Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

Social media consultants: A call to action

Guest post by Jennifer Leggio, Read her blog | Follow her on Twitter

Source: Shutterstock

If you’re dubbed a social media expert these days it’s almost like getting marked for professional death. It’s become even more popular to deny social media expertise as it has to claim faux expertise. Which means that the snake oiliest of the social media expert types have tried to give themselves a bit more oomph: they use the term consultant.

Social media expertise in general has become a joke, sadly, as there really are people out there who understand social media and how it relates to business. Unfortunately they get buried by the noise of the fakers. So I’m here to pick on those fakers, those consultants who make it harder on the good guys. Not all consultants are bad. Some of them actually do good work – Maggie Fox and Olivier Blanchard are two folks who do good stuff. But there are thousands of others who are simply… online.

The best quote I’ve heard came from the host of this blog, Brian Solis, at a Girls In Tech event I participated in this summer. He told Kara Swisher that the way some consultants talk, “you’d think they invented the conversation.” It’s true. Many consultants these days are making a fortune telling companies that they need to (gasp) talk to their customers. And because these consultants have a strong social media presence of their own these poor schmucks (aka companies) are listening.

You know the types. They call themselves innovators because they created a Twitter hashtag or have thousands of followers. They throw around buzzwords like “authenticity” and “transparency” and “presence.” They think that all social behavior occurs on popular social networks. They’ve never lead a business.

What separates the good from the bad? A few simple things:

  • Proof of experience and demonstrated results. This comes in the form of a case study that shows how social media tied into the larger business strategy. It is not a discussion around tools. It’s not just a marketing discussion, either.
  • Business leadership, not necessarily thought leadership. The latter is wonderful but it is abstract and not always completely applicable. How does it apply to your business?
  • Dig deep into a consultant’s background and social media presence. Is he or she simply good at promoting him- or herself?

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to find a consultant with those three things, but it is. And those are the only ones to which companies should give their money.

So I’d like to issue a challenge to you, good consultants. I would like each one of you who claim to be savvy and really helping businesses with their social programs, to tell us here in the comments why you’re a viable option for businesses. Either link a case study or talk about your proven results or your business acumen. If you read this and think, “I have nothing to prove,” well, you’re wrong. You need to prove everything in order to be a bona fide, non snake-oily consultant. What’s stopping you?

Jennifer Leggio aka Mediaphyter claims only to be an expert at causing a ruckus at hockey games. She writes ZDNet’s social business blog and is an active member of the network security community. She can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.

103 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Social media consultants: A call to action”

  1. Jennifer, thanks so much for the shout-out, and of course we are always happy to share our case studies, in fact our new site is built around them!

  2. Aerocles says:

    Steve Baker Also Just Covered This Topic On His BusinessWeek Blog and my response was that, yes this sucks – for both brands and those who actually DO know what they're talking about and are watching helplessly as this strain on their/our industry's reputation quickly grows.

    This is clearly an important issue – Social Media is increasingly important for almost all brands. Whether it should be used merely as an extension of their customer service or leveraged for a multi-channel marketing/advertising/pr blitz, almost all brands do have some place or can employ some facet of the online social realm.

    Having someone who understands 'standard practices,' what consumers expect, what services, tools, and platforms exist, and which of those is best suited for that particular organization and what strategy accurately reflects the brand's identity and function – is essential.

    Yes, there are plenty of people who will read a few blogs and spit back the popular sentiments to companies in hopes to pass themselves off as experts and secure themselves a valued position though deception and BS. And that makes things a lot harder for those of us who are truly passionate about this space, those of us who dedicate HOURS EVERY DAY to keeping up on the latest websites, services, and tools…the success and failures of other brands experimenting in the field, and with who are legitimately trying to establish themselves as an authority, for lack of a better term, in this field.

    That said, the fact that Social Media is a buzz phrase lends itself to this type of ruse, but is essentially no different than any other specialty in any other industry. There will ALWAYS be people who try to get ahead without doing any real work, using the thoughts and accomplishments of others to support their own malicious climb up the corporate ladder. But they will fail for the same simple reason that they always do: When push comes to shove – they'll freeze, they will always be one step behind those who actually know what they're doing.

    So yes, the “Snake Oil is Spreading.” But organizations looking to hire someone to spearhead their social media initiative should be as meticulous and suspect as they would be when hiring a new C-Level exec. It's in their hands to weed out the Crocks and Quacks from those select few who actively struggle to understand and effectively utilize the power of the social web.

