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building an online community

An Interview with Olivia Hanlon, founder of Girls in Marketing.

Olivia Hanlon, the Founder and Managing Director of Girls in Marketing, created a Digital Marketing Revolution when she started Girls in Marketing. With a desire to help women advance in the world of marketing, GIM has become a community of over 40,000 people and provides help, support and advice to women seeking to break the glass ceiling in a very male dominated industry.

We sat down with Olivia and picked her brains on what it was like to build an online community, navigating social media growth and having the confidence to take the risk and follow your passion.

MM: Girls in Marketing has been so successful in such a short space of time. What do you think are the main elements that helped the platform to grow?

Olivia: I think one of the main things was being authentic. Having an idea, and then making something of it. Finding that gap. Every business can relate to filling a gap within the market, having a USP (Unique Selling Point) if you will. Every marketer knows you've got to have a selling point for a product, it's the same with a platform, it's the same with any business. When you start anything off, you've got to have a mission behind that and the reasons why you've started it. Equally, you can't, in my opinion, just start something that everybody else is doing, because that isn't going to lead to success. If you can find something that is different, maybe something that's been done before but you can see gaps within it, or something that you can improve on. If you can think of something completely new, the ball is in your court.

When I started Girls in Marketing, as far as I was aware, there wasn't any community for marketers and I also wanted to bring the female empowerment element to it as well. I’d seen that gap in the current market, but not necessarily as a business model, just as a community of people. So I just started it. Having this kind of authenticity behind it and believing in your brand itself sets it aside from other people, regardless of whether it’s a business or an Instagram account,-whatever it is that you decide, you've got to have that uniqueness that attracts people to you.

MM: As you mentioned, GIM is a community. How do you decide what to provide for your community?

Olivia: I’ve always put my own missions and values first. I'm very much in the mindset that if I wouldn't pay for it, I wouldn't charge for it. So when we do things like courses, or we do webinars or anything like that, it's always as affordable as possible. Obviously, not everything is free. I did things for free for a long time for Girls in Marketing. But it does come to the point where things do take over your life, and you can't be expected as a person who's running something or doing something, to work for free. We have volunteers who work for Girls in Marketing, and I love them, and I love their passion, but they only do a few hours a week. If you are the sole person doing something, and you never switch off, you have got to evaluate how much you can give for free.

MM: How important do you think social media was in helping your platform grow as a whole?

Olivia: It has definitely helped because I was consistent. I think it is one of those things where, if you are doing it for free, it's so hard to be consistent, especially if you're not really getting anything out of it. In order for it to be successful, you've got to showcase. You have got this brand or a network or community and you've got to be consistent with it across the board. Having branding is so important just in general, as well as having a good brand that is recognisable.

Social Media has changed. For example, Tik Tok is just crazy at the moment. I think jumping on trends as well is really important, not just being on social media, but being on top of social media trends. We can often get lost in social media and all the things behind it. But recognising when something is getting big or when something is becoming a real big thing that you can jump on is important, because ultimately that will mean that you're successful on that platform. For example, there are a lot of Tik Tok content creators now, that started their account, let's say, two years ago, when everyone was laughing at it saying, oh, it'll never take-off. But they’ve got loads of followers now, because they started it. They were the beginning of the trend, rather than jumping on it at the last minute. At Girls in Marketing we didn't necessarily get on it straight away. As much as I wanted to, it was very time consuming to do it. But now we're on it, and we're growing and we’re riding the wave. You don't necessarily have to be at the start of trends, but trying to implement the trends within the consistency on social media is definitely important. For anyone who wants to grow anything, even just a business that isn't necessarily online, although, especially with COVID. It's so important to be online, consistent and have a presence.

MM: What was it that made you take the leap and leave your full-time job and think ‘right this is it, I'm going to commit fully’?

Olivia: I think I was just crazy! I genuinely don't know when, it wasn't really a moment for me. It was very much a process. In all honesty, I hadn't really been happy in my full-time job. I had done freelance work before, and I enjoyed the freedom of freelance work. I know that might sound a bit selfish, because a lot of people work 9-5 and it does work for a lot of people. Freelancing works for me, I just love the elements of working with different people, and also, it sounds so cringe to say, but being your own boss. As much as I have work to do, I decide when I do it. Which is exactly what approach I have with the girls who work for me, you've got these tasks to do, you've got hours to do, but just do it whenever you want to do it, because that works for me. It works in terms of my business model.

