Monday, July 6, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Do You Know Enough to Buy or Hire Social Media Expertise?

Caveat Emptor is Latin for "Let the buyer beware." It is a call for purchasers to become informed and use due diligence before completing a transaction. If you're a marketer, this is a call you should take very seriously before contracting with a Social Media agency or hiring a Social Media specialist. Care is required if you don't want your brand to end up in the headlines for the wrong reason, as has European furniture maker Habitat.

We've been through this before. A decade ago, with the power of search engines surging, the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) became evident to marketers everywhere--and they had no idea what to do about it. The Internet was still new and some were yet debating its importance, so the ways of managing a brand's searchability and findability were unfamiliar and strange to marketers accustomed to print ads and FSIs. They, of course, turned to "experts" (either external agencies or new hires), but many had no basis upon which to evaluate that expertise. Disasters ensued.

This brings me to one of my favorite stories of my Internet career. Many years ago, a client asked my agency for an SEO proposal. Their goals were lofty--they wanted the top spot for several very common search terms. We responded with an appropriate proposal based on the best practices of the day; it was not inexpensive, nor did we promise the top spot on Google.

We lost the contract to an "SEO agency" we'd never heard of that was cheaper and made promises to match the aggressive (and unrealistic) goals set by the client. You can probably guess the rest of the story--within months, the black hat tactics used by the other firm (such as hidden text and link farms) resulted in our client's site disappearing from top search engine databases.

This story returned to mind as I read about the trouble in which Habitat has found itself with Social Media spamming. As described on Mashable, the furniture maker was caught seeding Twitter's top trending terms as hashtags into tweets promoting a sweepstakes for those who would join Habitat's email list. If you are reading this post and didn't understand that last sentence, then this should be a very clear warning sign to proceed with caution when contracting for Social Media services or hiring a social media expert, because this action proved to be a PR disaster for Habitat.

With dozens of blogs with tens of thousands of readers complaining about Habitat's spamming of Twitter, Habitat was forced to apologize. The company's note to bloggers said, in part:

The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to. This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat. We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that was caused. This is totally against our communications strategy. We never sought to abuse Twitter, have removed the content and will ensure this does not happen again.

In this case, the error in judgment was not made by a johnny-come-lately fly-by-night Social Media agency (although it could've been) but by an intern.

One of my biggest gripes nowadays is the mistaken belief that I have heard repeated time and again in a form similar to this: "Young adults are so clued into Social Media, so we're going to hire an intern to handle Social Media for our brand." Again, if you are reading this blog and have found yourself thinking an intern is the solution to close the Social Media gap in your organization, this is another warning sign to proceed with caution and seek expertise where you need expertise. Social Media is the most important change in human and marketing communications in a decade, and trusting your brand's presence and reputation to the maturity, expertise, knowledge, and judgment of a 22 year old is as dangerous as it sounds.

Habitat found this out the hard way. Not only did they leave an important marketing channel to an intern, they also completely failed to monitor this channel or their employee. It is evident no one was subscribed to and keeping tabs on the company's own Twitter feed, or if they were, they lacked the Social Media wisdom to recognize a truly horrible and painfully apparent Social Media mistake.

Habitat's reputation has been stung. There have been thousands of tweets and blog posts accusing them of being spammers and exploiting some of the most sensitive and timely situations in the world--including the Iranian elections--for their own gain. Tweets in just the last five minutes as I type this include, "We've seen your apology, but telling us who didn't post them doesn't tell us who did post them. Why did Habitat let this happen?" and "Are u kidding me? @HabitatUK gets an intern to work on the Twitter acc. with no clue and then get rid of him?"

Much like brands stung by improper SEO tactics in years past, the use and abuse of Social Media can result in the kind of disasters that cost money and harm brands. How can a marketing organization with little or no Social Media expertise prevent this from happening? The solution is actually very simple; it's just not necessarily cheap:

  • Get smart now: Social Media isn't hype and it's not going away. Social Media isn't just important to your business, it is your business. Just like today, when every employee and leader is expected to be conversant in the Internet, it will soon become required that every employee understand the best (and worst) practices of Social Media. The quicker you and your organization can get there, the better. This will require both a personal and professional commitment to learn for many marketing professionals.

  • Recognize what you do not know: Knowing what you and your organization do not know is the first, important step in determining how to address Social Media challenges and opportunities. Many organizations have embraced Social Media and are prepared to do it themselves or to apply their knowledge and experience to buy or hire the skills they need, but other organizations are still in the shallow end of the Social Media pool. If you find yourself thinking that the biggest need your organization has is to launch and participate in Twitter and Facebook, then you should take a step back and take time (or find assistance) to define your organization's need before jumping to vendor or candidate evaluation.

  • Recognize the importance of Social Media: A company that recognizes how important Social Media is today and will be in the future does not leave it to an intern or an agency that was founded six months ago and consists of three people. The significance of Social Media to your brand's future and the caliber of the strategy and support needed by your enterprise may become evident when the organization's leaders understand Social Media's growth and future potential.

  • Finally, hire what you really need: I mean no disrespect to the many young people who are active in Social Media both personally and professionally, but most brands wouldn't hire a young adult fresh out of school to manage their media strategy, their brand strategy, or digital strategy. The same should be no less true of Social Media strategy. Mistakes can be costly, and the way to avoid mistakes is to find professionals who not only understand Social Media but also have the appropriate seasoning to know the marketing, legal, PR, brand, internal, and competitive implications of their decisions and actions.
Mistakes are costly and unnecessary, so it is vital that marketers make smart decisions. Finding someone with the ability to tweet is easy; finding the right agency or employee to furnish insight, judgment, and experience in Social Media is not. Securing the maturity and experience your enterprise needs might be the difference between a Social Media presence that builds your brand's influence or destroys it.


Nick said...

Excellent post! I've cringed hearing the same mentality about assigning social media responsibilities to the person spending the most time on facebook. You make a clear cut case for expertise. Plus, I can appreciate your SEO client story.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Nicholas. I suspect any of us who've been involved with digital marketing for a decade or longer has such stories. I just wish we'd learn and stop repeating mistakes whenever a new communications technology challenges the norm!

Beth Schillaci said...

Great post. Thanks for shining a much needed light on this topic. Companies need to stop hiring people that know how to use tools and hire those that know how to create strategy around the tools.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I am turning 25 pretty soon and I hate to say that the biggest lesson my generation needs to learn is humility. Even though milennials might be experts at posting photos of Facebook and instagramming everything that's in front of them, the real key to success is a social media strategy, which takes time, dedication and experience.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this article, though I come from the viewpoint of a 22-year-old college dropout who has been entrusted with my company's media strategy. Perhaps the difference is that I was not hired based upon my proficiency with social media (I have had to learn that almost from scratch.)