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Several months ago, someone whose professional opinion I care about told me that after having pointedly gone after several outstandingly poor displays of misguided ‘practices’ on my blog, some “in the industry” (meaning the Social Media world) were wondering if I might not be a bit of a loose cannon. The comment took me by surprise – I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but fitting squarely in the  cool-headed, calculated corner rather than the impulsive corner,  “loose cannon” had never been one of them.

After trying to explain for the better part of a half hour that a) I wasn’t a loose cannon and b) that the handful of skirmishes I had begun and swiftly ended were both calculated and necessary, I finally moved on to topics of greater interest. But the notion that anyone – especially people I respect professionally – would misread me this way has been on my mind ever since. Had I in the last eighteen months been giving the wrong impression? If a handful of folks who mostly know me from my blog and Twitter were wondering about my being on the wrong side of being impulsive, how many more people might have gotten the wrong idea as well?

It wasn’t until this weekend,, while reading about the doomed Roman campaign led by Crassus against Partha in 53BC, that I realized that the difference between brawling and skirmishing was lost on a good number of people… and that the distinction between the two, now less commonly understood than it might have once been, may be at the root of this unexpected loose cannon question.

First, let’s quickly differentiate a brawler from a skirmisher: A brawler is indeed a loose cannon, a guy looking for a fight, any fight, just to satisfy a personal need for action, attention or control. A skirmisher, however, is tasked with a series of very specific  tactical objectives: testing an enemy’s responses, forcing an enemy to slow his advance, tire an enemy out, demoralize him, confuse him, take the initiative away from him, expose weaknesses, and so on. In war, skirmishing helps destabilize an enemy either during its advance on a position, and stresses its outer layers (scouts, patrols, etc) while it defends a position. The skirmisher’s job is to try to lure the enemy into pointless clashes, tire him out and/or force him into a defensive posture. A far cry from the odd loose cannon brawler at the local ale house.

Though neither a brawler nor a skirmisher, I understand the value of (and need for) the occasional skirmish if and when the situation calls for it. And in the last 18 months, a handful of situations relating to the Social Media space – especially in its vulnerable early stages – called for some emergency skirmishing: Opportunistic network marketers trying to pass themselves off as experts, horrendously inaccurate R.O.I. “equations” and calculators, snake oil by the gallon, and finally $3,000 Social Media certifications offered by made-up international organizations. Something needed to be done right there and then to make sure these types of things didn’t take hold. Not everyone agrees with me on this point – some prefer a more live and let live approach – but I don’t think I’m wrong. Here’s why:

“Experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.” – George Washington

See where I am going with this?

When a particular type of opportunist knows they won’t be called out on their BS, there’s little reason for them to hold back: If they see easy money to be made from other people’s ignorance, they set up shop. And once they’re in business, in the age of search, it is much more difficult to undo the damage they have done than stop them in their tracks before they have a chance to get any traction.  While it is easy to be of the opinion that results and ensuing reputations will soon separate the real deal from the charlatans, I am of the more pragmatic opinion that Search is currently far more important than reputation in this space: Anyone with a little SEO savvy can tip-toe their way to prime Google real-estate and fake legitimacy long enough to make a killing before anyone realizes they had no idea what they were doing, and subsequently force legitimate professionals – who may seem no more and no less qualified to a 1.0 CMO – to defend the very notion of Social Media expertise for years to come. No thanks.

Snake oil pushers, charlatans and even misguided posers aren’t merely bad neighbors with questionable methods. For those of us who work in the Social media space, and for those whose companies work with it, they are the enemy. Plain and simple. Friendly smiles and good manners aside, they are the single greatest threat to the good name of Social Media program management/integration consulting.

George Washington isn’t wrong: Don’t let the weeds take root.

