Jeff Ernst is the COO and Co-Founder at Smync, the social word-of-mouth platform that gives brands and agencies a deeper view into their greatest fans and potential enthusiasts. He is an experienced leader, marketing strategist and business developer in technology, and has entrepreneurial experience in each step of development, growth, design, marketing, sales and management.
icrunchdata talks to technology leaders in our space to explore what is currently driving them and their interests are outside of the office. We recently chatted with Jeff about Smync’s first 18 months, what is next and what he is interested in outside of technology.
Jeff, thanks for your time and let’s go…
Smync is the mashup of “Social Media” and “Sync” – we’re really trying to get people to throw out their social media marketing strategy, or at least their mindset, and get it in sync with a better, sustainable way to get real results. Most marketing strategies haven’t evolved along with the social media landscape, and the rules have changed drastically. The other question we get all the time is “how is it pronounced?”…it’s “sm-INK” ending like ink from a pen. As a really famous advertising guy recently told me “it sounds like something you get on you and can’t get it off…but I like it.”
Smync was actually our second name…we first launched the idea under the name Social Quants, which was universally hated by potential customers, advisors, people at the gas station, random strangers…and it wasn’t really a good name for what we do – make social about being social – authentically connecting people and brands and get these people excited to have a two-way relationship with the brand and be out in their social networks discussing, sharing and advocating for their favorite brands.
In the first 6 months, the most important thing was pivoting. Originally, while we saw building social word-of-mouth and advocacy as important, what we were focused on was developing a way for brands to understand who was engaging with them on Facebook so they could effectively target their advertising. We started having people really notice and focus on how our system instantly identifies their brand’s best potential advocates and manage those relationships. Facebook also changed some API rules about that point, which in punishing people using things the wrong way, called a lot of companies out. So instead of the lights being turned off on us, we flipped a switch.
The next 6 months included getting some important, larger customers and people using the product and really learning what we were doing right, what could be done better and what was missing the mark to really help us develop the roadmap for both the product and the business. It’s important to note that most of our team, myself included, had ‘day jobs’ at that point, so we were making progress but only had so many hours in our day to forge ahead.
The last 6 months, the team has been committed full-time to Smync and we’ve seen accelerated growth and development, but the biggest thing has been our move to Chicago and locating within 1871. It’s an incredible incubator/co-working community. Being in a place with over 400 companies, a number of VC firms and accelerators, hundreds of mentors offering office hours and workshops that create an incredible network in one of America’s leading cities and tech scenes.
We’re lucky as while our team is small, we have the right mix of diversified skills that we can each focus a little better and do our part to move the business forward. Right now, I really focus on three things:
- Keeping engaged with our current clients and their efforts to build social word-of-mouth and brand advocacy. I want to ensure they’re progressing and seeing the value. We’re always developing new features; many have come from feedback of our enterprise and agency clients. If we’re providing the right solution for them that they’ll keep using, we know that helps us become more valuable to new customers as well.
- Sales and marketing – from building our pipeline, sales meetings, writing blog posts, revising a deck or summary, proposals and everything else, I’m a one-man sales and marketing shop…since I spent most of my career doing that, it’s an uncomfortable comfort zone where you know you’re the one pushing the boundaries to grow sales.
- Fundraising – we’ve recently started pursuing a $500,000 SAFE Angel round of funding. For all my entrepreneurial ventures and startup activity, it’s my first foray into raising investment. The mindset and mental chess that goes into it is fascinating. As a lifelong advocate of not reading “sell more, do better” books, I find myself listening to and reading more books like Pitch Anything…go figure.
If you asked 100 social media marketers to define “social engagement,” you would get 100 different answers. That’s part of the problem…nobody really understands what it means and they’re also staking their measurement (and careers) on vanity metrics.
To me, a “like” on Facebook is the equivalent of somebody walking by your conversation at the water cooler and chuckling at the punch line. They weren’t part of the conversation, they weren’t engaged, and you don’t know if they told somebody else the joke.
At Smync, we look at engagement differently – to the point we’ve filed a provisional patent on it. We want people to have skin in the conversation game. If you’re looking to build social word-of-mouth and brand advocacy, you want people willing to comment and be involved in the conversation, or you want them sharing your content. Additionally, you want people doing it with frequency and consistently over time.
