Sara Wilson is the founder of SW Projects, a content consultancy that crafts platform-first content strategies and unique creative ideas that help build social-first communities for brands and digital publishers. SW Projects has advised on digital content, influencer and innovation strategy for Bumble, WeWork, the New York Times, Bustle, National Geographic, Playboy, Ouai Haircare, GoldieBlox, and others.
For nearly five years, Sara ran lifestyle partnerships at Facebook and Instagram, where she developed relationships with many of the most influential food, fashion, home, health, wellness and travel publishers and personalities in the world by helping them grow their brands on the platforms, and built Instagram’s game-changing fashion vertical, essentially creating the playbook for how to “win” a vertical on a social platform.
Before that, she was a journalist and editor. She ran several sections at the Huffington Post—where she pioneered concepts of social-first storytelling at scale—and wrote for multiple publications including The Economist, Los Angeles magazine, People and The Independent (UK).
Because Sara has deep experience on both sides of the equation—journalist and platform—she knows how to help both brands and publishers deliver killer content optimized for the ever-changing ecosystem of today ’s content consumer.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- How Sara knows when it’s the right time to make a career move.
- How to create a position that doesn’t even exist yet.
- The power of G&T to take your career to the next level
- Whether or not to focus on building your personal brand while working for someone else.
- Why brands need to function like publishers, and publishers need to function like brands.
Connect with Sara:
- The Short of It (past issues)
- Instagram – Sara Wilson
- Instagram – SW Projects
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Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to hang with us today.
I’m so excited to be here, David. Thank you.
A lot of our listeners are in transition or want to be; whether it comes to their job or an entrepreneurial venture or side hustle. From what I have heard and seen online, you’re quite an expert when it comes to navigating a lot of these transitions from opportunity to opportunity.
One of the things that I’ve always wrestled with in the opportunities that have come my way is, how do you know when it’s the right time to take that next step? Versus, “No, that’s not quite the right one. Or could it be?” How do you process that in your mind? How have you done that as you’ve gone from opportunity to opportunity?
There’s so many different things to consider. First of all, I think opportunities don’t really exist as free-floating objects. They come in the form of people. They always come through people. That’s why I’ve really spent a lot of time leveraging and investing in relationships as a form of opportunity generation. That sounds pretty crass, but I really think that the most interesting things that have happened to me in my life, have come as a result of relationships that I’ve genuinely cultivated over a long period of time. I look at those relationships as kind of the bread and butter of everything that I do. Even today, the most interesting opportunities come to me that way.
I would say that’s the first thing to consider; cultivating those people in your life. And you may not know ahead of time who’s going to yield what, that’s why it’s not transactional. You can’t really think of it that way. It’s more, “Wow, I really want to go spend time with people who are doing interesting things.” Invest in those relationships and see what eventually comes.
In terms of how I know, the short answer is that I don’t. I think that you really have to look at your trajectory of life and your career as one in the same. You aren’t going to know exactly what choices are going to lead you down which path. You essentially have to trust that the people who you’re connecting with at those various touch points are the right people and that you’re going to find your way no matter what if you trust your gut.
That is very general advice. That’s not really what I would say to come away from this with, but it is a big piece of it. Looking at, “Alright, if this is a circuited route to whatever it is I want, then I’m going to do it.” When I look at my career path, it has been very circuitous and I do think that’s what makes me qualified to do what I’m doing today.
So, you say it’s important to invest in lots of relationships and to seek out relationships even if you’re not quite sure where those will lead? And then also there’s this sense of trusting your gut?
Yes, very much so.
The other day I was having lunch with a friend and we were sitting in this outdoor patio area. I’m not a big outward connector, I’m a little bit more of an introvert but the guy that I’m with is an ultra-extrovert. There are these two gals that are sitting next to us and he just strikes up a conversation. By the end of the conversation I’m giving one of them the contact information for a very close friend who has a lot of real estate outside of Los Angeles county. This woman is looking for real estate to do marijuana growth and other things like that and I’m thinking, the only way that I even got into this conversation is because of my friend’s willingness to reach out and bridge that gap.
