Rising star of the social set

Rising star of the social set

Jodie Cole launched her social media company three years ago. Today she’s got a six-figure annual turnover, employs three staff and has just won a major business award. Steve Dyson reports.

Monday 8 August 2011 is firmly imprinted on Jodie Cole’s memory: it was the day she landed her first contract, just one week after starting JC Social Media Ltd.

It was only for £800 worth of work with an organisation in Blackpool, but for Jodie it was enough to stop off at Manchester’s Trafford Shopping Centre on her way home to splash out £50 on “happy first customer clothes” to celebrate.

“That moment signified the launch of my business,” the 25-year-old recalls, “and it was the kind of feeling I’ll never forget.”

Born in Harborne, Birmingham, Jodie attended nearby King Edward VI Five Ways grammar school in Bartley Green before studying Business Management at Sheffield University. Her degree taught a lot of marketing, and she’d always loved writing – and a combination of these skills led her into social media. After graduation, she secured a full-time placement with the National Skills Academy for Social Care: “It wasn’t until I started playing with social media and marketing that I thought: ‘I could do this.’ So I did some research and pulled together ideas on what I wanted to do for various companies, and started networking.”

Jodie launched JC Social Media the day after her placement ended, and was soon busy with her first customer, Blackpool Advocacy, a women’s centre that also runs dementia day care and support services.

“I worked on how they could get their message out and get known in Blackpool for what they did. At the time, domestic abuse was a theme on Coronation Street [with the character Carla], so we tied in what they were doing with a topical story, using Twitter and Facebook.”

Jodie asks customers three core questions before she plans social media ‘campaigns’: Who’s the audience? What’s the message? And what business goals do you want to achieve? She then uses social media to find that audience, helping them to understand and react to the message.

“Traditional advertising is all about push messages – whether it’s adverts on billboards, TV or whatever. It’s one way – telling an audience about your product or service. With social media, it’s two-way, and most companies don’t know how to use that approach.

“JC Social Media takes a company’s ideas to an audience and gets ideas back from that audience on what to do next. It’s about engaging with potential customers, and training companies to add value: make your audience laugh, make them think, add something, rather than them just feeling they’re being sold to.”

Jodie describes her work with a driving insurance company: “Instead of simply offering this or that cover, we used social media to find people taking lessons and passing tests. We found them through keyword searches, then used various tracking and monitoring tools and set up private Twitter network groups to market to them directly.

“We found ‘collaborators’, such as driving lesson companies and others who learner drivers were talking to. Having found the audience, it was then about becoming their friend rather than marketing, giving the company its own brand and presence so people recognised it.

“Then it’s talking to people about themselves and their interests, and things that could help them, such as the ‘safest car colours for lower premiums’, or retweeting a national story about ‘stopping distances in the rain’.

“This means the business doesn’t need to ‘direct sell’, but builds prospect lists through one-to-one relationships instead. Good social media stays away from sending messages to mass lists. One-to-one is time-consuming but beneficial, because people respond best when they feel social media is ‘for them’.

“For example, sending direct ‘Congratulations!’ messages when someone passes their driving test. In effect, using social media to be that ‘friendly expert’ who people then come to when they’re ready to ‘buy’.”

JC Social Media works carefully with clients to make sure their ‘tone of voice’ is right, and then collects and communicates with specific audiences for each one. By ‘tone of voice’, Jodie means how a company sounds when it’s ‘talking’ online: for the NHS, the tone needs to be “very responsible, sensible and neutral”, whereas for TGI Fridays, a “more funky and colloquial” voice is required. Then Jodie explains the ‘buy’ moment: “It’s about working out what people are saying when they’re ‘in the market’. People talking on social media about where to get the best steaks in a particular town is perfect for a steak house’s social media. Or for a wedding dress company, who’s talking on social media about getting engaged and buying a dress? They’re all potential customers.”

JC Social Media has handled nearly 100 clients since 2011, including: training for the Handmade Burger Co.; a social media audit for the Scottish Police Federation; ongoing social media management for Opus restaurant in Birmingham; Marriott Hotels UK; and Skills for Birmingham. And they’ve just started work for Vibe Audio, a “cool brand” of headphones and earphones run by former Aston Villa star Craig Gardner. Jodie employs three full-time account managers recruited via Graduate Advantage, based at Aston University: “It’s like a recruitment service for top UK graduates. They’ve all got English, Media or a similar degree, and I train them in social media. I prefer it that way as I don’t think all social media courses are that good. I’d rather have fresh graduates with a commercial sense and train them myself.”

Jodie lives in Birmingham city centre with childhood sweetheart and fiancé Ben Cook, who she met at secondary school. They’ve founded another company together called Clever Tykes, a set of children’s storybooks designed to introduce positive entrepreneurial role models to children.

Being ‘boss’ at JC Social Media comes naturally to Jodie: her mum worked for herself as a business consultant, her dad runs a Citroen dealership, and her sister is sales and events manager at Revolution, in Birmingham. “Everyone’s ‘the boss’ in our family,” she jokes. Jodie’s website offers a free tool called ‘Tweet to the Top’, an eight-part module that’s sent out to guide people through the basics of establishing themselves on Twitter.

“I’m not afraid of giving stuff away,” she says, “because it makes social media a more useful place for everyone, effectively helping my clients anyway. And we get business from ‘Tweet to the Top’. Back in 2011, we had clients who didn’t know what social media was, and it was about convincing people of the need to use it. Now, people know what
it is and what it can achieve, it’s just finding the experts. And I want them to find me!

“It’s like when websites were first invented and people said: ‘Do you have one? Why do you need one?’ And so on. Now the questions are: ‘Who built yours? What does it do?’ It’s the same with social media: companies accept the need, now they want expertise. What are the right pictures, messages and activity needed to achieve business goals? The owners of SMEs are busy people – they have phones ringing, people at the door, so much going on, and ten or 15 distractions on the computer. And so how can brands stand out? With so many things fighting for people’s attention, social media has to be snappier – just like music. I’ve a friend who’s just signed a recording contract, and she’s been advised to ditch intros and just get straight into songs, and if something repeats to change it all the time because people are constantly getting bored.”

Jodie reckons Twitter and LinkedIn are the best social media for businesses to engage with customers, whereas Facebook and others are “more useful as content platforms”. She adds that Pinterest and Instagram are “better for visual clients like retail and restaurants” and – like other social media experts I’ve spoken to – she doesn’t yet rate Google+, which she feels is “desperate to get user numbers”.

As well as her wedding this July, Jodie has serious plans for the future: “I want the company to grow sustainably, increasing the number of account managers, possibly specialising in different ‘departments’ like hospitality, education, and so on. And for me, I really like delivering talks and social media training to high-profile people and companies. I’m forever learning different things, and I’d like to be a thought-leader on the subject, someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Jodie’s already been invited to act as an ambassador for a ‘Start-Up Loans’ scheme, chaired by Dragon’s Den TV star James Caan. And just weeks after this interview took place, she was awarded the title of Birmingham Young Professional of the Year (BYPY) 2014 in the prestigious BPS Birmingham Future Awards.