How (not) to Hire a Social Media Consultant: A Love Story

Despite having a sound understanding of the technologies involved in all the major social platforms and having executed the social strategy for some businesses who are quite actively engaged in social media, the footprint of my own personal social media presence is tiny. Pathetic really. And so it was with some reluctance that I accepted an invitation recently to talk at a gathering of business owners as an expert on Social Media.

In preparing the talk, I tried to make it an upbeat how-to on all the strategies you could employ, and the technologies behind them. The truth is though, that many of the strategies are trivial and the technologies are dead easy so I struggled to avoid layering on the sort of consulting-speak bullshit that I generally despise.

So instead I found myself drawn to a theme of describing for the audience what it’s really like to engage one of those self proclaimed Social Media Gurus (spoiler: they’re the same assholes that’ve been pushing dodgy SEO tactics down our throats for the past 10 years). I think it turned out OK…

A couple of minutes talking up my modest social media credentials…

Adrian Logue, Director Cloverfield Studios

Then onto the main theme…

What Happens When You Hire a Social Media Consultant - in 4 easy steps!

I’ve been involved in this software development racket for a long time now, and over the years I’ve acquired a sense for the sort of things that attract their own specialised consulting industry, and the buzzwords ‘Social Media’ have certainly qualified as consultant-worthy for some time now. What intrigues me though is the circus of insanity that is reserved for specific topics such as SEO, Web 2.0 and now Social Media that bubble up to achieve general awareness beyond the tech community and so attract an especially loathsome breed of consultant who prey on the mass perception that “if you’re not doing it you’re falling behind”.

The common thread connecting these topics is that the benefits of adoption are perceived to be amazing but the technologies driving the buzz are vaguely defined and shrouded in mystery. In reality the technologies are embarrassingly simple, these consultants wouldn’t chase this work if it was actually hard to do. Their business model is to perpetuate the myth that some sort of highly specialised expertise is needed, then pick off the weakest, most desperate customers by offering to step in and sort out all the confusion (that they have created), but of course the service they are offering is shallow, wrapped in pseudo-technical bullshit and appallingly overpriced.

For those of you who haven’t experienced it, here it is the process they will take you through…

The FREE Report

Straight out of the SEO consulting playbook. A FREE Report! It sounds great, but don’t be too concerned that you’re not paying these poor consultants…

It's Boilerplate

They’re not actually doing much work to produce this piece of shit. You may or may not find your own company name in the document, more likely they won’t have done a proper find and replace on the last mark they tried to sucker.

And I’m sorry, I’ll spoil it for you, the overall message of the document is:

You Suck at Social Media. p.s. I love you

I added the P.S. myself because it seemed so harsh without it! Mixed messages I know…

Anyway, the whole point of the free report is to let you know how far behind you are with this stuff, it’s the basis of their sales pitch. We’re a strange lot, if we feel secure in the knowledge that we are really bad at something, we get a real rise out of having it doubly confirmed by an expert.

So now that you have a social media guru who finally understands the challenges you face, you’re primed for the next step…

The PAID Report

I have no idea who this dude is with the wicked head gear, but he looks serious.

Oh, the report? Yep you guessed it…

It's Boilerplate

To get your hands on this report, you can expect to pay anything from a couple of thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars depending on what the consultant thinks you can afford. The work is no different for them either way, I’m sorry to say it is still going to be some slightly customised boilerplate effort.

One thing you can be sure of is that it will be a thick document, the thud factor is their way of implying they did a lot of work to produce it.

Another thing you can be sure of is that a significant portion of the document will be generated from some sort of report engine, in the SEO days they had it easy, they could just get you to put some Google Analytics script in your site and a couple of weeks later they’d simply print off the ‘Traffic Sources’ report straight out of Analytics. For Social Media, they may use a combination of sources, but the effect will be the same, page after page of marginally useful info that offers little insight into an appropriate strategy for your business.

Oh yes, I can also assure you they have not bothered to take any sort of interest in learning about your business at this point. Nor will they do so at any point throughout their engagement.

There’s one more thing you should know about this enormously overpriced document:

It's Everything they know about Social Media

In fact, if they’ve been at it for long enough, it should pretty much contain everything there is to know about Social Media strategy. These guys aren’t the type to keep their powder dry, they see it as a risk to not mention every desperate tactic that one might employ to increase your online profile. Worst case for them is a customer who says “well thank you Mr Consultant, but my friend Sam said he attracts extra follows by retweeting influential bloggers, and you haven’t mentioned that in your document.” Every silly, sad, pathetic tactic that is even remotely plausible will be recommended in this document.

This of course begs the question, “if it contains all that info is it worth getting this document?”. Well maybe… but just don’t pay thousands of dollars for it, if you are keen enough to possess one of these reports that you are willing to dance with these guys then at least shop around a bit, they are all likely to be peddling the same boilerplate report, so find the cheapest one (same rationale I apply to toilet paper shopping).

But be warned if they’ve gotten this far with you, they’ll want to execute at least some of the recommendations from the report, and remember – they don’t know squat about your business – so what are they going to suggest? