Straight From The Source: A Chat with Forbes Digital Media & Influencer Marketing Writer Tom Ward
I recently chatted with Tom Ward, a writer who covers digital media with a focus on influencer marketing for Forbes.
Tom went from selling cars to eventually sitting down with a-list celebs to speaking a VidCon. He’s a unique voice in very saturated space and I was thrilled to be able to speak with him about how he got into this space, how he’s built his brand and how you can too.
We chatted all about networking, standing out in a crowded digital space and the allure of today’s social media influencers.
So, let’s talk about your background. How did you get into covering digital media and influencer marketing for Forbes?
Okay. It’s kind of a long story so I'll try to keep it concise.
So my background is sales and really just sales. I mean my dad was a sales guy, now he's an executive, but it was kind of just in my DNA. I just like people.
When I was a kid, I worked at a golf course, a private Country Club and I remember seeing the guys who would come in at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. They were all tanned and dressed nice and drove nice cars and didn't really seem to be working that hard and those were the guys who either own their own business, or they were sales guys. And I wanted to be like to be one of those guys. I don't want to be sitting in a cubicle till 6 o'clock every day.
Eventually, I ended up at a company called Hobart which makes kitchen equipment to restaurants and for grocery stores and I think I always kind of stress this, that I still work for Hobart. I still have a nine-to-five job that pays the bills.
Yeah, so I was just kind of plugging along at this job I wasn't really happy at it. I read this book by Dorie Clark called “Reinventing You”.
Her whole thing was, you can change careers, change your narrative at any time. But you need evidence. You've got to build evidence to make that change.
One of the first things that she suggests to do is writing. So, if you want to be a hip hop expert, find the biggest hip-hop blogs out there and write them free content. And then maybe after a couple of those you can work maybe to a real publication and kind of contribute to probably unpaid to their website and kind of rise through the ranks and maybe you get part to a podcast maybe do all the other stuff but she really stressed writing.
So, I just started writing. I had an anonymous blog and I would just write about my interests.
Eventually, I bought my domain name and then I focused more on marketing social media, digital media stuff and then I actually got in touch with Dorie Clark. We started emailing and I thanked her and everything and I showed her my blog and she said, hey this is great! Would you mind if I put you in touch with my editor from Forbes because she writes on all these subjects. So she put me in touch with her editor in Forbes and we had a quick call and he's like, hey if you want to be a contributor let me know.
That was my first paid writing gig ever, it was for Forbes. I never a wrote in college. I was never a writer. I was a business major, I'm not an English major. So I literally didn't write a paper. I didn't write anything since I graduated college until I started blogging and then I ended up with Forbes which changed the game for me.
I would do a couple of different kinds of articles, the real popular ones were celebrity, lessons, marketing lessons from the Kardashian or business lessons from NWA like after that movie came out about entrepreneurship. Just simple bullet lists kind of articles and then I would write how to get more followers on Instagram or how to brand yourself then I would kind of write the real marketing ones and then kind of pop marketing ones too.
So, now you interview some of the biggest influencers out there. How did that happen?
So it was really random. I was interested also in celebrity businesses like Jessica Alba with Honest Company or, I was really interested in the Kate Hudson story with Fabletics because there's a million articles on Jessica, but Kate Hudson meanwhile felt like a real successful business. She's a big name and I didn't find a lot about her. So, I had never interviewed a celebrity before.
I ended up going to the launching of Demi Lovato's Fabletics line. They had a big party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I got a chance to talk to Demi a little bit and to Kate, and then they get whisked away. I ended up talking to the president of Fabletics too.
After that article, I spoke more with he PR person that works for Kate. I told him I wanted to do more interviews and asked who else he had. He said, I rep this kid Jake Paul. And I go, “who is Jake Paul”. And he laughed and said, “he's like a really big Youtuber, Instagram, social media guy” And I was like, “I never heard of him”.
Kate Hudson interested me because I'm 40 years old now, but I don’t know who Jake Paul is. So I looked him up and I go, look at this kid! I mean 10 million followers on Instagram he's in the papers every day, he got his own businesses, he's got his own team all this. I go WOW! So I go yeah, let me interview Jake. So we set it up and I went to the “Team 10 House” which was his team of influencers house and it was kind of like a frat house situation in Hollywood. And I went to interview him there.
