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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Some things actually are black and white.

A conversation with a good friend in the agency world the other day (and particularly her horrified reaction to what I shared with her) prompted me to finally write this post. If your company is working with an agency on building or managing a social media program, you probably need to read this. And if you work for an agency that works with social media, you definitely need to read this.

Here’s the skinny: I work with agencies around the world, and more importantly, I have friends in a lot of places, both on the brand side and the agency side. Every chance we get, we talk shop. When someone does something cool, we talk about it. When someone does something not so cool, we talk about it too. And when we start noticing things that bother us, especially when those things touch on ethics, we most certainly talk about it. Over the last few months, one conversation has dominated all others, and it is this: The existence of two prevailing agency models when it comes to building and managing social media programs for clients. One is primarily client-focused and good, and the other… well, not so much. And yet, the latter seems to be gaining traction in the agency world, and that isn’t good.

Here is what these two models look like:

Model #1: The proper, working model.

In this model, the agency identifies the client’s business objectives and uses its capabilities to support them. Note that in this model, the agency doesn’t simply pitch a campaign or provide a cookie-cutter service. It identifies the client’s goals. It clarifies them, even, if not for themselves, for the client (as this is sometimes needed).

For example, if the client comes into a meeting and says “we need a social media program” or “we want 100,000 new Twitter followers by Christmas,” the agency doesn’t simply nod and set to work building a social media program or acquiring 100,000 new followers. What it does first is dig a little deeper: It finds out why the client wants a social media program or why 100,000 new twitter followers is a significant number for them. It finds out what the social media program is there to accomplish. Is it to attract new customers? Is it to capture more relevant data from existing customers? Is it to improve conversion rates or facilitate positive word-of-mouth? Is it to build the foundations of a consumer insights program? Is it merely to monitor brand mentions for a while, until the executive team has a better idea what they want to do?

Whatever the client’s ultimate goal (or series of goals) is, that becomes the basis for the program or campaign. That complex of end goals becomes the driving force behind the ideas, the mechanisms and the activities that will become the core of the pitch.

Why? Because a social media program that blends customer acquisition and increased buy-rate with facilitating WOM and activating hobbyist communities looks VERY different from a social media program whose objective is merely to “build and fill.” (The self-serving process by which an empty space is built only to be filled by a budget.)

What comes out of this type of model is a social media program that blends into a client’s overall business ecosystem. It deliberately supports its marketing efforts, its PR efforts, its customer service efforts, its sales efforts, and so on. Success is measured not only in social media metrics (net new likes/fans/subscribers/followers, net mentions, sentiment deltas and estimated advertising value) but in business-relevant metrics as well: Net new customers, Net growth in sales, increased buy-rates, net positive customer recommendations, improvements in loyalty metrics, increased market share, faster customer service ticket resolutions, improvements in PR crisis resolution, greater operational efficiency in x, etc.

In this model, the agency works with the client as an integrated partner, not just an outsourced service provider, and the results are concrete. In fact, the question of R.O.I. pretty much answers itself. It is never in question. Whether in a support role or a leadership role, the agency and the client act in tandem from start to finish.

This is the proper model for agency involvement in Social Media with a client. The ideal model, if you will.

Model #2 : The improper, unethical model.

In spite of the amazing breadth of potential for agencies in the social media space in terms of impact, revenues and success, many unfortunately choose to just cut corners and go for the fast, easy money. In this model, an agency knowingly sells what essentially amounts to bullshit to unsuspecting clients.

Let me give you two examples:

1. “We need to be in social media.”

Client comes to agency thinking they need a social media program. Their competitors all have one now, and after years of resisting, it looks like they are just going to have to get into that social media “business.” They don’t know much and they don’t know what they want, so they are relying on the agency to provide them with whatever help they need.

What the agency comes up with is a package that includes the development of an official Facebook page, several customized Twitter accounts, a YouTube channel, some internal training, and a content package to go along with it all. If the client has the funds, some campaigns will be thrown into the fray, maybe a contest or two.

Enter the “win an iPad 2 for liking our new Facebook page or following us on Twitter” discussions.

Enter the 5 tweets per day and 3 Facebook updates per day content packages.