Are you more of an introvert or are you an extrovert? How have you learned to do that over the course of your life?
Yes, so I’m definitely one of those introverted extroverts. I get a lot of energy from other people, but I also retreat back to my home. I’m extremely good at taking care of myself and doing a battery re-charge. But yes, I don’t think any of my friends would say I’m an introvert. I’m a total extrovert. I love planning things. I love bringing people together. I love hosting. So, that does feel natural to me.
I would say if that’s not your natural inclination, which by the way, it isn’t for a lot of people and that’s totally okay. I would say, connect yourself to those type of people and let them help you into the situations. So, if those people are hosting, go and avail yourself of their talents; just like what you did with your friend. I host something that’s called G&T; it’s based on the Adam Grant book called Give and Take. He’s kind of a big figure in Silicon Valley and he has written about this concept of giving; i.e. giving of yourself or giving something of your talent and time. And the idea of that being more beneficial to you ultimately then just simply taking. He shares how important it is to have a back and forth between giving and taking.
Some friends of mine started this group called G&T, which is obviously a play on it. It’s a women’s networking group and we get women together and you can offer to give something while also asking for something in return. You have to get up in front of the group to do that, so if you’re an introvert, that can be very difficult. I totally acknowledge that, but the people who’ve actually forced themselves to do this, have been able to benefit from things like new jobs, new partners, new careers, whatever it might be. It’s opportunities that they connect to through that experience. So, take advantage of me. I’m the person who’s hosting. Or take advantage of the person in your life who’s doing that and go avail yourself of that.
Is that something that’s L.A. oriented? Or is that in different parts of the U.S.?
Right now, it’s just L.A. and it’s super small. It’s probably like 50 or 60 women. We do it every three months, but it’s growing. I would encourage you, if you’re interested, you can hit me up and I can tell you a little bit about it.
You said “G&T”; when I was in elementary school in Kentucky, we had a G&T group. It was the gifted and talented group. I’d get pulled out of the classroom with all the other nerd kids and all the other kids are looking at us like, “Oh, yeah. You’re going to the G&T group.”
So, what you’re saying is this was not a very good thing?
It was good because I got to go play weird games on the Apple computers; Oregon Trail and avoiding dysentery and all of those types of things. I learned how to avoid dysentery at a very early age because of G&T.
I love it. So, it has different meanings for you.
You have shared that a lot of these opportunities that you’ve gotten have been jobs that didn’t exist before you stepped into them. How would you suggest that someone positions themselves to create a job within their own company? Most people are not entrepreneurs and able to create their own jobs, although we have some listeners who are. Most of them are working within a larger context. So, how were you able to set yourself up to find those opportunities?
I think being able to take a look at what’s on the horizon in the next three or four or five years, versus where things are now is really important. That can be very difficult, but I think if you do a lot of reading, a lot of talking to people and surveying the landscape of your industry, you can start to see trends. When I say I did the job before anyone else, that was sort of an accident, but it was also a result of me doing a lot of sniffing out and feeling out what was going on.
I would say the first example of that, which is probably the most relevant is when I left Los Angeles Magazine and took a job at The Huffington Post. The job itself was to run the Huff Post divorce section. At that time, I was single, I had never been married, I knew about divorce only to the extent that my parents had been divorced. I wasn’t really the most qualified necessarily, but at the same time, it really felt like a growing entity; Huff Post. I thought, “Gosh, whatever this is, I want to be part of it. I want to see what I can contribute here.” And at that time, magazines were still very much a thing. Why would you leave to go to this divorce section? That sounds sort of depressing, what are you doing? But for me what I focused on was the fact that Nora Ephron was the creator of the section. I would do basically anything to work with her, to be with her and do anything with her, really. But also, the experience of being at a growing company was really attractive to me.
I looked at what’s growing and what’s not. What’s growing right now is digital media. At the time it really was on the up. And what’s flattening right now is magazines. So, magazines might still have the cache, but in the long run I want to be in a growing business. I want to be in a business that’s really an up and to the right business. So, I chose that. Now, did I know that it was going to grow and it was going to become a thing? Sort of, but not really. It could have gone either way. I think it essentially requires some element of risk taking. You’re not always going to know when you do a job before everyone else, but you can read the signs enough to say to yourself, “Okay, this is a safe bet. I do think that this is growing.” I think that equation versus flat growth is always going to be a good one.
