This week we had the great pleasure of meeting Adam Hirsch, SVP of Emerging Media & Technology at Edelman Digital. Adam’s claim to fame is bringing Mashable from a relative unknown to the technology news powerhouse it is today. Believe it or not, Adam is completely self-taught, and his first job out of college was as a line cook. In addition to his work at Mashable, he has also worked closely with creating social movements online with DoSomething.org and Giving Tuesday. In this interview, he shares the compelling story about how it all came to be, and how you can follow in his footsteps.
How did you get where you are today?
When I graduated I actually wanted to be a chef and briefly worked at a Daniel, a popular restaurant in New York City. I very quickly realized that I did not want to spend long days standing over a fire for minimum wage and little room for growth. So I quit and looked for administrative assistant jobs, pretty much anything where there was a desk and an air conditioner.
I ended up at a small real estate firm called Peter*Ashe, where I was the first probably college-educated admin there and ended up taking over the IT and marketing functions. I spearheaded many firsts there. We were the first advertiser ever on Curbed, which is now a popular real estate website. We also worked with HopStop, Trulia and Zillow before they were popular. I’m self-taught so I just found the sites, learned about them, and figured out how to make things happen. I made a name for myself pretty quickly, and when one of the agents was poached by a competitor and he took me with him to NYC Living, a young hip real estate firm.
After I got there, I optimized the place to the point that I was pretty bored, so I started scouring the web for interesting things and blogging. I followed a few core sites, including Mashable. After awhile, I noticed the Write For Us button and sent over a couple of ideas. I didn’t hear back, so two weeks later I sent more ideas, including an idea for a column called Ask Mashable because there were plenty of times when I had a question and with no tech-savvy people around to help.
Eventually Pete Cashmore wrote back and we had a lengthy email conversation, which generated a ton of ideas. At the end, I told him I was looking to leave real estate and he offered me a job. That’s how I ended up at a small never-heard-of blog, where I was logging 13-14 hours days without days off. My friends thought I was crazy but now they understand.
While I started as Community Manager, I eventually assumed the role of COO. I initiated the first-ever Mashable event promotions. It started with small meetups but evolved to large national events like the Mashable Awards and Social Good Summit. I also took over the advertising side of the business, where we phased out 3rd party ad sales and built an internal sales team. I also worked with our different partners and grew the business development team, which lead to syndication in USA Today and CNN.
Fortunately, it all worked out, but it took hard work and hiring many hard-working people too. It was great. In turn, Mashable opened many doors for me.
When Mashable was coming up, there was some competition but it rose to the top, whereas the other guys flat-lined. What was Mashable’s special sauce?
It was a really smart content strategy and always evolving, sticking with what worked and changing what didn’t. Not to mention, hiring good people who understood that. Mashable produces 100% of its content in-house and it’s relevant shareable content delivered in real-time. We had great writers and journalists who were who were niche experts and thought leaders. Competitors who didn’t have a niche or play in real-time fell out of favor. New players like BuzzFeed, Complex, and The Verge, have replicated our model.
It seems the move to Mashable was monumental in your career. Why did you end up leaving?
My girlfriend (now wife) was looking to write a book so she wanted to bring up her editorial quality and so she came on board to help us out. Long story short, we were growing rapidly and she ended up becoming our managing editor, and eventually publisher where our jobs started to intersect.
We had worked together for awhile, but I was business and she was editorial; it was a separation of church and state. When she came over to my side of the company, it was a little harder to work and live together. We knew eventually someone had to leave. By the end of 2011, we had hit all of the milestones that I ever wanted to hit, far surpassing any goals we had set – hitting 100 million page views per month and 25 million unique visitors per month – for a few months in a row with continued growth.
There were no signs of slowing down so I felt like it was a good time to go. Mashable was approaching 100 people and I wanted to do something startup-oriented again to see if I could repeat the same success elsewhere. I moved on to DoSomething.org, a nonprofit focused on teens and social change, where I assumed the role of Chief Digital Officer and lead member engagement and product development, as well as worked with a many great teen leaders. I was there for 5 months. I loved them all but I work at a fast pace, which was hard for those don’t have a similar mindset. We parted ways as friends.