Those occasional little skirmishes you see me get into on this blog aren’t what the French would call “coups de tete.” They aren’t the result of impulsive behavior or a bad temper. Far from it. Next time you notice me poking at specific people who deliberately push bad practices, snake oil or other nonsense at the expense of unsuspecting clients just because they feel that making a buck justifies it, don’t mistake either my intentions or methods for a lack of self restraint. For better or for worse, there is calculated purpose in everything I say and do, especially when it comes to this topic. Every comma, every period, every word is carefully chosen to produce a specific outcome, which ranges from setting a topic straight (like R.O.I.) to publicly testing the validity of a potentially questionable social media certification program. (Remember ISMA?)

Sometimes, keeping the Social media space clean for newcomers and business execs forces those of us who can to ruffle a few feathers. I am in a unique position to do this because I don’t work for anyone. I don’t answer to a company who might not want to take sides on an issue like measurement, best practices or Social Media certification schemes. Until I decide to leave entrepreneurship behind and take a job with someone else’s company, nothing I say can rub off on anyone but me, and I take full (and careful) advantage of that rarest of freedoms – knowing full well that I may not always be able to do so.

Have a great week, everyone.

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Today, I received this email from a group calling itself the International Social Media Association. ISMA for short (not to be confused with the International Society of Management Accountants – or International Sports Management Australasia for that matter):

Hope you are having a fabulous day! My name is (…) and I work with (…) and (…) for The International Social Media Association, (ISMA).

Both (…) and (…) have expressed that you are absolutely amazing. You bring so much knowledge with such excitement to the social media world. Thank you for everything you do!

ISMA would love to invite you to be on our Certification Training Webinar on Thursday, December 10th from 2pm – 3:30pm est. as our featured guest trainer! For your benefit, you will be able to get great exposure and be known as the “Obvious Expect” within your niche!

Would you be able to accept this invitation? We would be so honored.

Here is the information if you do accept. Topic:

Social Media Objectives & ROI – Session 14 (December 10, 2009)  2-3pm est
*  Setting social media objectives
*  Create social media budget
*  Tracking & measuring ROI
*  Q&A

You will need to provide a Power Point Presentation and send it to us so we can upload it onto our server and a short bio and your picture.

The training with your power point is usually 1 hour and then it is followed with a Q & A session.

Please call me at 603 xxx-xxx or e-mail me back and we can go from there. You can promote yourself and gain more exposure for you and your business, however we ask that you refrain from pitching anything.

I am looking forward to hearing from you shortly! (…) and (…) just couldn’t say enough great things about you! Can’t wait to hear from you!

Before I share my reply – which I think will be pretty self-explanatory – let me share a few thoughts with you about where this email came from and what it is really about:

First, let’s start this discussion with a little basic background: ISMA is the brain child of Mari Smith and Mark Eldridge.  Bright people, I’m sure, but not exactly the international brain trust one might expect from an organization positioning itself as a – if not the – certification body for the world of Social Media. Internationally, at that.

Now, had the team behind ISMA been composed of people like Andy Sernovitz, Jay Baer, Valeria Maltoni, Maz Nadjm, Mack Collier, Chris Brogan, Beth Harte, Jacob Morgan, Andrew Gerrard, Amber Naslund, Francois Gossieaux and Kim Brater, (or scores of others – you know who you are) I would have been inclined to sign on. But no. Mari Smith and Mark Eldridge it was. Two people who – not to belittle any of their accomplishments – don’t seem nearly enough of a thought leadership force to create an international certifying body out of thin air… and immediately charge $2,995 for their  social media certification course, which seems to be the main impetus behind ISMA. (I could be wrong, but I guess we can rule out any not-for profit status for the organization.)

And there’s the real  rub: Aside from lacking the slightest sliver of real legitimacy in the space, what exactly is this certification program? Where did it come from? Who developed it? Who is teaching it? And why exactly does it cost almost $3,000?

From what I can tell from the email I received today, “guest trainers” are developing at least some of the content, and then delivering it via webinar. In other words, anyone desperate enough for attention and validation to lend their name to an organization essentially based on… well… volunteered material solicited through a form email can become a trainer for this “international” certification program.

