Social media consultants: snake oil or value add?

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.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor
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 're="" lucky,="" twice="" good:="" the="" rebirth="" of="" silicon="" valley="" and="" rise="" 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.

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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."

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