What does a social media consultant do anyway?

Quite a while ago I stumbled on this blog post, I am not a social media guru, by Jon Swanson. I think I know what Jon is trying to say, that it’s a mistake to focus on social tools rather than the goals you want to use social tools to achieve. But I think there’s a thread of misunderstanding rippling through the post that I’d like to unpick. Jon says:

[…] I am not a social media guru.

I’m not talking about the self-identified kind, the person who is selling themselves by proclaiming their expertise while not using technology. No, I’m talking about people who have made a discipline of knowing how to use social media effectively regardless of the message. I love them. I read them. But I’m not one of them.

When it comes to social media, I’m a social media chaplain. When I’m doing what I love to do, social media is a tool, not a subject. It’s the method, not the goal.

Genuine social media experts do not focus on the tools but on what the tools can achieve. When someone comes to me and says, “I want Facebook for my intranet”, my first question is always, “What are you trying to achieve?” Hopefully, that will lead us into an interesting conversation wherein I unpick what they need from what they want. That involves understanding where they are right now, where they want to be and whether social tools can help them get there.

Only after they have answered these questions to my satisfaction will I tell them Facebook-for-their-intranet is not what they actually need and we’ll start discussing more sensible possibilities. But every discussion about tools has to be preceded by a conversation about goals.

(This leads me to an aside: As a social media consultant, my job is not to know how every last little bit of social software works, or each and every last little bit of functionality that’s available. If I tried to amass that sort of knowledge with the vast array of tools – and versions of tools – currently available I’d go mad pretty quickly. Tools change faster than I can keep up, and it’s more important that I know that the best-of-breed blogging platform is WordPress, rather than the name of every last plug-in available on WordPress. That’s what Google is for.)

Knowing how to use social media effectively means understanding how to use the tools to achieve goals, it doesn’t mean focusing only on the tools. There are valuable conversations to be had about the tools, of course. With clients, once we’ve discussed goals we’ll discuss strategy, which includes which tools to use and when. Then we need to think about how we’re going to implement that strategy so that’s when we’ll talk in real depth about tools and how best to use them.

With other social media people, the conversation about tools is more about learning from other people’s experiences, trying to keep abreast of what’s new and good, what works, what problems we’ve faced and how we’ve solved them (if we’ve solved them!). So the conversation between social media people can on occasion get quite tools-y, when it’s not being strategy-y of course!

This division of conversation, this talking differently to clients than to colleagues, is no different in social media than any other profession. When you’re talking to other practitioners, you geek out a little bit.

But I think that there’s an underlying tension to Jon’s post that ripples through the comments and which I have seen in the wider social media world for years. Social media is supposed to be about egalitarianism. We are all equal, we all have an equal voice and our opinions are all equally valid. Under this model of social media, the guru or expert, is stepping outside of the egalitarian frame and taking on the mantle of superiority which is not supposed to exist.

The truth is that some people do know more than others. Specialisation is a fundamental aspect of human community, enabled by agriculture and now essential to a functioning society. The fact that I have spent six years working as a social media consultant and eight years blogging gives me an edge over people who’ve been doing this for six months. We accept this in every other walk of life, yet for some reason it makes people queasy when such separations being to emerge in social media.

We should not do people down because they have learnt more than others about a particular topic. Equally, we should not engage in false modesty by denying our expertise in social media. Experts are useful and being – or becoming – an expert in something is a laudable thing, not a mark of shame.