After that the game plan was to take the summer off but I ended up volunteering most of my time to a movement called Giving Tuesday. There is Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, a day for giving thanks and 2 for buying stuff but none for actually giving back. It’s a unique and different that idea came out of the 92nd Street Y. I donated my summer to help the movement develop a website, marketing strategy and a communications timeline.
During that time, different opportunities presented themselves but I chose Edelman Digital because they were really great group of people. Everyone was really smart, hardworking, and fun to be around. They have a real entrepreneurial spirit. I know many companies say that but at Edelman if someone has a great idea and it can be done, they’ll make it happen. That’s very rare to find. With Edelman, there were also some travel perks, which is always fun.
What’s a day in the life like at Edelman and how is that different from what you were doing at Mashable and DoSomething.org?
At Mashable and DoSomething.org, there was a very focused vision in terms of where we were going as a company, with less people all concentrated in one place. Both are mostly in NY, and with a U.S. focus, whereas Edelman is a very large organization. Edelman Digital alone has 700+ people and Edelman has 65+ offices around the world. Thus, any strategic operation requires a global mindset. When it comes to workflow, I need to think about operationalizing strategy in foreign countries where English is not the first language.
Additionally, everything we do here is for our clients, so while I do not work directly with them, I need to think about how we can create growth opportunities for their businesses. I focus on emerging media and technology as it relates to our clients and how we can do better business, not just for existing clients but also for future clients. Ultimately, the most important part of my job is to focus on where and what the gaps and opportunities are. It’s a much larger scale than I’ve ever been a part of before.
On any given day, I wear different hats. The first is keeping up with emerging media and technology, which entails learning about different startups, new technologies, and how they are relevant to our client’s business. I read a ton from tech startup blogs and news sites. Not only do I field requests related to new technologies regularly, but I also send out regular distributions to our global digital teams.
Another hat I wear is for knowledge management. This is more about how Edelman can do its work in a more efficient and intelligent manner. I’ve operationalized several teams around key technologies. There’s an entire Facebook team dedicated to covering breaking news and reporting internally on how it will affect our clients, which can in turn be passed on to our clients.
We have that for Twitter, and Foursquare, and Tumblr, as well as topics like creative newsroom, real-time content, infographics, and analytics, etc. At the same time, we’re also scaling up the technology to allow us to share this information in real-time via a searchable database. That’s a big project. We manage over 500 social communities globally for our clients and it’s all real-time content. Thus, converting strategy to action quickly is key. Our client’s communities that we are managing are growing fast because of the strategic work that we’re doing.
The third hat that I’m wearing right now is about paid media. However, Edelman is not trying to become a media buying company or advertising company. We are really looking at this as a content amplification opportunity, and how we can amplify good work that’s already being done, whether it’s an earned media hit in the New York Times, social content, or a corporate blog post. Today, there’s a lot of noise and a lack of visibility because of the content surplus that exists. And we all know people are increasingly on their mobiles, creating an attention deficit.
The idea around paid media is strategic amplification of content that’s already performing well, and we don’t necessarily need a million people to see it but the right people seeing it. That includes paid search, paid social, as well as the whole new world of content discovery including Outbrain , Nativo, and Sharethrough. We also do some display but we are not doing media buys for the sake of advertising.
Sounds like you have accomplished quite a bit. What would you say your personal greatest accomplishments are thus far?
I’m pretty proud of the growth of Mashable. There was some luck but plenty of hard work and strategy. It far surpassed anything I ever expected and is still going strong. In this space its tough to get the hockey stick growth we’ve seen.
One of my lifetime goals is to have been a part of creating a social movement. While Giving Tuesday is not a national movement just yet, I’m proud of the fact that they just won an award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It has spread further than any of us ever anticipated and I hope it continues to grow.
What are some trends that are really exciting you right now?
The paid content trend that I mentioned earlier is important for everyone: brands, startups, and even non-profits. At DoSomething.org, this was something that CEO. Nancy Lublin and board advisors, Reid Hoffman and Raj Kapoor, embraced. Although they were nonprofit they had a social marketing budget and we were able to successfully amplify the work that we were already doing.
Another great trend is that we’re finally seeing the ability to track and analyze social network data. For the longest time, there were very few APIs and tools out there that allowed access to social network data. Still some of the social networks don’t have open analytics APIs for brands, organizations, or communities, but I see a trend starting here.
