Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

Summary: You have a social media consultant beating down your door, saying that he or she could help you. You're trying to weigh whether or not you're being fed a line. Perhaps you are.

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snake oil or value add?It's a shaky economic world out there. You've been asked to create business cases to justify already budgeted 2009 expenses because your company is tightening its belt. At the same time, you're being pushed hard to find creative ways increase your company's brand and improve customer engagement. You have a social media consultant beating down your door, saying that he or she could satisfy this need for about $150-$500 per hour. And you're trying to weigh whether or not you're being fed a line.

Perhaps you are.

Social media consultancy, for the most part, has gone the way of the snake oil salesman. While there are many qualified business consultants who can help a company leverage social networking as part of its overall strategy, there are far too many who are selling their services based on the ability to help establish a company's presence on specific social networks. Many of these consultants have been successful building their own personal brand, however, prowess for personal brand building does not prove an understanding of enterprise business needs.

Companies need to stop believing the hype that social media is an "everything drug." It's not. It's a strategy that needs to be considered and tailored to fit specific business needs.

More at "Q&A with Chris Brogan: Social media gets a sanity check."
"Social media consultants can be a worthwhile investment, but not if they are merely telling you how to use social networking tools," said Jeffrey Mann, vice president of research in Gartner's collaboration and social software group. "These consultants can be valuable if they have an overall understanding of your market and your business, and can help you connect social media to your strategies."

That's the key. A business strategy should not be altered to fit social media; the social media approach needs to be altered to fit the business strategy. Not every company needs to be on Twitter or Facebook or FriendFeed. Companies need to, above all else, consider where their customers and competitors are before making a decision as to where their social media presences should be. And if a consultant says, "You need to be on Twitter; everyone is on Twitter" then it's time to run. Fast. In the opposite direction.

Company decision makers also need to recognize the place of social media. If wielded in the right way, it can be an effective branding and customer engagement tool. However, it is not necessarily a tool that is going to show immediate value when it comes to lead conversion or even desired revenue growth.

"If you have 10,000 subscribers on Twitter, but that doesn't mean something will convert to a sale. Social media is about branding, not about fulfillment," said Sarah Lacy, journalist and author of "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0". "No one is going to Twitter or Facebook to transact. Social media is about bringing down the wall and being more communicative with customers.

"This is sort of a mass area of exploration and a very small percentage of companies do it right," Lacy continued. "Strategists say 'have a Facebook profile' and what they mean is 'you need a social media strategy' to fundamentally re-approach how companies face their constituents, whether they be employees or customers or in the industry. Zappos.com is an example of one of the most amazing companies in terms of finding a way to leverage social media in a way that their customers love."

Here are some very important questions that successful companies, such as Zappos.com, ask themselves when considering hiring a social media consultant or instituting a social media strategy.

Next: The right way to use social media -->

Ask yourself:

  • What is the profile of your ideal customer / sales prospect?
  • Where are these ideal customers / prospects spending their time online? (Note: It might be worth purchasing a market research study on your customer demographic and Web presence before hiring a consultant)
  • What are other companies in your space doing? Can you get your hands on success metrics?
  • How educated is your management team when it comes to Web presence and Internet branding? If you push them hard to sell the concept, what measures must you take to prove value?
  • Can you do any of this for free? Are there people on your team or other teams who are social media savvy who would love the visibility of a cutting edge project?
  • Can you really measure the ROI of what is being recommended? If it's not clear, how else will you measure success?

There are many more questions that a decision-maker could ask him- or herself when considering social media for business. The other thing to consider is, where will these consultants be in five years? Many were born out of public relations roles and, having successes managing media initiatives or blogger relations or pitching via social networks, have dubbed themselves business consultants. Especially in the face of a downward spiraling economy, many of these consultants may be weeded out just as several fly-by-night Web 2.0 startups will.

"By embracing social media, PR goes from authors of corporate character and advocates in the court of public opinion to smarmy shills on the midway," said "Amanda Chapel," the Web personality notorious for trying to put PR and social media in its place. "We are in the business of presentation NOT conversation. Keep in mind, in a competitive situation, the guy who’s chatty… he ain’t your friend and he ain’t talkin’ to you other than for a reason."

Another thing to consider is that regardless of how much planning you do in regard to a social media strategy, the end result needs to be an authentic line of communication between your company and your constituents. Parking a Twitter ID and dishing out blog posts is not engaging with customers. Creating a static Facebook group isn't, either. Companies who engage in social media practices need to accept two very important things: 1) You need to get a little warm and fuzzy and 2) You need to give up a bit of the marketing control.