So, as you were stepping into that, you were going from a traditional magazine publishing atmosphere to a digital realm. How big of a growth curve was that for you? How did you negotiate that?
It was huge growth curve, for sure. First of all, writing for magazines is a completely different experience then writing for online. I remember, even just the experience of writing headlines when I was in magazines, it’s such a specific type of headline you’re writing and you don’t realize that until you get out of that world. It’s not really the same way people consume online content. I actually think that that shift is much more important for understanding why there’s such a disconnect between those two industries. It’s a different way of writing and a different way of consuming. It’s a different way that the consumer digests content, so you really have to adjust for that.
For people who maybe don’t understand, break that down for just a second.
Sure, so a magazine headline is clever, is punny and it often has a play on words. It also has to fit in a very concise space. Often times that’s dictated by the design that the designer has decided upon. With online publication, it’s almost become a little bit of a joke, “Sixteen ways to blah, blah, blah.” Or, “You’ll never believe the blah, blah, blah.” It’s now become cliché with bad headlines. We see them all the time and it’s contributed to a lot of terrible online journalism. But what the nugget is, it’s easily digestible and quickly understandable. There are no puns. There’s no plays on word. It’s very much “paging Dr. Obvious”. It’s basically telling you exactly what you’re going to get and teasing the idea a little bit so that you’ll click. Now, there is a very fine line between that and click-bait, but I think nailing that distinction is important.
Alright, so part of it is seeing ahead figuring out what’s going up and to the right, and also seeing where you want to go? It seems like for a lot of people there’s this challenge of, “But I’m good at this. I’m good at magazine writing. I like magazines.” Obviously, a lot of people that are listening are not magazine writers, but the context is, “I like the way that this is done and you’re asking me to become a different person in order to do that.” It seems like you have just this natural energy that wants to move in that direction. What would say to someone who’s going, “But I like it the old way. I liked it this way”?
Really, all I can say is, too bad. The world is evolving at a very quick pace and if you plan to keep working and to keep making a living and to thrive in a global economy, you absolutely need to be shifting and changing at all times. I feel that acutely, even in my current role, which theoretically is very much responding to the times. It’s my job to maintain category expertise; to read as much as I can and to listen to as much as I can. I’m constantly consuming and monitoring the changes in the industry. If I was at a job that was fulltime, I maybe wouldn’t have the time to do that.
That’s sort of where I think the sense of going “soft” can come in. You can become a little bit inured from what’s going on in the outside world and you can get stuck in, “But I like this. I like things the way they are.” That’s great and you should keep doing it if you don’t want to make sure you have a job in five years. These industries change really, really quickly and to put off those types of Spidey senses, for lack of a better word – and to sort of push that away, I think you do that at your peril.
How important is it for someone to be building their own personal brand, even if they’re working for someone else?
It’s so funny, I was having a discussion yesterday with a client about this exact topic. They’re looking for a really great social media manager; someone to run and kind of own that aspect of their business. They were saying that the people that were interviewing, “The people that were coming to us are all 23. They all want to use our brand to build their own personal brands and they’re more interested in essentially building their own brand off of the back of ours.” Now, that’s great and everything, but that’s not necessarily going to bring the best results for the company that you’re working for.
I think right now we’re in this moment of, everybody’s an influencer, everybody’s a micro-influencer, everybody’s a micro micro-influencer. And being somebody on the internet is really valuable to a lot of people. I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon. I think the idea of building your personal brand is a really good one. It’s so hard to make sweeping generalizations here, because for every person that I say, “Focus on putting your head down and doing great work,” there’s going to be someone that comes up and has 2 million followers overnight for being on TV and swearing. There’s so many examples of this and I do think that the rules are totally changing. I think building your brand is great, I think it’s important. But don’t do it to the exclusion of doing great work for someone else who might actually help you get to your goal.
