How to tell if your social media consultant is a lemon

Dave Fleet has a great blog post about how to pick a social media marketing consultant, after a blog post by Ike Pigott calling into question the knowledge of the new flock of “social media consultants” who seem to have crawled out of the woodwork over the last six months.

[W]e have a glut of people selling their expertise on how you should handle “the Twitter community” who have zero experience using the service the way most people do. They hopped on board the Consultancy Express, went straight to the head of the line, and now want to tell you how to talk to people at all of the stops they skipped.

Like Dave and Ike, I have reservations about the way that it seems to have suddenly become fashionable to be a “social media consultant”. As Dave says:

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of seeing people sign up for Twitter, follow ten thousand people (many of whom follow back) to build a substantial following, then start spouting advice as though followers equals expertise. Some of them are experts, for sure. Others, however, seem to have little beyond a big mouth to back their words up.

Almost as annoying, but just as dangerous, are the hordes of traditional practitioners that have realized they need to include social media in their pitches nowadays, but have no experience whatsoever using those tools.

I have been wanting to write a post like this for months now, but had been holding off because I was a bit worried that I’d end up sounding as If I was criticising people simply for being new. We all have to start somewhere, after all, but social media is experiential, which means if you haven’t experienced it then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

That said, I lost a job to a guy who had giant red flashing text on his blog, and that was two or three years ago. (Funnily, not only did they tell me “he’s a blog expert recommended by one of our directors, they also told me “we’ll get back to you if we ever need any help with social media.” D’oh.) So experience alone doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get good advice, because there are some people around who have been successfully spouting crap for years.

Dave offers up these questions to help you winnow out the wheat from the chaff when looking for a social media marketing consultant:

1. Can you give me an example of social media work you’ve completed for a client recently?
2. How do you go about pitching bloggers?
3. How do you monitor what people are saying about you?
4. Where can I find you online?
5. Can you (ghost) write my blog for me?
6. How do you measure results?
7. How would you define social media?
8. Can you just pretend to be me online?

Now, some of these work just as well if you’re looking for an expert to help with internal communications and collaboration, but I’d like to offer up my own list.

So, what do you ask a social media business consultant?

How long have you been using social tools? A good consultant will have been using social tools for quite a while, probably a year or two longer than they’ve actually been a consultant. If someone has only been doing this blogging for six months or a year, you might want to look much more closely at their experience, and make a decision as to whether you want to take a risk on them. They may be a natural, but they’re probably winging it.

Equally, do not believe anyone who says they’ve been doing it blogging forever. Blogs themselves are only ten years old. When I started consulting five years ago, I had only a handful of peers, and they are all very well known now. Any unknown who says they’ve been doing it consulting for more than six years is probably fibbing.

[Update: It’s been pointed out that this section was a bit fuzzy, so I’ve clarified what I mean by “doing it”! And yes, I know hand-coded blog-like websites have been around longer than ten years, but what makes blogging different from a website is the lightweight CMS that underpins it, and both LiveJournal and Blogger started in ’99.]

What was the first social tool you used? Most consultants who’ve been doing this for any length of time probably started off with a personal blog, because that was all that was around in those days. If they started off on Facebook, run away very quickly. If they started on Twitter, carefully examine their other experience.

What tools do you use on a regular basis? They should have at least one blog, a Twitter (or similar) account, and some sort of social network account. If they list every damn thing under the sun, it means that either they have no clients and therefore a lot of time to kill, or they are playing buzzword bingo with you. Realistically, it’s hard to go deep on more than three tools and a lot of the really important stuff is learnt only through focused engagement.

What sort of clients do you have? Expect a broad range of clients in many different sectors, and expect company sizes to range from tiny to multinational. Ask what type of engagements they were, and you should get similarly broad descriptions, from one hour presentations on upwards. Any consultant worth their salt has done a lot of work with very unsure clients who don’t want to spend too much money, because that’s just how the market has been (and still is).

