Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ten Ways to Identify Trustworthy Social Media Communication Professionals

"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!
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.
Social Media can be fun and games for consumers, but for business is must be considered a crucial and serious tool for cutting costs, enhancing loyalty, sparking action, building and protecting the brand, or increasing awareness. Choosing the right partners should be done with the same care and planning that is dedicated to finding and securing other professional services and resources.

If you have your own recommendations for ways to identify true Social Media professionals, please comment and share your thoughts.


Cathy Taylor said...

This is like separating the wheat from the chaffe -- or the real McCoy from the wannabe's.

Great post and perfect advice for anyone looking for a solid social media consultant. The original nature of social networking created a perception that keeps many companies from engaging in social media as an augmentation to traditional PR and marketing strategies. However, social media has proved itself to be a viable source of customer engagement.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Cathy! This all reminds me much of the late 90s with the Internet--there were people trying to focus on real, smart, results-driven strategies. And there were others chasing VC cash, promising the world, and telling everyone how the Internet had changed EVERYTHING.

Well, the Internet changed a lot but not everything. And it certainly didn't change the need for real communications professionals!

Thanks for the comment.

thatwoman_soho said...

This blog spot is "spot on." Too many companies are hyped up over hiring young people for social media services because of youth - or older people who have 10 year old marketing services -- but don't even understand the power of "strategy" in social media, but like their kool aid, juice box counterparts, some of the Boones Farm drinkers are jumping onto a bandwagon that doesn't need "jumping on."

Somewhere we have forgotten one very important person. The client. Next we have forgotten something that should be of value to us "our brand."

It appears from the Linkedin trainings, the Twitter trainings and everyone want to know "how to sign up" they haven't asked themselves "Why am I signing up."

Forgetting to ask their clients who should not be one shot wonders, but valued brands and people with real concerns regarding how to stay engaged with their clients, prospects and consumers.

They come to the so called experts and now guru's for help. Why not just look for a social media professional. I like the title. No one is an expert. The day you claim to know it all, you are no good to your customer or consumer.

Before you can communicate with an audience, you need to try to understand the audience. Understand the product or service. Find the value and then plan strategically, without rigidness as how to move forward.

Remember Maslow?

I can go on and on, because this blog post hit me right in my passion spot. Great post Augie.

Caitlin said...

Great post!

You've got a great way to distinguish all of the buzz word slinging "experts" out there.
It has to be confusing for companies to be descended upon by social media consultants of all levels without a barometer to check them out.

Brandon Sutton said...

Excellent post Augie! I would add two things to the list:

1. Do they ask the question 'Is your brand ready for an honest, open conversation with consumers?' Unless this is mentioned in some form, you may be dealing with a snake oil salesman. Open, honest (and ongoing) dialogue is the heart of social media - it's not a 'campaign' with a clear beginning and end. If you're not willing to LISTEN and take consumer input to heart, you're not ready for social media.

2. Do they try to figure out how to integrate social media opportunities with the brand's existing/traditional communications channels? For instance, how can we make the website more social? How can we include additional functionality to enable our customers to spread the word when they are interacting with our brand outside of the typical social media channels?

Just a couple of thoughts that came to mind. Definitely an excellent post - thanks Augie!

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the comment! Your point is totally right--signing up for Twitter or LinkedIn is not the same thing as knowing why you're signing up and what you want to accomplish!

Social Media is going to continue to change rapidly, and I think companies need to find the right communications professionals--not simply the prolific Twitterers--to have vision, provide guidance, and avoid mistakes.

BTW, I like your Twitter feed, so I am going to share it with others. I trust you don't mind: http://twitter/com/thatwoman_soho

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the positive feedback. Any tips of your own to add? I know you have a lot of experience in this space (and are one of the folks who "gets it.")

If you have further advice on how organizations can avoid the hypsters and focus on the real professionals, I'd appreciate your thoughts!

Augie Ray said...


Great, great suggestions! I toyed with adding transparency and openness as a specific recommendation in my blog post, and I think you framed it up nicely.

And I really like your idea for focusing on making what the organization is already doing more "social." It's a great place to start--much better than "let's open a Twitter account"!

Thanks for the additions.

Marie Wittig said...

Hi Augie,

Great post! I think you covered everything. My peers entering the PR industry are starting to worry more about the frequency of their tweets and blog posts rather than the quality of the content. I think this is because some large agencies are looking to hire social media "stars" rather communication professionals with social media skills.

P.s. Went to MU and met you in Gee's class last semester.

Augie Ray said...


Nice to meet you again!

You know, it's funny--I had recruiter contact me saying their client wanted someone who "blogged daily." DAILY?!? Who the heck has the time for that, unless all they do is spew shallow ideas or share what happened in their day.

