Neal Schaffer is a digital marketing consultant, author, and speaker. He teaches businesses around the world how to transform their sales and marketing – and helps them develop strategies across social media, marketing, influencer marketing, and more.

Fun facts: he speaks Japanese and Mandarin, authored three books on social media and hosts his own podcast where he presents his views on all things social and digital.

In his word, Neal shares: 

  • A glimpse into his inspiring career 
  • Why brands should blend user-generated content into their strategies
  • The importance of R&D and taking action 

What does your typical day look like? 

I am lucky to be in a position where I have my own business and I’m able to work with clients. When you’re deeply immersed in something in this case, both working with clients and with my own branding and with my own activities, it just allows me to spend every minute of every working day serving others while also being in R&D mode – always learning, experimenting, and looking for new insights. 

It’s a job that I wouldn’t change for anything in the world. I’m very fortunate to be able to do this. 

I used to [travel a lot] pre-COVID. I just got back from the Podcast Movement in Nashville, Tennessee, [which] was my first in-person conference since COVID started in March of 2020. I [also] speak fluent Japanese and service clients in Japan – both their Japanese headquarters, as well as their American subsidiaries – so I’m usually in Japan a few times a year.

And then, the conferences. I teach executives at a few universities, including Rutgers Business school in New Jersey and the Irish Management Institute in Ireland – which sends me over to Dublin every year. So yeah, there’s quite a bit of travel. 

How did you learn Japanese?

I grew up in an area in Southern California, where most of my friends were Asian American and this led me on a journey. When I went to university to study an Asian language, it turned out to be Chinese because most of my friends were Chinese-American. And I did two years of Chinese. I did my junior year abroad in Beijing, China, and it was actually at the time during this historical event called the Tiananmen Demonstration – back in 1989, so I’m just aging myself there. But it was that experience. 

And also at the time, Japan was really growing, there were articles in the Wall Street Journal – we need to study the way Japanese companies do business. I had a roommate in Beijing who was Japanese. So when I came back from Beijing, I actually stopped off in Japan for a week to spend time with my roommate and learn more about Japan, and then, I started taking Japanese senior year of college.

When I graduated, I was able to start working for a company in Kyoto, Japan, the ancient capital of Japan.  I thought it was just going to be a two-year thing, but I ended up staying there for 15 years. And that experience living in Japan and doing business in Asia has really provided me with a holistic and international perspective on everything I do in marketing and in business.

So I attribute that to a lot of success that I’ve had and a lot of the thoughts that I’ve been able to pour into writing, books, and podcasting – and work with clients.

Where do you get your news and resources from? 

I have my own and I’ve actually taught this to other people – but to simplify it, I realized that in marketing, there are a number of different sources of information. So basically, I have an RSS dashboard and I will often curate content from this RSS dashboard to share in my social media as well, but more importantly than that, it really keeps my finger on the pulse of what is going on.

This is something that anybody can do. 

I use a tool called Inoreader. I know that there are other RSS readers out there, but Inoreader will allow me to create an RSS feed of an RSS feed based on if certain keywords appear in the title. So if something is going on with TikTok and it’s in the title of an article that comes from one of these hundreds of sites out there that talk about marketing, it will come up in a separate RSS feed and feed this content curation tool that I have so that every morning I can see the latest news on TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, influencer marketing. And that has really helped me not just do my own content curation better, but help me really stay abreast.

There’s a term called deep thinking or deep work – it’s this notion of going deep when you do things. And I find myself doing this a lot in work where I literally have to turn off the internet or phone in order to work really deeply on things to get it done.

It’s sort of the way that I operate. So in the same way, when I need to learn something about something very specific, I will go very deep on it. So in other words, I don’t necessarily read the news for that, but I’m really good at doing searches and finding relevant and authoritative content – whether it’s in a blog format or YouTube format, or podcast – to allow me to quickly learn about that subject. 