Come on, Mari. For $2,995 per certification, the least you could do is properly recruit, then pay your trainers, don’t you think? Maybe call them up yourself? Discuss the project and the organization with them? Set up discussions about content and best practices? You know… the basics? Do it right, and for the right reasons maybe? Work with real professionals? Build a board of advisors composed of social media professionals instead of what appears to be a mix of affiliate marketers, entrepreneurs and motivational speakers?

But no: Let’s build a site, start selling a product, and worry about the details later… like content. And let a staffer send them an email full of typos in which we bait them with terse little sales tricks? Come on. Really?

I am not impressed. As a matter of fact, no. Let me take that back. I am appalled.

Aliza Sherman has a pretty solid writeup on the ISMA and its “certification” training here. I highly recommend that you guys read it. I am in complete agreement with her on every point. Another post on the subject this week: Leigh Duncan-Durst’s post on not being Social Media Shark Bait.

Mari and Mark, I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but you are going about this all wrong:

1. You could have started with a real board of advisors. You know… made up of people who actually play a role in the advancement of Social Media. Need a starter list? Try this one. Or this one. Or even this one. I’m sure the people you selected are brilliant and successful and all, but what do they have to do with developing best practices and training programs dealing with Social Media? How do they bring any legitimacy to your organization? I don’t recognize a single name on that list. Not a single social media director or strategist from a major brand? No one from IBM? DELL? The Home Depot? Starbucks? Ogilvy? Best Buy?

2. You could have partnered with at least one reputable university (like Chris Penn did with the University of San Francisco) to at least create an academic framework for your certification – if not to put it on a path of accreditation at some point in the future.

3. You could have started by creating frameworks for best practices, legal considerations, etc. before jumping straight to selling a certification course. It would have taken some time, sure, and the organization might not have made any serious money for a year or so, but it would have built a foundation upon which to build a real certification program. The Social Media Business Council is already doing this. You could have at least partnered with those guys, sought sponsorship of some kind, worked out a similar type of membership organization to constitute a working advisory board, but no. You went straight for the sale.

4. You could at some point clarify specifically what makes you an international body, aside from the notion that adding “international” to the name sounds important. I don’t see a whole lot of foreigners on your board of advisors. Maybe I missed something, but who represents the EU? Asia? Africa? Latin America? Real international organizations, like the IAB for example, have representation in more than one country – and usually more than one continent. Did I miss something? Is there a Canadian resident in there somewhere?

5. Had you given social media management any thought whatsoever, you and your board would have also realized by now that social media management is too complex to limit to only one certification track. As social media evolves within the organization, four clear tracks begin to emerge: Social Media program development (strategy), Social Media program integration (ops), Social Media program management (execution), and Social Media measurement (analysis). The execution piece alone can be broken down into online reputation management, community management, business intelligence, customer support, human resources, etc., each requiring its own very specific training/certification course. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. The emerging specialization in social media roles is something that seems to have completely escaped you, which doesn’t bode well for your “certification” program or your level of practical understanding of a discipline you aim to make your business to certify people in.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but as I recall, Fast Company named Mari the “pied piper of Facebook,” NOT “the pied piper of the online world,” as her profile now states on the ISMA website. Accidental oversight? Who knows. But when you’re going to quote a major publication like Fast Company, it helps to be accurate with what they actually said about you. You wouldn’t want anyone to accuse you of being purposely deceptive now, would you.

Update: Thanks to Mike Rudy, the Fast Company blog reference in question has been found. In a post written on the Fast Company blog by Wendy Marx, Mari Smith is in fact mentioned as both the pied piper of Social Media (body) and the pied piper of Facebook (title). My apologies for this oversight. I didn’t realize that the description was written for the blog, not for the monthly publication.

So Mari, Mark, and the rest of you at the ISMA, at long last, here is my reply to your email:

Hi, (…).

I am honored by the kind words and your invitation, but I have to respectfully decline.

