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The Rise of the Facebook Queen: How Mari Smith Went From $50 in Her Pocket to 500K Followers

Feb 19, 2015 15 min readResources
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

In February of 1999, Mari Smith needed a sign from the universe. It showed up in the form of … cake.

The Scottish-Canadian had arrived in San Diego on a borrowed round-trip plane ticket (“That’s how broke I was!”) with 50 British pounds in her pocket and a feeling that she was supposed to start her nascent seminar business in the U.S. instead of Scotland, her former home.

But she was running out of time. She could only come into the country for 30 days without all her immigration paperwork done, and her deadline was looming.

“I absolutely knew I wasn’t going to go back,” she recalls. “I remember saying to the universe: ‘It’s been 4 weeks. I know I’m supposed to stay here. Just give me a sign.'”

Two hours later, a local bakery whose door Mari had knocked on (her father was a baker, from whom she had picked up a few tips as well as attending confectionery classes for a few years) called to see if she could come in and decorate cakes before the Valentine’s Day rush.

To this day, “I’m a sucker for cake,” she says.

It was just the sign the driven entrepreneur and gifted natural networker was looking for—and just the unlikely break she needed to become the future marketing guru we know today.

Mari Smith

A portrait of Mari Smith

This story is just one of the many pivotal moments the social media marketing expert recalled recently, when I had the privilege of sitting down with her (with an occasional cameo by Baby, the 10-year-old Bengal kitty that Mari calls her “cat engagement officer”).

Our Skype session covered her passions, what keeps her up at night and her social media philosophy.

Read on to learn more about the Facebook queen—and how she became social media royalty.

You are known as the Queen of Facebook. Did you choose Facebook, or did it choose you?

It was a mutual choosing. Facebook kind of landed in my lap at a time that was perfect for how I was evolving my business and my talents. It was really a beautiful unfolding, a beautiful merging of two primary themes throughout my whole career: my love of people, my love of technology.

In the early 2000s I was working successfully as a business consultant. In 2007 I got an invitation to be on a beta test team of an app called Podclass, a site where you can take and teach classes.

To be honest, I was a little reluctant at first. When Facebook came along, I was like, not another social network!

But when I opened up the site, I have to tell you it was one of those defining moments in life.

I could feel the vibe jumping off the screen. I thought, wait a second.  This is nothing like mySpace, it doesn’t feel like Linkedin. This feels unique and different.

What excited me more than anything is that people who I’d long admired for years, read their books, famous people, people I really looked up to, all of a sudden I’m befriending them on Facebook and we’re chitchatting and I was able to interview them.

Today, Facebook now encompasses such a comprehensive range of skills that marketers need to have that it’s caught people by surprise.

It’s not just about creating good content or driving them to your site. Now it’s got to be good sales copy, you’ve got to be good at crafting ads, you’ve got to get people to click, and you also have to have a super compelling landing page, a compelling offer, and you’ve got to be reaching the right market. There are a lot of components that people have to wrap their arms around.

You made the decision to become an entrepreneur and to move to the United States kind of all at once. What was driving you?

Mari Smith at age 14
Mari Smith at age 14

Growing up, my family never really had much money. I had four sisters and my dad raised five girls by himself. It was intense.

I left school at 15, I never went to college. All my life I’d been an employee. I had my 16th birthday at my first job.

I just had this fire in my belly to go out in the world and create my own livelihood. Since my teenage years, I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, love of personal development and spiritual growth.

My dad was an entrepreneur all his life. He was a baker and always had his own business. But I don’t think it really spilled over for me until my early 30s, in 1998, when I made the decision I was going to start my own business.

I was going to offer seminars, a seminar training business. I studied presentation skills, took classes in body language reading, went to Toastmasters a lot. I took almost the whole of 1998 to put together the business plan, make the brochures and business cards and build a website.

I was just going to the bank to get a small business loan for my marketing when the opportunity to come to San Diego fell in my lap. A long-lost friend said “Hey Mari, are you in a place where you could move to San Diego? I think you’d really like it here.”