And this is the technique I think most marketers are probably good at, so this is nothing unique to me, but I find just that concept of going deep into things and not multitasking has really helped me focus and learn when I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to do that every day, but when times come where I need to learn something or research something on behalf of a client or a project, I just go deep. I don’t let the news find me – I find the news. 

I go deep and try to find the sources and the perspectives out there – and from that, try to draw conclusions and then, try to implement what I learned from the data and go from there. 

What’s something that you learned in the last year?

I published my last book on influencer marketing called The Age of Influence. It was published in March of 2020, so two days after it was published is when Governor Newsom in California announced the statewide lockdown – and all of this began.

A lot of people sort of felt sorry for me, but I took it as an opportunity for the time that I don’t need to spend traveling or going into an office – I have all this time now and the fact that we’re all going digital for everything, [made me] realized that relationships are more important than ever and that I can leverage this time to digitally reach out to people.

I appeared on more than a hundred podcasts in 90 days to try to promote the book and do all of these things with a real digital-first mentality. And that’s actually this next book I’m working on – because businesses obviously had to change their entire mindset. I actually had a boon in my consulting because so many companies are now used to working with remote workers over Zoom. Why limit yourself to your employees when you can bring in skilled consultants to help with the work when you don’t have that expertise? 

There was a huge demand, as you can imagine for not just social media marketing, not just influencer marketing, but just digital marketing in general.

When we were talking beforehand, you were going to introduce me as a social media marketing consultant and author. And that’s what I used to be called. I really started from the social media marketing world, going into the digital marketing world – and I think that Coronavirus really forced me to accelerate those efforts because I would have companies reaching out to me for help with their influencer marketing. But yet, they didn’t have their SEO in place. They didn’t have a converting website. They didn’t have an email marketing list and they weren’t doing marketing automation. They were missing all these pieces that a modern enterprise or company that today, in a digital-first economy, must have; you really have to have all your bases covered.

So that really accelerated my education into these other things like SEO, email marketing, and putting together everything that I knew about the subject. But now with the purpose of writing a book, how do I portray all of these technologies with digital-first in mind – and really, with relationships in mind?

Influencer marketing is really about collaborations with other people. I would argue that email marketing is about relationships with people on your newsletter list. SEO is about relationships with Google – but when you think about backlinks, it’s about relationships with other websites as well.

So when we think of marketing in terms of relationships in a digital-first world, to me, that begins to make a lot more sense. And this is what I teach my clients. Needless to say, Coronavirus has allowed me over the last year and a half to really bring all this together. And I’m currently building a framework around it, but it’s allowed me to really transform the way that I work and the advice that I’m able to give to companies.

What’s something that you feel marketers need to stop doing?

I would look at influencer marketing as a place where most marketers either don’t understand it or its value – or they’re trying to do it, but they’re doing it the wrong way. And I think this leads to a thing that a lot of marketers are doing wrong is just using social media as a paid media tool. 

Whether it’s working with influencers with paid media – we’ll just pay them money and see what traffic they bring or what likes they get – or just giving money away to the Facebooks and the LinkedIns and the Twitters and the TikToks of the world. I believe that at the end of the day, the reason why businesses are on social media is because of the potential of digital word-of-mouth.

When you think about it in those terms – that advertisements do not go viral. Well, some do, don’t get me wrong – like Super Bowl commercials – but very few really spread word-of-mouth. What spreads word-of-mouth is when creators post unique content that others truly want to share. 

And that’s why influencer marketing has so much value because you have people that have created communities from their content, from their engagement, and by collaborating with these people, then it gives us the opportunity to really be heard and to really incite that word-of-mouth and social media.

And I would argue vis-a-vis what you’re all doing at TINT is leveraging not just influencers for their platforms and their communities, but also for their content. And I tell my clients, let us get as close to a 100% user-generated content strategy as possible because we know that every piece of content has been created by a content creator who probably is much better at creating content that people will consume versus brands – because they’re people, they’ve been doing this, and they’ve been able to build bigger communities than brands.

But also, leveraging user-generated content gives you the ability to actually create a connection with that content creator. And I believe the first step in any influencer marketing is the relationship.

