Great modern marketers are defined, perhaps more than anything, by their resiliency and agility.
They stay on their toes, ready to pivot and adjust amid constantly changing conditions. They have the ambition and openness to try new things, never boxing themselves in. They stay motivated and optimistic even in the face of enormous challenges and setbacks.
Shana Bull embodies so many of these qualities.
She started her own social media marketing business back in 2009 and has ridden it through the seismic change and evolution of a decade-plus in the space. She channels her passion into her work with a focus on the hospitality industry — restaurants, hotels, and especially wineries.
In addition to the general difficulty and disruption of a pandemic over the past year, Shana also dealt with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Rather than letting it knock her out of action, she used the downtime as an opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream: writing a book. It will publish soon, with a co-writing credit to her young son.
Shana inspires us, and is one of many brilliant marketing minds worth keeping an eye on. She was kind enough to dive a little deeper into her career path and her views on how brands can better build connections through social media during an in-depth interview.
Photo: Loren Hansen
LinkedIn: Tell us about your marketing story, and how you got to where you’re at today.
Shana Bull: To cut a long story short, I worked at several marketing and PR agencies before I started my own business back in 2009. I started my own business simply because it was a recession and I couldn’t find work. I began teaching classes on social media within the hospitality industry (i.e., wineries, restaurants, and hotels) for Sonoma Tourism. A one-hour class on connecting on Twitter and Facebook led to my social media consulting career, where I taught marketing managers best practices for social media and I would run social media accounts for brands.
Twelve years later, I have shifted the focus from one-on-one consulting back to classes and downloadable social media resources. In addition, when I had my son five years ago, I started writing as a freelancer for publications on wine, food, travel, parenting, and digital marketing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost a few of those gigs, and in the summer of 2020, I found out I had anal cancer. While I was bedridden and going through cancer treatments, I pivoted my career path even more by publishing my first children’s book called Randall the Blue Spider Goes Surfing. I co-authored it with my toddler (when he was two) and it is coming out in late April at randallthebluespider.com.
I honestly would never have published a book about a surfing spider named Randall if it weren’t for both the pandemic and cancer forcing me to take a step back from my everyday job of writing, consulting, and educating marketers. I am now 7+ months out of treatment and feeling great and excited for this new chapter in my marketing story.
LI: What is exciting you most right now in the world of social media marketing?
Shana: When I first started teaching classes on social media, it was all about creating connections and having conversations with people through tweets or public Facebook pages (no Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook brand pages back then, and LinkedIn was mostly an online résumé — not a robust social network for business purposes like it is now).
For many years, the emphasis on curating a perfect Instagram feed took focus away from the real purpose of “social” media: the social aspect. What excites me most right now in terms of digital marketing is that we’ve come back to realizing the importance of connections.
During my cancer treatments, I didn’t have the option of sharing “pretty pictures” on my business Instagram account at @sharayray from my bed, but I did still make time to connect with people across the digital space.
I think many social media marketers are realizing that creating daily content is exhausting, and that the true beauty in the social media space is the connections you make with your community.
It is those connections that help brands get through times of crisis, be it pandemics or wildfires.
LI: What are some valuable lessons that B2B marketers can learn from wine, food, and hospitality industries, where you’ve specialized?
Shana: The importance of connections transcends all industries, and social media is just another form of keeping up relationships with leads and current customers.
Before meeting someone, you can utilize social media to get to know them a little bit. And then after you meet them, maybe in person or through a Zoom happy hour, you can use social media to continue the relationship. Message them afterward and keep engaging.
In addition to creating long-term relationships, you can also build your brand and be thought of as a leader in your industry by sharing information across your social media platforms. Host live videos with others in your industry, create your own blog posts, and answer questions when they come up.
Even though the hospitality industry may be consumer-driven, my personal business is B2B, and I’m talking to other business owners and marketers on a daily basis. I make it a point to practice what I preach when it comes to social media, so you’ll see me engaging more than I share and trying to be as helpful as I can be online.
LI: Where do you see the big opportunities for modern marketers to infuse more color, humor, or “sass” into their approaches?
Shana: As I have gotten older and wiser as an entrepreneur, I have become more “myself” online — the person you see online is the same human you would meet in person.