I just knew. When I got the invite, I thought, I’m supposed to go. Even though I was flat broke at the time, I just packed everything up. My friend even bought my plane ticket, that’s how broke I was!

I love the definition of luck that says it’s where preparation meets opportunity. I had spent almost a year putting together a business plan and the universe was like, “Uh, you’re not supposed to do this in Scotland. Here, come over to San Diego and then get on with it.”

Mari newly arrived in the U.S. in 1999
Mari newly arrived in the U.S. in 1999

You’ve described yourself as an “overnight success 10 years in the making.” Share a bit about those 10 years.

From ’99 to 2009 I was married, with a nice lifestyle doing marketing consulting. And it was clear that my marriage was coming to an end right around the same time I got introduced to Facebook and decided to switch from online marketing to Facebook marketing

My ex and I had moved out of our house and started traveling around in an RV—mostly the West Coast, we spent 3 months in Alaska.

Mari built her business from an RV! Here she is at the RV park
Mari built her business from an RV! Here she is at the RV park

I started a blog about our travels, and I started to develop this following. You know, “Where in the world is Mari? What’s your view right now? Are you really running your business from the road?”

And it evolved and evolved to the point where it was clear I was not meant to be married anymore.

We had an amicable parting, but people would tweet things like,”Hey, how is your husband?” when I hadn’t seen him for 6 months

I figured, I need to be really transparent. I’m going to write up a blog post, let my whole online world know, here’s where I’m at. You can still find it online today.

Mari's transparent post
The post that changed Mari’s life and career.

I was so freakin’ nervous. I had a lot of different friends read the post before I published it. And it was probably one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever done. it was very healing. I got hundreds of comments from people who were inspired about making a choice that served their inner desires.

And that was my purpose in writing the post, to tell people whatever’s in your heart, go for it.

So I had been laying the foundation and the groundwork, and that tipping point was when I chose to step into a whole other level of my own self, listening to my own intuition and heart. And the universe rewarded me for that.

The moment I chose to get divorced, stop traveling in the RV and move to San Diego, my business just blew up. I made half a million dollars in one week.

I just got real. And people were like, “Whoa, we love you even more! Now you’re showing you’re human, not superhuman.”

You do an amazing job of staying on top of Facebook news and sharing from a variety of diverse sources. How do you get around the web?

I do have help. I never used to like to admit to this because I wanted people to think I was superhuman.

Everything was single-handedly managed by me for a long time because the integrity of my voice was more important than anything else. I’d rather not tweet than just have anybody put any content up for me. It took me a long time before I was able to develop a system, a solid “I promote this kind of content for these reasons” framework.

I don’t endorse content for the sake of monetizing through ads, there has to be more meat and substance and heart to a site.

I particularly love to put the spotlight on up-and-coming companies and bloggers.

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Post by Mari Smith.

I don’t tend to include big sites like Mashable, Huffington Post or my very dear friends at Social Media Examiner because they have such a vast following already. I don’t want to be another me-too tweeter.

So I’ve developed a criteria over the years that is very specific to me, my values and my company. And my online content manager, Ana, does an amazing job. She really gets how I select content.

She and I are always going to have our eyes and ears out for new sources. I love to be able to support people. I know that I can drive traffic, and I take that as a great responsibility. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ana finds the content. She’s the one who reads the sources she and I have agreed upon—she goes through a good couple hundred sources every day—and she’ll craft the tweet and put it in there. I will always read it—nothing goes out without me checking it.

This is the way I leverage my time because I’ve got to sit at my desk and say, “What is the highest and best use of my time today?” Finding content to put on Twitter is not a revenue-generating activity.

Sometimes for a sole proprietor it can be very challenging to think, “How can I delegate that?” There are certain aspects of your business that you can delegate, but then you always want to put your own personal spin on it.

For example, I never delegate the engagement component. If you see me using first person, it’s always me. Nobody’s ever having a dialogue with me and it’s not me.