  3. Nile Flores says:

    I have said this over and over for months on Twitter (and I believe my own blog too… have to dig through 350 plus posts to see) about social media experts and gurus – no such thing. The acts of sharing content over the net and even outside the net is an old technique. Might as well put it in with basic marketing as that is really what it is. Just another synonym.

    Rather than call yourself a guru or expert, let your employers and your followers say it for you as they are the ones who decide if you really qualify. Those are the real resume along with the proof in statistics – if you are one to promote content of certain websites.

  4. To freely interpret a famous quote 'Expertise lies in the eyes of the beholder', i.e. perception is reality. I spent over 20 years in the marketing management of a Fortune 500 company. In that time I've seen many charlatans come and go. Today's consumer is smarter, more powerful and less 'obedient' than ever. The real challenge for companies is to integrate these consumers in their architecture of value creation, which is a very complex task. Consistency across all channels is a must. A fan page in FB with thousands of friends won't do. As a matter of fact, that is nothing more than a modern interpretation of the 'eyeball' system cultivated by old media companies over decades, which is is not working anymore, as we all know.

  5. nommo says:

    Social media experts?

    Companies and brands need someone who believes in the company and the brand more than they believe in them selves.

    Don't even outsource it to an agency. Give the job to your most trusted & passionate & articulate net-savvy staffer.

  6. jonnybgood says:

    EConsultancy covered this topic in an excellent post and subsequent discussion “How to spot a social media snake oil salesman” – well worth checking out, especially for the key things to check:

    Here at ASOMO we're more about the perception part of social media than the participation but five years of working with a wide range of organizations from different sectors and across multiple geographies means that we can tick all the boxes raised in the above post (in a postive sense).
    Jon Moody

  7. Brian Reich says:

    Jennifer – terrific post, and terrific challenge. My thoughts:

    1) Case studies don't prove anything. The world is changing so quickly and so significantly – online and offline – that looking to case studies as a metric of someone's capability and expertise is a flawed exercise. I have lots of successes, and I am happy to talk about them. I've created videos that garnered over 1.4 million views for a client. I've organized vibrant discussions where the audience contributed ideas that led to business success. I've launched campaigns that motivated people to vote, volunteer, or become deeply engaged in a social issue. And the lessons that I have learned from those efforts are invaluable in my work every day as a strategist. I will talk about all of them (I don't believe in, and don't allow clients I work with to keep me from talking about them — the only way I can learn, and share my lessons, is by engaging in discussion). But my ability to generate any of those successes for one client, or one project, does not mean they translate to another situation. The case studies are interesting, but they aren't transferable. There are no models for success any more. There is no way to emulate what you have done in the past and get the same results. Good strategy and support will be defined in each situation, by each professional, and similar.

    2) The definition(s) of expertise are ever-changing. I wrote a book, entitled Media Rules! (Wiley 2007) and talked about how expertise was being redefined in this connected age. I wrote “Knowledge makes you an expert. Your experience makes you an expert. Your network makes you an expert. Your notoriety makes you an expert. Truly expertise in the current media environment is in the eye’s of the beholder. But to be an expert for the long-term, it takes a couple of things. Expertise comes from the skills and knowledge that someone possesses, distinguishing them from a novice or less experienced person. People become experts as a result of their membership in a community of practice – a group or partnership around a specific issue or service. You can become an expert simply by being the only one who has experienced something.” My point was that expertise has to be considered in context. Am I an expert in social media because I work in and around the internet and technology every day? Perhaps. I wouldn't use that term, because I know I am always learning. I know there are people with capabilities that exceed mine. Moreover, my expertise, as far as I am concerned, is put to the test every time I have a client, a new project, a new opportunity to engage. If I can't prove that I have some expertise, when needed, it doesn't matter what I call myself, or how I define it.

    3) How do I answer your challenge? A few months ago I quit the agency I was working with because I wanted to take a different approach and play a different role in helping people to understand and use the technology and other tools that are having such a broad impact on our society. What is my focus, and why do I believe I have something to offer to clients? Here is what I wrote in the post outlining what I would be doing:

    “My focus is on helping organizations to recognize what is changing about our society – how technology and the internet have dramatically changed the way people get and share information. Those changes impact everything – what we buy, how we spend our time, what (and how) we read, watch television, listen to the radio, talk to each other, and certainly our expectations of the organizations that we support and engage.