When I was in my full-time job, I wasn't really happy. I was doing freelance work and Girls in Marketing on the side, I don't even know how I had a life, I genuinely didn't. I was looking for jobs and I was going for interviews for jobs. Nothing just felt right. I was actually rejected from a job. I really, really wanted in January. I went for a job and it was at this social initiative in Liverpool and not to be named but, it was really amazing. It had all the basic values that we have at Girls in Marketing they are really empowering, but it wasn't the same. It was completely different. I went and I'd already been doing Girls in Marketing which is what I think got me an interview, is the fact that I was really passionate. They were really nice in the interview and I walked out, and I thought; that's in the bag, I've got that in the bag. I didn't get it, I got rejected, which was just, it was heart-breaking. Then I thought; but you know what, though, I've got a platform. I think at this point Girls in Marketing, it didn't have 10K, but maybe, seven thousand followers, something like that, five to seven. So we had a few thousand, which, is obviously something to be proud of, but still nothing that I felt I could do anything with. It was very much just what it was. I went away from that interview, and I was gutted. I even asked him if I could have a second chance where I would do another presentation, and I got ignored.

I was absolutely gutted. I don't know why I was so gutted. I think the thing that made me realise, was the fact that Girls in Marketing had more followers than the company did on social media at the time. I thought; why am I getting myself in at twist about this, but it was because it was a full-time job, it was actual money and it would have been a really good opportunity. I went away from that and then made the push with Girls in Marketing. Using strategies, trying to build it and really just push it. I stopped doing as much freelance work, I was still doing some, I still have some clients, but I mainly focused on Girls in Marketing outside of work. I would be designing graphics in my lunch hour. I was just doing so many different things, because at this point, I was going to make it a business. I had got this many followers in this many months, surely, I could keep improving.

So I thought to myself, I need an income for myself so that I can pay my bills, and then any extra money that I make from Girls in Marketing, I can do whatever with, I can pay other people and that sort of thing. I didn't want to be in a situation, which a lot of people are with small businesses, that they solely rely on the business and what the business makes. I think I am in a really good situation from that point, because I actually had a few clients that said they really needed me. I was in a really, really good position. It was not an easy decision for me to leave my job, I love what I do, and I love Girls in Marketing, but I wouldn't recommend someone to just leave a job without having the financial support. I'm also really lucky because my boyfriend has a good job and he's really passionate about what I do as well. I think I'm really lucky that I've got that support there.

MM: What advice would give to anyone beginning their own platform, or starting a small business and looking to make it into something bigger?

Olivia: I think when it comes to it, it is really hard to monetise things. If you go from something that is a passion project, to being a business and making money, it is a difficult process.

That wasn’t something that happened overnight for me. My notice period for my previous job was around a week so I had in my head a day when I was going to leave, but that was a month and a half before anything had even happened. I used those six weeks to plan.

I’d already started writing some freelance stuff. We have a freelance course, the Girls in Marketing one. I was just writing it all down anyway and then thought to myself ‘this could be an eBook or a course’ or something like that. So I took those five weeks, and I honestly put my heart and soul into it and I finished. I'd written like a few modules at the time, they were more like chapters. I was doing it anyway, I didn't really know why I was doing it, I just was.

It’s definitely about testing the waters and seeing if your audience will buy something from you. There's a completely separate element to running things on a free basis and on a paid basis. The biggest thing with us is that we're accessible and affordable. That is one of the USP’s (unique selling point). People will only come to workshops, or come to webinars or do courses if they can afford to do so. As a business owner, especially in times like now you need to think about what your audience can afford. Physically do some market research, test the waters to see if things will work.

Then you have to adhere to your audience. We have a large percentage of students and graduates who follow our page. Now I know from the point of view of the student and graduate that you're not going to pay it a lot of money for something. However not everybody is a student or a graduate. If you can adhere to their kind of needs or wants as a community, then they're going to be more involved with you. So I think if you are trying to monetise things, it's definitely worth testing the waters. You could even ask people, if you've got an idea for a business, talk to family and friends and say, I want to do this thing. For example: I want to sell earrings, I'm going to charge this amount, what do you think of that? And they will give you honest feedback.


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