Short North Cup o' Joe — Matthew Russo works with systems, technology, marketing and design as Vice President of Design & Product Development at 30 Lines. He’s also the founder of Blast Brand and Social Auto Leads, a co-founder of ChatterJet, and the author of Systems for Growth, a blog that helps business owners stop wasting time and start making impact.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Matthew Russo and while I don’t have an official title, I work in the digital space, so anything that touches a website or the internet in general. It could be anything from building the information architecture of a website, to designing the user interfaces, to linking them up to other systems, such as email and social media. Everything in that world.
How did you get into this line of work?
It was a roundabout kind of way. I went to school at the University of Cincinnati and studied Industrial Design, which is anything from shoes to furniture to cars; really it’s anything that’s three dimensional. I wanted to go to school for graphic design, because I was always interested in the way things look from an aesthetic view. But I found my way into industrial and that really opened my eyes to how things work. There are a lot of processes behind how you manufacture a table or a car tire, which are obviously very different things.
While I was in school I wanted to become a car designer, which led to a studio with Dodge. Those guys came down from Detroit to look at our work and critique it, which was good for us because we were getting input from the best designers in the world, and it was good for them because they were basically recruiting the top talent to go work for them once we graduated. But right before I graduated I decided that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.
As I fell away from that, I then ended up designing indoor water parks across the country. I don’t know if you remember the craze about six or seven years ago when they were popping up all over the place. Developers were attaching them to hotels, just like the Fort Rapids that’s off I-70. Architects would go in and build these big structures and our company would go in and theme out the inside of them.
Along that same time I was doing more and more stuff online. I was heading up the marketing for a local nonprofit (SNAP! Performance Productions), working to help them generate buzz, tinkering around on websites, and one thing led to another. I jumped on Twitter in 2008, which is where I saw the job opening for BULX.com, a high end home improvement flash sale site. I created an online video for part of my application and they really liked it.
Soon after, I joined BULX.com as the Director of Online Marketing and Social Media. It was a start-up out of Tech Columbus, and there were only four of us in there who were in charge of the marketing and technology side. We had a partner in Chicago who was in charge of all the products. Everyday we’d have high end sinks, faucets, toilets, and rugs to sell for the home. We would get them at really deep discounts and they would be on sale anywhere from 40-80% off. Our team in Columbus was in charge of acquiring new members, loading all of the product into the site, and sending out the daily email for the sale.
We pretty quickly saw that we were acquiring customers much faster than our partner in Chicago was acquiring products, so our runway got really short, really quickly. We grew from zero members to over twenty thousand over the course of eight and a half months and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue. We had this base of people expecting emails every day, but we didn’t always have something to sell them.
That must have been an unexpected problem, since no one ever plans for too many customers.
Right, exactly. BULX.com was eventually sold to a liquidator in New York, so they have access to a nearly unlimited supply of product to sell. I don't know what their growth strategy looks like today, but at the time it was a perfect fit. They had lots of product to move and they wanted a new audience for it, and we had a big audience we needed product for - so the acquisition made a lot of sense.
My first introduction to your work was the fundraising campaign that you did for your friend Lindsay. Not only was the cause worthwhile, but the messaging was compelling. It had depth that really pulled me into it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Previous to that, had you undertaken anything of that scope?
It’s funny that you mention scope because there was never any plan to make it some massive initiative that gained national recognition. Eventually, it turned into something much bigger than I expected and was a little more work, but that was never the goal.
The entire campaign was literally an idea I came up with for a friend where I thought, “This is a story that people need to hear” and “I think I can make a difference in her life.”
Lindsay was a longtime friend who I was introduced to after moving back from Cincinnati. When she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, it totally blindsided her, her husband, and all of their family because she was so young (only 27 at the time), active, and didn’t have any family history of the disease.
After battling cancer for nearly two years, she and her husband Tony decided they had waited long enough to start their family. They had been proactive about it before Lindsay started all the cancer treatments, but when it came time to start, the only option they had was to go through a surrogate. Because that process is so expensive (anywhere from $60,000 - $80,000, without using a surrogacy agency), I felt I could do something to help. I thought, “If money is the only thing standing between this awesome couple, who has already gone through so much, and their dream of having a family, there’s got to be something I can do to help them.”