Have you ever had a project that didn’t work out the way you anticipated? If the answer to this is not “Yes”, be suspicious. Good consultants have had to experiment because there isn’t a definitive guide to running social software projects. We know a lot more about what sort of things work now than we used to, but every new client has a new culture, and every new culture throws up new and sometimes surprising problems. Rarely do things go as planned, and you want someone who can think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances.

What presentations have you given? This is a slightly nuanced question to ask, because not all knowledgeable people speak at conferences, but the more experienced someone is, the more likely they are to have done some speaking. Maybe it will be at conferences of their peers, or maybe it will be at small specialist meetings, or maybe it’s even a lunchtime talk for a business. I’m not really sure that barcamps count – they’re a great place for learning how to present, but they don’t necessarily indicate anything other than a desire to stand up in front of people and speak.

How do you measure success and recognise failure? The correct answer isn’t a stream of jargon about statistics and metrics, but instead should cover understanding the situation as it is before the new software is installed, having clear project goals, and critically examining what can be measured and what it might mean. There is no simple answer to this question, and if they suggest complicated metrics like “edits per page view per person”, then they’re not really thinking things through enough.

Of course, you should thoroughly Google any consultant before you contact them. You should easily be able to find:

  • A professional site or LinkedIn/Xing (etc.) profile
  • A blog, professional or personal
  • A Twitter or other micro-conversation account
  • Articles and blog posts that quote them
  • Their name on conference speaker rosters
  • Audio and/or video of talks they’ve given

Take the time to read through what other people say about them. Do they seem to be respected by their peers? Are they personable online? Can you build a sense of how much experience they have? What do they reveal about themselves as a person?

I wouldn’t worry about the age-old “Have they done work similar to the project I have in mind?” question, because to be honest, every project is a little bit different and what works perfectly for one company might not work in another, for cultural reasons.

Equally, don’t worry if they haven’t worked in your sector – social tools are cross-sector, and good consultants can work successful in any industry. I hate to say it, but your industry is unlikely to be so different that it genuinely takes specialist knowledge to work in. After all, we’re talking mainly about human qualities, such as openness, trust, or transparency, and these exist everywhere. (Also, anyone who tries to flog you sector-specific tools is probably talking out of their arse.)

Red flags
There are some thing that should make you immediately wary, however they are couched.

Promising the earth. Social media projects are neither fast nor easy, because they are centred not around technology but around behavioural change, and that takes time. Any consultant who promises a ‘quick win’ is promising something they can’t deliver.

‘Facebookitis’. Consultants whose only focus is Facebook are to be avoided. Facebook is great at what it does, which is help people organise their social lives and throw virtual sheep at each other. Internal business social networks are most useful tools only when they are designed to fulfil the needs of the user, which are likely to be different to those of the average Facebook user.

Too much focus on technology
. Having the right tools is important, but it’s only 20% of the solution. The rest is about understanding and communicating with people about how these tools will make genuine improvements to their work life. If all the consultant talks about is tech, they’re not right for you.

Too much focus on launch. We are (or should be) long past the idea that all the hard work is done prior to a project launch, but this is especially true with social media projects. Getting things up and running is only the beginning – the hard work comes when you start focusing on adoption and long-term usage.

Hard questions to ask yourself
Before you start looking for help, there are some questions you should be asking yourself. If you can’t say “Yes” to these questions, perhaps you’re not ready to get a consultant of any sort in yet.

Are you in it for the long haul? As I’ve said, social media projects take time, and there’s no such thing as a quick win. If you’re not really interested in ongoing change, don’t run the project.

Are you capable of accepting hard truths? A good consultant won’t shy away from hard truths. They may have to tell you that your wonderful idea won’t work. Are you ready to hear that?

Are you willing to spend money on your people? I’ll say it again. Tech is only 20% of the problem – the rest is people. If you’re not willing to spend significant time and money working on understanding your people’s individual needs and helping them learn how these tools will help, don’t go ahead with the project. You can’t just throw mud against the wall and see what sticks – we know that doesn’t work, so don’t pretend it will.