Why not work with creators on their content? Why not hire them to create content for you as a first step? Instead of seeing them purely as a way to amplify. So I think that misunderstanding influencer marketing and misunderstanding the value of user-generated content are the three areas that I find many companies still really struggle with.

I gave the example of Instagram user-generated content, but it could be YouTube. It could be a guest blog post. It could be a guest interview on a podcast – there are many different ways of including other people in our content. And these other people obviously could be influencers. They could be our customers, they could be our employees. And that is really what most companies are missing out on – that potential to really use social media, not as a way to advertise or do constant, blatant self-promotion… but as a way to connect with other people and develop genuine relationships that can pay dividends in many different ways.

Tell me more about why you think user-generated content is so valuable for brands.

I believe Disneyland was one of the first documented brands that said, “we’re just going to go a hundred percent UGC on Instagram.” Disneyland was a little bit late in creating an Instagram channel, but when they created it, they said, “look, we cannot compete with the creativity with the authenticity of our guests – of our fans – and we would rather leverage their content, which to be honest, is, is as good, if not better than our own content.” And at the time it was quite revolutionary. 

Brands try to create this brand perception, but at the end of the day, it’s the customer that owns the perception of what that brand is. And they’re displaying that every time they post something on social media about that brand. So rather than trying to fight that or trying to talk about your brand on your own terms, which you have a website to do, a PR department, and press releases – social media is about being social and companies can spend a lot of money trying to create content that looks “authentic” – but at the end of the day, the content is already there.

It’s just a very different way of thinking about your marketing and your content. And I know that there might be some listening, hopefully not because of who is the host of this podcast, but just really adverse to user-generated content. It’s not our content, right?

But that’s the whole point because it is social media, it does call for a different way of doing things. And really our objective should be about building relationships with our fans, our customers, potential customers. And it really should be focused on the content – no matter who made the content. When we leverage that user-generated content, it does give us the added benefit of developing a relationship with that content creator. 

Now, if you have a great content studio and you have full-time content people on staff and your efforts look like they’re doing well – they have very high ROI – I’m not saying you need to necessarily change things, but I know from the accounts that I manage, that if you can start replacing some of your own content with UGC – once a week, twice a week – it does open up these thoughts that “wow, I’m developing the developing these relationships, the content in the feed is a little bit more authentic because it’s coming from our fans, and it’s offering a little bit more variety, a little bit more diversity.” And I believe at the end of the day, it actually leads to more engaging feed, higher engagement, and even a bigger ROI for the remaining content that might be.

I think that’s really good because experimentation is key, right? This will give you the ability to see what’s really working.

What’s not, and more often than not, you’re going to see that the UGC is going to perform better just because of that authentic factor that you mentioned. 

Yes, any brand could set up a content studio and create content better than any influencer out there and build up a bigger community than any influencer, but they didn’t because they can’t – they’re not people. They are driven by different objectives and motives.

And that’s the whole point: why try to compete? Because every time you post your own content in the feed, you’re competing with influencers for the same community. Why try to compete with people that are doing it better than you? Why wouldn’t you want to work together with them? And I think that’s really the main message here.

What do you feel most marketers tend to struggle with and how can we fix this? 

I think part of it is just the control aspect that they don’t want to give up control of their content.

I think another thing might be misunderstanding the legal perception that “Hey, someone at legal said we can’t do this.” Number one: you’re not necessarily giving up control because you can leverage any user-generated content you want – it’s your choice.

No one’s forcing you to post content, but it gives you the ability to pick and choose what you think is most aligned with your brand values in terms of content. You actually have more control because now you have more content to choose from than what your own internal teams are creating.

The legal problem is yes, you need to have legal permission and you ask for permission to post their content – and if they agree it’s done. It’s not complicated. I’ve seen brands, like the Ritz Carlton, where if you use one of our branded hashtags, then, here’s the legal ease, and this is why we have the right to republish it on our site. There’s actually a Bitly link on [the Ritz Carlton’s] Instagram, where it will show you all those regulations regarding these branded hashtags.

So there are a few different ways of doing it – obviously reaching out to the creator one by one, to ask for permission. Many times, if they’re a fan, they would love to give you permission. There’s also creating content together with influencers, then there should be a contract in place, and in the contract you say, Hey, we have the right to that content

Something [marketers] don’t understand is the ROI of all this because all the way down the line, the data shows that user-generated content is going to perform better.

It’s not just performing better in your feed. It’s actually performing better in advertising, in social media, it helps your shopping cart convert better. Every step of the marketing funnel, when you leverage user-generated content, it’s only going to improve things.

So that’s where I would start to better understand this. What is the internal pushback? What are the issues outside of the control and the legal issue? What else is there? What would prevent you from actually improving your marketing ROI in this manner?

That’s what I would want to know – and if I was a manager, I’d want to know that as well. Why aren’t we doing more of this? What is the data that shows this doesn’t work? What are the problems that say we can’t do this? 

And fortunately, over the last few years, more companies leveraged more user-generated content. We’re definitely moving in that direction, but not everybody’s onboard yet. 

What is a book, a person, or an event that shaped your career and why? 

When we sort of look back and try to connect the dots of our career, there are always these little, these little sparks that inspired something. One of my first was working for an American software company – this is the second company I worked with while I was in Japan – and I went to their global strategy meeting every quarter at headquarters in Silicon Valley. The VP of Business Development and I were talking about strategy and all the things that were on the table and he said, “everybody in the room, I want you to understand, although I’m in charge of our strategy, I will tell you that deciding what not to include in the strategy is probably the most important strategic decision we’re going to make today.”

And it’s so true that often – whether it’s my clients that are trying to effectively manage seven different social media platforms when they can’t do one, or just trying to do too much. Without that focus, it’s about always remembering to start to step back and really break down what are the essential things we need to be doing? Everything else can be put on hold. It’s something that I’ve really stuck with throughout my career – and that was more than a decade ago. 

This was before social media when he said that, but it’s still something that’s stuck with me – not only in my own work but also in the work that I do with brands.

I’d say the second one was when I got started – the first book I wrote was about LinkedIn back in 2009. At the time there was an author named Dan Chawbal, who wrote a book called Me 2.0, which at that time was really the “Personal Branding Bible” in many ways. And that book and the work that I did on LinkedIn, seeing that your profile was really your brand. And the profiles of your employees are what people are going to perceive of the brand of your company when they hit a profile and you say you work at a certain company. So that book really opened my eyes to personal branding and branding in general – and it’s had a lasting impact on what I’ve done.

I’d say another book – being somewhat of an entrepreneur – is the Four-Hour Work Week. It was created at a separate time in the world before social media, but the concept of leveraging other people’s skills to scale is something that I have stuck with.

Another secret that’s allowed me to do a lot is I have a remote team of specialists out there, so when I need something done, like podcast show notes, I have someone that all they do is podcast show notes because they’re really good at it. And I can now source from people all over the world who are specialists at what they do – whether it be a podcast editor or video. And this is something I teach my clients as well. You don’t necessarily have to hire someone full-time if you don’t have the budget; there is a global community of experts that have been doing this for other companies over the last decade that you can tap into – and I think really at a relatively low cost to really scale your digital marketing operations. 

Where do you look for your inspiration? 

I look around me. 

My good friend, Carla Johnson just wrote a good book about innovation and that what is all around you can inspire you to innovate. And it’s something that once she taught me on a podcast episode I interviewed her for – I look around. Inspiration is everywhere. When you’re out walking, when you’re not thinking about things and you focus on the details around you – you begin to see things that lead to inspiring you to do many things, including innovate.

And when I travel – just being out of my normal environment inspires me. And therefore when I walk around the neighborhood, it gives me the chance to sort of unplug and really think about things in a different way. It might sound weird, but sometimes the mundane things can lead to inspiration and innovation.

And podcasts are like brain food. I mean, they really are, so if you don’t listen to podcasts, you may want to start. 

