Thursday, September 15, 2011

From Grad Student to Social Media Millionaire

         Skeptics say social media hasn't existed long enough to produce experts. Clearly, those folks haven't met Shama Kabani. The 26-year-old wrote her master's thesis for the University of Texas at Austin about Twitter--when it had only 2,000 users, not the 175 million it has today. She hosts a web TV show about technology. Her 2010 book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing: An Easier Way to Build Credibility, Generate Buzz and Increase Revenue, is the No. 4 seller about web marketing on Amazon.com.

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And those are just the side projects. In 2009, at 24, Kabani founded The Marketing Zen Group, a social media marketing firm in Dallas. The company, which she launched with $1,500 of her own money, specializes in all aspects of web marketing for clients--from Facebook and Twitter to blogs and video.

"We are in an age where people are tired of the faceless corporate culture," the Texas native says. "Every day, I ask myself the same question: What can I do today to increase value for our trusted audience (blog readers, TV watchers, Twitter followers, etc.), for our team and for our clients?"

That value means different things for different clients. For k9cuisine.com, a Paris, Ill.-based online retailer of dog food, Marketing Zen established blog and Twitter presences and cultivated relationships with pet-related bloggers. For Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Boston, the company optimized a website to generate more targeted sales leads.

Marketing Zen wasn't always about social media. Kabani says her original plan was to start a general consulting agency. But she quickly realized her passions--and all the best gigs, for that matter--were in the social media space, so she tweaked her strategy.

This modified approach was about consulting with clients, telling them how to better market their businesses online and letting them run with it. Meanwhile, Kabani learned two things: Clients wanted not just a consultant, but also a firm that could implement ideas; and social media is only part of a larger marketing puzzle that includes building solid websites and developing smart search engine optimization.

"That is how we went from being a consulting company to a company that takes over web marketing for our clients," she says. "Our value proposition is simpler now: We drive inbound leads for our clients and increase their online brand visibility."

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That thinking appears to be working. Kabani declines to share specifics, but she notes revenues grew more than 400 percent last year alone, and she expects Marketing Zen to be a "multimillion-dollar company" by the end of 2014.

One of the secrets to Kabani's profit model is low overhead. She hired almost all her 30 employees virtually, and many key people work remotely. At least a dozen Marketing Zen employees are in the Philippines.

Another key differentiator: legitimate engagement. Kabani prides herself on having her clients engage with followers, rather than simply talking at them. For Dave Kerpen, CEO and co-founder of competitor Likeable Media, this is a distinguishing characteristic. "She understands the true meaning of community engagement," Kerpen says. "She gets that the conversation must go both ways in order to satisfy customers."

Kabani is also giving back: Earlier this year, she was part of a delegation of businesspeople from the U.S. and Denmark that traveled to Egypt to educate young entrepreneurs. It's all part of her far-reaching quest for enterprising youth to tackle the new global business market.

"The world we live in today is not the world of our grandparents, or even that of our parents," Kabani says. "A college degree does not guarantee success. Young entrepreneurs have to create their own opportunities. The economy needs fresh blood and bold new ideas."

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