"We don't really think of social media as a marketing channel; that would be kind of like asking about ROI on answering phones," said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com. "It's really about making our connection with our customers more personal. We're not just another company and there are real people behind it."

Hsieh's philosophy is one of the reasons his company has become such a social media darling. Lacy points out that Hsieh and Zappos.com understand the simple nuances of social media, which also contributes to a large part of their success.

"Companies are over-complicating things and social media strategists are being opportunistic," she said. "So much of this boils down to common sense. I think a lot of strategists are opportunistic but also know a lot of good strategists who rightfully say it's about a mindset and the work they are doing is helping to turn around that mindset."

Overall, while there are a lot of consultants selling snake oil, the pushiness of the salesman should not scare companies off of social media completely. It can be a tremendous -- and free -- resource for branding and customer engagement if used in the right way. It does not need to overtake your business objectives and it does not need to cost a fortune. It does, however, need to be strategic and it needs to be done right.

"If companies ignore this medium it's only going to get worse for them," Lacy said. "Companies can no longer bury their heads in the sound, they have to start becoming part of the conversation. It's going to be way worse if they don't engage but the days of controlling your image are completely over."

Topic: Social Enterprise

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39 comments
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  • Think Comprehensive

    Social networks are only one part of any strategy for anyone on the 'net. Simply put, you don't make money off of them directly, so they are there to bring people into something that does drain their wallet. What's that site look like? How's it linked?

    The idea that social networks merit consulting skills on their own is ridiculous. A consultant that is there to serve the clients should know about them, but also has to know about many other things, too. Anyone pitching social networks alone is probably not going to add value and is, indeed, a snake oil salesman.
    wabbitoid
    • Once again

      I agree. Thanks for the comment!
      Jennifer Leggio
  • RE: Social media consultants: snake oil

    <excerpt>"We don't really think of social media as a marketing channel; that would be kind of like asking about ROI on answering phones," said Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com.</excerpt>

    Silly crap. There ABSOLUTLELY IS ROI on answering phones. Business measures, plans, invests, executes and re-measures. All else is lottery and avocation.

    <excerpt>"If companies ignore this medium it's only going to get worse for them," Lacy said. "Companies can no longer bury their heads in the sound, they have to start becoming part of the conversation. It's going to be way worse if they don't engage but the days of controlling your image are completely over."</excerpt>

    Lacy adds more bubble gas here. Ironic considering the article is about snake oil.

    - Amanda
    AmandaChapel
    • I don't know

      I don't think the latter excerpt is bubble gas. I think there's a lot of truth to the statement that companies do need to, at the very least, pay attention to what people are saying about them on social networks. It's also true that marketing/PR can't control the way it used to. Which might be a good thing.
      Jennifer Leggio
      • I do know

        Sure. But there's always a grain of truth in the hype.

        Companies never could bury their heads in the sand. But that's NOT an argument for "becoming part of the conversation." Conversation is NOT a universal good. As they say... talk is cheap. And idle chit chat is a cost.

        Furthermore, the "it's going to be way worse if they don't engage" is the typical nonsense championed by numbnuts without business experience. Remember all those faux businesses that boasted ?paradigm shift? in 2000. They were the gas in the bubble. And 99 percent failed.

        Finally, of course, what Web2 evangelist wouldn't be complete without the totally ridiculous "the days of controlling your image are completely over." Phaleeese. Here: let me give THE official response to that from someone holding the purse strings: "You're fired." I give service providers/vendors a dollar (a control vehicle) ONLY to get control in return. That?s business.

        - Amanda
        AmandaChapel
        • But...

          ...there's truth in that statement as well. I can say this as someone who does very successfully engage with end users and partners and others on behalf of an enterprise technology company. The way we engage with constituents in the open has changed. I think the transparency of communication through social media is forcing companies to be more accountable. Less empty promises only to spin a story; those promises are now being made out in the open. There must be follow through. There must be a giving up of some control. There's no more covering up those issues, but more a swoop-in-and-fix the issue sort of mentality. I can only say this from my perspective, but when I say that marketing has to give up some control, I think that's an absolute good thing for business.
          Jennifer Leggio
        • I have to agree with Jennifer