Yeah, it seems like if you’re working at another company, the company’s got to always come first. That’s who’s paying your bills. That’s who’s giving you a paycheck.
You’ve worked with so many people who are “influencers”, and moving from opportunity to opportunity, you’ve shared in the last few minutes that a lot of those opportunities have come from people that you’ve met and also always thinking about what’s the next thing. I also have to wonder how much of your brand has helped that as well.
I don’t mean brand like you’ve got a bazillion followers on social media, but your brand; Sarah Wilson. The people that know Sarah Wilson. The people that talk about Sarah Wilson. It’s really about having the right people know about Sarah Wilson. It doesn’t have to be everybody. It doesn’t have to be the whole world that knows about Sarah Wilson. The right people need to know about Sarah Wilson in order for her to get that next opportunity.
That’s totally true, yes. It’s funny to hear you put it that way. But yes, that is accurate. Absolutely, I agree.
So, the right people have known about Sarah Wilson in order to get you those next opportunities?
I think the question that comes up in my mind is, “Okay, how do I get the right people to know me?” Not for me necessarily, but for people who are listening, “They need to know who I am.”
Yeah, for sure. I think one great way to do that is by writing and having a regular forum in which you share your expertise on whatever subject your area of interest is. So, it will really depend on the area of interest is, for which platform you would want to share that on.
Let’s say you are looking to really define yourself in the business world. Well, we know that writing on Medium, depending on the industry or writing on LinkedIn, can be great. It doesn’t mean you’re going to become an overnight success, but overtime being able to build up an audience and have your theories and ideas road-tested and really stress tested, because people are going to respond to them and people are going to give you feedback. Overtime you do build that category expertise. Some people do that on Instagram. Some people have a flare for Instagram Stories and communicate that way. It really just depends on what your medium is. I do think it’s important to be consistently putting yourself out there if you want to build a presence for yourself. And that doesn’t mean just taking selfies and posting them to Instagram. I mean in the way of, what are your ideas? What’s your intellectual offering to the world? And also, being prepared to be challenged on that.
How would you say that the client that just sniffed out the twenty-something – how did they sniff that out? Maybe you don’t know the conversation, but how do you sense that they picked up on that?
There’s a lot of these networking groups available now, whether it’s the ones that throw their own conferences or just smaller ones that are online only. There’s ones that have come out of podcasts, like Almost 30 and Community. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with them, but I love them. There are a lot of different forums now, where people, especially young women are being encouraged to be their own bosses. If you look at Girl Boss, which is a brand I love and the reason you found me. There is a side to that that is, “Skip the becoming a boss, just be your own boss.” I don’t think that’s their intended message, but a lot of times, that is what the people coming up, hear. So, what ends up happening is there’s this generation of people who just want to be their own bosses. Now, I don’t actually think by nature that that’s a bad thing. I do think where it becomes problematic is when the assumption is that’s what’s going to happen.
I also think there needs to be a shift in company culture. I think companies do need to acknowledge that they are going to have to help build the brands of the people that are working for them. That will ultimately help them not only retain them, but actually grow their careers. And that’s really part of the company’s job. So, like when you asked before if your first loyalty should be to the company? Yes and no, the company also has to have loyalty to you or you’re just going to jump ship. I think it’s a two-way street and both sides have to be looking at that.
So, this company, they had posted on one of these online community’s messages boards and got a bunch of resumes. It was in the pre-interview process that they were getting a sense that a lot of these candidates they’re interviewing had a growing online presence, but they really had very little experience in the task at hand. Maybe they’d done it once for a friend, but they had not really built up enough experience to be applying for these jobs. But they felt that they could apply because they had 10,000 followers on their own Instagram. It’s really a question of, “What’s your priority and how do you want to use the talents that you have?”
One thing I love that you said in a previous interview was that, “Brands need to function like publishers and publishers need to function like brands.” I think we can all understand how a publisher needs to function like a brand, but how does a brand need to function like a publisher? What does that look like? What are some of the examples of that?