And that person is sassy and not as polished as I thought I needed to be back in my twenties.
Also, the type of brands I personally gravitate toward don’t take their social media marketing efforts too seriously. At the end of the day, people like doing business with brands with which they connect and feel they share similar core values.
Human beings also tend to connect with those who have a similar sense of humor, so adding FUN helps to humanize your marketing efforts. In fact, there was a great 8-minute podcast from NPR on this! Brand-appropriate humor is good for business.
So my recommendation to brands on social media is to show your face, take people behind the scenes, and have fun!
Photo: Loren Hansen
LI: The last year has obviously been a turbulent one for society, with COVID lockdowns and civil unrest stemming from George Floyd’s killing. What do you view as the biggest challenges, changes, or lessons of the past 12 months from a marketing standpoint?
Shana: Throughout my career, I’ve mostly worked with hospitality businesses, and as we know the tourism industry has arguably been hit the most since the pandemic. There is an opportunity over the next several months for businesses to utilize social media to build trust with their customers. Share behind-the-scenes of what they are doing to keep customers and employees safe and set expectations for what they could expect. All of these can help customers ease any anxieties of going back out in public after a year of social distancing.
In addition, there has been a shift over the past few years with customers who want to spend their money with brands that they feel share similar values to themselves. This trend has definitely become accelerated due to so much civil unrest and watching businesses go under at no fault of their own.
We have seen many businesses use their voices across social media to talk about the issues that matter to them. And in addition to simply being good for people in general, that is good for business.
According to the Silicon Valley Bank State of the U.S. Wine Industry 2021 report, millennial wine-drinkers (people in their late twenties up to their late thirties) and Generation Z wine-drinkers (age 21 to mid-20s) look for brands that share their values of sustainability and making the world a better place through social justice.
And for these consumers, it is more than a black square on Instagram. It is making sure that the values that businesses talk about online are actually a part of their everyday lives.
While there may be challenges right now, the more marketers align their values with their business practices and social media marketing efforts, they can make a positive social impact, and connect with customers who share these values.
LI: What content is giving you life right now?
Shana: Tastemade on Instagram is one of my favorite accounts. Of course, they have delicious recipes and photos, but what I love about their page is their Instagram Story games. They do a great job of sponsored posts that are interactive and fun for users who happen to love food like I do. In the middle of all of the fun, they throw in an ad from a sponsor that feels natural, not forced.
LI: Looking at the rest of the 2021 and beyond, what energizes you most from a digital marketing standpoint?
Shana: What has kept me in business for 12-plus years is the fact that social media marketing is always changing. As of now, I am excited to dive into relationships I have with people through short-form video and going live on social networks.
The concept of putting myself out there by sharing pictures of me, going live, and shooting Instagram Reels or LinkedIn stories is relatively new. I’m trying to inspire others to do the same, because I understand the insecurities of showing up on video — but I’m doing it anyway because it works!
LI: What’s something a business colleague or peer in the industry did over the past year that helped or inspired you?
Shana: I’ve been inspired by a lot of wineries, restaurants, and retailers who have continued to share their story on social media throughout this past year. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, and when you are, it makes your community feel more connected because they trust and like you even more.
Robert Biale Vineyard in Napa has done a great job on both Instagram and Facebook with taking people behind the scenes of what’s going on at the winery.
Fair Trade USA shares so much great information about the worldwide food industry in their LinkedIn Page, and I always try to check out the podcast they share when their marketing director is a part of it.
LI: Any final thoughts?
Shana: This past year has definitely been hard on many people for a multitude of reasons. But it’s been really inspiring to see people reaching out and helping each other (mostly online, but in person as well). I hope that sense of community persists after we all open back up.
And don’t be afraid to try new things. Like I mentioned earlier, if it weren’t for the pandemic and cancer, I would’ve never had the time to focus on a children’s book. But pretty soon I’m going to be able to check off a bucket list item of being a published author before I hit 40 later this year.
And when it comes to social media marketing: focus on connections, plan your content out in advance, drive people to a lead magnet on your website (so you can capture their email addresses, just like I did with shanabull.com/daily-checklist), and live/share your values.
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