Are you willing to eat your own dogfood? You want to get other people to use these tools, but do you?

It’s turned into a bit of a long post, and I hope that it’s been useful. Personally, I relish the idea that maybe one day I’ll turn up to a first meeting with a client, and they’ll have printed this post out and proceed to ask me what I’m proposing you ask your consultant. Am I willing to eat my own dogfood? Oh yes!!

26 thoughts on “How to tell if your social media consultant is a lemon

  1. Great post – I continue to be amazed by how many people miss so many seemingly obvious red flags when talking to and about social media “experts”.

  2. An excellent, piece. Thanks Suw.

    I like your list of suggestions for a prospective client but I sometimes ask providers to describe the balance between their development activity and supporting existing clients.

    A natural opportunity for a supplementary question often follows – how much of a stretch will it be for you if we give you our business?

  3. Good wee round up there, ta.

    I was asked the same question by a big media outlet last week – they said they were sick of ‘cowboys’ coming through the door, but at the same time didn’t know how to go about finding someone who knew what they were talking about.

    I suggested they research each person’s digital footprint as a first step. I was a little surprised they hadn’t thought of this already, but then that’s maybe why they called me up.

    The other thing I’ve noticed in this area is those who market themselves as trainers and yet they have never learned basic teaching skills and classroom management. Not to say you can’t learn on the job, but having qualified as a teacher myself, I cringe at some of the howling errors from a good many of these folk. Naming no names of course.

    I mean how many folk working in social media know how to give a good presentation? All I see are slides stacked with words, graphs, pie charts and worst of all they always rely on wifi…. idiots.

    That is all.

  4. Interesting that companies are starting to realise that there’s a difference between someone who’s been doing this a while, and someone who’s just got a big gob. I really do hope that this post makes the rounds and helps companies make good choices. There are some great people doing this sort of work, and they’re not that hard to find!

  5. Excellent post, Suw. You are obviously not afraid to tell it like it is. The only thing you missed were the Twitxperts who use caps or all caps for every Tweet, to draw attention to themselves. There are some very genuine media professionals out there, and it is pretty easy to spot the real thing, even for a beginner. Facebook and to some extent, blogging, are on the way out. Twitter is an explosion of social commentary, made poignant by the 140 character limit. The content achievable in that limit is amazing. I have met so many wonderful people on Twitter, learned so much, and hope to continue to do so. It can only get better.
    I began using Twitter as a means to promote disabled hockey, but it has become so much more. http://www.morcstars.com. Thanks!

  6. I like the post. And I think there is no reason why you hesitated to write it.

    I think the most critical point are the showcases. Taking a very close look at what part the “consultant” played in it will reveal quite a bit.

    A lot of other things in your list a derived from it. They are still very good points though. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Great post. I figured it would be another carpetbagger post but surprisingly it was not. And I love the fact that you didn’t just dismiss “newbie” consultants and actually gave a nod to the fact that there are some people that while late to the game, actually are quite smart because they’ve taken the time to learn the craft versus just jumping in.. cheers to you for that.

    I think one thing I’d add is “do they answer a direct question with a direct answer” which is probably a good way to tell if any consultant is a lemon… especially if they are not a long tenured SM consultant.

    Again, great post. I plan to print and keep for a while.
    @TomMartin

  8. The correct answer to “What was the first social tool you used? ” should be “email” or “messageboard” if the person truly has had long time experience in this space. Just saying…

  9. Spot on post Suw. I have to agree with Chris, if somebody says they’ve been working in social media more than a few years they might be saying the first tool they used wasa message board or even IRC!

    Another red flag: All the consultant talks about is himself and he doesn’t ask what your goals, tools or experience level is. If they aren’t asking a lot of questions from the get-go, ditch ’em.

  10. Thank you for having the guts to detail what so many of us working in this field for a decade + have been wanting to say. The ‘field’ being what was originally dubbed ‘Community’ back in the mid-1990’s and has now morphed into the uber-buzzy ‘Social Media.’

