepreneurial, but you didn’t start out that way. Tell us about the journey to get to where you are now.
BRENT: I come from a pretty varied background — events management (live music and comedy), marketing and sales. It wasn’t until I returned from a stint in Melbourne with News Corp that I saw the opportunity to bring these three skills together to create something special — something that adds real value to everyday Kiwi business owners. After months of crafting what I thought was a good product, I released it to market and sold out the first event in a couple of weeks. I learnt a lot from that first event and ever since, haven’t looked back.
Jenny: What skills do you find you are using in your role as founder and CEO of a rapidly expanding digital business?
BRENT: I’ve always dreamt big. That requires resilience and determination because it’s much harder than starting with baby steps. But I knew it was a better product for our customers if I could go big immediately with the events: we’d pull better speakers who could share more useful knowledge; we could reduce our cost, so more people could afford the tickets; and the bigger the events, the more opportunity for collaboration. I think any business owner will also say that juggling a million balls at once becomes the norm!
Looking after the people you are responsible for is very important. Without my support staff, we wouldn’t be able to keep raising the bar to the high level we’ve become known for.
Jenny: You’ve had some big social media stars appear at your events, like Jordan Watson from How To Dad. How do you get those superstars to come along?
BRENT: I’ve had the privilege of working alongside and make friends with some extremely talented people over the last ten years, which makes it easier when trying to rope in some talent. We identified Jordan as a key personality that any Kiwi could relate to; he’s just your average bloke who recorded a video for fun, and it went viral. He refined what he was doing, and created an entire business from that. His story is relatable, it’s achievable and much of it is built around the fundamentals we teach at our events.
Jenny: Tauranga seems to be producing some fantastic business successes at the moment. Why do you think that is?
BRENT: I think the current economic climate has paved the way for growth across a huge range of industries. We’re lucky — we have a humming port, a huge horticultural point of difference and many people moving into the region bring affluence they’ve accrued in business centres across the country. There’s more competition than ever, but I see that as part of a healthy business ecosystem.
Coming from a media sales background and having worked through the global financial crisis, the current optimism in the local market is the polar opposite to those harder times. It won’t always be this way, but as the saying goes, make hay while the sun shines!
SOCIAL MEDIA POP QUIZ WITH THE DIGIPRENEUR
Jenny: What’s your favourite campaign you’ve seen recently?
BRENT: I love seeing brands embrace new opportunities, and recently Facebook introduced 360⁰ photos. L&P posted a 360⁰ degree photo of a paddock full of sheep, with bottles of L&P planted amongst them. The challenge for the audience was to find the bottles — so a bit of a game with some competition elements in it as a reward. In terms of engagement, it was MASSIVE. Thousands of users became completely hooked on finding the bottles and it sparked a heap of conversation. Smart!
Jenny: What are the top 3 tips on social media?
BRENT: Don’t try to sell. Audiences aren’t receptive to that type of content — unless you’re giving them a ridiculous deal.
Don’t be inactive. Social media is about being social and that means you have to be there. Post daily-ish, at different times. If people interact with your page or leave a nice comment, like that comment! On that note, don’t try to automate everything. Scheduling your posts for weeks ahead isn’t being social, yes you may be saving some time but we see this too much and the ‘schedule mentality’ means you take your eyes off the ball because you know the content will be auto-publishing. Boring!
Be authentic, be original! Your business has its own personality, so show it off. Whatever you do, don’t post stock imagery. You have an HD camera on you all the time — your phone — so take real photos and videos!
Jenny: Which platform is going gangbusters at the moment?
BRENT: Instagram has taken massive strides recently, mainly because they are owned by the might of Facebook. They’ve introduced a lot of learnings to the platform they’ve taken from Facebook. If you want to talk to the under 35s, you need to have a presence on Instagram!
Jenny: What’s the most underrated platform?
BRENT: In all honesty, it’s Facebook. We hear SO often that the platform is dying, that no one uses it anymore and that it’s not good for businesses. In less than a minute, I could produce enough data to turn that argument on its head. I love statistics, especially when they paint a pretty picture. And let me tell you, the picture is beautiful! In New Zealand, there are well over three million active social media users — almost three quarters of the population. No matter who you are trying to target, that whole audience is
on there every single day for about 1 hour 53 minutes.
Jenny: Have you ever been involved in a post that’s gone mental viral?
BRENT: Lots! But my favourite was a post we created to launch a campaign for Safer Coromandel, a safety initiative run by a big collective: ACC, the police, NZTA and others, to promote safety to those travelling and living in the stunning Coromandel. I’m all over these kinds of campaigns which use technology to convey a message that usually just gets plastered on television. We used smart audience targeting, paid promotion and attractive content to reach over 930,000 people, with overnight growth of 14,000 page likes and a total reach that week of 1.6m Kiwis. That cost us $100.
Jenny: What’s your top draw, number one piece of advice to any business using social media?
BRENT: At the end of the day, it’s really a content game. Your challenge is to create a post that gets your audience’s attention, to the point that they take an action to engage with it. The higher the engagement, the higher the reach. You should understand your audience and know what makes them tick, so appeal to that and then any time you create a post, ask yourself — what’s the reason that someone would want to engage with this? And remember, over 89 per cent of social media users use mobile, so when you create content, think about how it will display on mobile, not just desktop.
Social media is an extremely powerful tool that can allow brands to connect with people in a way like never before. And don’t be afraid to try new things. We always work using a ‘test and learn’ method: test new content and see how it performs. It may go crazy or it could bomb; either way, learn from that and next time, do it better. Social media isn’t about trial and error, it’s about constant refinement. Above all, have fun with it and promote a lifestyle around what you offer.