    When it comes to organizations, I am just not that impressed – at least not when it comes to communications, education, advocacy, and more. The groups we hold up as models, because of their size or the level of awareness of their cause, aren’t breaking much new ground. Even those who have successfully establish their brand or built an audience aren’t necessarily in a position to take what they do and adapt it to meet the new challenges that we will face in the (near) future.

    There continues to be far too much focus on activity (how big your email list is, or how much money you give to charity) and not enough on impact (whether you are really serving a need, or changing things for the better). There is too much emphasis placed on brand (i.e. what groups call themselves, or say they are doing) and not enough on experience (what is really happening, whether expectatinos are being met). There is too much energy put into growth (how big can we be, how many people can we reach) and not enough commitment to sustainability (can we maintain the quality of what we do no matter how many things are choose to do) or impact (are we achieving our goals).

    I am focused on helping organizations do at least the following two things well:

    First, organizations must develop and execute high quality, effective communications efforts – for marketing, development, advocacy or anything else. To do that, especially in today’s highly fragmented world, you need to have a clear set of goals and be able to articulate your core message and focus. From there, you need to generate attention. With attention, you can raise money, or begin to shape thinking, influence the media, build loyalty and support for yourself and the projects you support. Once you have attention, you can begin to convert your supporters’ energy into real, meaningful, measurable action — by educating, engaging, mobilizing, and ultimately changing the behavior of the people who are looking to you for guidance. The organizations that figure that process out will dominate. I think I can help.

    Second, groups must look ahead, and position themselves for long-term communications and oragnizational success — which increasingly means online and through new technology, but certainly doesn’t mean anything else has to be eliminated from the mix. Organizations will need to experiment with different ways of educating and engaging audiences about issues. They will need to re-organize the way their teams operate, so that technology and the intenret are central to everything they do, not just a tactical consideration or campaign add-on. Organizations will need to look at what tools might power future online efforts – and think especially hard about the ones that don’t yet exist (so they can begin to build them). And of course, organization should be bringing their audience more closely into their work, not just to satisfy some set of public expectations, but because truly embracing the community will yield better innovation and more measurable results.

    If organizations are going to embrace these two big areas of focus, their metrics for success will need to shift from dollars raised and email list performance to how online tools can be used to help advance what an organization is doing in terms of advocacy, and providing services, raising money, talking to the media, helping shape policy, etc. Creating sustainable, measurable action means giving up control, distributing both power and responsibility out to the community, and inviting the audience into the process more fully. In short, there needs to be a larger, broader focus on how to shift people’s behavior and drive real results.

    I have high expectations of what organizations can achieve, and how they should be committing their resources and focusing their energy. I’m not saying any of these commitments will be easy to fulfill, or happen quickly — but I also don’t believe my expectations are unreasonable. I quit my job and started my new venture because I know there are organizations out there who are committed to using technology and the internet to their fullest potential, and I knew that I could help.”

    If you want to read a little bit more about my work and why I made the big leap from agency life to something out, you can read the full post(s) here:
    Part I:
    Part II:

    Anyway, great question and great challenge. Thank you for asking.

  8. Mondi says:

    I must be the only person out there who is so terrified of claiming herself as an expert accidentally, that I'm on the other side of this spectrum. That being said, thank you for stating some points that we can use in the future to try to establish more credibility to what we want to do.

    I'm a big fan of being traditionally trained and then learning to be innovative, as well. I don't know a lot about social media (like I said, I'm still very much learning) but I'd like to think that knowing what you are doing is an honest skill, a craft, just like any other gig.

    Are people so inclined to call themselves experts because it's instant access, instant transparency? I wouldn't go on a field trip to the hospital and declare myself a surgeon. Just because I showed up on Twitter, doesn't make me a master.

    Quality, not quantity, I guess…*shrugs*

  9. Brian Block says:

    I didn't realize “authenticity” and “transparency” had become buzzwords? But just because the fakes out there use them, that means we can't? Following that model, our vocabulary will become pretty limited only to lead our clients to believe the only things we can say are “me work good and honest for you. can't elaborate or others think me am fake.”

    And I assume everyone's now fallen in to the trap of “if I don't have the experience, I won't get the work. If I don't have the work, I won't get the experience.” That's sort of leaves out the possibility for new talent to grow.