In this model, nothing actually happens that directly impacts the business. Nothing is done to support a particular business objective or outcome. The model is simply this: To create billable social media “activity,” bill the client, and generate metrics that seem to indicate that the social media activity is a success. (We will come back to that in a minute.)

What the client ends up with is noise. Ask the client about his social media program, and he will proudly tell you how wonderful it is. Ask him what it is doing for his company, however, and the answers begin to sound less concrete. “Well, we’re attracting a lot of comments and likes. Like, 30 or 40 per week now.”

Yeah? That’s wonderful. But what is it doing for your business?

2. “We need 100,000 followers asap.”

Client comes to agency with an urgent need to grow its social media reach from 7,359 likes/fans or followers to 100,000 by Christmas. Why? Could be anything: Because the CEO said so. Because their closest competitor is there already and it’s embarrassing to be that far behind. Because the digital manager just came back from a conference during which a social media guru told them that 100,000 followers was a minimum benchmark for a brand.

What the agency comes up with is a simple package based on “the value of a fan” or “the value of a follower.” From this subjective metric, the agency quotes the client on a price: “We can get you your 100,000 followers before Christmas, but it will cost $x.” Negotiations ensue. A price is agreed upon.  The agency throws in a little hat trick: “If we get you to 120,000 followers by Christmas, how about a 5% bonus?”  The answer: No, but if you get us to 100,000 by December 1st, you’ll have your extra 5%.

This is a real situation, by the way. A real conversation.

From the client’s perspective, this is an awesome deal:

1. Internally, nothing is required except signing checks, signing off on activity, and keeping track of the agency’s progress. If the agency fails, no one is really to blame internally. The agency can be fired and replaced. But if they succeed, there will be enough glory to go around.

2. It would cost 5x more to reach potential customers in more traditional ways, even email. Social media really is cheaper!

3. We have a social media program! How cool is that?!

4. The client thinks it could have never gotten 100,000 followers on his own by Christmas. God bless that agency and its amazing social media savoir-faire!

From the agency’s perspective, this is an even better deal:

1. The client hasn’t figured out that social media activity is there to support business objectives. He is so focused on hitting that follower goal that nothing else really matters. All the agency will be goaled on is its ability to reach that number by Christmas December 1st. Nothing else matters. Not conversions, not positive WOM, not FRY, nothing. Just get those 100,000 followers.

2. The client is clueless about social media, and there is no reason to change that. The less they know, the more they rely on the agency to deal with their needs. This is very good for the agency, as we will see in a moment.

3. The agency, like an increasing number of its “competitors” around the world, has been recently and repeatedly pitched by companies out of China, India, South America and Eastern Europe that offer followers, fans, likes, clicks and other digital traffic à la carte. It can, like any other agency with the funding to do it, pay for all the new followers and fans it wants. You can buy all the positive mentions you want too.

Let me explain how this works: Money changes hands. Somewhere in a country where the client has no business presence, 25,000 people either create accounts or use existing ones via proxies and simply click “like” or “subscribe” or “follow.” These people will NEVER become customers, but to the client who doesn’t know, they have just become his 25,000 new followers on Twitter.

The only two details for the agency to worry about at that point are a) making sure to cover their tracks, and b) figure out the optimal markup.

This, boys and girls, is how it’s done, and we aren’t just talking about small fly-by-night outfits. Think bigger. Much bigger. And it doesn’t stop there.

4. The agency doesn’t need to have experienced professionals on their social media integration/management team anymore. Why waste money on that when you can just buy fans and followers?

Agencies opting for this model have two options:

A) Hire someone with an influential blog on Social media and put them on staff as a sort of social media mantle piece. These folks will be there to woo the client and help pitch them. They’ll charm them and do some internal trainings for them. They’ll create content for the agency blog, put a face to the agency’s social media capabilities, speak at events (always pitching the agency’s “case studies,” of course), and serve as a “thought leader” but will never actually work on building anything for clients.

B) Hire or promote someone with zero experience in social media integration and build them up as “experts” anyway. Any intern will do, but someone with a few years of experience in any “digital” field will look better. If you’ve ever wondered how some of these people you have never heard of become “experts” almost overnight, wonder no more.