Bonus: Mari shows us her home and home office!

What tools help you work more efficiently?

We use tools like Feedly, Content Gems and Pocket to be able to identify and curate content. I use Hootsuite—scheduling tools are crucial.

And I use a calendar—a giant wall-sized, floor to ceiling, year at a glance planner so every year I can see the whole year to a glance. We use a color coordinated system of little sticky notes and Post-its to map out and plan ahead.

I’m also my own well informed source. I’ve got my Twitter list, I’ve got my Facebook list with 130 different sources of news, which I look at at least 3 times a day if not more. I check all the Facebook blogs, I’m in a Facebook media group, and I’m often the first to hear about things.

Sometimes it still keeps me awake at night. Like, what if some major big thing happened in the social media world and I didn’t know, if I was the last to find out? Then I say, “Oh Mari, come on.” That’s just the monkey mind.

What’s the No. 1 question you get asked as you consult and speak?

I would say the No. 1 question is regarding reach on Facebook. The small business owner is really hurting, only because they just didn’t see it coming. We had it good for so long with this wonderful organic reach. Back in the day you were reaching 50, 60 70 percent of your fan base. Now you’re lucky if it’s 3 or 4 percent.

// <![CDATA[ (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = "//"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk')); // ]]>

Post by Mari Smith.

I think the challenge is that people are not having enough of a shift of mindset being able to just accept, “OK, Facebook is pay-to-play now. I need to get smart about ads, I need to get some training, set aside a budget for it.”

It’s almost like the definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. They’re saying let’s try more content, less content, try different times, all trying in vain to get that organic reach.

Then they get frustrated and say, “Well, Facebook doesn’t work anymore. I’m going to Twitter.” And they’re shooting themselves in the foot because Facebook is still the number one social network.

We’re all in the same boat, and my audience knows they can turn to me for a really straight answer. I can say, “This particular post got good reach, and here’s how I did it.” I will lift the hood up and tell people; I don’t have any secrets I don’t share.

I have been at the mercy of the lowering reach as well. I’ve just had to adjust my training to always include components of Facebook ads, at least the basics.

That’s one element. And the other is making sure that people aren’t just relying on Facebook, that there are other social media channels and an integrated strategy.

Do you have an intuition about where Facebook is headed these days?

I think Facebook is realizing that big brands with agencies and mega budgets have no problem mastering Facebook and the ads.

But the small to medium business owner, who’s struggling to figure it out themselves or they’ve paid someone to do their ads and it’s not working, there’s such a gap in the knowledge that’s needed. Where Facebook is headed in the next several years is much better education for its business users on how to use the product better.

Something else that’s shifting is that page owners have up to this point been very reliant on the news feed, getting your content in the news feed. Even before organic reach dropped, very few people—5 percent, I think I saw—would come back to your page once they liked it.

But there are two major improvements to the pages that are changing this: The call to action button and the featured video. They’re smack right there on the landing page. So Facebook is making the page a little bit more of a destination, where you can drive people to come and consume content more and more.

I think we will see more features like that, that will enhance the page as a destination but won’t take away the need to pay for newsfeed reach.

I know they’re competing for real time news. Facebook did a big push with the Super Bowl recently. They’re going up against Twitter, which really has a corner on the market of real time, trending, hashtags.

So Facebook set up a destination for the Super Bowl where you could see a real-time stream with trends and hashtags. They want to be that second screen for all major TV events, and they probably will do that.

Do you see a next big emerging social media network that could compete with Facebook or be acquired by Facebook?

There’s not going to be some major new social network that will trump Facebook. Facebook has become an ingrained, psychological daily habit.

I got optimistic that Google+ could do really well and be a fierce competitor in this space, but no. If your family members, your mother, your brother and your school friends aren’t going to move, then forget it.

I recently was looking at a list of Facebook acquisitions on Wikipedia, and speech recognition was their last big acquisition.