What podcasts do you enjoy? 

I enjoy the Simple Pin podcast, I have one that’s just focused on content repurposing called the Content 10X podcast, where I spoke about influencer marketing and user-generated content. I’m listening to YouTube podcasts. I’m listening to Tube Buddy Express and Tube Talk. I also love Pat Flynn’s podcast, Smart Passive Income.

There is a podcast called Blogging Millionaire that I highly recommend. And then there’s some general sort of social media podcasts. I listen to Social Bamboo, a very Instagram-centric, and then the Savvy Social Podcast. 

What advice do you have for marketers or creatives who look up to you?

I’d say don’t look up to me – but I’d say implement. I just got back from Podcast Movement and I still consider myself a student of podcasting. There are other things where I don’t think I’m a student of, but nevertheless, just understanding the latest trends and meeting other experts – there’s always inherent value there.

But at the end of the day, you have to put what you learned into action. And I find so many people, they read the blogs, they watch the YouTube videos, they listen to the podcast, they go to the conferences – but they don’t put it into action. Now, big brands with big marketing budgets and huge staff, you have the ability to do that a lot easier than maybe some of the smaller businesses out there or maybe some of the entrepreneurs out there, but it’s all about putting an action. John Lee Dumas, who actually spoke at podcast movement said, and he was quoting Kobe Bryant, “it’s all about the reps you put in.”

Every influencer started somewhere. They didn’t automatically create this awesome content. It came over time as they became a master of their craft. They also look at their analytics. What resonates with people? What doesn’t? They also listen to the opinions of a lot of people around them. They learn, network, and get better. And that is something that every marketer needs to do. The process begins by actually implementing something and looking at the analytics, getting feedback, and posting not just one video, but 10 videos to see what works and what doesn’t work.

Why did that work? Why did it not work? 

So I think the answer is often not just the data, but having the mind to be able to analyze that data as to why it worked or didn’t. 

And that’s what I want you to do more of. Don’t look for shortcuts asking these questions because guess what? I’m going to ask for the data. I’m going to ask you what you’ve been doing. I’m going to try to do for you what you should be doing for yourself. 

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a book

Go for it. There’s that saying that “everybody has a great book inside them” and I never intended to be an author by any means. It just happened. If you want to write a book, understand why you want to write a book.

Very few people make money off books, but the book is a great business card. So, if you want to create a great business card, write a book – it’s something that you can hand out to anyone you meet, whether it’s for your career, whether it’s for your own personal hobbies. And it’s also a great R&D exercise because it forces you to really go deep into something and really think about it. How would you write a chapter on whatever that subject is? And it forces you to do research if you don’t have your own ideas, or to develop experiences. 

So I always say a book is really easy. Generally, books are between 40,000 to 50,000 words, so let’s reverse engineer this.

Do you have 12 ideas that you’d like to put in a book? And therefore it’s 4,000 words, per idea, 12 chapters, 48,000 words. You have a book. 

4,000 words. It’s four 1,000 word blog posts. It’s an intro and then three bullet points with a thousand words per bullet point. So when you begin to reverse engineer and dumb it down, it’s not that hard to do – but you do have to block out time. 

You do have to have that incentive. And this is the why – why am I writing this book? Because if you don’t have it, you’re going to stop. You’re never going to complete it. So hopefully you feel like it’s something that’s doable because it is.

There are amazing things you can do in a 40-hour workweek. If you were to work on your own business for 40 hours and not have to do anything that’s currently on your agenda, in 40 hours, you might be able to just write a few chapters of that book with that time. So when you think about it, that way, it’s just a matter of blocking out the time and then doing it.

What does the future of marketing look like to you and how do you think brands can prepare for it?

I think the future is going to be even more segmented, and centers of influence will become more dispersed over time. When social media just started, we had Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and then Google+ came in and then came out, and then Instagram came in and TikTok. And now you have these completely new types of media in terms of Reels or just this culture that TikTok has – it goes above and beyond a social media platform. It really is a culture, a different way of expressing yourself. So I think it is only going to be more and more challenging for brands to keep up with the way that people consume with the way that people create and consume information.