I was actually really impressed with Jake. Super smart kid real professional, we talked for two hours in his garage and answer all my questions, we just talked business. We talked business all the time. I didn’t care who he was dating or what controversy was involved. I was curious about what the business of Jake Paul looked like. How much he's making, where his income come is coming from, he's investing in startups, how does that all work?
Eventually I was able to reach out to more people, then I spoke at VidCon this year. They invited me to speak on a panel with Eva Gutowski of My Life As Eva, a big social media influencer. So I go from a year and a half ago from not even knowing who Jake Paul is, to a year and half later, I'm speaking at VidCon which was kind of a trip. This was definitely not my goal. I didn't even know what influencers were, and I still don't really watch YouTube, by Shane Dawson series which is awesome, but I typically don't watch YouTube. I don't watch a Jake Paul video, I don't watch any of this. So it's such a weird marriage.
Why do you think some of these people are so captivating? What makes some people who don't really necessarily have a skill or one particular talent that they're sharing with the world, but they have millions and millions of people just falling all over them. I don't know what it is….
No, they do have talent. I don't want to argue that point, but I would say they all have a talent and their talent is that every one of them shares, and they can command an audience which is not an easy thing to do.
So whether they're a DIY girl or makeup vlogger, or a daily vlogger like a Jake Paul, girl, guy, old, young, whatever, travel writer, they can entertain an audience and grow an audience.
So that's the talent. So if YouTube wasn't a thing, I think these kids would be a radio DJ, an actor, a sketch comedian, writer, a videographer or something but they would still be known. They may not be as famous but they would be making a career out of it.
Right. YouTube was just kind of an outlet that wasn't there before that now people can just kind of do it for themselves.
But not everybody can do it. I'm good when I have to, and I don't do a lot of it, but sometimes I have to promote a giveaway or something and it's just me and a camera, I am not good at it at all. I feel uncomfortable, I look awkward... that's not my thing. My thing is interacting with somebody else. I'm good at that.
Say what you want about the Kardashians, they don't do anything, they're not actresses, but they create interest around them and they entertain people and people care what they're doing and that's talent I think.
Oh yeah, I totally agree with you. I wasn't thinking of it like that but that makes perfect sense. I couldn't do it either.
You know, I listened to a podcast that you were interviewed on and I think you said something like, when you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up they say they want to be a Youtuber. I think that is so interesting.
That's a kid’s number one career aspiration. It's more than a professional athlete, more than a model, business owner, whatever. It's an actor-actress. It's to become a Youtuber. That's a kid’s number one goal. There's been a couple of surveys and that's a proven fact which is crazy. I mean ten years ago, that wasn't even a thing, that wasn’t even a career.
So, on another note, what advice do you have for people who are trying to to build their business or become thought leaders and do the same thing that you did, but on purpose.
I think create, create, create. Create content. It's real easy and I'm guilty of this too, I go on and check my socials a hundred times a day and you always look and you go to your notifications right? I only got 2 likes since I checked it last or I only got one comment since I checked it last. What the fuck? Why don't I have more? Instead, every time I should, I am looking at the wrong way.
Every time I check into social I should be thinking what am I giving? I should be always giving something instead of trying to get something in return.
Also, what I would do is kind of “fake it till you make it”.
I’d say writing is probably one of the first and easiest things you can do. You're not going to start at Forbes, but there are all these industry blogs, whatever you're into, there's a blog about it and they're dying for content. So you're not going to get paid probably, you're going to get paid very little but they'll give you your audience and they'll give you a place to kind of build your portfolio. You could say I worked in this place, this place, in this place and that'll get you your resume to get into Forbes if you want a place like that. So create content.
There's so much content out there, there's so much garbage everywhere you go on social media. So how do you think people stand out in that as far as whether you're trying to be an influencer or you're trying to build a social media following or start a business?
You've got to find your voice. You can't try to be somebody else and you've got to be different so for me, when I was researching, I'm launching a show called Under the Influence with only the top influencers. I sit down and have conversation with them about their career, their journey, inspiration or kind of all those things.
When I looked and did my research and looked at kind of some people in that game and they were all super douchey. I'm not going to name names but it’s, “I made my first hundred million when I sold my company at 27”. And then you go to their Instagram and they are standing on the hood of this fucking Lambo like they’re some hot chick in a heavy-metal video. They look fucking ridiculous. There's this shot of them in a helicopter and I'm just like, that ain't me. I mean I don't drive a fancy car, I don't have a fucking Lambo. I want one, but I never sold a company for a hundred million dollars so my voice is a lot different than that person.
