It will come as no surprise to most of you when I say that social media has become an important – some might argue the most important – channel for doing business. All you need to do is look at Alexa to see that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook represent the majority of the top twenty most visited websites in the United States.
Less than five years ago, even companies with a solid and forward thinking online strategy didn’t have much of a social media presence. Today, nearly everyone is competing for fans, friends, subscribers and followers and there is an entire web industry devoted to providing social media consultancy. From social media strategists to the more, er, colorful titles such as ‘ninja’, ‘guru’, ‘Jedi’ and ‘evangelist’, there seems to be an infinite number of people vying for work in this sector. Some are likely very good at what they do and worth your time and money, others are probably bandwagon jumpers who think social media is a career with a low entry threshold, otherwise known as those who believe: “I tweet, therefore I know.”
Recently, one of our clients was approached by an ‘international social media consultancy agency’ and because he doesn’t have a lot of expertise with social media, he was easily fooled by their jargon. It took us no more than five minutes to look into this agency’s actual presence in the social media sphere to be in a position to tell our client unequivocally that they were a waste of time.
Those of you who are well versed in social media may want to skip this post. It’s really directed at people who have been told over and over again that they need social media help, but who are having trouble discerning the genuine from the superficial. I’ve also included a downloadable PDF checklist at the end of this post that allows you to skip most of my elaboration and just get to the point.
Do I Really Need a Social Media Consultant?
It depends, of course, and like any investment you need to decide if there is a business case for it. The most common reasons to invest time and money into social media are:
- To develop a channel(s) where you can build relationships and have conversations with current and potential clients.
Ideal Outputs: happier, more engaged clients that believe you care about their satisfaction; more enquiries from people who like what you’re doing online.
- To drive traffic and attention to your content.
Ideal Outputs: increased traffic to your website. You should probably add another level of metrics to this: What do you want people to do on your site? Do you want more comments? More enquiries? Clicks on an advertisement? This can be a range of things, but you should decide them up front.
- To build up your social profile/reputation, with the goal of creating a loyal tribe (as Seth Godin might say).
Ideal Outputs: A loyal tribe can become your greatest PR tool. If people believe in you and in what you’re doing they will share your content, tell others about it and they’ll be early adopters if you offer new services or apps that are relevant to them.
Although social media can result in enquiries, publicity and engagement, it is a long term rather than a medium or short term solution; though it may be cheap in terms of dollar costs, it can be expensive when you factor in the amount of time you will need to invest. It’s like moving into a new neighbourhood. People might be friendly enough but they have their own lives and their own things going on. Until you’ve demonstrated that you are a truly engaged member of the community, why should anyone take time out to invest in you? In social media terms: unless you are in one percentile that is offering something truly unique or off-the-wall, why would anyone bother to retweet you, share your content on Facebook or embed it in their own blog? It’s easy to see red when the first point of contact a total stranger makes is to ask if you’ll do them a favour.
But back to the question: do you really need a social media consultant? In my experience, there are four good reasons to consider hiring someone to manage your social media presence:
- You are in an industry where your competitors are investing heavily in social media and seeing big returns as a result. You are having trouble making the same gains.
- You have already decided that you want to invest in social media but you don’t have the time to spend on making it a success.
- You want to leverage the connections and network of a particular consultant or agency.
- You have seen social media work and you want to take it on but you’ve got no experience doing it and you need some guidance to get you started.
If you decide that you have a genuine need for social media help, you should also consider the following:
- Do you have the budget to pay for social media consultancy? Good consultants are generally not cheap.
- Ideally, would you like to hire someone to work with you on a short-term basis to get you started or on a specific product or launch, or do you plan to establish a long-term working relationship?
- If you are looking for short-term assistance, how will you maintain the momentum and progress they’ve made once they are no longer helping you?
- Have you clearly identified the practical goals you want them to help you achieve so that you can set out clear expectations and metrics before they are hired? In other words, if you don’t know what you want, it’s nearly impossible to get it.
Only you can decide whether social media is a practical and viable option for your business. Be very wary of anyone who tells you that you absolutely must do anything that doesn’t feel like a good fit to you. Social media is not a quick or easy solution – if someone tries to sell you something that sounds too good to be true, with very few exceptions, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about.
I’ve personally experienced huge, tangible value from being active on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. But I spend a heck of a lot of time networking online. What works for my business might not work for yours.
How to Tell if a Social Media Consultant is ‘For Real’
When I search for ‘Social Media Consultants’, Google turns up over 6.5 million pages. I even get over 1.1 million pages for ‘Social Media Guru’. Don’t even get me started on Ninjas and Evangelists. The point is that you could spend the better part of the next decade trying to find a social media consultant and it’s hard to know what to look for because everyone kind of says the same things about ‘leveraging the power of the Internet …’ Let me be clear, there is no mysterious Internet power for you to leverage. There is no ‘force’ at play. When hiring a consultant, don’t look for a mystic but for someone with a track record of skills, experiences and if it’s relevant, an awesome list of contacts.