I come from magazines, where the line between the publishing side and the advertising side used to be very much church and state. The two sides did not talk to each other, and now when I think about that, it just seems so quaint and cute. But believe it or not, I think a lot of people still think that way from old school magazines. It’s just not the way it works anymore. There really has been this merging between the two sides, where as a consumer or as an audience member, I don’t make a ton of distinction between how a brand talks to me and how a publisher talks to me.
If I am scrolling my Instagram feed, I have the same relationship with Glossier that I do with Refinery29. One’s a brand and one’s a publisher. But they are both essentially publishers. They both talk to me in the same way with the same visual language that resonates or doesn’t resonate. So, when I say that, I mean that brands really need to think of themselves as essentially, hubs of communication. So, how they structure their communication and how they talk to their audience is just as important as a publisher in terms of how they should be prioritizing that. Which platforms? How do they want to communicate their messages? How do they want to think about getting to the right audiences? All of those questions that publishers obsess over; brands are now really, really thinking about seriously. And I’ve seen some of the best brands do that in a way that’s very sophisticated and really resonates.
Give me an example of one that you feel like, “Man, they’re knocking it out of the park doing that.”
Glossier, like I mentioned is the classic example. In their case, they launched Into the Gloss, which was a publication blog chronicling the top shelf of awesome fashion and beauty influencers. They had that first. They learned about their audience that way and then they launched the product line. That’s kind of the classic example in the world of social.
I often talk about Bumble as well, because I love them. I love their brand. They were a client and I think overall, they’ve done such a phenomenal job of distilling their incredibly clear brand identity into a content strategy that resonates. So, when you go onto their various feeds, you feel like you’re talking to a friend. You feel connected and close. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel that way with other dating apps generally. But I do feel like I have a relationship with that brand.
Sarah, I’m 46. I’ve been married for 25 years, I have never used a dating app. I was 20 when I met my wife, it was old school. I was in college.
I love that though. That’s like, so retro.
So retro, yeah. I don’t really hang out on a lot of dating apps, you know?
Yeah, of course. But it’s funny because it doesn’t even matter. Bumble has many other parts of its business beyond dating. They have a whole networking component.
Exactly. It’s much more expansive than just dating.
So, let’s say someone who’s listening is going, “Okay, I’m wanting to start my own business or a side hustle while I’m still working for a company or corporation.” They want to use social media, of course. Where would they start? It’s so overwhelming, “Okay, I’ve got my own Instagram account and I’ve got my own Facebook account. I’m starting this side hustle or I’m fully starting this business.” What should they focus on?
That’s such a good question and it’s one that I get from clients all the time. So, first of all, they’re not alone. I think the biggest question is to ask yourself where your audience is first and then design the content around that. Let’s say you’re a product that’s designed for millennial moms. Well, where are millennial moms spending their time? Like, actually spending their time. Don’t just think of social. I would do a whole mapping out where you’re thinking, “Okay, they’re on these apps.” It could be things like Care.com looking for babysitters. It could be something like Amazon and Target, shopping. I always do a total time spent chart and really look at it. Then I go, “Okay, they’re texting with their friends because that’s how they’re getting advice. It’s small group chats typically for parents.” “Okay, I’m not going to be able to get in on that from a social point of view, but maybe I could from a Facebook group kind of view. Maybe there’s something there, because that’s going to be a small forum.
So, it’s thinking about who your audience is and really drilling down. You’d be surprised how many brands do not do that. They get so far as the brand identity, the launch phase and still haven’t figured out who their audience is. That is a massive blind spot for a lot of brands. If you’re just starting out, knowing your audience is key. You can really design everything from there. You can find out who your communities that are going to be interested are. You can figure out who are going to be your super fans and design from that and pick your platforms from that. I would also say, don’t try to do everything all at once. If you’re small especially, you want to start with one or two, maybe. Just invest in those, define your voice and who you are, and then go from there. Resource constraint is a real thing, so don’t try to do everything all at once.
One of the amazing opportunities that you’ve had is running the lifestyle partnerships at Facebook and Instagram for almost five years. Most people listening here are not in a position to have any kind of conversation with Facebook other than, “Why did you shut down my account because I was messaging people too many times?” That’s really the only reason they contact Facebook.