          What is said on the internet CAN seriously harm a corporation. I know several people who have recently bought HP home computers after visiting such sites as www.ihatedell.net and www.dellsucks.net. Obviously this must have happened to others if one looks at HP and Dell's respective market shares of late. I can't say if Dell is better or worse than HP (I have owned more of the later but always been more or less satisfied with both) but I do know that there seems to be a lot more negative discussion about Dell than HP on the web, and looking at the numbers does seem to show a correlation. I believe that anyone who ignores the social network on the web is not a company I would invest in.
          914four
    • Amanda is right on the money

      Yes, SN can be a powerful marketing tool when applied
      correctly. But most of these consultants are marketing
      themselves as gurus who will help their corporate clients
      attain SN nirvana. One good indication of how high the BS
      gets piled is the incessant coining of new terminology to
      obfuscate the knowledge and dazzle the suits.

      SN is not the second coming. It's just another tool, another
      application of technology.
      Marcos El Malo
  • RE: Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

    they are value add only if they are held accountable for the results.

    - michael
    michaelbrito
    • Good point

      Very good point.
      Jennifer Leggio
    • I agree

      "What gets measured gets done" - Dr. E. Deming
      914four
  • A Fair Assessment

    With all of the touting being done on behalf of social media, it's refreshing to read someone show both sides of the coin. It seems that the only negative that people speak of in regards to social media is the time vortex factor. It's nice to get some perspective on the matter! Good post!
    cjguest
    • Thank you

      And thank you for the Digg, too. :)
      Jennifer Leggio
  • RE: Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

    Not only has real business been done on social media, real business is being done on a daily basis.

    Are people fluffing about, using social and new media as catchwords to promote themselves? Likely. But the chaff falls where it may and, depending on the goals of the enterprise, one consultant may benefit the enterprise where another may not. A non-profit consultant, reared in the environs of non-profits may not know information that would benefit a for-profit organization, and vice-versa.

    Broad generalizations about an as-yet unknown crew of consultants being spoken of as possible snake-oil salesfolks does no one a service. If there's something to be said about a consultant or group of consultants that is negative, I'd far rather see specifics versus any generalizations.

    Generalizations = keep one's eyes open at all times and don't trust any social/new media consultant.

    Specifics = Do you give this specific person or entity a chance at helping you, or pass them buy due to past or current bad practices?
    ginakay
    • I think...

      ...the article clearly states that there are good consultants out there. I say it, Jeffrey says it and Sarah says it. It's a matter of cutting through the fluff and finding one that understands business strategies that align with one's company. Also, as companies pull back their budgets right now anyway, it's important that they know that they *can* do many of these things without spending money on a consultant.
      Jennifer Leggio
      • SM consultants - snake oil or value add?

        Actually I didn't say you didn't say there were good consultants (wait, my tongue is now quite twisted!). No offense meant - certainly there are some good ones - however as you note, some of the social media strategy and tactics can be done without a consultant (we are repeating you here). Sorry if it seemed I was not in agreement. Probably my tone was a result of frustration with those non-consultant consultants who continue to farm the bizosphere for easy funds. I like the good ones, not the bad ones.
        ginakay
        • Ok then...

          ...I'm with ya. :) Quite the tongue twister, too!
          Jennifer Leggio
  • RE: Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

    If it???s just for clickthrough rates on social networks, then we're free-basing snake oil.
    RichReader
  • RE: Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

    Great post! My vote: Snake Oil (IMHO)

    Just like with most facets of business, there are some consultants that are worth the money, but there are always more that aren't worth a dime. As someone who is lucky enough to do both 'old school' marketing, as well as social media, and as a consultant in my past life (PR), I have found most social media consultants to be a waste of time and money. Mainly because they actually have never done social media for a real live business...it doesn't count that you personally have 10K Twitter followers.

    Social media, at it's core, is about knowing who your audience consists of, talking with them directly and measuring the impact on your business. How can a consultant help me with this sort of work? Spend the money to hire someone internally with social media skills. The beautiful part of our overall community is that you can get most of the input from smart people for free (or a cup of coffee) and go do it yourself!

    Kyle
    www.engageinpr.com
    kffbos
    • Investment

      I agree -- and I think I put off a few people when I used the word "free". I should've said "cheap." It can be done as part of the current marketing program with current resources, or a PR agency resource, or a small investment in social software tools for behind the firewall. But it does NOT have to cost $300 per hour for a consultant's time.

      Appreciate your comment, as always. :)
      Jennifer Leggio