A couple major things they’re also working on are artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Obviously those are separate from Facebook, but I guarantee there’ll be some kind of a Facebook integration. Facebook is where they gather all the user data and have the social graph.

What are some quick wins on Facebook most of us are not taking advantage of?

Video: The psychology of autoplay

Let’s talk about video: Facebook is absolutely taking traffic from Youtube right now with video.

Video probably stumps people more than any other type of content, especially if they think they have to come on camera. But there are so many wonderful ways to create video without having to do to-camera pieces.

There are tools like Screenflow, Camtasia, Flipagram, Animoto, Magisto to help you make just short, simple videos.

What happens with autoplay, it’s all psychology. They come in through your newsfeed, start to see a tiny bit of movement, boom, it draws them in. They’ll stop and play your video. Make it short, quick and easy, with a call to action.

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Post by Mari Smith.

Content buckets: Inform, entertain or CTA

Also, I encourage people to really be thinking through when you’re creating their content what it’s for.

I put it in three buckets: Inform, entertain, or CTA, which is driving them somewhere, you want them to sign up for something or you’re selling something.

The ideal is it fits into all 3 buckets: It’s informative, it’s entertaining, and it has a strong call to action.

Otherwise, people get confused and they start to look exclusively at numbers like reach, shares and likes. Those are kind of the glue that holds everything together; you want to have some engagement.

But do you want just engagement? Engagement doesn’t pay the bills. Be strategic: get the leads and convert the leads to paying customers.

mari smith quote

What brands do you see really doing it right on social media and providing a great example for others?

Individual: Richard Branson

On the individual level, I love Richard Branson. He’s of course a big celebrity but love his style of supershort narrative with a video or an image. It’s compelling, well-written and drives people to his website. It’s really well done.

Richard Branson Facebook

Brand: Oreo

As far as brands, Oreo is doing doing a whole series of little animated videos that are just a brilliant example. Just looking on their page,  they got 300,000 views in 8 hours on this little video.

// <![CDATA[ (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = "//"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk')); // ]]>

Post by Oreo.

If Oreo can get this amount of content out of a cookie, one little cookie, then for a bigger business with a vast range of products and services and results they help people create, there’s just no limit.

If anything, what ends up happening is that people are faced with that paradox of choice: “There’s too many options, how do I narrow it down?”

You’ve shared a stage with many leaders and celebrities. Is there anyone who has particularly inspired you?

Mari Smith and Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle is at the top of that list. Shaking his hand and looking in his eyes, you felt like you were the only person that existed on the planet, just for a fleeting moment. All the light flowing out of his eyes. That experience was profound; I’ll never forget it.

From a business point of view, I would say one of my fave people I’ve ever met and now have the great pleasure of calling a friend is Mike Stelzner of Social Media Examiner. He and I have a wonderful, supportive relationship. He’s so humble, one of the most humble people I know.

What are some books that have changed the way you see things?

So many to choose from! The first one to pop into my mind is The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy, who is the publisher of Success Magazine.

Compound Effect

It’s a simple, short book that just really helps people to realize that success is not created overnight. Everything in life—whether it’s your health, fitness, money, goals you’re working on—it’s all a matter of chipping away. And the microdecisions you make every day add up; it compounds. Even having that as an attitude in life makes a difference.

Sometimes when I find myself getting real frenetic and hurried, there’s a 90-minute audio I listen to of Eckhart Tolle’s called The Illusion of Time. It makes you realize that the more you’re in your head thinking about the future, the more you take away from the present moment. So let’s just be here now and everything will somehow take care of itself.

Thanks, Mari!

Thanks so much to the very busy and gracious Mari Smith for opening up to us about her life, her passions and her social media secrets.

You can find Mari on Twitter, on Facebook of course, and on her website, as well as catch her speaking at events around the world.

For even more Mari, feel free to listen to the audio file of our entire interview that’s the foundation of this piece–including a fun detour into cat talk. ?

What do you think of Mari’s incredible story, and who else would you like to read more about here? Let us know in the comments!

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