Q&A with Chris Brogan: Social media gets a sanity check

Snake oil aside, here are some tips for decision-makers who are grappling with whether or not they want to embark on social media endeavors.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

One of the hardest things a person must do -- both personally and professionally -- is honestly look in the mirror. It's often unpleasant, but unless you're Narcissus, it's not meant to be a time to fawn over oneself. We take a hard look in order to see our flaws and if we're strong enough we take our realizations and channel them into actions for improvement.

The blog post I published yesterday about the unhealthy amount of snake oil in the social media consultant community shone a light on many people looking at their practices in a mirror in the face of our spiraling economy. The dismay that wasn't expressed on the original blog post was conveyed to me via email or through one of the many social networks in which I participate. Some were thankful for the perspective. Some were hemming and hawing about the concept. And others were downright furious.

While I do not claim to hold all of the answers, I am glad that I was able to add to the conversation and foster a bit of exploration. However, after honestly looking at my own self in the mirror last night, I felt it best to get a bit of a sanity check.

Social media gets a sanity check
Below you'll find a Q&A with Chris Brogan, who in my estimation is one of the most impressive individuals in business. Chris comes at social media with a perspective different than most of us marketing types -- he's knee deep in enterprise IT. Since my post yesterday focused on avoiding snake oil, I asked Chris a handful of questions, the answers to which reflect a bit more optimism about the industry, and provide some tips for decision-makers who are grappling with whether or not they want to embark on social media endeavors.

Q. [Jennifer] What do you think are the fundamental traits of a solid consultant, whether it be social media or general business / marketing?

A. [Chris] I think social media consultants need more skills in two core areas: interfaces and executives. In the first case, I mean that this stuff can't live on an island. Alan Scott, chief marketing officer of Dow Jones told me at the New Marketing Summit that he doesn't have a social media budget. He has a marketing budget. Some of it incorporates social software elements, where those make sense. On the executives side, social media consultants need to display more business knowledge, and speak about their craft from the mindset of value propositions and bottom line business-related shifts. Joining the conversation isn't a good starting point any longer.

Q. When should a business person consider a consultant versus trying to do it on its own?

A. The main value of a consultant in social media is that the toolset changes too frequently for a business to have accurate information on how to best engage using the best-fitted tools. Where a simple Blogger.com blog would've sufficed for a business a few years ago, the conversation has drifted off the blog and out into the new, diffuse web. Forget Twitter; we're onto FriendFeed. But even after saying this, the best social media consultants won't take a client on a tool hunt. Instead, they'll craft something simple and integrated and manageable from a series of tools without inundating a business with all the options.

Q. What are the marks of a good social media consultant?

A. The marks of a good social media consultant are that they've produced a body of work on their area of expertise for you to review, that they can point to others who would recommend them, that they have some amount of time spent in this space. Without those three simple checks, it's kind of hard to know who you're letting influence your strategy.

Oh, I nearly forgot: if your social media consultant doesn't talk with a strategic perspective, they're nothing but a tool pusher.

Next: Strategy, a case study & recommendations -->

Q. You say that a consultant's engagement should have a strategic perspective. How does a client, who is green when it comes to social media, able to tell what is strategic and what is not (beyond just tools)?

A. A client even looking at social media has goals. They need more leads. They need more exposure. They need 1,000 more buyers in the next three months. Those goals would have different strategies. Would you start a YouTube campaign to drive 1,000 buyers? Maybe not, but you might for exposure. My point is that business strategy isn't changed by Twitter. Twitter aligns to certain business strategies.

Q. What do you consider a proven track record?

A. At this point, it's more a matter of knowing that a person has executed any of the things they are recommending for other clients themselves, as well as whether they've implemented these kinds of programs for other businesses before. Understanding who is a do-er versus who can talk clearly on the subject is useful in knowing what comes next. Speakers are great, and it's important to have a general education project, but in the larger scheme, and specific to consulting, not having any notches on your belt doesn't seem like a great way to present one's self as the expert.

Q. Considering the state of the economy and budgets tightening, do you believe that moving toward social media is a good idea for companies who haven't yet started on such a path?

A. Social software is free or cheap. Executing a modified marketing and communications plan externally or launching an internal collaboration platform (which is sometimes not as cheap, but still less money than most enterprise applications) is a great way to change budget expenditures for 2009. I don't recommend the same tools to all companies, but there are definitely some benefits to shifting to social media technologies.

Q. Can you give me a case study example of a company with which you worked, how you advised them, and what they actual end result was?

A. Recently, I worked with a software company who wanted some first approaches for marketing their product via the web in a more conversational, two-way mode. I proposed a listening project plus a group blog around the needs their target buying persona would have. The listening outpost was to extend selling opportunities by "listening at the point of need," as Radian6 CEO Marcel LeBrun puts it. The group blog was for warm lead generation, with the intent of priming a sales funnel for some of the leads, and educating/retaining customers and prospects. It's too early to report the results, but I'll provide a case study when the time comes. A related case study that has nothing to do with me would be this one, about how bloggers increased HP's laptop sales.

Q. If you had to pick three other consultant types, who would you recommend?

A. Howard Greenstein in New York. He has a great track record and years of experience. Chris Cree is another. Liz Strauss in Chicago is worth her weight in gold or Pop Tarts.

Q. Do you think your background in enterprise technology helps you stand out from other more marketing-focused consultants?

A. I do. I'm not saying there aren't other ways to get there, but I'd offer that my experience with enterprise technology gives me an appreciation for what a CTO and CIO think about, and that I understand how midsized enterprises (I've never worked with vast customers, but 1,000 to 5,000 employees is big, too) think about things. Meaning, I know that one can't just waltz in, set up a server, and start running WordPress blogs and call it a day well spent. One can't just throw some Twitter accounts at a brand and think they've solved a problem.

Photo courtesy of Chris Brogan and his Flickr stream

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