Take us behind the scenes a little bit. Take us behind the blue veil. What did that look like? Did people come to you because they were looking to develop some sort of relationship? What benefits did Facebook garner from them? How did Facebook help them? Help us understand that a little bit more.
The blue veil, I love it. So, I’ll just talk a little bit about what my job was, because I think the term strategic partnerships can be a little bit fuzzy. The team that I was on was really serving as a point of contact within Facebook and Instagram for public figures, so basically influencers and publishers. The reason why Facebook developed this is because until the team was formed, there was no point of contact for a publisher or an influencer who was coming up on the platform. Even a big movie star, like Brad Pitt had no one to call unless he somehow got a direct line to Cheryl Sandberg.
So, Facebook actually had a real benefit to having people who can actually handle these relationships and help these people in ways that range from teaching them about the platform so that they can use it better, to simply getting them verified so that fans can find them. Eliminating the fakes, so that they go on live TV and don’t say bad things about Facebook. It really ranges, but the ultimate goal on Facebook’s end was to encourage a plethora of great content from public figures, to then drive more people to spend more time on the platform. That really is the calculus that Facebook is making. And you know, every social platform to some extent, has a team like this.
I think we all saw that Snapchat did not make enough investment in this area and when they rolled out their update about a year and a half ago, it really was not well received. I believe in many ways, that’s because they did not have boots on the ground in this area. They didn’t take the time to develop those relationships and understand what those people wanted. So, it’s very important to the communities that Facebook services, to have this kind of resource in house. So that’s kind of the focus and that’s why Facebook did this.
Now, the jobs on those teams ranged wildly. Often, we would get a ton of inbound about the craziest stuff, “I’ve been hacked. I’m a Saudi prince and I need your help.” It was navigating every type of public figure and publisher in the world. And you can imagine, it was pretty nuts. Ultimately it was kind of up to Facebook and up to us to figure out how to prioritize which products we wanted to match to the right people. Sometimes it was around a specific launch; for example, Facebook Watch. When Watch launched, we did a ton of work around figuring out which folks we should go after to feature in Watch shows. Obviously, that has evolved quite a bit, but the priorities were constantly shifting and changing depending on which products were coming down the pipe. And by products, I mean tech products. So, that could be new features or new platforms like Watch, within the broader Facebook or Instagram ecosystem. Or even big moments like the Oscars, what was going to be Instagram’s integration into that?
So, some of it was inbound, like verification and helping take away fake people and hacks and those sorts of things. But outbound as well, where you’re wanting to take certain products out individuals. Would Facebook and Instagram ask for feedback prior to launching different products?
Definitely, yes. They would often bring people in, especially influencers, and ask them to test different features just to make sure, “Look, are we getting this right? How does this feel?” But then a lot of stuff was launched and just sent out into the ecosystem and iterated on from there. It happened both ways. I would say my job was mostly proactive. I would say 30% of it was reactive and the rest was proactive. I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of my time at Facebook, I focused almost exclusively on fashion. I saw this really big opportunity in the fashion world around Instagram. We saw a ton of organic activity happening, whether it was people posting at the Met Gala or Fashion Week; Instagram really lends itself very well to visuals because it’s such a visual platform.
So, as part of my work there, I sort of made it a big goal to help shape Instagram into the top platform for fashion. “Okay, how are we going to do this?” So, really it involved developing relationships with the top fashion magazines. Going and having meetings at Vogue and saying, “Hey, we’re Instagram.” Believe it or not, those relationships did not exist at the time. Ultimately it culminated in something involving an actual award that the CFDA; the Council of Fashion Designers of America, gave out for Fashion Instagrammer of the Year. That was an idea that I came up with and pitched to them and that they ultimately used.
So, when we talk about reactive versus proactive, there’s no way that they would have ever come to me with that idea. But ultimately, I went to them and worked with a team to execute it. We had amazing internal support from Instagram and Facebook to do it and it resulted in a boat load of organic press, because it was just such a completely novel concept.