Over the course of those four months leading up to the full marathon I ran in her honor, we ended up raising almost $28,000. And their son just had his first birthday party last month, which is awesome.
It’s interesting because some of the nonprofit work that I had been doing tied into the messaging and how I thought through the story I wanted to tell for Lindsay. But, how can you make it compelling enough for other people to care?
At the time I was training for a half marathon and I thought, “Yeah, I think I can do the full marathon.” Literally, while I was out on a training run, I had the idea to make a website for her and then turn this into something bigger. I met with the couple to tell them about my idea, and they loved it.
I looped in Eric Leslie from OnScene Productions, who put together the video, which really was the focal point of the whole thing. It helped tell their story in a beautiful way and inspiring way.
It was my job to help get the word out, to start with the friends and family and let it spread from there. It was cool to literally see the story spread once people watched the video. Eventually, 69% percent of all the website traffic came from social media. People came to the site, saw the video, and were then compelled to donate to the cause and share it with their connections.
That is the dream for a lot of people who manage brands.
I think it’s something a lot of brands take for granted, or maybe don’t understand. If you build something from scratch and just expect people to show up, it’s probably not going to happen, even if it’s really well optimized for search.
You need that base of early adopters to get the ball rolling, so I started with friends and family.
It was perfect; a lot of my friends and family already knew Lindsay so it was the perfect tie to get them to spread the message. So I started local, close to home and let is spread from there. We had some tactics to build on that experience, too. Anyone who donated was added to an email list so we could keep them updated with the progress. We then used that base of people to help get the word out about other initiatives.
Do you remember what happened with Giuliana Rancic? We sent out a group email to everyone who already donated and asked, “Hey, do you want to help us reach out to this A-list celebrity?” And overwhelmingly people responded, “Hell yeah, I already donated. I’d like to help further this along.”
So I created a pre-populated tweet (using ClickToTweet.com) that everyone tweeted at her. Guilianna got 20 or so of the same tweets at 8 in the morning, and by 9AM she then sent out an awesome tweet and a link to her then 800,000 followers on Twitter, and that day blew up for the campaign.
There’s an interesting learning point to this. Her tweet sent 7,000 visitors to the site that day, at a time when we only had 6,500 hundred visitors leading up to that day. Those visitors (and I’m using air-quotes) “only” donated twelve or fifteen hundred dollars that day - which is awesome and we were really grateful for - but proportionally they should have donated much more based on how much people had been donating up to that point.
Again, that is a testament to people who are close to your message versus complete strangers. Everybody thinks that because it’s online and because it’s spread worldwide means the money is going to come pouring in. It’s actually easier to go through close friends and family than to spread the message to everybody and assume that it’s all going to come flowing in.
Is Lindsay cancer free?
She’s not. She’s still battling it every day. Her breast cancer spread to her back. For a while, they had it pretty well contained but she is battling through some pretty tough stuff again. She is so strong and has been kicking its ass for the past 5 years. If anyone can beat it for good, it’s her.
In the meantime, they are living their lives and I feel like I did my part to help contribute what I could. They are awesome people. I have no doubt they are going to get through it, but it is still a challenge. It’s a daily struggle for sure.
Good luck to her and her family through this still trying experience.
Was Blast Brand your first solo foray into digital strategy and marketing?
Yes, it was. When BULX.com was in the process of being acquired, I had to figure out what I wanted to do next. I knew it wasn’t going to be a nine to five at some big company, so I started my own company, which is Blast Brand.
At the same time I started working with Mike Whaling over at 30 Lines. It was just him when we started working together. I had a handful of clients that I acquired through Blast Brand, and he was looking for help because he had clients of his own that he was looking to grow. We have been working in tandem since. I have always maintained my clients, but I am now spending the majority of my time at 30 Lines. We are up to a team of eight full-time people, so that has grown significantly.
It’s interesting because there’s obviously a lot of overlap with what we provide and how we approach things, but our audiences are very different. Mike grew out of the multi-family apartment industry, so we build a lot of websites and do a lot of email marketing and social media for apartment communities in Columbus, Chicago, Florida, California, and up and down the East Coast. That is where I focus a lot of my time with him.
We are also working on a really cool project to integrate our front-end marketing sites (which we build with WordPress), to the real time data from multi-family apartment complexes. In the industry, a lot of websites are built by what are essentially accounting companies, who provide software to manage the rent and the people who are living within these communities.
