I Was A Successful Social Marketer Long Before It Was Cool

The digital tools are new and the potential bigger, but people were social creatures before the Internet came along

John Warner
Control Your Destiny


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There’s a great line in a country song, “I was country before country was cool.” I was a successful social marketer long before it was cool. The digital tools are new. The reach of the Internet is enormous. People were social creatures before the Internet came along. The basic social marketing concepts that work aren’t new.

I started my career in the 1980s at KPMG. Public accounting doesn’t sound like a place to learn marketing. I had a great mentor there who taught me to listen to clients describe their problems and then propose solutions the firm could deliver. We didn’t sell them services. We helped solve problems they already knew they had. Together my mentor and I built a large consulting practice.

In the 1990s I co-founded and built Capital Insights with another great mentor. I started with a white paper for how an investment group would work. I didn’t call them “angel investors’’ because I had not heard of the term at the time. I met with local leaders for six months iterating the concept before we launched.

My partner and I compiled a list of 1,000 people in Greenville, SC, we thought had a net worth of more than $1 million. In each investment offering, we created a proposal in the form of a private placement memorandum with a pitch deck. We’d schedule and send the 1,000 people invitations to investment meetings at local hotels.

Those attending thought the meetings were about informing them. For me, the most important objective of the meetings was allowing prospects to self-qualify as being interested by showing up. Rather than sell to 1,000 people, I zeroed in quickly on 50 or so of the most qualified prospects.

Capital Insights grew to be one of the largest angel investment groups in the country in Greenville, SC, of all places. We had 150 individuals investing $15 million in numerous entrepreneurial companies. We won three Addy awards for our marketing. Our geese logo became so top-of-mind with our investors that regularly one would call me to tell me there was a sculpture of geese at the local airport. They saw geese and thought Capital Insights.

Capital Insight’s most successful investment was Earth Fare, which grew to be the largest regional organic grocery store chain in the country. I became Chairman and recruited an experienced CEO to run the stores. I was most personally involved in new store launches. We developed a demographically driven store location model we refined over time.

At each store opening, we built allies in the community. In Greenville that included the environmental group Upstate Forever, for example. We’d offer them a community room in the store at no cost to hold meetings. We’d choose them as our charity of the month. Each time during the month, when customers brought cloth bags rather than using plastic bags we’d make a contribution to the charity. Allies like the Upstate Forever would promote to their membership their meetings at our stores and the month they were our featured charity. This was a novel form of social marketing with allies like Upstate Forever being strong influencers.

We grew one store in Asheville into a chain of 15 stores and $100 million in revenue before selling the company at an 8X return to our investors. Once we validated the store location model, the pitch to the buyer was “just add cash.”

In the early 2000s, I was VP of Strategy and Communications for KEMET, a New York Stock Exchange company. I was the point person in marketing the company to Wall Street analysts. They had no idea where Greenville, SC, was, except that it was somewhere close to where the movie Deliverance was filmed. Greenville has had an amazing renaissance, regularly making top ten lists for all the right reasons. I held analysts’ meetings in downtown Greenville so they could experience the super cool vibe with wonderful food and great music. One analyst told me how impressed he was with Greenville. I joked that when he got off the plane and we had shoes on we exceeded his expectations.

Framing KEMET for Wall Street Analysts in the context of a rising and innovative community was a form of social marketing. Analysts were influencers who promoted KEMET to the rest of the Wall Street community.

I started InnoVenture in 2004, which over the next decade grew into many innovation conferences and forums across the Carolinas and Georgia. Similar to Capital Insights, I started with a concept that iterated over time. Anchor partners included Michelin, Milliken, GE, and BlueCross BlueShield. We scheduled forums on innovation topics chosen by our anchors. We promoted them broadly to innovators and entrepreneurs in the region we had identified. Those interested in the topic would self-identify by showing up. We had 600 people at some of the bigger innovation forums. Social marketing launch best practices

Today, specialty marketing firms have identified best practices in launching companies and products using social marketing.

  • Identify key customer prospects and build an early contact list
  • Test the concept and messaging with prospects, and iterate
  • Build the early interest for the launch among prospects
  • Identify, intrigue, and nurture key influencers
  • Create an offer to prospects and test it
  • Create marketing collateral based on prospect feedback.
  • Launch by engaging prospects and influencers to generate traffic and exposure.
  • Close sales
  • Provide excellent customer care after the sale to create raving fans. The most effective and cost-efficient marketing is word of mouth.

Crossing the Chasm to the mainstream market

Early on, focus on the initial burst to capture the beach on D-Day. Ultimately this initial frenetic energy transitions into holistic, sustainable marketing to capture Europe. The longer-term marketing is influenced greatly by what’s learned capturing the beach. Don’t try to boil the ocean to get started. It’s crucial to get started by taking the beach. On contact with customers plans change in unpredictable ways. Crossing the Chasm is a great book about this beachhead approach. My copy is highlighted and dog-eared.

Social marketing is a powerful tool for many organizations. While the digital tools are new and the potential is much greater, there is nothing new under the sun.



John Warner
Control Your Destiny

Serial entrepreneur sharing 40 years of insights to control your destiny in our turbulent times