The Digital Whisperer

Elevation Tribe

By Soyini Driskell

In 2007, when social media was a new concept no one was sure would last, then-22-year-old Shama Hyder founded her media communications firm, Zen Media, already displaying an instinct for identifying the next big thing. “I did my thesis on Twitter in the very early days when it had about two thousand users, and my passion for the industry and this work just grew from there,” explains the CEO and best-selling author.

Hyder’s interest prompted her to start her business right after graduating with a master’s degree from University of Texas at Austin, making a bold gamble on herself in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008. “Big companies were tightening their belts, they weren’t interested in taking risks. But we found that smaller businesses were still eager and interested in any strategy or idea that would get them business,” said Hyder. “Eventually we built our reputation so we were ready when the bigger companies realized social and digital weren’t fads or trends they could ignore.”

What also can’t be ignored is the decade of expertise Hyder has built in digital strategy, marketing, social, and branding. Beyond knowing her way around social apps and understanding the digital proclivities of consumers, Hyder has tapped into the spirit of what she has defined as the ‘connected consumer.’ “The connected consumer is beyond age; it’s not just Millennials or Gen X. There is no digital life and in-person life, there’s just life.”

Zen Media creates a branding playbook for clients including Chase, NASA, Verizon, Mary Kay, and the United States Navy that helps them speak the connected consumer’s language- reaching them on the platforms they’re already active on to maximize their engagement. It’s an analytically-driven, collaborative process that also educates clients on how to be agile in their approach.

“Everything from our technology usage to how we consume information are data points that tell a story. Our job at Zen is to translate the data to help our clients stay relevant to that connected consumer; how to attract them, how to retain them, and how to engage them.”

Her work has unearthed insights into the social and online habits of digital consumers across multiple age demographics. “Look at Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation (the generation that are typically the parents and older siblings of the Baby Boomers).  They engage digitally in some way, but differently. They will consume the information at rates that aren’t incredibly far off from their younger counterparts. They are wallflowers when it comes to engaging –commenting, posting, participating in online commentary and conversation. They are still reading all the articles and taking in everything. They just may not let you know they are there. Or just more likely to be pursuing you through analog means. Millennials are more interactive, since engaging and commenting are digital habits they’ve always had.”

Identifying key behaviors and consumption trends such as those are one of the highlights of connecting with Hyder – throughout a conversation she peppers in market insights that fascinate her, and other factoids either from her work or research from one of her two best-selling books, The Zen of Social Media Marketing and, more recently, Momentum, which bowed last year. Her first book is considered one of the first primers on social and digital branding for businesses, and has had four editions. For her second book, she wanted to cut through the social saturation to remind entrepreneurs of the essentials. “We are no longer convincing people they needed social media.  They get it. What’s the next step? These days we are living in this digital ecosystem. In the midst of changing technologies, what are things that will stay true? That was the real focus of Momentum.”

Looking to the next 10 years of her career, Hyder reflected on what the past decade as a young, female CEO has meant. “When I first started this company, the fear was ‘we’re so young- will businesses trust us?’ It took hearing from clients ‘Yes, you’re young but that’s what we want. We want young thinking’ for those fears to quiet.”

Hyder has also learned to quell any personal second-guessing. “I’d ask myself ‘Who am I to reach that next level? Is it greedy to want more? I’m just an immigrant kid, and I’m already doing really well – should I strive for more? Is that greedy?’ I had to teach myself that no, no it’s not greedy to want more for your career and your company. I want to be known as the best. When brands think about how they can compete in the digital age, I want them to think of us.”