Think about it: Why bother staffing up with expensive talent when you can just buy your followers and fans? The page builds can be outsourced to developers. The content can be outsourced to any number of content farms. The structure is already in place. If the agency is already working on a campaign, its content can be easily adapted to social media channels. (Add revenue line items here, here, and here.)

5. Once the followers have been purchased and the campaign or program seems to be gaining traction, start beating your own drum. Convince the client that their success could make a great case study, then build it up. In a few months, wouldn’t it be great to present at conferences around the world how “engagement” and “content” took Brand A from 7,000 followers to 100,000 in just a few months? Oh, the white papers. Oh the slide decks. Oh the positive press in Mashable and ZDnet. Oh the blog posts. Oh the awards.

Get on the phone with the PR team pronto.

Meanwhile, those 100,000 followers provide nothing for the business. Sure, it looks good when people check out the account’s profile page. It looks like the company and its agency are doing something right. The stats are easy to graph too. Empirical data, right? Is anyone ever going to go back and check where all of those “fans” came from?

Unfortunately, that number is a smoke screen. The vast majority of those followers will never become customers. They will never recommend the company (unless paid to do so). They’re paid extras, pretending to like your company, nothing more. Chances are, they had never heard of it before an email notification with a Paypal link told them to.

Meanwhile, the agency looks like a superstar. In the next few months, other brands will visit them and these words will fill their conference room time and time again:

“Can you do for us what you did for [Brand A]?”

The answer will always be yes.

6. Do not pass Go. Collect that 5% bonus for spending the client’s money faster than the original timetable called for.

In this type of model, KPIs (key performance indicators) will tend to focus on digital measurement only:

Net new follows.

Net new likes.

Net new subscribers.

Net new & volume of mentions.

Click-throughs.

EAV/EMV (Estimated Advertising/Media Value)

Reports will include fascinating graphs measuring “engagement” and “social equity.” Middle-managers will have exciting (albeit somewhat complicated) reports to present to their bosses that clearly indicate that the agency is kicking ass, doing its job, earning its pay. And yet, nothing concrete will come out of it. No actual new customers. No increases in loyalty. No preparedness for the next PR crisis. No improvements anywhere, except for all that “activity” in social media, except for all that noise.

I’ve been in the room when deals like this were discussed. I’ve had drinks with agency professionals who confirmed, disgusted, that it was becoming standard operating procedures at their firms. I’ve worked with clients who had no idea the extent to which they had been screwed by their own agencies in precisely this manner until they started digging under the surface of easy “social” metrics and “R.O.I. is not really applicable to social business” discussions.

This is happening in your market right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re in New York or Paris, Atlanta or Brussels, San Francisco or Hong Kong. This model is gaining traction because it’s easy, it’s cheap, it generates revenue and accolades for agencies, and the clients don’t know enough to make a stink. (Not that making their disappointment public would be to their advantage anyway.)

Where your choices lead:

Fortunately, because the second model is now so widespread, it won’t remain a dirty little secret much longer. Before long, clients will start figuring it out, other witnesses to it will start talking about it, and the agencies they work(ed) for will be exposed. Careers will be tossed down the proverbial drain, and the higher the pay grade, the harder the fall. Don’t kid yourselves: It is as inevitable as the fall of Enron.

Take a step back and ask yourself: What will clients do when they find out? How many new clients will these agencies attract once the curtain falls away? Who will want to go work for that kind of organization? What kind of professional will they attract (and more importantly, retain)? What future can this sort of organization really hope for?

To use a cycling analogy, do you really want to be remembered as the guy who won the Tour de France only to be stripped of the honor for blood doping a year later?

Cheating to win sucks. Cheating to get paid or to get ahead sucks. And no one gets away with it. No one. Not anymore. What side of the ax do you want to be on when it finally falls? That’s your call.

The agencies who opt for real results, on the other hand, who truly want to be the best in the business, whose relationship with clients is not predatory or parasitic, will stand out and attract solid talent, the people with insights and ideas and the ability to win and help them grow. Their success in recruiting the best talent in the world and use it properly will get around. This will gradually score them bigger clients. Meanwhile, the idiots who ripped off their clients with purchased “success” will just vanish from the scene altogether.

I know this because Tyler knows this. And also because I also know that reputation is everything. People talk. People always talk. And they always remember too.

