Filed under Opinion:
Social media training in the real world:
Much of what I do involves teaching executives how to use Social Media in their day to day business activities. I help Marketing managers integrate social channels into their departments’ activities, for example. I help PR departments develop around-the-clock monitoring practices and crisis response protocols. I help customer service managers develop real-time customer support capabilities and train their staff to be as comfortable in social media environments as they are on the phone or via email. I help COOs integrate social media across their business units and CMOs and CEOs make sense of it all. In essence, that part of what I do looks a lot like cross-training: I teach marketing, customer service, sales, advertising, and PR professionals how to incorporate social media into what they already do, and I help executives understand how social media fits into their professional ecosystems. From there, we build programs based on their needs, objectives, and capabilities.
On occasion, I also help social media professionals learn basic business management concepts so that they won’t waste their employers’ and clients’ time with disconnected “social media strategies” and pointless measurement methodologies. I help them understand how to build social media practices for customer service departments, for instance or teach them how to apply their skillset to a digital marketing role, but somewhere along the line, it is their responsibility to take that training beyond what little guidance I can provide. I am not a university: I am simply not equipped to teach someone how to become a customer service manager or a data analyst or a CMO.
What I also don’t do is teach “social media professionals” how to get better at “social media.” Why? Because any non-basic course on “professional” social media management taught outside of a specific business application context is essentially worthless. It is the social media equivalent of taking an “advanced” course in telephone conversations or email content management. It’s bollocks. You want to learn how to use Twitter better? Find some free tutorials and spend more time using Twitter. You want to learn how to be more fluent with tools like Spiral 16, Webtrends or Seesmic? Get friendly with their tech support teams, let them show you some new tricks, and spend a few hours every week using what you’ve learned until it’s become second nature. Want to learn how to be a better community manager? Talk to other community managers and learn what you can from their successes and setbacks, then try some of their tricks to see how they work for you.
Here’s another tip: Every time you learn something new, share it. Train other people in your organization so you won’t always have to do it all. Build knowledge all around you. In time, they’ll be the ones sharing new tips and tricks with you.
The reality of the business world in 2011 and going into 2012 is that there is no need for “social media professionals.” What businesses need are marketing professionals with a fluency in social media, customer service professionals who can operate in a social media environment, executives who understand how to leverage social media to assist and amplify their other activities, business analysts who know how to measure the effectiveness of their companies’ activities in social media. In other words, businesses need professionals who know how to blend “social” with existing business functions. What they don’t need is to try and figure out how 500,000 newly minted “social media professionals” somehow fit into their organizations.
What is the value of a social media “expert” who can’t translate that expertise into a skill or role a company can actually use?
Where things go wrong:
The notion that thousands of organizations out there are in need of “social media professionals” is a complete sham. Whatever you were doing before social media became a “thing,” that’s what your real skill is. Your profession. What you will be most likely to be hired to do. Your new social media skills, they’re just a fresh layer of value wrapped around that core skill. That’s it. You have 10 years of experience as a customer service rep and three years of using Twitter and Facebook? Guess what: You probably aren’t going to be hired as a Social Media Director by anybody, nor should you. You aren’t ready for that yet. But you could be hired as the customer service manager who will be asked to build and manage the company’s first social media customer service team. Go for that job, kick ass at it, and maybe a year from now you get asked to build on that success, and so forward goes your career. Not as a “social media professional” but as a professional who knows how to use social media.
That social media shortcut though, that magic door to a Chief Social Officer title without passing “Go,” it’s bullshit. It’s a marketing scam to lure you into signing up for webinars, certification programs and whatever else will pass for training these days.