So strategic partnerships are really about having a big goal in mind, and maybe it’s an audacious goal like making “X” the number one platform for sports or whatever it might be. And then it’s figuring out how to measure that. Figuring out how to put metrics against it. And then going out and creating a strategy to get there. So that’s ideally how a job like that is done. But then of course, you have a lot of stuff that comes to you in the meantime that you have to field.
Sure, so this goes back to the connections, right? Obviously, you’re reaching out to them with a cache of the name Instagram. But, even if it’s newer and the relationship is not there, you’ve always got to be going into that thinking, “What do they benefit from? How are they going to benefit?”
Exactly. Absolutely, yeah.
How are you thinking about that when you’re going into that conversation with them?
You always have to be going into anything knowing that it’s always a two-way street. How are we going to help each other? I always think about that when I’m reaching out to somebody for some help. It’s always about, “Hey, I’d love this, but how can I help you?” I think that goes for partnerships times a million. Both parties have to feel they’re getting something out of the deal.
Exactly. Honestly, that concept has very much informed how I do business and how I do life. I mean it was always about thinking, “What can Facebook or Instagram bring to the table?” We can bring things like press because we can pitch this out to press. We can display it on our channels. We can maybe do some editorial on the @Instagram account. There are various different levers that we could pull to help them. Overall though, it was just the power of a great idea that they had to be really sold on. And the power of a platform as well. Once that flywheel got rolling, it wasn’t super hard to “sell” Instagram to the fashion world. They were already primed for it. My job was just to bring them super creative ideas that they got excited about and then help them execute. Ultimately, they were the people at the forefront. I was really just sort of doing behind the scenes puppetry.
You have your own consulting company now; SW Projects. Gosh, call me dense, but I’ve been researching you for the last two weeks and it wasn’t until two days ago, that I put it together. I kept going, “What does SW stand for?” I’d never really asked that, but in the back of my mind I’m going, “SW projects. Okay, so?”
That’s so funny.
I finally put it together. Sarah Wilson, of course. Tell me about what you’re doing and if there are people that are listening that are possibly connected with brands or publishers that could benefit from what you’re brining to the table.
Absolutely, so the way I think about what I do is, I work with two groups. Remember I mentioned when I was at Facebook, I worked with influencers and publishers?
So, one big group that I never really got to work with when I was there was brands. And brands would constantly be coming to me because they knew I had expertise on the platform. Whether it was lifestyle brands or beyond, they were like, “Look, we need help.” And the reality is, unless you’re spending a ton of money on Facebook or Instagram in advertising dollars, you’re just not going to have a resource internally to help you. You’re kind of going to have to figure it out yourself. So, what I realized was, they need help that goes way beyond just placing ads. They need help around how to represent their brand on these platforms and beyond.
My experience in journalism and also in storytelling at scale at Huff Post, taught me the value of designing for audience and community first and then working backwards. I realized that this could be a real asset and benefit for brands. So, when I left, it was really with the intention of building something that would help brands but also at the same time, speak to my DNA, which is in publishing. I come from publishing. My mom is a journalist. I have publishing in my bones and I’ve been so fascinated by the way digital publishing has evolved. So, I do think that brands and publishers actually play off of each other and there’s this really cool symbiosis.
So, the way that I talk about what I do, is I help brands think like publishers and I help publishers think like brands. I kind of explained already about why I think that brands should be thinking like publishers if they’re not already. But in terms of publishers thinking like brands, what that means is essentially helping them think of the audience as ultimate consumers. So, how do you use content to drive them down that path of conversion; buying something and subscribing without doing that in a scary way? I think that can be scary for a lot of publishers.
Those are basically the two groups that I work with. And the clients that I’ve had in those two categories vary, but they tend to be on the publishing side. I’ve worked with a ton of legacy publishers like National Geographic and The New York Times. I helped them launch their @nytgender Instagram, which is a dedicated account for that initiative at New York Times. I’m actually working with Playboy now, who’s doing a really interesting kind of brand re-orientation and getting across, how do they think of themselves as a lifestyle brand with pleasure as a guiding principal? It’s super interesting and it’s primarily female led, which is so fascinating. So, I would say those are some of the legacy brands. Although I have worked with brands that are newer like Bustle. Which is a giant women-centric publisher that’s done really, really well.