They said, “Wow, we have all this data, so we should become marketing companies too.” As a result they have these divisions that sell websites to integrate with their accounting software, but they approach it like an accounting company. They don’t have the marketing chops or the digital awareness of how websites should work or what the best practices are on the web. Yes, they are functioning websites, but they’re only now working towards making responsive websites, which has been the standard for several years now.
We approach it from the other side: What are best practices online? How can we drive traffic to the site? How can we increase the number of people who are requesting more information or applying on those websites? How can we do some cool, fun stuff to keep the funnel filled for these apartment websites?
We are building the integration in-between these front-end marketing sites and where all the data lives for real-time availability, pricing, and other metrics. It’s a WordPress plugin and it’s going to be pretty cool.
Do these accounting companies provide APIs?
Some of them.
Most of the websites I’ve seen for apartment complexes are terrible, so there’s obviously a market there to improve upon the model.
Yes. There are a handful of those providers currently, and some of their websites and documentation are better than others. Recently, one of them has been changing their API and we actually found out about it before some of their employees did. The feeds on a couple of our websites broke, and when our client asked us, “What’s going on?” we said, “OK, we’ll call this provider and see what’s up.” We called and they said, “Oh yeah, looks like the API changed. I guess we are going to scramble to put some documentation together about the fixes you guys need to make.” So that’s a lot of fun.
The joys of making websites that depend on third party data, right?
Exactly. There’s a ton of information to parse through, so it’s part of the challenge and opportunity. We need to figure out what to display on the back-end for our clients, while also considering how that ties into the front-end experience for potential renters.
Neat. Good luck!
I’ll keep you posted. It’s a fun challenge.
So you have a lot of projects [laughing]. Could you give me a quick rundown of each? You’ve got ChatterJet. You’ve got Systems for Growth. And you’ve got Social Auto Leads. Am I forgetting any?
None of the top level stuff, no.
How many burners do you have?
For example, Bryce Thornton and I built ChatterJet after learning about the social media challenges that face small to medium-sized businesses. They kept telling me, “We know we should be doing social media, but we don’t know what the heck we should be doing. We also don’t know how to do it ourselves and we don’t have a big budget to pay for it.”
So with those three hypotheses, I said to Bryce, “Is there a way to automate and deliver custom content to these small businesses on an ongoing basis? How can we do it in a way that makes some money, too?” We built ChatterJet under those assumptions, but there’s also some limitations that we didn’t realize until we got into it.
We initially thought that it would be perfect for any small business, no matter what they do, but pretty quickly we learned that if you are a dry cleaner, social media probably isn’t not a great fit. This ties back to the messaging from the For Lindsay campaign. Who is really going to talk about dry cleaning? Who is doing the messaging behind that? Who’s really getting excited that their shirts are being well pressed? It’s more of a utility.
The other big piece is that the price point is so low that it doesn’t necessarily justify the time and money was being spent on social media for businesses like that. We would have dry cleaners sign up and they would say, “There aren’t a lot of people talking about dry cleaning on social media right now. Nobody is sharing our stuff, and it doesn’t make sense for us to just be posting stuff,” which I absolutely agree with.
Some of the other lessons I learned from ChatterJet led me to Social Auto Leads. If you can find products or services that people love talking about, that they are emotional about, and that have a high enough price point to justify the time and energy being spent on social media, then it makes sense to focus on that, which is what we did with Social Auto Leads.
Next, we looked at all the social media profiles for dealerships across the country and we realized that most of them are filled with horrible, awful stuff that nobody interacts with.
From a marketing checklist standpoint they are on Facebook, they are on Twitter, they are on Pinterest; but from a customer’s standpoint nobody is interacting with them. We said, “We can do this better,” so we started this as a service for auto groups and told them, “Hey, there is already a group of people online who are talking about their cars. We think we can start conversations with those people near your dealership. We think we can send you traffic and leads if it’s done right. So what do you say?”
So now we have clients in Columbus and Indianapolis. We are in talks with groups in New York and California, which is great, so the potential is there.
For the groups we’ve been working with over the last few months, we’ve already hit really great goals and not just on the impressions side, either. Everybody likes to see big, flashy numbers. For example, we generated 130,000 brand impressions on Twitter over the last three months for our local client alone.