We look at data from all the main social networks and do a lot of crunching to really figure out who a brand’s best social fans, enthusiasts, and potential advocates are programmatically. About half of marketers say identifying is the biggest problem in building advocacy, and anybody who uses Smync sees those people instantly front and center. They also get the tools to manage and foster those key relationships. When a brand really knows who their best people are, they can invite them to their advocate community, which takes engagement to a new level in building a relationship with the brand that ends up reaching back out to all the social networks and creating a big impact. I know it’s our product, but it’s really cool to be able to do all those things easily in one simple-to-use cloud-based platform.
Some really cool things. I’ll keep the details under wraps, but our 2.0 beta will be launching September 14th and you’re going to see us be at the front of the Social Word-of-Mouth and Social Brand Advocate movements. Depending on who else agrees with our vision, you’ll see us grow pretty rapidly.
People know that social media marketing is damn hard right now – you can’t organically reach anybody in your communities that you spent years and money growing, paid media costs keep going up, and business leaders are really pushing to understand how social impacts business. So right now, marketers keep putting up content, paying more for ads, putting together reports and really hoping nobody from the C-suite comes in and says “now tell me what this means to our bottom line.” We know what we’ve developed with Smync doesn’t cure everything, but it really answers so many pain points that marketers have and we’re ahead of the curve on the hard parts that others haven’t solved yet.
We’ll also be on our soapbox about what it takes to build sustainable marketing that gives results. You can’t escape people talking about influencer marketing in social right now, and to us, that’s just the new paid reach. People are too smart, they know it’s an ad and the “influence” part is debatable. As much as authentic is cliché, we’re helping brands build authentic word-of-mouth and advocacy that will keep going and growing.
Cycling is my lifeblood, escape, medicine, therapy, and nirvana. If you ask my daughter or girlfriend, they’ll tell you I rarely smile…but I smile on the bike. It’s a time for solitary focus on enjoyment, clearing out the mental crap and being able to focus on absolutely nothing, something specific or letting your mind wander. If I’m being a jerk on any given day, it’s because I haven’t ridden and the best way to fix me is to tell me “go ride.” I discovered cycling about 25 years ago now and if I look at the good times and bad times in life, I can correlate it to times I deviated away from the bike. I plan on pedaling until the day I die.
The pure temperature of the coldest ride I ever went on was -10F in Aberdeen, SD. That was raw temperature…I don’t even know what the wind chill was. I did it just to keep a streak going and prove a point; I think I only rode 6-7 miles. While it might seem insane, modern science in fabrics and insulation makes it easier than you think. You just have to ensure no skin is exposed and realize embrocation is your friend.
However, the most brutally cold ride I ever went on was from Sun Valley, ID up to Galena Summit. Our goal that day was to ride over the pass to Stanley and back, about 120 miles round trip. It was raining when we left Sun Valley, but by the time we got 15 miles in, it had turned to snow. We kept climbing until the Summit and then pointed ourselves back down the pass. Imagine being in a snowstorm, basically in your underwear, flying down a wet road. Hands screaming in pain from the cold to the point you can’t squeeze the brakes, frozen goatee and snotcicles…I think it took 2 weeks and a lot of Scotch to thaw out.
I’d love to do some serious Euro cyclo-tourism someday. I’d start in Italy and spend a few days in Tuscany biking through the country and hillsides, stopping at a vineyard whenever the mood struck, simply meandering and soaking in the beauty. After a few days of blissful cycling relaxation, I’d attempt to tackle some of the legendary cycling climbs like Gavia, Stelvio, Mortirolo just because you have to understand your limits…if you’re an American cycling fan, you’ve had the vision of Andy Hampsten and “the day grown men cried” emblazoned in your memory, so you just have to try.
‘For somebody whose business takes a very scientific approach to making social media marketing better, I can’t say I have a strategy.’
I really believe in social media’s ability to connect, to reach new people, and use it to do this. I share things that I think are truly interesting either in social media or cycling. I add my commentary, I chat with people, etc.
It’s how I met my girlfriend – another cyclist on Twitter…cycling has such a strong community on Twitter and that’s what originally brought me to the social network back in 2008. I’ve spent many an early weekend morning with hundreds of my Twitter friends in my pajamas, all of us watching some pirated video feed of races in Dutch, French, Flemish discussing whether or not a breakaway will hold or adding our two cents worth.
My journey has been a varied, exciting and wild one that I would only trade, sell or giveaway a few of the experiences, but there are three specific pieces of advice I’d give myself:
Jeff, a great way to end. That’s all of the questions that I have for you today and thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We learned a lot.