"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."The time has come for business to put away childish Social Media notions. It was fun while it lasted, but Social Media is no longer a new toy or an experiment; it is serious business, integral to everything from customer service to marketing to recruiting. Of course, individuals can still tweet jokes, chat with friends, or post embarrassing videos to YouTube, but professionals and businesses must now set aside naive and harmful presumptions.
Social Media is not for kids; it's big business and getting bigger. More than one in five online display ads now appear on Social Media sites. More than 60 percent of Facebook users are over 26 years old, and the site's aging population has motivated Facebook to add "Widowed" as a Relationship Status. Three of the five most visited Web sites (and seven of the top 15) are Social Media destinations. In a recent survey of diverse professionals, 86 percent reported their organizations are currently using social technologies for business purposes. In a different survey, 60 percent of US marketing professionals reported already implementing Social Media as part of their marketing mix, and another 28% were planning on implementing it over the coming year.
Because of the growing importance of Social Media to business, it is disappointing to see the scattered and grasping way some consultants, agencies, and companies are promoting and talking about Social Media and themselves. On ClickZ, Rebecca Lieb, who was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years, complained about "social media carpetbaggers," "self-anointed pundits, swamis, and social media gurus (who) perform a sleight-of-hand that so confounds onlookers" but who haven't "walked the walk." Over on The Viral Garden blog, Mack Collier rails about "kool-aid drinkers" who push the idea that Social Media is easy to use and free or cheap.
Today I participated in a Twitter conversation about Social Media, and the topic turned to how to recruit for Social Media positions within organizations. Some "experts" actually suggested looking for people frequently and deeply engaged in Social Media, as if posting party pictures, playing Farmville, and tweeting about a favorite teen singer qualifies one for a Social Media career. That's like picking phone service professionals based on the fact candidates love to chat and share gossip with friends via the telephone.
Given that survey after survey after survey after survey demonstrate the biggest hurdle to Social Media adoption is a lack of knowledge, it may be that many organizations simply do not possess the experience needed to separate trustworthy communication professionals from the self-anointed Social Media "Gurus". I'd like to suggest some ways to tell the difference, and I hope you'll add comments with your suggestions!
- Are they active and professional participants in Social Media? Do they have a blog, and if so, is it updated regularly? Are they on Twitter, and are their tweets enlightening or noisy? Do they participate in LinkedIn groups, and if so, do they engage in insightful discussions or are they merely promoting themselves? I am highly dubious of Social Media experts who are absent or infrequent participants in Social Media.
- Do they brag about the size of their Twitter following? A widely-read and respected blog is brag-worthy--traffic, engagement, and authoritative links cannot be easily faked. But an enormous Twitter following is not necessarily a sign of Social Media expertise. Some folks built their following the old-fashioned way--they earned it by being smart people who others want to know and follow--but many others have amassed tens of thousands of followers by using auto-follow tools that collect and follow anyone, regardless of relevance. If a potential candidate brags about the size of their Twitter following and not the influence they have or the way they developed quality followers, proceed with caution.
- How long have they been in the marketing, communications, or PR business? I have met many passionate and smart young people in the field of Social Media, but expertise is not amassed in six or twelve months. There is a definitely a place for young professionals on a Social Media team, but that place shouldn't be advising large companies or brands about the nuances, ethics, or measurement of Social Media. Professionals with an impressive background in digital, marketing, or public relations are able to ground their Social Media knowledge and recommendations in communication best practices and not simply their own personal experiences on Twitter.
- What are their stands on the ethics and laws in Social Media? Social Media offers great opportunities but also substantial risks. We've seen many high-profile missteps, such as companies spamming Twitter hashtags and game developers caught posting fake positive ratings on their own games. Ask your prospective Social Media consultants what their stand is on paying bloggers (they ought to have an extremely cautious approach to cash compensation and instead recommend relevant blogger outreach) or their expectations of bloggers disclosing relationships and remuneration (total disclosure--period).
- Do they start by asking about the audience and goals or by talking about Facebook, Twitter, and widgets? Facebook and Twitter are certainly the headline-grabbing Social Networks of the day, and they likely will be at the top of the Social Media heap for quite some time. Despite that (or perhaps because of that) any Social Media consultant worth your time will not start by reviewing opportunities on Facebook and Twitter. They should begin--as should any professional communications expert--with a thorough understanding of the target audience, their habits, and needs, as well as the goals of the program. For a high-level overview of a smart Social Media strategic process, check out Forrester's Groundswell POST approach.
- Do they suggest Social Media is free, cheap, and/or easy? There is no cost to set up a Twitter account or a Facebook page; pretty much everything else has a price tag. Monitoring buzz, participating, listening, identifying audience habits, measuring success, designing and programming social applications, fostering relationships with bloggers, building thriving communities, and furnishing relevant content all require time and expense. Beware the Social Media expert who underestimates the investment and time required for a successful Social Media program.
- Do they ground their recommendations and plans in a thorough understanding of your brand? Your brand has a point of view, a voice, a purpose, and points of differentiation from competitors. These brand attributes are no less (and very probably more) important in Social Media than traditional media. Your employees who participate must bring their personalities to their interactions with customers and partners, but they also have to represent the brand. Any Social Media plan not informed by the brand is a one-size-fits-all solution that fails to leverage and enhance consumer perception of the brand.
- Do they prepare you and the organization for the ongoing commitment? Some Social Media strategies might be short-term in nature (such as User-Generated Content campaign or Social sweepstakes), but most involve a long-term commitment to listen and participate. Launching and then abandoning a Twitter account, Facebook page or community is almost never the right approach, so it's vital a Social Media plan consider not only the costs and time necessary to launch the program, but also the resources or investment required to maintain the engagement on an ongoing basis.
- Does their plan include training, monitoring, and defined expectations for employees involved? Assigning an employee or group of employees to participate and manage Social Media profiles, groups, or communities without setting expectations and furnishing support is a recipe for disaster. Employees must be trained on the appropriate use of Social Media tools, told what is expected of them and how their performance will be measured, and monitored and coached on an ongoing basis.
- What is their approach to measuring success? There are two ends of the spectrum to be avoided--Social Media experts who promise ROI and those who suggest or launch plans without any regard for measurement. On the one hand, computing actual financial Return on Investment on Social Media efforts is no less challenging than it is to compute ROI on a television campaign or a customer service program; on the other hand, every business effort should have established metrics (qualitative or quantitative) so that results can be evaluated and used to revise and enhance processes. An appropriate and sensible approach is to define a measurement plan based on the objectives and to execute the means to monitor and evaluate the program per that plan.
If you have your own recommendations for ways to identify true Social Media professionals, please comment and share your thoughts.