Not to pick on this particular event that popped up in my feed yesterday (whose content actually seems pretty good if you reframe it as a social media-themed conference), but read this marketing copy and think about what it promises and how:
“If you are a social media professional wanting to take your skills to the next level, or an online marketer expanding your capabilities, this program is your chance to go beyond a typical introductory course and get advanced insights from true social media masters. This conference series is a unique opportunity to develop your own mastery of social media for Marketing and Communications, with an emphasis on engagement. Whether you are in charge of a department in a large organization, you are responsible for multiple clients within an agency, or you are an independent professional deepening your skills and knowledge, this special event series will help you advance your career and accomplish your goals in key areas of social media marketing.”
Again, the event might be great. At $199, it seems reasonably priced, and some of the speakers, although I have never heard of them, seem like they might have some interesting insights to share. I just can’t help but be a little curious about:
Take your skills to “the next level.”
Develop your own “mastery” of social media.
This special event series will help you advance your career and accomplish your goals.
This program is your chance.
There’s a little voice in the back of my head that whispers “bullshit!” every time I read copy like this. What it really is, is another “chance” to spend $200 on a conference and listen to presentations. Period. Not that there is anything wrong with that, conferences are great, but they are a far cry from anything close to a course or training program that will “take your skills to the next level” or help you “advance your career.”
I don’t blame any speakers and SMEs for being dragged into operations that don’t quite align promises with delivery. For the most part, they are knowledgeable professionals with great insights to share. They are driven by a desire to help their audience gain insights on certain aspects of social media that are relevant and actionable, and have no idea when they accept the invitation how or to whom the event will be marketed.
Generally speaking, the people who create and operate events which promise one thing but deliver another, on the other hand, know exactly what they are doing when they write or authorize their marketing copy. They see where the ethical lines are drawn as clearly as you and I. Not all but most knowingly choose to use certain keywords in order to create expectations not in line with the reality of what they are delivering. In other words, they choose to deliberately prey on people’s aspirations, hopes and fears (the fear of not being qualified for a job, of missing out on some vital information or insight, of being left behind if they don’t constantly sign up for the next webinar, the next top secret newsletter, the next so-called training program) to make an easy buck. To call people who deliberately engage in deceptive practices predators would be too flattering. They aren’t predators at all. They are parasites: They don’t just hunt you down and kill you. They suck you dry, little by little, one event at a time, one webinar at a time, one newsletter or monthly community membership fee at a time.
Imagine hundreds of termites eating at the very foundations of the social media discipline they claim to be building, all the while charging you for the wood. Now you’re getting a glimpse of what is really going on right under everyone’s noses.
My beef isn’t with the quality of these events or what they charge, mind you. I take no issue with any of it. You want to put on a poorly produced event and charge $3,000 a head? Go for it. It’s your reputation. You want to put on a world class event and only charge $25? More power to you. No, my beef is first and foremost with the marketing. What I take issue with is always the same thing: The predatory sales pitch, the misleading copy, the deliberate formulation of unrealistic expectations to lure the gullible and the desperate (read: the underemployed).
It reminds me of TV evangelists asking the most desperate and poorest of their viewers to send them money in exchange for favors from God. “Send us $50 right now and you will see your investment multiplied tenfold! So sayeth the Lord!” Right. Says the guy with the Gold Rolex, the villa in Beverly Hills and the private petting zoo on his 500-acre estate. If only social media gurus sported TV preacher hair and dressed in 12-button gold lamé suits instead of baggy jeans and ratty T-shirts, the sham would be easier to spot.
My other beef is that when the objective is to make a quick buck, more of the organizers’ time is focused on marketing the event than it is on vetting its speakers and curating their content. As an event organizer, it is your responsibility to make sure that your speakers or trainers won’t deliver complete nonsense that will end up doing more harm than good if anyone actually tries to actually apply their advice. Things along the lines of Social Media ROI = (engagement x brand equity) ÷ brand mentions. And yet, how many times have we seen “experts” deliver complete nonsense at events that were supposed to help us learn something valuable?
An event organizer more focused on making money than creating an exceptional event for his audience probably has his mind on the wrong thing. It’s hard to read slimy marketing copy and not wonder what is really going on behind the scenes. That doesn’t help anyone.
