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!!

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