Wendy Thompson admits to just owning a lifestyle business for the first three years of Socialites. But the past three years have seen her social media agency gain some serious ‘likes’ from New Zealand’s business community.
By Glenn Baker.
Wendy Thompson describes herself as a proud first generation Kiwi. With her dad having avoided Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda, and her mum coming here as a war-refugee baby from Holland, Wendy’s family heritage of change and disruption would prove a precursor to another disruptive world she would enter as an adult. We’re talking about the fast-moving world of social media marketing – a world she has embraced totally through her agency Socialites.
Right from a young age, Wendy has held a passion for marketing. “My Mum tells the story of when I was five or six, I used to go out to the mailbox to collect flyers and then rearrange them with ‘safety scissors’ so they were more aesthetically pleasing and made more sense.
“Even before I knew what marketing was, I’ve always been obsessed with the relationship between businesses and their customers,” says the AUT graduate. “I find that relationship fascinating.”
Wendy was also interested in digital marketing back when text message marketing, email and TradeMe banners were in their infancy. The bulk of her career was spent at WRC, the direct arm of DDB advertising, where she learnt the basic skills of marketing and how to think strategically. “It was a crazy culture and an amazing adventure. Everything had to be perfect; there was no second best. It taught me how to be responsible to an entire team,” she recalls.
Just when it seemed she had found her career path, Wendy took a sabbatical at age 25, and found herself soaking up life’s experiences while crewing on super-yachts. Aside from marketing, she also had a long-held passion for sailing.
Pregnancy brought Wendy back to New Zealand. Today she and husband sports bio-mechanist Greg Pain, have two children, aged ten and seven – with Greg happy to work part-time and take on the family management role.
Two years prior to the GFC, the couple established and subsequently built up a highly successful sports physio practice. Then in 2010 Greg came home after a day out cycling to inform Wendy that the upcoming ‘Crits’ cycle race in Auckland had just had its organiser pull out. Could she take on the marketing?
This was before adverts on Facebook, the platform was largely untested; but Wendy thought she’d give it a try. “Back then people were saying Facebook and the Internet was a complete fad. That’s why I feel like I’m a grandmother of the social media industry,” she laughs.
“Straight away I knew this social media platform was going to fundamentally not only change the way businesses interact with their customers, but also change businesses.
Against all opinion, there was an incredible response to her Facebook marketing efforts.
“Straight away I knew this social media platform was going to fundamentally not only change the way businesses interact with their customers, but also change businesses. This would be a big shift in the way the world works. It’s not just about talking to your customers, but about talking to a community.”
One hundred people turned up to the first cycling event – when previously it had been struggling to attract 20.
“Back at the agency they were still making paper ads and TV commercials, but I could see how this social media thing could be so big for the whole world, and could happen almost overnight.
“I thought, I love this,” recalls Wendy. “How am I going to make money out of it?”
With no courses, no experts or business models to copy, she devised a strategy to get ten clients paying $1200 per month each in exchange for four hours work – to make up a 40-hour week.
It didn’t work, but at least it was a start.
To get a greater understanding about how social media worked, Wendy consulted her brother-in-law James Bergin, now head of architecture at ASB Bank. An expert in the tech world, he could help her get around emerging social media platforms such as Twitter. “For example, this is a hashtag and this is how it works. I didn’t know anything,” she says.
“I remember sitting on my couch at home over three months with my smartphone absorbing as much as I could from the Americans and Europeans. They were way ahead of us then, and still are.”
Friends of friends led Wendy to her first clients. People slowly became convinced that social media was where they had to be, and it’s not just for the younger generation.
Working from home, Wendy believed she had the most amazing lifestyle business.
“I just loved coming up with a conversation tone for all these brands; it was so much fun.”
Her first hire was her younger sister, who subsequently hired one of her friends. Then in 2013, social media got totally serious. Organic reach went down, the requirement for paid adverts went up. “There was an overflow in demographics. Companies still didn’t understand social media, but they were hungry for information,” Wendy recalls.
It was decision time for her business. “I could either carry on under the radar with my lifestyle business and eventually get my Bach, Barbecue and BMW, or step things up and take my passion to the ‘nth degree’, and put myself out there and the company’s reputation on the line.
“It was scary, but I jumped in.”
Socialites was given the contract to launch the Spark brand on social media. Wendy was inspired by the brand’s plan to disrupt the market. She had three weeks to launch date and moved her small team temporarily into the Spark building to meet the deadline.
A successful outcome meant that Wendy and her team were now established on Auckland’s advertising and marketing industry radar. “We got some incredible results for Spark, moving brand sentiment by nine percent, just by talking to people.”
After relocating her team a couple of times, Wendy found a permanent home (she now has 18 staff including part-timers) in Auckland’s CBD O’Connell Street in 2015 – the same year Socialites made the Fast 50.
Wendy’s journey to social media stardom hasn’t been without its one big rough patch. “We lost three major retainer clients over two weeks,” she recalls. “That was 60 percent of our retained revenue, and that’s pretty stressful.”
