Fact or Fiction: Verifying claims of social media 'experience'

One of the biggest hurdles in the social media industry is determining who is truly behind some of the creative processes. Here, experts weigh in on how to separate the good from the bad... and the ugly.

Social media, while in its prime, is no different than many other industries. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and there are those who try to take advantage of the hype in order to advance their careers. While much has already been written about the ill-reputed 'social media snake oil salesperson' and the term 'consultant' is now synonymous with 'pariah', there's little guidance to suggest how companies and individuals can tell the best of the best from the worst of the rest.

One of the biggest hurdles in the social media industry is the issue of determining who is truly behind some of the creative processes that are fueling so many digital campaigns. Is it the company? Is it the agency? If it's an agency, which one, as many big companies have multiple marketing agencies?

One good example of potential "credit confusion" might be when the Old Spice ads featuring Isaiah Mustafa took over the socialsphere. Many people wondered about the origin of the creative genius. Was it parent company Procter & Gamble? Was it an agency? Was there an outside consultant? It wasn't until Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb published a stellar behind-the-scenes piece about agency Wieden + Kennedy's brainchild that the source of the creativity came to the forefront.

Alas, not all digital campaigns -- while creative in their own rights -- garner such widespread media attention. This leads to challenges later on for companies who are trying to determine agency talent as well as talent they want to hire. In terms of agencies, a lot of times where are multiple hands in a creative pot. When it comes to individuals, it's hard for an outsider to always truly discern credibility of an individual claiming experience in a certain creative project. And especially with individual consultants, especially those with a strong personal brand, it's hard to know whether or not that talent for branding extends beyond themselves and into benefits for companies.

So, what should companies who are looking to hire agencies, consultants or individuals do?

"It's difficult to prove or credit an individuals contributions to a team effort, especially if it's been behind the scenes," said Jeremiah Owyang, partner at Altimeter Group. "Instead, probe the individual on how they approach the problem, their process, and what they've learned. Truly experienced individuals will be able to share learnings and insights validating their battle seasoned abilities."

This is a challenge that is not unique to social media, of course. The industry most closely associated with social media that is still in the depths of fighting these issues is public relations, but it's definitely not limited to marketing.

"Actually, this is a challenge for any professional services firm—not just PR. On this side of the fence, you can only discuss work if clients approve and many times clients do not want to discuss how the work was done," said David Armano, SVP of Edelman Digital. "But, in the interview process there are signals to look for that can tell you if your candidate actually produced something. Typically I ask what specific role they played in an initiative. The more detail the candidate can provide, the more credible. Also, launches of any program (an event, blog, site, anything) act as proof points. If something launched, it makes it even more tangible."

Next: The importance of tangible experience»

When digging down into the individual, it's critical to really dig into the tangible experience, especially since so many people are skilled at personal marketing. To that end, Armano states that "size does not matter", but it is suspect if someone has no digital presence and they claim to have been blogging, tweeting or working on digital strategies for companies.

"The short answer, while at first glance seems cliché is quality not quantity. What this means is that a digital presence does matter—I would not consider a digital candidate if they have an outdated website, no blog, no Linked In profile, no presence on Twitter. I need to see that they are active," Armano said. "That said, I don’t need to see that they have thousands of followers, friends or subscribers. But I do need to see how they manage their profiles as this is telling. Most importantly I look for the basics. Can they write? How well do they market themselves? Do they conduct themselves professionally?"

"Sometimes the less visible are the ones doing the real work. BUT, there are no absolutes here—track record, and word of mouth tend to be the great equalizers, so it’s important to remember that we’re all more connected now than ever before and credibility can be vetted at the speed of a 140 character DM."

Peter Shankman, founder of Help A Reporter Out (HARO), agrees with Armano, but puts a heavier focus on the actual financial metrics associated with a digital campaign. Shankman, who grew his profitable business largely through social media, believes that monetary measurement is crucial.

"If you can't tell me what you've done and give me a dollar amount as a result of what you've done (i.e. 'I created a campaign that generated $3.7 million in sales') then I won't even bring you in for an interview," he said. "I couldn't care less how 'cool' you think social media is. If it's not generating revenue, you're doing it wrong, and wasting my time. And 'revenue' could just be new sales by people who hadn't heard of you prior to your campaign - but it better be something. 'It was a cool event' doesn't cut it anymore, and never should have in the first place."

Online traction, and program tracking, are becoming increasingly critical. For a consultant or prospective employee to really show his or her social media worth, he or she need to have a combination of peer reviews, project records, and even metrics of success, online.

"Look for previous historical records in job records like LinkedIn, and do the usual due diligence to see how others have worked with these individuals in the past," Owyang said. "Hiring managers should do the proper research through previous employment searches and verification as you commonly would.  One key indicator to test the validity of an individual's historic work background is to make sure they have client references.  A blog is very telling about the persona of the individual, they way they write, source others, and interact with readers in the comments is telling."

Shankman has a similar, albeit more colorful, perspective.

"Everything can be tracked. It's a million times easier to track social media than it was to track PR. Hell, use a damn bit.ly link if nothing else," he said. "But everything can be tracked. The 'oh, well, we did the campaign, and it increased views, but we can't prove it' is a bullshit excuse."

The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of talent in the social media pool. The key is to not get clouded by the hype and to try to find it. This is a challenge that companies and hiring managers will continue to be faced with, much like they are in other markets, but with some guidance they should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

"Having an online track record that can be verified by their peers is key in today's competitive job market.  Anyone vying for a job should recognize they'll have a leg up by having a completed, detailed, LinkedIn profile with references from previous colleagues or clients," Owyang said. "It's tantamount in indicating someone has a business network that's verified.  Furthermore, those with an online portfolio of work, a blog, or other websites can help give potential employers the opportunity to sample the quality of work they'll receive in the future."