    As Chris Suspect says above — in those early days, we worked the message boards and email … chat rooms and IMs. We were frustrated by the lack of bandwidth and effective tools because we could foresee what ‘Community’ could eventually become.

    Now we’ve got the pipes and the power tools — only to see legions of these Social Media ‘Experts’ spreading Facebookitis and FRAM.

    I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to try to outshout them. Thankfully, companies are finally starting to ask the hard questions.

    You rock, Suw.

  11. I’m not sure I agree with the opinion that “[a]ny unknown who says they’ve been doing it for more than six years is probably fibbing.” I have been using “social media” since I first logged into a command-line bulletin board system in the early 90s. Unless the social media of today is “too good” to associate themselves with the bulletin board yuppies of the 90s, Or perhaps anyone over the age of 30 can’t count as an “expert” because they’re too old?

    Considering this, and communications via early chat sites and the VERY early days of communication via websites with black/purple & pink stripped backgrounds, and everything in between since then, I’d say that gives me far more than six years experience. And, I’d probably also be correct in saying I’m an “unknown”, although I’d argue that I know social media better than at least 90% of those out there who call themselves consultants or “experts”.

    That said, this was a great article! There is no question that any business without the knowledge of social media necessary to launch successful tools and online media presence could easily be tricked into thousands of unnecessary products, tools, and “consultant” fees.

    And I agree whole-heartedly that it is tiring to see all the social media “strategists” and “experts” touting nothing more than hot air. Of course, who says snake-oil salesmen don’t have their uses in the 21st century?

  12. Some terrific thoughts here, and you seem to cover all the bases. I always wonder how the people who spend their entire day on Twitter make any money. It seems many of them just want to be connected (follow and be followed) by as many people as possible. Where’s the strategy in that? Twitter’s like candy – if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll soon be hungry.

  13. Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

    I’d like to clarify that I don’t consider bulletin boards, forums, usenet or email to fall under the “social media” umbrella. The terms “social media”, “social tools” and “social software” were all coined to refer to a specific set of software – first blogs, now also wikis, Twitter, social networks, and several Web 2.0 tools.

    This doesn’t mean that pre-social media tools weren’t social, but there wasn’t a unifying ethic and culture. It would be wrong to say that there wasn’t a bulletin board sub-culture, but boards varied widely based on who ran them and who used them. And no matter how strong those sub-cultures were, they didn’t migrate across tools. One never hears of an email culture, or a forums culture.

    A very clear culture grew up around blogging, a culture that values honesty, transparency, and authenticity, and that has transferred over to other tools such as Twitter. Now, although wikis have been around since ’94, “social media” is most strongly defined by a culture that wasn’t codified until blogs and Cluetrain in ’99.

    There are other differences too, the main one of which is the fact that there are network effects in social media that did not and do not exist on the older tools. Forums etc. exist on a specific site but social tools exist on and in a wider network, which aids both the dispersal and aggregation of identity and information over many apps and sites.

    Forums etc. formed the precursor to social media, in the way that the petrol car was a precursor to the Prius. But whilst they may look pretty much the same, there are some important differences under the hood.

    I also think that whilst there have been experts in community for a long time, “community” is not the same as “social media”. There are aspects to a social media business consultant’s work, such as business analysis (i.e. identifying business needs and determining solutions to business problems), gap analysis (working out where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there), adoption strategy, etc., that either don’t exist in, or aren’t as an important a part of, community management.

    Community management skills are essential to many social media projects, and I’ve seen more than one project that has suffered because community expertise was not present. Community management has evolved alongside social media, but the two terms are not synonymous, and the jobs require different skill sets.

    I do want to emphasis that the distinctions I am drawing are not value judgements at all. It’s more a matter of trying to clarify terms, as I see them.

    One thing I was going to say in my post was “look at what your expert did before”, and whilst I think it’s important to understand how webby someone is, whether or not they’ve got history with the internet, it’s too easy to get into a “I was on the internet first” pissing match. That’s not the point – the point is how someone has developed their skills over time.

