As I’ve said before, there are many people operating behind the curtain, shaping the stories, memes and people you see in the news and read about online. You find them in many roles and many places—some work inside brands or on people’s staff, some work for themselves or have small upstart agencies and of course, some do it just for the thrill of it. Often, you’ll have seen their work before you ever hear about them.
Greg Baroth is one of those people. I met him while working on a book project for a controversial online figure. It was only after that book proposal had sold for seven figures that I got a note from the agent: “Hey, you should meet Greg. You guys do similar things.” It turns out, Greg was a media master—a behind the scenes guys—responsible for the rapid growth of social media accounts and media profiles for figures like Dan Bilzerian, Total Frat Move, Randy Jackson, Verne Troyer (accounts with more than 28 million combined social followers) and many others he can’t speak about. We’d both been working on the same project and had no idea that the other one even existed.
As you can imagine, I had a million questions for Greg. I wanted to ask him things not only because I thought it would interest readers but because he’s one of the few people who experienced and dealt with a handful of the same business issues that I have. I wanted to know how he sees his role, how he charges for it, how he’s built his company, how what he’s done changes how he reads the news. Honestly, it was all too much to put into just one interview. So we’re going to start with some of the more obvious questions and then follow up with Greg some more.
But for now, read how one of the smartest minds in social media has helped build accounts that reach literally millions of people every single day and how he’s shaped media stories and memes that you’ve almost certainly seen…but had no idea he was involved in.
How would you describe what you do? I feel like when people hear “social media management” they probably think “Oh, this guy checks my Twitter account for me” but it’s really much more than that right? When I see what you do, I see it much more of a strategic role than anything else.
It is pretty hard to describe everything that I do. Overall, I’d say I’m a digital media strategist, or consultant. But there are a lot of moving parts within that description. When people hear anything relating to social media, they do usually think that I’m just on Twitter all day. Or that what I do could be done by their interns. It’s one of the problems with social media as a whole. Too many “experts” because of the relatively low barrier to entry. These days, clients, whether an individual, musician or band, startup or a brand, say they need help with social media, but what they actually mean is that they want to build a brand. What I’m really doing, is brand development. It’s a mix of social media, photography, video production, content creation, business development and PR all rolled into one. Usually, the job consists of storytelling, which is essentially just branding. The better or more unique that I can make the story surrounding the project, the better chance it has of doing well. I do handle daily social media management for clients, of course, but just daily social media posts aren’t going to move the needle much for someone.
Most of the time the people I work with have managers, agents, publicists, and more on the team. All too often, a client might say “we need help with social media” but what they are really asking me to do is “break” them. Which of course is not always something that is possible no matter how high of a retainer they may be willing to pay.
Some of the individual clients that I’ve worked with have become brands of themselves, and because of their audience on social media, they’ve gotten major media attention, and everything from commercial deals, television offers, and much more.
You started by working with the site Total Frat Move but have since helped build some of the biggest social media presences in the world—Dan Bilzerian being one of them. How did you get into this business?
I went to college wanting to be a marine biologist. I quickly determined that I’d rather not work at SeaWorld, and switched to business marketing. A friend got me my first and only internship with Bill Silva Management, (Jason Mraz’s manager/Hollywood Bowl Promoter) and just like that I was happily working for free in the music industry. I then found a friend of a friend who wanted to be a singer, and I used this as a great way to learn by doing. This also got me my first article mention, from Mashable when we made a crude music video using Draw Something, and happened to release it on the same day that the company sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. I feel really strongly about the concept of just doing. If you want to do something, find other people who also want to make things and go do it. It doesn’t take much. Next, I used Facebook to find the names and contact a bunch of sorority girls throughout the West Coast, and cold called them to book a “sorority tour” for him. We played free shows all over the west coast. UCLA, USC, UC Davis, Santa Clara, SF and more. We didn’t make any money off of them, but we sold merch, stayed with friends, and had a great time doing it.
From BSM, I ended up getting offered a job at WhoSay, a social media management app being incubated by CAA. This was my first real job, and I was still taking classes at CSUN at the time, so I went to work during the day, and went to classes at night. It was the best of both worlds in the sense that I was going to CAA everyday, but not in the CAA stereotype assistant role, because WhoSay was a startup. Which was scary and awesome at the same time. The security never could remember me and one time they even made the elevator stop and return to the first floor (with people in it) so that they could ask me who I was and double-check that I was supposed to be there. I worked with WhoSay for about a year and a half, at which time I saw that people were really just looking to hire individuals and companies to help them do their social media, and I wanted to start doing that.
I got my first celebrity client, and that was that. I decided to quit the full-time job and go on my own as a consultant. One client ended up getting me another client, and it was sort of a trickle effect. I got Total Frat Move as a client because when I was working at WhoSay, I had just cold emailed them, told the founders I liked what they were up to, and wanted to be involved. I helped them out for a bit, and one day they said “You know we are looking for someone to do what you do for us, to hire, so we figured why not hire you?” and that was a few years ago.
Sometimes I get random emails from talent agents saying they have a client who needs help and then I get a new client that way. Half the time I don’t even know the original person who brought me up. Which is awesome to have happening now.
