Interview of Muhammad Saleem, Social Media Expert

After seeing the rapid rise of Tip'd, I figured it would be a good idea to interview Muhammad Saleem, a social media addict who knows social media both from site manager and site participant perspectives. You can follow him on Twitter.

How did you get into social media?

I got into social media by reading James Surowiecki's Wisdom of the Crowds. I think it's one of the best books written so far on the topic. The lessons from that book and Gladwell's The Tipping Point are essential for anyone who truly wants to understand social, collaborative media, and viral marketing.

Some friends I know who have been actively involved in social media got burned out quickly. How do you keep it interesting after years of experience?

I think its important to love the fundamentals of social media, be interested in the relationships and conversations, and the theory behind it. If you're genuinely interested then you won't get bored, in fact, I read 2-3 books a month on the topic and each one makes me appreciate it even more (I'm currently reading Groundswell).

On larger sites is social media largely a game of reciprocal voting, or is there something deeper to it?

I think a lot of people misunderstand what reciprocal voting really is. Consider this, people that are friends usually have similar interests and preferences (hence they bond and are friends), and when you have similar interests and preferences, of course there is going to be a large degree of voting for each others content. Keeping that in mind, I really don't see this as you rub my back and I'll rub yours, it's more like we share the same interests, we are friends, and naturally vote on each others submissions.

When there are thousands of people hunting for stories how do you manage to find new ones that have not yet been discussed? Do publishers give you exclusives?

There are definitely people who message me and say 'Hey, do you think this story would do well on Digg (or StumbleUpon, or...), and since they are friends or acquaintances, if the content is good, I see no reason why it shouldn't get exposure. Apart from that, I really don't have to 'hunt' for content much. I usually find most of my submissions when I'm just browsing my favorite websites and other social news sites.

From talking to friends it seems there is a lot of payola in social media. What percent of the top 100 and top 1000 contributors to sites like Digg, Reddit, Propeller, and StumbleUpon engage in payola?

There is quite a bit of payola that goes on but fortunately that's all short-term because the sites and users get banned pretty quickly. I routinely get some pretty spammy emails about payola and without exception I forward them to and let them deal with it.

How heavy is the user overlap amongst the big social media sites?

The user overlap is pretty heavy in terms of registrations but it's not that heavy in terms of activity. For example, most of the top users on Digg are also on StumbleUpon and Reddit, but Digg is their primary social news activity, and they participate much less on the others. The same is the case for many top Stumblers and Reddit users, they will be on multiple sites but use them much less than their primary community.

How does a person decide if social media should be a core part of their marketing strategy?

It all depends on what your conversion goals are and what vertical you're in. For example, if you're trying to get affiliate sales, make money from advertisement, get newsletter (or other) subscriptions, and so on, social news is probably the worst place you could go because most of those users have adblock plus installed and have a severe case of banner blindness. You should consider the following: your demographic, their social technographics profile, their interests and preferences, and your conversion goals before deciding if social media should be part of your online marketing strategy. Even then, most people default to Digg - social news is just one aspect, don't forget social networking, online video, online communities and forums, and so on.

What sort of marketing tips would you give to a person who said that their site simply did not fit existing social media sites?

People focus too much on social media sites and often have too narrow a definition of the term (i.e. social news - Digg). First of all, I doubt that 'social media' wont work for any niche, there is always rudimentary stuff like sharing content on microblogging or aggregator sites (Twitter and FriendFeed) or social networks (Facebook). And if that doesn't work, go back to the basics and participate in your blogging community, which is something you should be doing anyway. Work with other bloggers in your niche to increase both your audience and give them exposure.

When Tip'd launched you got a lot of coverage from bloggers. What was key to making that happen? Were you surprised with that level of coverage?

We didn't hire a PR firm or write up an official press release. Instead we reached out to people who we had relationships with and asked them if they could do a write-up, and only approached sites whose audience would enjoy the coverage. Actually I was personally a bit disappointed with the coverage. It seems I gave too much credit to some 'pundits' and 'gurus' who ultimately didn't have the foresight to appreciate why Tip'd is an important development in the social space.

What were some of the biggest keys to getting Tip'd up and growing?

There are several important considerations. The site has to function properly and has to be simple enough so that Joe non-techie can use it but also robust enough that more tech-savvy users can enjoy it. It has to score high on design, usability, and branding. You need to have a good pitch to draw people in. And finally you need to build relationships with publishers in the space. We were able to avoid the 'chicken and egg problem' of "no one wants to participate if there is no existing community, but you can't build a community if no one participates" by building and leveraging relationships with key players in the personal finance and financial news blogosphere.

What is the biggest mistake you feel you guys have made with Tip'd so far?

I don't think we've made any missteps so far. If the is limited in anyway, it's because we have decided to build, market, and grow it entirely ourselves and without taking funding from anyone. Think about this, it is a bootstrapped operation that started with $25,000 in funding, took 3 weeks to launch, and didn't push for any pr. Even with all that, our growth rate and the feedback is largely positive. Just yesterday a marketer messaged me and said "even with 24 votes, a front page story on Tip'd sent me 100 visitors, while with 75 votes on Mixx, they only send about 25 visitors." If a site with $25,000 in funding is already driving a larger audience than one with $3.5 million in funding and relationships with mainstream media, I think we've come a long way in three months.

Many niche social news sites have come to market. How many of these do you think will be successful and still around 5 years from now? What will separate those that succeed from those that fail?

I don't think even 25% of them will succeed. The problem, I believe, is that they are all self-centered and don't have a forward thinking vision. What will separate the successes from the failures is a focus on the site's own community, but also relationships with publishers. Community participation is one aspect of growth on social news sites, but people really underestimate how big a role online publishers and marketers play.

Published: January 7, 2009 by Aaron Wall in interviews


January 8, 2009 - 2:26pm

Great interview!

I have a lot of respect for Muhammad because despite his celebrity status, he was willing to take time out of his schedule to chat with me and show me the ropes a few years ago.

That kind of humility and altruism goes a long way in the social media space, as evidenced by his stature in the industry.

January 9, 2009 - 3:49pm

this is the same thing i can see with Aaron. It really feels nice to see people being one of the top in their respective industries being so down to earth that anyone has access to them. I feel this will go a long way in bringing them more success in the future.


Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.