They grew up with social media

How a new generation of entrepreneurs is setting the standard for social media marketing.

By Nora Poole
Thursday, July 23, 2015

We interviewed three young entrepreneurs making a splash in the social media marketing business. They gave us the scoop on what’s new in the industry, as well as what keeps them up at night.

Luke Riordan, founder and CEO of DAYTA

When Luke Riordan started an internship doing social media management for an orthopedic clinic in his hometown of Stevens Point, Wisc., little did he know that four months down the road he’d be running his own company. The then-St. John’s University senior says he approached the clinic with the idea for this internship because of his growing interest in social media marketing and a desire to help small businesses take advantage of what it had to offer.

“[Social media] is a rapidly evolving industry,” Riordan explains. “Many small businesses don’t have the chance to focus on it, so my project was to work with the clinic to develop and implement a strategy.”

The internship was quite a success, according to Riordan, and gave him valuable practical experience in addition to his academic study. At the end of the four-month internship, the clinic decided to hire Riordan to continue what he had started.

“It was a really cool moment,” he says of being offered a paid position to manage the clinic’s social media presence. “For a college kid living on pizza and beer, it was very exciting and unexpected.” Soon after, in early 2012, Riordan founded DAYTA Marketing.

Today, Riordan runs his company with the help of his uncle, John Riordan, a veteran entrepreneur who has the business acumen to complement Riordan’s niche knowledge of social media. “He’s got the grey hair,” Riordan says. “He brings a level of business savvy and experience that I hadn’t developed yet.”

So far, Riordan says, the company’s key to success has been a strong focus on working with people. “We aren’t a software program,” he explains. “We pick up the phone, we talk with our clients, we email them regularly. We may be a tech company, but we’re also a customer service agency through and through.”

What’s new in the social media marketing industry? What’s trending?
Video advertising is very trendy and exciting right now. If you’re on Facebook, for example, the videos play automatically when you scroll by them on your feed. They are very inexpensive for companies to make and run, and have worked wonders for clients.

What’s considered cutting edge these days?
Retargeting is a particularly cutting edge tool at the moment. This is what allows companies to target their advertising audiences very specifically. When customers visit a company’s website, retargeting tools allow the ads for that company to follow visitors on social media platforms. If you visit a website looking for a pair of shoes, an ad for that pair of shoes will later pop up on your Facebook page. It’s a way of tying social media marketing into the broader digital marketing strategy for a company.

Are you competitive or collaborative with other firms?
We are 100 percent collaborative. We are a very niche firm — we focus solely on social media marketing. It’s our thought that although we deserve a piece of the advertising pie, so to speak, we by no means believe that social media marketing is the only type of advertising a company will ever need. Therefore, it’s necessary that we collaborate with other firms in the industry in order to make sure what we do is serving the clients’ overall marketing needs.

Tena Pettis, owner and founder of tena.cious

In 2009, Tena Pettis had had enough of her corporate job. Drawing on her background in marketing and design, and with some prompting from friends and family (“My husband was especially supportive of me striking out on my own,” she notes), she decided to launch her own social media marketing agency with a focus on Facebook.

“At the time, many small businesses were struggling with making Facebook work for them,” Pettis explains. “I wanted to help make it a tool they could use to grow business and reinforce their brands.”

And although tena.cious started with a focus on Facebook, it has since grown into a “one stop shop” for social media marketing of all kinds, as well as web design, graphic design, branding strategy and more. Pettis and her team also offer full-day workshops dedicated to developing a specific social media marketing strategy.

Pettis says her approach has always been about teamwork. “I didn’t want to be just like every other agency,” she explains. “I wanted to grow a truly amazing team.”

One way she’s achieved this is hiring candidates right out of college, or those who are just starting out in the industry, she says. “I love hiring people early in their careers,” Pettis says. “It gives me the opportunity to be part of their journeys, whether they grow and thrive at tena.cious or use this company as a springboard into another career.”

What are the challenges of being young in social media? What are the advantages?
Social media is a very new industry, relatively speaking, so this generation of young entrepreneurs is responsible for paving the way on our own. We don’t have years of knowledge built up about what works and what doesn’t; there is a lot of trial and error going on, and that can at times be challenging. But it can also be exciting, because you’re the one figuring out how to succeed in this new industry.

Who do you go to for advice?
My No. 1 go-to place for advice is the Allied Executives peer group. Every month at the meeting I’ve got a pile of questions. They’re a very supportive, fun and interesting group, and have been a great source of advice. I also have a business coach, who is great for bouncing ideas off of. She’s very encouraging. Then there’s my financial planner, who has been helpful in terms of connecting me with a lawyer and an insurance agent and all of those things I’m not an expert on. It’s so important to build a supportive network of people to help you along your journey as an entrepreneur.

What about the future of social media keeps you up at night?
In the short term, staying on top of an ever-changing industry and finding ways to simplify processes takes up a lot of time. Oftentimes clients want to jump on board with a new social media outlet as soon as it comes out, but that isn’t often the best way. Long term, the fact that one day these social media tools may just not exist is a daunting thought. There may be a day when Facebook isn’t around anymore, and planning for that is tricky, because you really can’t predict those things.

Martha McCarthy co-founder and CEO of The Social Lights

Martha McCarthy and Emily Pritchard met while studying entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas. In 2009, the pair collaborated on their senior project to explore the emerging social media marketing field.

“For our final project we decided to basically found a social media marketing agency,” McCarthy explains. Their research involved talking with dozens of small business owners in the community to gauge the need for such a company and to make a business plan. “As it turned out, there was definitely a need for the kind of business Emily and I wanted to start.”

McCarthy and Pritchard launched The Social Lights in May 2011, before graduation, using their project’s business plan.

“We had a number of clients before we even graduated,” McCarthy says.

Since its beginning, The Social Lights has remained quite niche, focusing specifically on social media. “We do what we do best and don’t try to tackle projects that don’t fit within our expertise,” McCarthy explains. That said, the agency’s approach is unique. Rather than clients always outsourcing their social media management to The Social Lights, the company offers on-site staff and even helps its larger customers set up in-house social media departments.

“We want to do what’s best for our clients, even if it isn’t always traditional,” McCarthy says.

MNBIZ: What’s new in social media these days?
MCCARTHY: There’s been a lot of change even since we started The Social Lights. Ad targeting capabilities are getting really interesting right now. This technology allows companies to collect and refine data to be informed about who their customers are. There are also cool new ways of blending the physical and digital using geo-locating technology, which has all kinds of uses for brands and companies.

MNBIZ: What are some challenges of being young in social media? Advantages?
MCCARTHY: Although more apparent four or five years ago, there is still a lot of confusion among people who are more familiar with traditional forms of advertising as to what the benefits of social media marketing can be. They aren’t sure how much of their ad budget to allocate towards social as opposed to the other forms of advertising they’re using. There are a lot of questions about return on investment. This isn’t even about age or a generation gap anymore; it’s about people’s differing backgrounds and experiences. The best we can do is provide the metrics to show that social media marketing is quite effective, which is getting easier as analytic tools become more refined.

MNBIZ: Is The Social Lights competitive or collaborative with other firms?
MCCARTHY: We do a lot of collaboration, especially over the last year. We specialize in social media; we don’t do SEO or web development or public relations. We’re a very niche firm, and so we pair nicely with other hyper-focused firms. They see us as social experts, and want to add that capability for a certain client or campaign. We have a network of preferred partners, and this has contributed to our growth and success in a significant way.