As I begin to transition from being just an independent consultant (where my impact is often far too limited for my taste) to joining a larger organization (where I will be able to do a lot more), I realize how difficult the next few months will be. Sorting through potential new ‘homes’ for me won’t be as easy as just agreeing on a figure anymore. Now I have this stuff to deal with too, and the big famous name on the door doesn’t mean what it used to back in the day. As sad as that is, it’s the sad reality of where the marketing world stands in 2011. The vetting process on my end will have to be more thorough than it ever has been, adding a whole new layer of scrutiny in my search for #thenextgig.

This should be interesting.

PS: If you are an agency that falls into the first category (the proper model), let’s talk. If you fall into the second, let’s not.

*          *          *

If you haven’t already, learn how to properly build, manage and measure social media programs at your own pace. Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization will help you avoid common pitfalls of  most bogus social media program pitches and help you develop your own business-focused framework instead. Think of it as a 300-page blueprint for anyone looking to build a proper social media program. Download a free chapter here and find out for yourself if it is worth the paper it is printed on. You can also check it out on amazon.com or pick it up at just about any bookstore.

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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.

Cheers.

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Before I begin, here are links to the three events mentioned in the video:

July 17: Americas Mart International Gift Show – Atlanta, GA

July 20 (not July 21, as I wrongly stated in the above video): Gaspedal’s Supergenius conference – New York, New York

July 27-28: ADMA Forum 2010 – Sydney, Australia

Okay. Now we can begin.

From solo operator to corporate front: The evolution of manufactured Social Media expertise in 2010

I guess it was just a matter of time before we had to revisit the issue of bogus Social Media “experts,” so today is as good as any to do just that. This time though, rather than drop the hammer on the latest Social Media certification scheme or outrageous Social Media R.O.I. equation/calculator, let me just speak in more general terms. Not that I particularly feel obliged to protect the guilty, but we can do this without pointing any fingers. Actually, for this topic, it works better if we don’t.

What I want to shed a light on today isn’t the lone “Social Media Expert” who tried his hand at being a day-trader, then got into SEO, then found himself out of a job for a few months and finally figured he’d try his luck as a Social Media consultant… because hey, how hard can it be, right? *sigh* We’ve already been down that road and I can’t think of anything to add at this juncture. No, today, I want to bring up another type of “Social Media expert” altogether: The kind that earns his or her validation from the company they work for, mostly as a marketing ploy engineered by said company.

Consider a scenario for a moment (and I am not making this up, so pay attention): Consulting Firm XYZ realizes that there is big money in Social Media consulting and services, say in the enterprise space. Every single one of their big clients is asking them for help on the Social Media front, first in terms of research and fact-finding, then in terms of strategy, then integration and training. They need to act fast or they might not get that business. What to do?

There are two ways of going about this: The first – Putting together a team of people with actual experience in these matters. Identify them internally or hire them as needed. The second – Grabbing the handful of consultants who did your initial research and fact-finding when it comes to Social Media, and change their respective titles to reflect their needed “expertise” in light of their new client-facing roles. One is the right, ethical, smart and professional way of getting into the Social Media consulting business. The other is the complete opposite of that.

Intelligent and ethical choices designate the winners in the long run

Let me be clear about this: Many firms and agencies choose the first of these choices. Companies like Edelman, Ogilvy, Radian 6, Deloitte and New Marketing Labs have already snatched up some pretty solid names in the space – an indication that they are taking their task and their clients’ well-being seriously. These companies would tend to fall into the good category. Sadly though, not all consulting firms and agencies have chosen the same path. More and more, I keep running into firms that knowingly appoint people with no experience or savvy to “Social Media Director,” “VP Social Business” and other such roles, then aggressively market them to their unsuspecting clients in order to secure lucrative consulting contracts.

Not that some consulting firms haven’t been doing this with other disciplines for decades, but this one hits a little closer to home. Besides, until now, internally manufactured experts at least had some semblance of experience. At worst, they received a decent degree of training before being thrust into their clients’ unfortunate laps to learn their craft as they went. Now though, when it comes to Social Media integration and program development, not so much. It’s like the bar has been lowered a few more notches, and that isn’t something we should turn a blind eye to.