    That’s why I won’t ever make a blanket condemnation of people new to the job, in the same way I wouldn’t condemn new train drivers or new nurses. Being new is normal, but it’s how you handle that newness. New train drivers and new nurses don’t get to drive trains or nurse until they are appropriately qualified to do so. In our work, there is no qualification (and any qualifications there are would be out of date before you got them!), but new consultants still need to learn the ropes. That’s all there is to it.

    Age is also irrelevant. I’m 37. Some of the people I most respect in the social media space are a lot older than me. Some of them are quite a bit younger. It’s not an age thing at all – it’s a mindset thing.

  14. Excellent article about social media ‘consultants’ with plenty of good pointers of what to look out for.

    I think in any sector there will be people looking to jump on the band waggon and once something seems to be getting mainstream will put themselves up as experts. Many of your points could equally apply to any self-confessed expert and would be a good list for anyone checking out a consultant.

  15. Superb and defined post Suw. I really enjoyed.

    I do agree with Roxanne however, that BB’s, Forums, Usenets and Newsgroups were/are social media…in this respect: They reduce the “transaction cost” of forming a social group for whatever purpose and they use “media” such as the Web. Granted, most of those tools have been replaced by “2.0” type tools, such is the evolution of this space. Yet they still were tools that enabled social behavior – this is where “social” comes in social media. Email too is a social media tool.

    I would argue that books too are a social media; because printing reduced the transaction cost of social organization and the Christian Reformation happened and off we went into the age of so-called “enlightenment”.

    Otherwise I think you’re bang on here! Great stuff and you’re reminding me of some of the client experiences I’ve had and the messes we’ve had to clean up from so-called “experts”.

  16. I’d like to weigh in on the pre-Web 2.0 social media question. I can see what you mean, Suw, but I also think that people who have been involved in email lists and forums for many years have learned valuable skills with regard to how to interact with people online. Those skills are very much transportable into the social media environment. So while a forum might not be everything that the blogosphere is, a forum veteran still have useful experience that it still valid today (especially if she has kept going through all of the changes).

    Of course you can easily ask someone how long their have been blogging, or using web 2.0 tools. Some of them will be stupid enough to say “more than 10 years”.

  17. I’m not saying that people who have experience with email lists and forums don’t have valuable skills – they do, and yes, they are transferable, and if they’ve been online for ten years then I’d expect their skill set to be very well developed. But they are not the same as social media skills.

    “Community” and “Social Media” are two circles on a Venn diagram that overlap quite a bit, but not completely. If you’re doing social media in business, you need to have some community skills but you also need other skills too. What I do is not just about community, it’s about business analysis, gap analysis, implementation, adoption, social functionality design. There’s a lot more to it than community, and whilst obviously some community people *also* have social media skills, the two are not like-for-like equivalents.

  18. I find your definition of ‘social media’ very limiting. Define ‘blog’ — I created my first bloglike site eleven years ago, but no one was using the term ‘blog’ then, so to me it was a page that I updated multiple times a week with dated entries, newest at the top. For that matter, your ‘blogs’ were predated by diary sites which met every definition of blog without being called a blog. I would also offer that many of the dynamics and techniques behind thriving on, starting, running, modding, etc, any active web forum (vBulletin, home-rolled, heck, Yahoo and AOL groups, the original BBSes) apply very well to current social media venues.

    I have a real hard time with johnny-come-latelies attempting to build themselves up as the original experts in ‘social media’ by attempting to socialize an artificially limited personal definition of ‘social media’. I would go so far as to suggest that anyone relying too heavily on a strictly ‘social media’ background without a deeper IT or web background may be a bad bet as a consultant… they just don’t have the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience to bring much to a client’s table. YMMV of course.

  19. (vBulletin, home-rolled, heck, Yahoo and AOL groups, the original BBSes)

    This was poorly worded. I’m not casting AOL and Yahoo groups as ‘original BBSes’, far from it.

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