My voice is unique. I'm kind of a little sarcastic, I'm kind of cranky, interested I'm older so I'm not trying to be a cool kid. I'm not trying to wear a Supreme hoodie when I interview Jake Paul.
I dress like a normal fucking 40-year old would dress. So that's kind of my unique voice and take on things and also I'm not lost on the kind of ridiculousness on this. But, the fact that I'm sitting down with a fourteen-year-old Youtuber, it's fuckin visually funny. You know what I mean? I know and I'm watching and researching people that my niece, my twelve year old niece knows, but nobody my age knows. So I'm kind of tongue-in-cheek too. I can laugh at myself.
So to answer your question, you've got to figure out what that means for you. Who are you?
There's a million ways you can figure this out. You can ask people, you can do anonymous surveys to your friends and family and ask things like, “if you could use three words to describe me, what would they be”? Then you'll kind of get a picture on well, I'm not funny I thought I was funny but I ain’t it. I may think I'm funny but no one else does, so I gotta stop trying to be funny. If you're not authentic, no one's going to buy it and no one's going to be interested.
Another little tip of advice I'd like to talk about is about networking. So what advice can you offer about networking?
I'm an animal. That's probably one of my best and my biggest strength. It is networking. It comes natural to me and I guess I'm always looking for the next thing or the next connection or the next contact, the next interview and I asked a lot and I'm not afraid of rejection.
I reach out to people all the time. Since I'm only interviewing A-List people, most never get back to me. 75% of people never get back to me probably more than that and I don't think it's personal and I also don't go psycho on them either. I'm not going to send them 15 messages in a row.
Probably the most important thing is to think about what you can give them.
That's got to come first. They don't give a fuck about connecting with you. You have to find and communicate what's in it for them. For me the reason they're sitting down is not because Tom Ward has a beautiful bald head, it's because Tom Ward writes for Forbes, it can give them good press and an outlet that they haven't been in before. So me reaching out to a big influencer or a Kate Hudson or whatever, that's what’s in it for her. And what's in it for me is I get to meet Kate Hudson, I get a picture for my Instagram, I get a shout out maybe she follows me, get more followers on social, I get an article that gets a bunch of views, those kind of things.
So it's got to be mutually beneficial. So that's the biggest thing to realize when you're networking with people especially as you want to get more high-profile contacts, it's what's in it for them.
And it may be something as simple as I really want to learn from you but I'm willing to write free articles for your site, I'm willing to help you schedule because that's my strength, it could be a virtual assistant for you, a graphic designer, I can help you design cool posts for your Instagram, I'm an audio guy can help edit your podcast and in return I'm looking to learn more and more about your business.
I can tell you this, I wrote an article about how to become verified on Instagram when you type in “how to get verified on Instagram”, that’s the first article that pops up. Hundreds of thousands of views and it kind of talked about how you really do it. People have all these articles of bullshit like oh use ten hashtags and you'll get verified. None of that. Create good content and you'll get verified, bullshit right? I showed them how to really do it and I actually submitted an application to get verified and it got rejected, but I wanted to show that you can actually apply for this. Most people are doing this now and it works. The point is, I get dozens of messages everyday on Instagram, dozens of DMS that say hey get me verified on Instagram. How do I get verified on Instagram? I want to get verified on Instagram, help me, help me, help me. And I go, you fucking asshole. I don't respond to any of you. I don't know, you why the fuck would I help you? And that's how most people go about networking. Look at me, look at me, love me, read my blog post, share this, follow me on social, why the fuck would they respond to you? What's in it for them? The most important thing people can learn about networking is, what's in it for the person you want to connect with? That's it.
It's really mind-boggling to me that people don’t realize this. It’s about them, not about you.
I can tell you from experience, that’s most people. So if you're just normal and really have that attitude of, I got to give something before I could get something, you'll be better than 95% of the people out there that are reaching out to these people every day.
So, can you give me 3 words on inspiration / motivation for people trying to make a name for themselves?
Sure. I would say, “Create, create, create”, but I would also love to have the “most people are stupid” quote in there because it's true and I really believe that. The inspiration is most people are stupid and you don't have to be that great to stand out. The bar is so low.