How to manufacture a bogus Social Media expert for your company in 10 easy steps

So here’s how the process of manufacturing internal Social Media expertise works:

Step 1 – Identify the pigeon: the individual who isn’t really good at what s/he was hired to do, but is someone’s protegé within the organization and could fit into this role well enough. “Let’s see… Who fits that description… Ah yes. Jackson. Someone call Jackson in here. What?… Yes, tell him to bring his pencil.”

Step 2 – Send Jackson on a two-week fact-finding mission to find and browse through every study, article, report and policy ever written about Social Media. (We’ll come back to this in step 4.) “Yes, Jackson. Google. With a G.”

Step 3 – Build Jackson a personal website and a blog. Tell him to get a Twitter account started. Better get on Facebook too. Oh, and LinkedIn, just for good measure.

Step 4 – Remember all of that research Jackson did for Step 2? Yeah… Get the web guy to create a page that agglomerates all of those “resources” on his new website. A) It’ll look like he really knows his stuff. B) It’s great for SEO. C) With a resource like that, we’re sure to attract a few bloggers and e-journalists.

Step 5 – “Get the PR team rolling. We need to get our man some speaking gigs and a few key quotes in industry pubs.”

Step 6 – “Call our print people. We need to make sure Jackson gets published asap. Pull some strings. We need this.”

Step 7 – “Mortimer, make sure jackson blogs once per week. Yes, make him if he doesn’t want to. Same with Twitter. I want a daily tweet from him, with a link to something we own. Wait… on second thought, never mind. We’ll let Legal handle all that.”

Step 8 – “Make sure that Jackson’s personal website looks nothing like ours, but throw in an easy-to-spot disclaimer that clearly identifies him/her as our employee. No sense throwing bait without the hook. Yes, our company name needs to be italicized.”

Step 9 – “Call the PR team again. Let’s make sure everyone knows we’ve named Jackson VP of Social Business. Yeah, contact all the big bloggers too. Some of them might share the info with their networks. Oh, and email our clients. Yes, all of them.”

Step 10 – “Book a few rooms for SxSW and Blogworld. Jackson needs to be seen. Let’s see if we can sponsor a party while we’re there too. We have some leftover marketing money from that thing last month anyway.”

Voila. Before you know it, someone with zero background in the space as of three months ago is suddenly an expert working with Fortune 100 clients for a prominent consulting firm. Just. Like. That.

Smoke, mirrors, and the proverbial wool in the age of Google: Wrapping it all up with a simple job title

Now imagine you’re a company looking to build a Social Media program, and you don’t know where to start. The consulting firm you work with comes to you with a Social Media consulting package. They introduce you to their “expert,” Their VP of Social Business, with his own team of social media consultants. You google the guy. You find his website. You find the extensive list of resources he linked to on his website, along with a handful of quickly drafted $150 reports done internally by research interns last summer. He has a twitter account, a Facebook profile and even a blog with a good dozen posts on it you can’t really understand, but they’re filled with links. Looks good, right? Why should you doubt any of this? Seems legit enough.

After all, why should you doubt marketing from a company looking to generate millions of dollars in Social Media consulting fees after an investment of less than $10K in web design and PR? Hell, they didn’t even need to staff up. All they did was shuffle a few consultants around then printed them new business cards to reflect their new… expertise. Bam. Instant new service offering.

This isn’t theory. It isn’t a what if scenario. This is all too real. This actually happens, and it happens within very large, reputable firms as well as small fly-by-night ones.

All of this to say: Be cautious. Do your homework – not just on the firm itself, as it might otherwise have a stellar reputation and an impressive list of clients, but more specifically on the “experts” your consulting partners bring to your table. Just because a company you hire to help you tells you their experts are indeed experts doesn’t make them so. Do your homework. Research the “experts.” Don’t let well-designed websites and fancy titles fool you.