Despite all the noise and marketing material that doesn’t really say anything, there are some quick methods you can use to determine the basic validity of a social media consultant. Here’s a long list to get you started – with a cleaner version available as a PDF download at the end of this post:
- Do they have a website? I know this sounds crazy and obvious, but some people don’t actually have a web presence. This is not a good sign.
- Is their website using a custom domain? I would steer clear of anyone using a .blogspot, .wordpress, .tumblr, etc., domain for their business. If they can’t invest in the small cost and tiny technical change to have a custom presence online, I wouldn’t give them my money or time.
- Do they show signs of having any technical ability? Although for social media consulting it is not strictly essential, you probably want to hire someone who at the minimum understands what an API is, has a firm grasp on third party social media applications (i.e. Tweetdeck or Hootsuite) and can help you highlight your social media presence by integrating tools on your own website.
- On their website, do they provide links to their social media presence? Do they have a Twitter account? Are they on Facebook or LinkedIn? I’m not suggesting that every social media consultant needs a strong presence on every platform, but if they’re claiming expertise in the social media space yet it isn’t a part of their own business strategy, I would be concerned. At Contentini we have a company Twitter account and use our personal accounts on LinkedIn and Facebook to do additional networking. All of our accounts, including other websites we are associated with are linked to on our About Us page.
- Are they contributing to the conversation? Do they have a blog? How often do they add content? Do you like their content? Are they properly crediting sources and images? Do they generate anything new or are they mostly just tumbling or excerpting the of others? Are people leaving comments? How are they responding to comments? Do they provide social media buttons that encourage people to share their content?
- If you are hiring someone solely because of the breadth of their contacts, ask to see evidence of key relationships. Just because Robert Scoble retweeted me once, doesn’t mean I can get him to do it again. Be wary of name-droppers who haven’t shown you anything tangible to back up their claims of influence.
- If they are on Twitter:
- Are they active?
- With what frequency do they tweet?
- Do they talk to people and retweet a lot (usually good) or are they primarily using Twitter as a one-way channel to broadcast a traditional marketing message (usually bad)?
- Do they have a ridiculous amount of followers compared to their amount of tweets? Unless you are looking to hire Oprah, I would be very suspicious of anyone who has less than a thousand tweets but has over 50,000 followers.
- What is their follower to following ratio? Auto following and unfollowing to artificially inflate the appearance of popularity is common on Twitter and it shows a distinct lack of finesse.
- Go to Twitter Search and look up their Twitter handle – are many people retweeting them or talking to them? If you notice that even their own Tweets aren’t showing up here, it could be because Twitter has penalized them for being too spammy or junky and that’s really not someone you want to work with!
- Go to Backtweets and enter their website URL – is anyone sharing links to their website?
- When you follow them, do they send you one of those automatic spammy direct messages?
- How have they integrated their Twitter presence on their website?
- Have they customized their profile with an image, short biography and link to their website?
- Go to a service like Twitter Grader and see how long their Twitter account has been open for. Is it a new thing or have they been at it for a while?
- Do you like what they have to say? Are they interesting?
- If they are on Facebook:
- How many fans or friends do they have and how active is their page?
- Do people leave comments and links?
- Are people sharing and liking their content?
- How have they customized their Facebook page? Do they have an FBML landing page? If not, do they know what one is? Have they ever created an FBML page?
- Ask them if they’ve installed Google Analytics on their Facebook Fan page? If not, why?
- Do they have an active discussion section?
- Do they respond to people on the platform?
- In they are on LinkedIn:
- Is their profile active and fully completed?
- Have they received any recommendations?
- Do they belong to any groups? If so, are they active in them?
- Do they have many relevant connections or does it seem like they are blind shooting and just randomly adding people to inflate their numbers?
- If you are looking for someone to actually produce videos or podcasts for you, make sure they can show you online, recent examples of the work they’ve created. If they have a video on Youtube, note the number of views.
- The long-term benefits of social media are generally not just about a flash in the pan, which results in a sudden flood of traffic and then silence. In order to fully leverage the benefits of social media, your consultant also needs to understand the basics of SEO. Have a look at our post on Six Simple Steps for SEO Copywriters to see if they’ve implemented any of these kinds of best practices on their own website.
- Finally, and I’ll probably get some flack for this, be wary of anyone using a title like Guru, Evangelist, Jedi or Ninja. With some exceptions, these titles strike me as being about form over function – cheesy marketing speak instead of substance. At the very least, I’d expect anyone who uses this kind of thing to jump through some pretty big hoops to prove to me that they’ve earned it. Can they drive traffic with psychic energy alone? I didn’t think so.
One More Thing
I hope this was helpful. I’m quite certain that there are lots of other great tips out there to help you sort through the growing pile of social media experts vying for your business. I’ve attached a PDF checklist below that gives you this list in a handier format. Please download it and feel free to share it with friends and colleagues.
If anyone has a pointer I’ve missed, please leave it in the comments and if it’s good, I’ll update the PDF and list above and credit you for it.
You probably already know this, but no one understands your business needs better than you. As new technologies and strategies develop and gain traction, it can often feel like we are being carried forward on a giant wave before we even know where it’s headed. No matter what anyone tells you, do not jump in before you’re ready. There will always be another wave and another opportunity for you to get your feet wet.