But for me, it ultimately comes back to how many people are we sending through your dealership’s doors? How much traffic are we sending to your website? Those are the two focal points, especially on the website side, which is the focal point of your online presence. If we can do those two things everything else falls into place. Gaining followers is great, but that shouldn’t be the goal. Impressions shouldn’t be the goal and “Likes” shouldn’t be the goal, either. As we like to say, “Likes don’t sell cars. We do.”
We have been thinking about some cool opportunities to build for Social Auto Leads. There is an opportunity to take that model and expand it to other industries, too.
What are your thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of most brands with regards to their digital strategy?
A lot of companies don’t know who their audience is, or who they are going after, or what they’re trying to achieve. They’re just reacting - looking at what everyone else is doing without understanding how it all works or ties together - and then launching things and expecting big results.
The code and the design is the easy part now. The challenge is finding an audience that actually cares and is willing to pay for your product because it delivers value to their organization.
Especially with newer companies or start-ups, they thrash around and try to figure out what their product market fit is. So they spend a lot of time spinning their wheels and mistakenly thinking that “We just need to produce, to ship, and get our product out the door.” If they had a better understanding of who their client or prospective customer is and spent time talking to them to figure out what their challenges are, they would then have an easier time getting that product to the market.
There’s a ton of research about when it’s time to scale and when it’s time to put your head down and roll the product out, in the start-up space specifically. I won’t go into that, but if they spent more time talking to people, instead of putting their head down coding for a year because that is not what it’s about. The code and the design is the easy part now. The challenge is finding an audience that actually cares and is willing to pay for your product because it delivers value to their organization.
Telling your story in a compelling way, so that people are more willing to share it. I think that is the most interesting part to me right now. It’s not a problem with all brands, but a lot of brands need help. It such a competition right now to differentiate. We fight that, too. Not that we are struggling to find work, it’s the total opposite right now. But when there are a lot of people in town and across the country who have similar skill sets, you need to be very clear about what makes you different and the value you provide.
What are your Systems for Growth. Are there systems in your life, in your career?
Systems for Growth is my dumping ground for everything I’ve got going on in my head. I stumbled upon systems thinking a couple years ago. The basic premise is how do you piece everything together from a bigger picture standpoint, instead of just looking at individual elements. It’s how we approach our online presence, as well.
For example, clients often come to us and say, “Hey, we want help with our social media.” We look at their overall presence and we respond, “Actually, your website is a train wreck and you don’t even have an email service provider set up. There are all these other ideas you could be working on. Let’s table the social media and take care of some bigger picture items before spending time and money on things that aren’t going to move the needle.”
Systems for Growth is my personal blog where I put my thoughts about how to approach, not only online systems, but eventually time management and financial systems as well. It’s my playground to dump my thoughts and experiment with this way of thinking.
I recently presented some of my thoughts from the blog at the Ohio Growth Summit in a session called “Why Building Bridges is Better Than Building Islands”. The blog isn’t really something I really have to do on top of everything else, since it ties into everything I’m working on already. As a result, it gives me a place to collect my thoughts and share them with others.
Speaking of family, you and your wife have a daughter?
I’m sure your lives have changed in the past year. How do you manage work and life balance?
Yes, it has. It has made me aware of how I spend my time at home and made me better at drawing borders between when I should be working and when I shouldn’t. It is very easy for us in the online world to think, “Hey, I’ve got a laptop and a connection, so I could be working right now.”
There's obviously value in disconnecting and spending time with family, old friends, and new connections. That has been the biggest change. When I get home, I am at home until my daughter goes to bed at least. Then, if I can put my head down for an hour or two at night, that’s fine. If I’m with her or my wife, that is what I’m focusing on.
What is your typical work day? Is there a typical work day?
Yeah, I am more of a morning person now that I have a daughter who wakes up around 6:15 AM. So coming to coffee wasn't so bad this morning, which is great.
My day typically starts with spending time with my family for an hour or so. Then, I get ready and come into the office, where I’ll write for a bit, either for Systems for Growth or some of the other places I contribute, such as my small column for The Metropreneur. Then, I jump into email and see if there’s anything urgent and compare it to what’s on the agenda for the day. I figure out all the stuff that I need to get done this week. Then I divvy up and prioritize my work for the rest of the day. In the evening, I go home and spend some time with my family. If there’s any lingering stuff or any planning for the next day or the remainder of the week, I do that.
