It has become an unfortunate trend lately, for mainstream media commentators and even tech media commentators to criticise social media consultants as a bunch of silicon snake oil merchants. Part of the reason given for the criticism, is that many self-styled ‘experts’ have only just come to the discipline, or they claim to have had a long history with social media but do not actually have any practical experience in either marketing, business management, technology development, journalism/communications or instruction design. The other main criticism is that such ‘experts’ are not delivering on product sales for firms with which they engage.
I acknowledge freely that these criticisms are well-founded in many cases. But it is both generalising and potentially damaging to suggest that all social media expert consultants operate with such poor credentials and that the advice they give is only broad guidelines rather than specific tactical and strategic rethinking of audience engagement.
It is actually quite simple to identify a genuine social media expert. They have 10-15 years experience in working with internet technologies and they usually have some programming background, or at least extensive HTML and common gateway interface and/or CSS customisation skills. They have often a diverse portfolio of marketing, mainstream media, public service and private practice experience, and they generally have been associated with the building or execution of either content delivery platforms, or they have been involved in identifiable content-oriented projects.
If you come across a self-styled expert with experience only as a marketer, or only as a journalist, government official or business coach, the likelihood is that they will have limited understanding of the technologies and limited capacity to think strategically or tactically about business engagement with social media. So don’t employ them to do that job. Simple.
For those of us that do have the skills and experience required to address the needs of commercial and third sector organisations, you’ll find the engagement of consultants as trainers, business planners, marketers and strategists will be very finely tuned to the objectives of the organisation, and they will be willing (and indeed eager) for a project to be defined clearly, with success and failure criteria identified, clear timetables and targets for execution of objectives, and a structured reporting and sign-off process for all social media activities.
Most importantly, a valuable social media consultant will note that the benefits of social media lie in tracking idea development, human filtering of concepts, and reinforcement of choices/activities, not in accrual of friends/followers or in eyeballs visiting a website. And they will understand intuitively, that the most over-valued business activity of the past 60 years – advertising – is set for massive redevelopment in the next decade.
So if you’re confused about social media expertise, or if you’ve had a bad experience with a social media consultant, I suggest you use word of mouth to find someone who actually does know about technology, interaction design, business strategy, professional development and sheer sales. Only then are you likely to get someone who will deliver on the opportunities of social media.