I believe that social platforms are going to continue to innovate to keep people on there longer. And TikTok was a very welcome addition just as Snapchat was because it forces all the other players out there to innovate. And I think we will have new players. 

At Podcast Movement, Mark Cuban was on stage talking about Fireside. I don’t think social audio is going to become as big as TikTok, but social audio is also definitely a movement out there that all the social networks are trying to catch up with as well. So there are a lot more moving pieces. 

And audiences are just a lot more fragmented now. And I think that’s very challenging for marketers. Put the clock back 20, 30 years, they said one thing TV, radio, newspaper – done. It’s not that simple anymore. People don’t consume media like they used to. So that’s where I believe the role of influencers comes in – the people that are already there, who are deep in those communities.

Not only can they help create content for you, but they can also help educate you. They can become part of a user-focused group. There’s just so much value that comes out of those relationships. So that will continue to challenge marketers going forward. 

There’s a lot of other things we could talk about, but I think just understanding that it’s only going to get more fragmented should give you some advice as to the things you should be doing now. 

If you don’t have the energy to get deeply embedded into creating TikToks every day, then start engaging and creating relationships with people that are doing that.

I’m curious to see who will be the next leading social media platform. 

I go back to this book (I think it was in high school), The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – where in world history, you have these periods of time where there are two great countries balancing each other, like the United States and the Soviet Union. And then it breaks apart into five or six United States, China, Russia, but then over time, it goes back into two, and then it disperses. And it was this actual analysis of the last 2000 years of world history where he proved this happened.

I think the same thing with a lot of things with, for instance, social media – you’re going to have one or two platforms that come out, but then you’re gonna have all these other platforms that are going to try to out-innovate them, like Clubhouse and TikTok. And I think we’re going to continue to see that it’s going to be like an accordion.

I don’t think there’s ever going to be one platform. 

With WeChat, it’s another story – they have their own rules that we don’t have. I think we’re going to continue to see –just because of the great economy we have and the great way that startups can get access to capital – I think we’re going to continue to see competition five years from now. 

The percentage of Americans that use any given social network is going to look radically different than it does today. Who thought Facebook would become a social network for old people? I mean, turn the clock back just 6, 7, 8 years, who would’ve thought that you were going to be on TikTok?

How do you wind down from a long day of work?

Family. That’s the blessing of working from home because I’ve been able to be together more with my children. Just tying in with family and helping them with homework, hearing how their day was, going to their soccer practices.

I’ve been a team manager for my son’s soccer team in the past and on weekends go to soccer games, which helps support everything I do with my life. I’d say the other thing is before I go to bed, I do have my hour of binge-watching.

I lived in Japan for so long, I missed out on a lot of American culture, so I feel like I’m constantly playing catch up. So I’m finally on the final season of Mad Men, for instance. I can’t wait to finish it out so I can move on to another series. But yeah, just having 45 minutes to an hour of having a nightcap and just watching TV right before I go to bed.

When I know the kids are in bed and the world is in order, it’s a great way to unwind. 

What are you excited about or looking forward to?

I’m excited for in-person conferences. I think that human beings are social animals, and as much as we all love to work from home and Zoom, there’s nothing like meeting in person. The electricity, the engagement, that creativity that comes from that.

I’m not going back to work and all my clients are still working from home, but I know a lot of you are going to be going back into an office environment… but there’s still value in that human interaction.

And although in the future, we may not go, we may not go back five days a week. I still think most companies are at least going to have people coming back one day a week coming back just because of the need to connect in person. There are a lot of things about that really, I believe can’t be replaced.

So from my work, I’m excited about that. Not only with my clients, but like I said, going out to conferences and being able to meet other thought leaders and authors and speakers that inspire me, and the ability to connect with more people and understand their experiences.

That’s really what drives growth in innovation – leveraging other people’s experiences and learning from them. A great catalyst for that is being together in person. 

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