I'm luck to have one reasonably insightful thing to offer each week--even that requires a pretty substantial commitment (and sacrifice of personal time.)

Anyway, I agree with you--there's a fine balance between quality and quantity. One smart tweet or blog post a month isn't too impressive, but 300 tweets or 30 blog posts a month about my pets isn't very impressive, either!

Where are you working in Chicago?

Thanks for the comment!

Marie Wittig said...

Hi again,

I am currently a PR intern at Weber Shandwick and will be there another two weeks. I did their program for post-graudates and will be looking for an entry-level position in Chicago or Milwaukee. Glad we could reconnect. Keep in touch!

Tia Dobi said...

Dear Augie,


One of my brand behaviours is I don't do immature/amateur and nice to see the same here.

Peace and profits,
Tia Dobi
Hypnotic copywriting and niche marketing that sells more

Augie Ray said...

Tia and Diva,

Thanks for the positive feedback. I'm glad this post resonated with you!

Mari Smith said...

Hi Augie ~ Really good stuff! Dang I put a humdinger comment in and it must've got lost in transit. LOL!!

I want to commend you on putting together a super list of thought-provoking ideas for peeps to consider when looking for social media support, education, training. It does seem to be a big free-for-all just now and it's alarming to think of companies that may be getting misinformed. Certainly, there's an abundance of information to be found online... and one must always do their due diligence.

I would say one acid test that should always work well for anyone looking to hire social media help in any form is to ask for case studies of previous client results. Not that each client/social media campaign can be alike; there is no one-size-fits-all... but a professional should at least have a solid track record to point to.

Thanks again! Two thumbs up.


Augie Ray said...


Thank you very much for giving this a second try. I'm sorry Blogger lost your first comments!

I appreciate the ideas and positive feedback. I actually considered the tip you mention--case studies with results--and then dropped it from the list for two reasons, including the very reason you suggested.

Asking for case studies with proven results is a very solid idea, not just for Social Media but pretty much any professional services. But, I also agree there is so much diversity to Social Media that a company can run a risk of finding a one-trick pony. They may pick a consultant due to an impressive Twitter case study but find the individual or firm terribly lacking when it comes to advising them on blogger outreach, Social Media employee communication guidelines, etc.

The other reason I bumped the case study recommendation from the list was the concern that companies that don't know Social Media may not be prepared to properly evaluate stated results in case studies. What defines good results? Are the results presented believable? Are they measuring the right thing? "Wow, you generated 20,000 fans for that brand of underarm deodorant--how impressive!" (with no call to action and no increase in sales or purchas intent) or "We're impressed your campaign generated 10,000 blog mentions" (75% of them with negative sentiment).

Still, your idea is a great one. A Social Media expert really should be able to present case studies and demonstrate how their solutions met the goals and were measured.

Thanks for the input!

Kim said...

This is a great list, but I have to rebuke your point against the younger generation working in social media. Mostly because I'm one of them :)
As a member of an SEM agency with a median office age of maybe 26 or 27, our fearless leaders have invested time and resources to share their expertise on marketing and business strategy and encourage us to grow professionally all the time. Just because I was in college when Facebook launched doesn't make me a Social Media expert. It also doesn't mean I don't know what I'm talking about when I present social media plans that address branding, audience and overall communication strategies with a big brand client. I may not have 10-years experience in the industry yet, with the right guidance, education and real-life experience, we can hold our own out there as well.

Augie Ray said...


You raise an excellent point! I wasn't trying to imply younger people cannot be great and stratageic Social Marketers--I know of several marketing professionals in their 20s for whom I have a great of respect. But, I've also heard things like, "Kids get this Social Media stuff, so let's hire an intern to create a Social Media strategy."

My point--which was perhaps not made well--is that a Social Media professional MUST have the experience to understand the law, ethics, measurability, fit for the brand, corporate implications, financial metrics, and knowledge of other factors that create success in marketing.

Smart people in their 20s can do it just as well as smart people in their 40s or 50s, but youth and hours spent on Facebook are not the factors that determine Social Media vision.

Thanks for the comment!

Cynthia Laidlaw said...

Regardless of the media being used to communicate the message, the content of any outreach program - via social media or traditional advertising - must be focused on accurately representing the client's brand.

Bravo! As the owner of a marketing communications firm, I completely agree that it is essential for the social media content curator to thoroughly understand the target audience, their habits, and needs, as well as how any brand resonates with that audience.

Doug Kessler said...

If everyone read this post, 90% of the 'Social Media Experts" would have to get real jobs!


Augie Ray said...

But Doug, I don't want to get a "real job!" :)

Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog post!

Unknown said...

I believe it's still okay to hire a not-so professional social media workers as long as you guide them and trained them effectively. Because hiring professional social media professionals will surely costs you a lot.