Any hobbies when you have some free time?
[Laughing] I have free time.
Do you still run?
Yes, I do. I’m currently training for the BTN Big 10K in Chicago, which is fun. Awhile back I wrote an article about how you can create more time in your life with the word “and”. I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can do two things at once or three things at once. It’s not so much a multi-tasking concept, as much as it’s, “What things can I do that I value in life that pair well together?”
One of the things that I like to do is run, right? So how can I bring my family into that? Recently, I’ve been training by pushing my daughter in her running stroller (which she loves), and I’ve got a goal to run a number of races across the country. But instead of travelling to these races by myself, why not bring my family with me so we get to spend time together? I get to achieve some individual goals, spend quality time with my family, and see some new cities in the meantime.
For example, I ran the Nashville Half Maration in April. We have the Chicago race coming up in a few weeks. We also get to spend time with friends. We went down to Nashville with my brother and his girlfriend. When we go to Chicago we’ll spend some time with some friends from high school. It’s nice to see the country, do some fun stuff, and eat some good food too.
I just recently went to Nashville this past spring and I really enjoyed it.
Had you been there before?
No, I had not. Living in Columbus, it’s far enough away, but it’s still approachable. You don’t need to buy a plane ticket, plus it doesn’t break the bank. It’s the same thing with Chicago.
My wife and I have a general rule. Every year for our anniversary, we go somewhere new. We’ve been to Niagara Falls and Washington D.C. We actually did Detroit last year, which is only a three hour drive from Columbus, but we’d never been there. It was awesome. We have a rule to check out as much stuff close by. We haven’t been to Indianapolis, even though it’s right across the border, so we are going to do that soon. There’s so much opportunity nearby that we take for granted. People have these big aspirations like “I need to go to Europe. And I need to go to Southeast Asia.” I’m like, “Why don’t you drive six hours and go see St. Louis?”
Yeah, you may not even know your own country.
Yeah for sure.
Do you have any clients that you are really excited about?
They are all interesting in their own regard. It’s less about individual clients and more about determining if what they’re trying to achieve is interesting and worth our time.
It’s also about figuring out what their digital presence can and should look like. You need to have a website. You need to be doing email. I like to to take the approach of: this is your situation, this is the story you want to tell, these are your goals, this is the audience you are trying to reach - let’s figure out which levers to pull that are going to get you the most impact or bang for your buck.
Should you be doing everything online? Probably, eventually. To me it usually doesn’t make sense to set all these different platforms up, and then press go, just to see it wither away because you don’t have the resources to get it where it needs to be. Why don’t we start with the website and run a Twitter campaign or do some social listening to validate you ideas? Once that’s working, what can we add on next so that it’s building on itself and you aren’t killing yourself in the process. Customizing that approach for each client is what’s most interesting for me.
Today, it’s teaming up with people who have good stories to tell and who want to make an impact on the world is more interesting to me than someone coming to me with some money and saying, “We have this budget. Can you build something for us?”
I am getting more selective on the types of projects I work on. When you are just starting out you take anything. The quantity breeds quality kind of stuff. Today, it’s teaming up with people who have good stories to tell and who want to make an impact on the world is more interesting to me than someone coming to me with some money and saying, “We have this budget. Can you build something for us?” Yes, we can build that for you, but what is it going to do in the long term? That is the question I keep in the back of my head.
What is next for you personally, professionally? For Blast Brand or 30 Lines?
My goal is always to keep growing, both on the personal level and business level. It comes back on the business side to making an impact. What can we do at scale so that we aren’t all over the place all the time? We fight this a lot internally because a.), we know how to do it all now and we see how that puzzle fits together and b.) our clients want it all.
It’s the groupthink of clients hearing about things online, “Vine is the new cool thing. All the kids are on Snapchat. Why don't we do something over there?”
It’s really easy for us to say that sounds fun, so let’s go try that out, without thinking about how that impacts our work flow internally or our client’s bottom lines. But it’s our job to ask the tough questions like, “Why do you think that’ll work for your organization” and “What do you hope to achieve with it?”
That’s not to say that we don’t like experimenting or we don’t like trying new things. Certain things work because they are new. Now, let’s figure out how to make them work for a lot of people, so that we can spend time providing value in an efficient way, instead of spinning our wheels, trying everything all over the place, and not seeing much progress from that.