A word about ethics, responsibility, and digital citizenship:
There are ethical lines all of us, every single day, decide not to cross. And I get it: Times are tough. As one of these very well fed social media termites had the nerve to tell me via email not long ago, “everyone has the right to make a buck.” Yeah. True. But you also have the right to have both your motives and practices questioned when you choose to make a dishonest buck. This goes way beyond the shady SEO schemes and non-disclosure of paid endorsements you run into on a weekly basis with many so-called A-list bloggers: It goes to the heart of being part of a community, of presenting yourself as a “thought leader,” as a guru or role model or shepherd, and then using that community to fill your pockets with little concern for the damage you cause its members.
It takes a remarkable absence of empathy to deliberately build trust in tens of thousands of people with the sole purpose of betraying that trust at the first opportunity to “make a buck.”
Speaking of that, here’s what “making a buck” under the pretense of helping people looks like in the real world:
The same thing happens in the social media “industry,” only it isn’t caught on CCTV.
If you’ve ever wondered why some of us who work in this community sometimes speak out against predatory or otherwise unethical practices, it’s because we see the scams for what they are, and we are just as outraged by that type of behavior as we are by what you saw taking place in that video.
Now I ask you: What would be the upside of keeping quiet about it? Of protecting the perpetrators, even?
To see it happening and do nothing shames us. It makes us either cowards or accomplices. It’s that simple.
Being part of a community means you give back to it. You contribute. You watch out for other people. You help them whenever you can. You protect them when you must. You make sure it is healthy and crime-free. What you don’t do is turn a blind eye when someone gets scammed. What you don’t do is glorify or help support people whose sole purpose for being in your community is to exploit it for their own gain, at everyone’s expense, and without a hint of remorse. What you don’t do is sell out your neighbors and your friends in exchange for a tiny slice of the pyramid scheme pie.
Repeat after me: The word “social” means something. It isn’t just a marketing buzzword. In that regard, it is just like authentic, transparent and honest. In the immortal words of Gordon Ramsay, “if you’re going to take the money, work for it.”
The biggest difference between the real world and the social media space is that in the social media space, it’s a lot harder to smell the bullshit.
In short, be careful what you register for. Tighten your vetting process. Approach every social media event with an eye for red flags. Ask yourself whether it is really worth your time and worth the fee. Ask yourself whether the event can truly deliver on what it advertises. Ask yourself what you really need to get out of it and whether or not you can reasonably expect that the event will not disappoint. And recalibrate your expectations if you must: In spite of shading marketing copy, some events, once reframed as conferences rather than training programs, can be well worth the price of admission. Whether or not you reward them with coin without first pointing out their shady practices is entirely your call.
But back to our original topic:
Social media’s educational fix: Focus on cross-training.
If “social media professionals” really want to advance their careers, here is my advice:
Learn the difference between a conference and a training program. (The former has a schedule of speakers. The latter has a discernible curriculum.)
Learn the difference between beginner training programs and advanced training programs. (The former touches on basic introductory concepts and teaches you how to use social media platforms and tools. The latter focuses on either becoming an expert platform/software operator, applying SM knowledge to specific business functions, and/or – for executives -operationalizing social media).
And here is the big one:
Take less social media strategy classes and more business management classes.
That is where the real value is. That’s what will make you employable.
Likewise, if business professionals want to advance their careers in an increasingly digital world, they probably need to learn how to properly integrate social media into their profession. This is the group that should attend social media conferences and events. Ironically, events like the one mentioned above should cater to these folks rather than “social media professionals” and online marketers. There would be far more value in that, but since it would require a lot more work, the low hanging fruit tends to suffice. Too bad.
If you aren’t focusing on cross-training at this point (teaching social media operators how to apply their skills within the scope of a business function, or teaching a business professional how to incorporate social media into their business function), you are missing the mark.