    Also, I ask people not to call me guru or expert. I don't like giving anyone the idea that they can't learn what I've learned or become more proficient than I am. But, kick and scream all I want, people will still refer to me as an expert or guru. All I can do is remind of them why I don't prefer those terms.

    I'm not trying to fuss at you because you are taking on those who actually are fake. I just don't like having SM faithfuls like most of us having to tip toe around these jerks who ruin it for the rest of us. ARRRRRG

  10. My business partner and I have been working with the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip for three years developing their Social Media presence. The results are real and measurable both in terms of reputation management and actual $$. For a more detailed look, please visit our case study deck.

    Marjorie Kase
    MarKyr Media

  11. I think the debate over “social media experts” is fascinating… so last night I came up with a list of 5 signs that you're probably not (yet) a social media expert:

    What's stopping me from 'proving' myself in a blog comment? um, I'm kinda too busy with social media work projects right now.

  12. gerardmclean says:

    Sadly, the best case studies that I can point to is also a competitive advantage for some clients. So, posting them in a public space would be counter-productive. And yes, I am very aware of the irony. 🙂 But, with a little poking around and some social media smarts, the real “social media expert” will be able to piece it together. Since it is not very obvious or a “social media cliche,” the poser will not get it.

  13. HighTouch says:

    That was awesome! Great Article… I know a few of those “Guru's” I learned awhile back that just because I know how to do it, does not make me an expert by any means. I can attribute Social Media (online Marketing, Blogging, Tweeting, Facebook, Linked In, and email marketing) to a 300% increase in leads for our business. We have closed more deals because of marketing to our current prospect list and because they deem us as a company that knows what we are talking about and because we in fact do the very things that we recommend them to do. I love social media and the whole aspect of doing better and getting better. It is like a rush to get moved up on the google ranking. We are getting our clients to adapt social media into their business and I am excited to see how they react to their increased leads and closed deals.

  14. spikejones says:

    To Brian Reich and to further the case study discussion…

    Dear god man, you used your case studies to talk about how you don't like to talk about case studies! Who the hell would hire someone with no proof of success? Sure, one case study can't apply to everyone's situation, but showing 2, 3 or 10 case studies of DIFFERENT situations proves that you know how to adapt and that your approach works.

    I don't think it's a matter of identifying the experts and fakes. It's a matter of identifying the preachers and the practitioners. If you haven't gotten your hands dirty and done something, then I don't give a crap what you say or preach from the mountaintops. This whole SM marketing community is one big pat on the back fest. Even those that are seen as leaders in this space are usually the ones who spew crap on Twitter all day long. They sound smart and so other SM marketers assume they know what they are talking about…even though they don't have anything to show for it.

    Case studies are proof that your theories translate into the REAL world – and not the pseudo-world that lies behind a glass screen.

    BTW – not a SM person here. A word of mouth person.

    • Brian Reich says:

      Case studies show that you were able to perform in that situation, at that time. Its not a reflection on your ability or your understanding of current times. If you are a car company looking to hire some outside help – whether its for online, advertising, WOM, anything – knowing that the group you are considering successfully sold soap last year isn't help. Just because you don't have a case study that shows you have a creative way of tackling a problem doesn't mean you don't bring something to the table that someone needs. The case study is just a snapshot in time, and since the world is moving and changing so fast these days, that snapshot is quickly outdated and no longer relevant.

      Case studies may be a qualifier — as in, you are building a list and looking for people who have worked in a certain space (though I would argue that a lot of the best work I have seen is when people who are coming in with an outside perspective, a different set of experiences, take on a new challenge). Beyond that, the lessons that someone wrote up from a year ago (or longer) simply don't apply. You can't re-create the situation that produced the case study… the same team, the same opportunities, the same client, etc. So, the case study only shows that in that situation everything clicked.

      My approach, instead of using case studies to demonstrate (or consider) anything, is to test the people who you are considering hiring. When I worked in the White House, we put prospective speechwriters through a series of real-life scenarios, asked them to write up some speeches, on real subjects, in real time, and they were judged accordingly. Sure, the list we started with had been qualified – we took people with good writing experience, or a record of being published, but all that did was get them the initial conversation. The rest they had to prove in real time.