From day one I’ve sort of prided myself on the fact that I just want to work on cool projects, or things that interest me. And while at the start I certainly had to take sort of whatever I could find that paid, I’m luckily now at a point where I get to start saying no to people. I’ve had my small stable of clients for years now, and while I’m always looking for new projects, I work by myself so I only have so much time. I always joke that when I get fed up with what I’m doing I am just going to stop everything and go back to marine biology, which I may very well do.
I have this concept I’ve written about before called “trading up the chain“—how stories start on social media or small sites and become bigger and bigger news as various outlets poach from each other. I see a lot of this in your work. Can you explain your strategy for getting headlines for your clients?
Trading up the chain is one of those things I sort of found out by accident, and once you do it once, it spoils you forever. A story on a smaller blog is going to get picked up by that blogs competition, and so forth and so forth until next thing you know, you’ve got a BuzzFeed article with 1.2 million views and everybody from Huffington Post to Daily Mail are sharing what you wanted shared. Sometimes I do this by use of personal contacts at these places, and other times I use Reddit. While I have a pretty good track record by now of being able to tell someone “hey please write about this, I’m going to make it a thing,” you can’t win every time. But I sort of take pride in going back to someone that didn’t write about something, showing them a bunch of press articles about it, and them ending up writing about it after the fact. Luckily because of Twitter and LinkedIn, it is pretty easy to find the email or best contact information of a person you are looking to get in contact with. And more importantly, it isn’t too hard to find one person you know that might know them, to intro you. An intro is key, makes life a lot easier.
I also like to look to things that not everybody is using or best taking advantage of yet. Such as Reddit, or years ago when it was hard to explain to traditional people the importance of certain YouTube collaborations. These are great ways to get people seen. Especially when it comes to the power of some YouTubers. Verne and I went to Ohio once to meet Roman Atwood. Spent only 24 hours with him, and the next day Verne’s YouTube channel had almost 75,000 subscribers. He beat Taylor Swift and Wiz Khalifa for most subscribed for two days straight. The video Roman made has over 7 million views. Roman gets more daily views on his channel than some TV shows.
How important is controversy in the campaigns that you do? Obviously that’s something Dan seems to be the subject of quite often.
People love controversy. Controversy is something that certainly helps a campaign. Whether good or bad. It makes people have an opinion on the matter, which is better for sharing and engagement. So while it is not a must, it certainly helps. If you can’t do controversy, try cats. I’ve sort of put myself into a niche though of this and I’m trying to get my way out.
How do you manage the expectations of your clients? I find that so many people just want to copy what other people have done (even though once it’s been done, it doesn’t work as well anymore) or they want what other people have (but aren’t willing to take those same risks).
I’m really big on the idea of setting expectations lower and over delivering, rather than higher expectations and then missing the mark. I probably don’t get as many clients because of this. But I’m not willing to sit in a meeting and tell the person “I can promise you this will go viral, and you will get 1 million followers” because that just isn’t going to happen. There are a lot of people who think the magical red “viral” button exists, and you just push it. But it doesn’t work that way. I also have this problem of telling people their ideas are bad or not going to work. There have been plenty of times where something I’ve created has done really well, and I thought it would. But there are also times when things I would have bet on, didn’t do well.
There’s a big difference between copying, and building upon. But the first idea always does better than the others will. Doesn’t mean that you won’t get attention with the second similar idea, but it just won’t be as much. It’s the same concept of there being UBER, and then all the following “Uber for x” ideas. There’s Dan Bilzerian, and then there’s the “Dan Bilzerian of ____” that people love to make stories about now.
What do you feel like most brands or celebrities miss or do wrong with social media?
I think a lot of people don’t understand how much work it is to actually create the content. I give a lot of credit to people like the Vine celebrities who are now taking over Facebook with the way that they create videos and take advantage of the algorithm. Because it takes time to do that, same with YouTubers who upload every day.
A lot of times they don’t understand the process of what makes a good post, story or piece of content. I get a lot of “we want to grow by this much, by this time” and I say “O.K., let’s start by doing ___ and ___” My ideas usually get rejected, and they just want to play it safe or continue doing what they were doing. Which won’t really move the needle that much.
Who would you love to work with but haven’t been able to?
I was put into the mix to work on the Zoolander 2 marketing, but ultimately didn’t get picked. I honestly haven’t pitched myself to many people lately, but guys like Dwayne Johnson or DJ Khaled would be fun. There’s a big difference when working with someone that you have to make the story, versus doing something for someone that is already a story, or a big name. I think it would be nice to work with some big names because the ideas you come up with have a better shot at doing well. I used to tell people that I just wanted to do cool shit. But some mentors and people I look up to told me I had to get rid of the “Shit” part because brands wouldn’t want to work with me.
What is next for you? What’s next for these clients who you’ve helped turn into a new kind of celebrity?
I’ve been working a lot more with startups lately. It really interests me, especially because that is sort of what I got my start doing. I’m always looking for new talent and new things to get involved in. But now I am sort of at the point where I think I’ve done enough for other people, and I’d like to start doing more for projects of mine.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.