Those losses had nothing to do with Socialites performance, it was simply that social media was now performing so well for those clients, they stopped outsourcing that function or moved it to an agency. “I literally did ourselves out of business,” says Wendy.
“I realised that even though I was telling everyone to put their customers at the heart of their business and not to get distracted, in fact I had become distracted.
“We were having all these amazing conversations with our clients’ customers and providing all these great insights, but I’d forgotten what our actual clients needed from us. Their needs had changed, and I’d completely missed it.
“Fortunately we had three months’ cash reserves to get ourselves through that patch. I’m one of those people who always likes to have a back-up.”
She says she knows of many other entrepreneurs who’ve been saved because they also believed in having sufficient backup cash.
“We reorganised the company and changed our offering to be more strategic and streamlined, and to keep our clients more updated on social media trends.”
With all her staff now sharing information on social media every day, they can more easily stay ahead of what’s happening, she says.
Socialites is now clearly back in growth stage, but Wendy doesn’t apply too much expectation on the business. “I like to be nimble,” she says. “And I definitely have no immediate plans to take the Socialites brand to Australia. We’re not even scratching the surface in New Zealand.”
One thing she is proud of is the fact that Socialites has helped create a whole new industry – especially over the past three years. “We’re changing businesses by putting the customer at the heart of what they do.”
She uses client Jeds Coffee as an example of the outcomes of what can be achieved.
Social media conversations led to a whole new strength of coffee being introduced. That’s how powerful it is to reach a whole community.
“I strongly believe businesses are here to make the world a better place. If that’s not the aim of your business, your customers will soon work it out, and [through social media] you’re not going to have a business.”
Looking back, Wendy can appreciate how much of a pioneer she has been in the social media industry as her business has evolved, and that there were real challenges. “It was totally new ground. And I’m an eternal optimist so for me there were no wrong decisions to make – only different decisions,” she says.
“For example, pretty much all social media accounts in New Zealand today have 9am to 9pm coverage, and I started that. It became best practice. It’s kind of cool. Where did that come from? Because I said so!
“I’m proud of the [industry] best practice we’ve set in place over the years.”
Social media has matured over its relatively short life too. “It’s not about ‘when’s the best time to post’ anymore,” explains Wendy. “It’s all about quality now; about making ‘beautiful’ social media – perhaps by including gifts or a cool video. It has to be ‘thumb-stopping’.
“And, of course, everything now has to cater to the mobile market.”
Social media’s about partnerships, taking clients on a discovery journey, adds Wendy. “Delighting and surprising them [with outcomes], and bringing any insights back to the clients.”
While Socialites primarily works with corporates, Wendy’s latest ‘baby’ is a new online educational hub targeting SMEs called Start Social – designed to teach business owners in various vertical markets how to use social media platforms.
The hub also educates business owners on which platforms are relevant to their business sector. “For example, if you’re a restaurant you need to be on Facebook, and Instagram if you have the time; and definitely Yelp and TripAdvisor if you’re in a tourist hot-spot like Queenstown. If you’re a retailer, being on Instagram is important.”
Wendy sees Start Social as part of the drive to boost the digitalisation of Kiwi small businesses and make them more profitable. It has been rolled out with Spark as a marketing partner, and features Live Chat, plus a community group. “So if people get stuck they can ask for help.”
Start Social is a big step for Wendy, because four years prior, she and her brother and sister each invested $50,000 in a competition template platform for Facebook, only for Facebook to change the rules two months in and leave their investment high and dry overnight. Even though Wendy laughs about it today, it was both a lesson about not relying on one platform and a reminder of the fickle nature of online technology.
“At least with no outside investors involved we were able to wipe it and take it on the chin. But it was a little embarrassing.”
A social future
So how does Wendy see social media developing over the next few years?
“The businesses that will succeed are the ones that really listen and stay close to their customers. It’s important to watch what’s happening at a micro-level, and not get stuck on the past. Because the environment is changing so fast, measuring results against past efforts is almost ridiculous,” she says.
“For example, if you know your customers are on Snapchat, while you may not have any hard numbers yet, just get on there. Don’t wait! It might only be big for a year.
“If you don’t go on the journey with your clients, you’ll get left behind. So stay flexible, and think big when it comes to social media and the global opportunity.”
As for the future of Socialites, Wendy believes there is another big decision looming around whether to hunker down at the 20 mark in terms of staff, or “go big” and add more management layers, and the associated risk. She jokes about the latter option probably spelling an end to her three month cash reserve!
However, as sole director of Socialites and with no formal board or advisors, it’s fair to say Wendy will be seeking advice, and investors, for her expansion plans – which also include the prospect of taking her Start Social platform overseas.
Meanwhile her passion for social media and what it can do for both small business, and other fields such as health education for high-risk groups, remains undiminished.
In such a young industry, with such incredible potential, she’s only getting started.