      On the strategist side, when I am talking with a prospective client, I map out the strategy that I think they should use — give away a lot of the details. I know that if I can put strong ideas across, demonstrate my understanding such that it resonates with them, show how I would respond to a situation or address a particular need, I will be fine. After all, the work that I will do, if hired (or whatever) will be in real-time, so if I can't perform that way during the interview, what's to say I can when the fur begins to fly?

      If you let case studies define expertise, you end up with a group who is living in the past, not in the present, and certainly not looking ahead to see how things are changing and what to do. Expertise is fleeting. With everything moving so quickly, I'm not sure anyone KNOWS what to do, but the experience we have, the time we have been working around the tools, the perspective we have gained, etc. — all that can be applied. If you start picking based on case studies, maybe you can weed out the folks who are, as some say “all hat and no cattle” in the interview/proposal process, but my experience suggests otherwise. I can't tell you how many times I have worked with groups who hired so-called 'experts' because their case studies suggested they were capable, and the clients get all googly eyed about the prospects of achieving what the last guy achieved, only to find ourselves deep into a project and not getting the kind of performance we had hoped for. The case studies only suggested the groups HAD been successful, not that they possessed the talent or understanding or capacity to do a good job now.

      And just as a closing though, this is particularly challenging in the technology space. There are all sorts of wonderful tools out there, being developed and sold by very talented people. But, the tool is not what makes a campaign successful. Take the Obama campaign… since the President was elected, I have been asked at least a hundred times to help achieve what Obama achieved (I spent a lot of time growing up/working in politics, and still provide guidance to political groups and campaigns). My response was — if you spend what the Obama campaign spent online ($100+ million), built a team like the campaign built (65+ staff, just for online), and get the kind of coverage and attention the campaign did (top news every day for almost two years)… then I can get you close to those kinds of results. But anything short of that kind of foundation from which to work and we'll have to figure out a new way to do it. The fact that people worked for the President's campaign, on staff or as consultants, doesn't automatically qualify them for something else. That case study is one of the best in the history of politics, and the internet, to date… but all it demonstrates that someone is qualified to do is run Barack Obama's internet strategy during the 2008 election. Make sense?

      I just think its more complicated today to demonstrate real expertise because the rules are changing, the tools are different, etc. I don't think I am qualified to run a campaign because I wrote a book or have a lot of Facebook friends. Maybe that gets me the initial conversation, because it suggests I have been around for a while doing this stuff. But after that, I have to prove every time, every day, all the time, in every conversation that I have what a client wants. As long as I continue to do that, I am fine, no matter what ranking I have on Twitter or how many case studies I can produce (and note: I don't produce any – as you can tell, I don't think they mean a lot. If you don't want to hire me because I can't give you a listing of things I have done for other people, then that's just fine with me).

    • spikejones says:

      That's a lot of words, Brian.

      Case studies aren't living in the past if you frame them the right way. We create sustainable word of mouth movements, so our case studies show that we can do that. That the movements we created 8, 4 or 2 years ago are still going strong. Our big clients WANT TO SEE WHAT WE'VE DONE. And if we go in there with nothing to show, we're done. They know the solution we provided for another client isn't the one we will suggest to them, but it's proof that we are successful over and over and over and over and over again.

      As you have seen with your own eyes, there are a crap-ton of people just talking, telling you they've done things, telling you they've been around for a while. It's complete noise with nothing to show for it. Do photographers not have to show their portfolio or architects not show their buildings to get more work? Or do they just sit down and tell the prospective client that they've taken pictures for 25 years, so they know what they are doing.

      I'm not saying that case studies are the end-all-be-all. I'm just saying that we wouldn't have gotten the vast majority of our clients if we just talked and had no proof to back up our words.

    • Brian Reich says:

      I'm not disagreeing with you – demonstrating expertise is important when separating those who can from those who can't. And the system is set up now to reward case studies. I think the system is broken. In addition to a lot of people who spew crazy ideas and can't back it up being hired (and ruining it for the rest of us), there are lots of groups out there, with good case studies, that can't keep up or can't cut it in the fast-changing times. Its a problem on the client side, valuing the wrong things. Its a problem on the agency/consultant side, resting on their past successes. We can do better. That's my point – there are better ways to demonstrate expertise than case studies, so rather than have a debate about whether case studies have value, we should be looking at other methods for determining who can help you achieve your goals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Newsletter

Stay Connected