And then on the brand side, it’s really varied. I would say I don’t tend to work with a ton of start-ups, but I also don’t tend to work with a ton of large conglomerates either. It’s kind of in the middle. I mentioned Bumble was a client. I also worked with WeWork, who are so interesting. They are essentially redefining what work means for this generation and the content possibilities of that are just endless. I’m sure you saw they just recently opened WeGrow, which is essentially a preschool. Talk about thinking big. That is a company that I’ve really enjoyed working with. And then there’s been a variety of others in the beauty, fashion and lifestyle space, but it’s always about figuring out who your consumer is, first. I’m working with a company called GoldieBlox right now. Do you know them? They’re super, super interesting.
They are amazing, yeah.
They’re really incredible. For your listeners who might not know, it’s a girl’s toy and it’s STEM focused. They are all about disrupting “the pink aisle” as the founder dubbed it. To me, that’s the direction that I want to be going in terms of my client mix. It’s mission driven, fabulous founders who are ready to embrace change and see the future in a way that’s just super compelling and are excited to embrace the changes that are happening now. Those types of clients are truly dream clients.
If you have not heard of GoldiBlox, definitely go and check it out. It’s a really amazing brand and they have beautiful marketing and branding and such a compelling message.
I need to tell you; I have enjoyed each one of your newsletters that have come out.
Oh my gosh, thank you. Thank you so much.
I wasn’t a subscriber beforehand, but I went back and I read them all. They are all super smart. What’s the name of it, remind me?
It’s called The Short of It. The reason that I called it that was because we’re just so overwhelmed with newsletters these days. I feel like everyone’s got a newsletter and I really just wanted to pick some aspect of the digital ecosystem, something that’s happening right now, whether it’s a trend, a moment or a campaign and break it down. I analyse it, tell you why you should care and share a few takeaways to grow your own business. That’s essentially what I do every other week.
I would say if you have your own business or side hustle or you’re interested in brands; if you’re interested in marketing and social media or if you’re interested even in technology, go check that out. I love you did one on the power of the drop. And you did one on influencers and the role of influencers, so great. Anyways, it comes out every two weeks, I think. Is that right?
It’s about that. It’s just me, so I do my very best. But yes, it’s about every two weeks.
And I love the illustrations that you have.
Oh, yes. Thank you. That’s by an illustrator in Portland who I found and her name is Kate Bingaman-Bert. She’s fabulous and of course, I found her on Instagram.
So, people can go to www.swprojects.co – SW, by the way, if you haven’t figured it out, stands for Sarah Wilson. I love what you’re doing. Gosh, you’re just so smart and so articulate.
And helping people think through these issues. I really would encourage people to check out your newsletter because it’s very smart. They can sign up for that at your website. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your experiences.
Thank you, David.
It’s really just a brain full – my brain is now full. I walk away, and I would encourage our listeners to walk away and see how these two statements would somehow inform whatever you’re doing in life. “Brands need to function like publishers. Publishers need to function like brands.” I think even a mom who’s working with the PTA at a local school; that’s a brand.
Yeah, oh my gosh. Absolutely.
How is that PTA needing to function like a publisher to get the word out? If you’re a teacher – my wife is a teacher and she uses an app that she publishes things daily to her families. It’s so interesting, my wife has a brand and she’s not even trying to. She’s highly regarded in her school district and one of the reasons why is because she takes pictures of her students throughout the day and sends them out through the app to the parents. Nobody can see it other than the parents. My wife is a publisher as a kindergarten teacher. She doesn’t have an Instagram following. Her following is the parents of 24 kids. Talk about a micro-influencer.
Oh, my gosh. I love that. She’s really leveraging the platforms that she has to make an impact. I love it.
Right, and her story is, these kids are learning to read, write, do math, not kill each other and all these great things. So, no matter where you’re at, think about that; brands need to function as publishers, publishers need to function as brands. Anyways, so thanks for bringing that to us, Sarah.
Of course, well thank you so much for having me, David. I really appreciate it.