7 simple ways to separate legitimate  professionals from manufactured experts

Here are some things to look for before you throw your money away on a complete disaster:

1. EVERY person worthy of occupying a Director or VP level position in the Social Media, Social Business or Social Communications space has been involved in some sort of social/digital publishing for 3-5+ years. Typically, this manifests itself as a blog. Case in point: NML’s Chris Brogan and Keith Burtis, Francois Gossieaux, Geoff Livingston, Valeria Maltoni, Orange’s Yann Gourvennec, Neville Hobson, R6’s Amber Naslund, Ford’s Scott Monty, Seth Godin, Brian Solis, Jeremiah Owyang, Edelman’s David Armano, Ogilvy’s John Bell, … All have been actively involved in the Social Web for years. They didn’t get into it six months ago or just last year. They have been in it from the start, and as a result, they know what they’re talking about. These folks are respected in the space because they helped build it. They are the caliber of people consulting firms should look for in a hire. Period.

Find out how long your consulting firm’s “expert” has been blogging. Less than 2 years? Proceed with caution. Less than 8 months? Look for expertise elsewhere.

2. Read their blog. What do you find? Crap content just to fill a page 3x per week and provide search engines with carefully chosen keywords, or is the content actually helpful, well researched, shrewdly analyzed and intelligently presented? Does this person care about what they do, or are they just doing what they need to in order to “be in the game?” Does their content give you ideas or just regurgitate someone else’s articles and content? Speaking of original content, how much of what they blog about is THEIR content? (Hacks like to borrow and appropriate content. Get a sense for whether or not this individual really knows their stuff or is merely a parrot with a fancy title.)

3. Blogging isn’t everything. Lots of people have been blogging for 5+ years but couldn’t manage a Social Media practice if their lives depended on it. Who have they worked with? What have they done? What is their background? What relevant mix of experience do they bring into the role? Were they an SEO expert a year ago? And a day trader before that? If so, be careful.

Note: Though there is no clear path to Social Media management savvy, the individual’s story has to make sense. Maybe they were a corporate marketing guy who fell in love with the Social web and started incorporating it into their company’s activities. Maybe they were an artisan who used Social Media to tap into communities and figured out how to apply those lessons to business.  Maybe they were a tech or a baker or a PR manager or a Customer Service manager who realized how Social Media might change the game for their discipline and have been tweaking the model ever since. Everyone capable of functioning at the Director or VP level in the Social Business space has a story to tell about how they came into the space that involves passion, an idea, and a very specific path. Look for it. Ask to hear it. Conversely, the manufactured “experts” don’t have a story. They just showed up a few months ago because the time was right to jump in. It’s a simple litmus test, and one that usually works quite well.

4. How do they handle themselves on Social Channels? Do they ever respond to comments? If so, how? Are they using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as mere broadcast vehicles, or do they actually care enough about the space and their role in it to engage, respond and participate in discussions? How fluent are they with dos and don’ts of various Social communications platforms? Have they demonstrated on these channels the ease and fluency that you would expect from someone with real experience under their belt, or are they merely “there,” kind of floundering?

5. Who outside of the organization and its clients can vouch for them? Don’t ask their boss. Don’t ask their HR person. Don’t ask their other clients either. You might as well ask their mom while you’re at it. Find validation outside of their immediate circle of interest.

6. In their initial meetings with you, do they speak more than they listen? Do they lead with a 5-step “program” or a “P.L.A.N.” rather than trying to see how to organically grow a program within your organization? Do they make you wait for even the most basic feedback rather than discussing possibilities and ideas right there and then? Red flags all. Once the sale is made, then what?

7. Do they care? This is a simple gut check. If they’re into it, if they are passionate about the space and what you might do together, you’re probably on the right track. If they aren’t passionate about any of this, then be very careful where things go. Social Business management without genuine passion is like a folk singer without stories to tell: It won’t go very far. Look for passion. Genuine, burning, infectious passion. Yes, even in a consultant.

Caution for now, but expect clear skies eventually

So again, be cautious. This line of work hasn’t been around long enough for professionals to be able to establish themselves as clearly to outside onlookers and prospective clients as, say, plumbers, designers, attorneys, restaurateurs or journalists. Nobody was a Director of Social Communications ten years ago. Five years ago, even. This line of work is still fairly new, even to those of us who have been involved with it for the better part of a decade, and in some cases longer than that.

Five years from now, the waters won’t be as murky. Hacks will have fallen by the wayside and those with a real aptitude for this type of activity will have emerged as clear professionals in their field. But until then, proceed with caution. Do your research. Don’t confuse a job title, a neat website and some fractal Social Networking activity for anything more than just good marketing.

Cheers.

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