Multi-channel marketing is another one. Organizations are not just focusing on Facebook and Twitter, but going on anywhere where their target audience is hanging out. Brands need to be playing in those spaces, utilizing the analytics, and paid media to further amplify their content.
Mobile is a big one, but at this point the trend is passing. I would recommend to everyone that your site needs to be 100% mobile-friendly, and it doesn’t need to be an app. If you’re not 100% happy with the way your site looks and feels on mobile, then there’s a problem because more than 55% of Americans are now web surfing via mobile and if your site doesn’t render properly you are losing your audience.
How much time do you spend acquiring or refining your skills?
All the time. My job is dedicated to finding new technologies, so I read all the tech blogs and watch a lot of videos. I’m a very pro-active person and I’m always thinking ahead. Its not just high-level strategy either. I need to understand the ground level tactics too. I follow what works, learning from the examples of other organizations. I then try to understand why it worked and then apply that for Edelman.
This is something I’ve been doing on my own as long as I can remember. I’m a curious person and even in the early days of the Internet, I played around with Gopher and BBS systems. Technology is not just my business; it’s also my personal life.
What are your primary tools and resources?
My go-to is the RSS reader, which helps me stay current on emerging technologies.
For recording purposes, Evernote is great for note taking app. When you don’t record ideas and facts, they are easily lost.
For website optimization, Optimizely is a very simple analytics tool that anybody can use. Simply plug it into your site and you can start A/B optimizing your site. Analytics is one of the most important facets of online marketing and should be a weekly, if not daily discussion.
The final tool is for communication. There are few chat tools that have similar capabilities such as gChat and Skype, which allow you ask questions of the fly but are recorded so you can review later.
You have a college degree but you worked pretty close with Pete Cashmore doesn’t have a degree. How important is having a degree in marketing or social media certification in what you are doing?
I think its either one or the other. Pete and Mark Zuckerberg are intensely driven and spent all their waking time learning and building something great. Or you might be the type of person [everyone else] who needs to dedicate time (or be forced to) to learn the skills that companies are looking for, than getting a degree is great.
In the hiring process, I think it’s hard to prove your worth if you don’t have a college degree unless you’ve already made a name for yourself. If Facebook had failed and Mark Zuckerberg had to go apply for a job, even though he’s a brilliant guy, he might have had a really hard time. You have to take the millionaire dropouts with a grain of salt because they are the exception, not the rule.
I learned a ton in college and I believe everyone should go to college because it’s a great experience. I met many awesome people and learned amazing things about the world we live in. So unless you have the luxury of working and studying under a respected expert who can teach you everything they know – go to college, even if it’s a junior college, online university, or some online courses.
When you’re making entry-level hires what traits do you look for?
Most of the people I hired went to college but some may not have graduated, Degree or not, it’s about finding the right person. This is somebody who’s proactive and passionate what you do. You can see that from day one of contacting them.
Have they done their research about you and your company? Do they have a solid track record? If I was hiring a social media community manager, experience is one thing but do they have the mindset of the community; you can’t train that stuff. You’re looking for the skills that are already inherent in the person.
You should only have to train a new hire in methods exclusive to your business. It’s more about finding the people who can teach you something, will do the best work possible, and then be hungry for more.
Right now, if I were to hire an intern under me he/she should know about paid media, content amplification, analytics tools, and UX/UI Web design theory, not necessarily from an execution standpoint but to understand why certain things work and others don’t online. And of course, this person needs know tech, follow the trends, and be able to digest all the latest information.
Who are the people that you follow for inspiration or learning?
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
To quote Richard Edelman, “You have to be bold.” Don’t just do what everyone else is doing and think that’s going to be okay. Take risks, be a thought leader, and experiment. If you fail, sweep it under the rug, and go to the next experiment. When an experiment works, then you put money, time, and effort behind it. Don’t just see a success and pass it by.
I also recommend picking hobbies that can benefit your business life. You should have hobbies for your downtime, but setting aside personal time to learn new skills from an article, book, expert, is invaluable.
To consolidate and wrap up: Be proactive and look before you leap. Take your time to understand and be organized about what you’re doing versus just diving in.
Thanks Adam for your time and the huge amount of insight into the world of digital media and emerging technologies! Those who wish to reach out to Adam can find him on Facebook and Twitter.