I want to be absolutely frank with you as to why I don’t feel comfortable with your request. (I don’t think it would be fair of me to simply decline and not tell you why.) It pains me to say this, but I don’t feel that your organization is currently moving in the right direction or sending the right message across the Social Media space.

As far as I can tell, you have not yet been endorsed by any of the professionals or organizations in this field whose opinion I trust and respect. Not in the US, and certainly not internationally. Providing Social Media training to companies is one thing. Providing a certification program is another. Your “international” organization seems to be based on absolutely nothing of substance, and that worries me a great deal.

With all due respect to Mari, Mark and the rest of your team, I cannot lend my name to your organization – even as a guest presenter – until I feel that you are a legitimate body, at the very least backed by a board of advisors made up of leaders in the field. To do so could be seen as an endorsement of your certification program or status as a governing body of some sort, and I don’t feel comfortable with that at this time.

I am sorry if this letter seems harsh, especially in response to an invitation, but I felt that being honest with you guys was important.

Best regards,

Olivier Blanchard

 

In other words, thanks, but no thanks.

So for you, my readers, here’s some advice I hope you will share with anyone desperate enough to actually consider spending $3,000 on a webinar series:

1. You don’t need to be certified in Social Media. If one day, universities or accredited bodies start issuing social media degrees or certifications and companies want to favor them, then fine. Look into one of them. But until that day comes, just do the work and let that speak for itself. And if you do need help and training, shop around. There are programs out there that don’t cost quite that much, and I can guarantee that for $3,000, you can get a custom package developed specifically for your needs. More importantly, trust me when I say this: No piece of paper is going to validate you as a social media professional. Don’t you dare waste almost $3,000 on a series of webinars and a piece of paper. Even if:

This certificate gives you the privilege of displaying the official “Certified Specialist” ISMA logo on your website and other marketing materials.

The International Social Media Association offers a full 30-Day Money Back Guarantee on it’s Social Media Certification Program.

I swear I am not making this up. Even the typos are real. (I wonder if I call right now, they’ll send me two for the price of one.)

2. If you insist on spending $3,000 on training, fine. I will fly to wherever you live, and we’ll conduct the training there  for 2 whole days, face to face, with a skype connection to my network of SMEs from around the world who will answer any and all of your questions. If you’re going to spend $3K, we’ll teach you everything you need to know, and  we’ll do it right.

But seriously. Don’t.

3. If you are really looking for real training programs that won’t shred your finances, here is a short list of resources for 2010 that you should consider before dishing out $2,995:

Jay Baer

Marketing Profs

Chris Penn

Gas Pedal

And last but not least, Red Chair (launching soon) – In the meantime, go here

Hell, if you can’t wait until 2010 and plan on being in Chicago on December 16th, you can even register for Word Of Mouth Supergenius, which will be a valuable milestone along your social media educational path. Check out the agenda: Not bad. I’ll even save you some money: When you register, enter this discount code: olivierismyhero (Disclosure: I am speaking at Supergenius, which is how I know it’s going to be a pretty solid event.)

Okay, rant over. Think before you spend, do your homework before joining  an organization or registering for anything, and you’ll probably be all right. Have a great Friday, everyone.

PS: If you really need a certificate to frame on your wall, here you go. Reading this blog post has qualified you to be a genuine Social Media Guru, as well it should. We’ll hold a graduation ceremony for everybody on Twitter later today during which I will wave my magic wand and turn you all into vizir-level social media experts. We’ll all wear funny hats and exchange secret social media handshakes.

Cheers.

 

 

Update: Mari Smith called me Friday afternoon to discuss this post. I have to give her credit for having reached out to me personally and for having been both professional and cordial during that telephone exchange.

That said, Mari and I agreed to disagree on pretty much everything about the way she and her team went about building and packaging her “organization” and the certification program it offers.

Final Update: ISMA disbanded several months after this post was first published. For further details, click here.

 

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