How to go viral, by the 25-year-old CEO rewriting the rules of social media

We asked Steven Bartlett, founder of The Social Chain Group, for his tips on how to break the internet, eliminate stress and grow a successful business without selling out

Steven Bartlett is not your average CEO. At 16 he was expelled from school, after spending all his time and energy launching his first business. After that, he went to university, but promptly dropped out to focus on launching a new business focused on students, a move that would set the foundations for the phenomenally successful media agency he’d go on to launch.

At just 25, he’s now the founder and CEO of The Social Chain Group, the UK’s fastest growing and arguably most exciting social media marketing agency. The company, which was founded in 2014 and is renowned for its youth-targeted, highly disruptive social campaigns, has grown at breakneck speed, from 30 employees to 250 in 3 years. The business now turns over more than £9 million a year, with offices in London, Berlin and New York. Incredibly, the average employee age is just 21.

"Steven Bartlett is not your average CEO..."

Clients such as Spotify, ASOS, Sky and BBC have turned to Bartlett and his agency to connect with millions of previously hard-to-reach consumers, in particular social media addicted millennials and Generation Zs that many other agencies have tried – and failed – to engage with.

We caught up with the multi-award winning entrepreneur in his brand new New York office to find out what makes him tick, how to create viral content, and what advice he’d give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to emulate his radical success.

How to go viral, by the 25-year-old CEO rewriting the rules of social media

Why did you decide to focus your agency on social media?

When I was starting out, I was trying to get people to come to a student website. I tried flyering, I tried putting posters up, taking an ad out. Then I realised, when I was handing people flyers, they were preoccupied with the palm of their hand – their phone – so I started to investigate that. I went to Dominos and got 100 pizza vouchers, and gave every student a pizza voucher, in return for a screenshot of the settings section in their phone, which shows where they spend all their time. The answer was social media. So, to own people’s attention, this was where I had to be.

Is there a secret to creating social media content that people will love?

The most fundamental principle of any social content is to make people feel something. The amount of stuff that you see that makes people feel totally indifferent is huge, I’d say 85-90%. Indifference is the enemy, especially in social marketing. Messages online only travel if there is engagement, and that is spread by emotion.

How to go viral, by the 25-year-old CEO rewriting the rules of social media

What is the best way to reach a lot of people on social media?

Emotionally leverage cultural moments. Take Donald Trump. He is someone that popped into the world at a time when xenophobia was at an all time high, and he came in with a message that emotionally leveraged culture – that we’re going to ban all of these people. He said inflammatory things at a time when culture really cared about those things, and that’s like putting a match into a drum of gasoline. Trump delivered 17 times the reach on Twitter alone than Clinton’s much more vanilla message.

Which social media channels interest you the most?

I’m not bothered about Snapchat. I don’t think they have a strong enough USP to protect their audience. Facebook is here to stay but not very interesting at the moment. Podcasting is super interesting, and we’re investing heavily. LinkedIn is also underused – if you’re trying to build your personal brand, Linkedin is something you should use. Linkedin is where Facebook was in 2012, where reach is ridiculous, but that will change, so enjoy the arbitrage while you can. Also, Twitch [a live video game streaming site] is having a real moment.

Will Facebook suffer from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal?

No, I dont think it will make a difference at all. The consumer doesn’t make their decisions based on how safe data on their name and date of birth is. People consider the value that they’re getting from the service more important than that my name and profile photo is sold. My controversial opinion is that the whole Cambridge Analytica thing is a load of bullshit. The media caught onto a story, and convinced the public that something bad had happened, but nobody really knows what’s happened. If you ask the average person what they think happened, they’ll say ‘I was targeted ads about Trump.’ But you’ve been targeted ads that try to make you do things for the last decade!

What’s the one book you’d give to any aspiring entrpreneur?

How To Win Friends And Influence People. I genuinely believe the single most important thing in the world is the ability to sell. The only thing stopping me or you from being the Prime Minister of the UK, or the richest salesperson in the land, or the best philanthropist the world has ever seen, is a bunch of people we have to convince of our opinions.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever had?

‘Everything happens for a reason.’ That’s the worst thing to ever believe. It’s a dangerous state of mind that there’s another force that’s controlling your life and you’re just there for the ride. What that does is it takes control away from you, it makes your control external. I am where I am because of me. If I lose all my money and go bankrupt, that’s because of me. That mindset allows me to learn. If you say everything happens for a reason, you’re closing the door to information and learning that might just prevent you from fucking up again.

What’s the best investment you’ve ever made?

Investing in people. I respond to every message I ever get on Instagram and LinkedIn. Although these people can’t do anything for me, it has a crazy way of paying dividends long term. Even if someone in my office is having a bad day, I always like to take them out for coffee or buy them flowers, even though there’s no return on me doing that. Caring about people pays off in the long term.

How do you deal with stress?

I don’t like the word ‘stress’. I think stress is a self-made construct, it’s something that we’ve created. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you buy into the idea of stress. you start to feel it and diagnose it, and psychology shows us that if you diagnose these things then they become real. I don’t think I know what stress is, because I’ve not allowed myself to accept that idea. What you might consider stress is coming into work and figuring out that you’ve lost all your clients because your servers were hacked, and you have people to pay. I’ve been there, but that didn’t feel like stress, it felt like something I had to solve. The reason I don’t feel stress is probably because I started in a house in a poor area in Moss Side with no electricity. There was no food – I was shoplifting food to feed myself. And I was good and happy then, with nothing, so I’ve got nothing to lose. The thing that gets me through the tough times is being completely cool with going back to zero. This is also what takes you to the top. It makes you fearless.

If someone has an idea for a business, how can they know if that idea is any good?

There are so many components to a good or great idea. But what is most important is the philosophy you have to have as an entrepreneur. You have to have an idea, and then do whatever you can in a way that is as lean as possible and as fast as possible, to try to figure out if the world gives a fuck about this idea. Conduct the most accurate possible market test, and spend the least amount of money. Then, know when to stop. When the data tells you people don’t care, you have to adapt. Most companies fail because people don’t listen. They’re so romantic about their own idea that they stick to it, even if they could have figured out earlier that they needed to change the idea.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever given someone?

Create from the position that nobody cares. If you start from a position that nobody cares, then you have to convince people why they should care. The best marketing in the world is from a position of ‘nobody cares’. From there the only way is up.

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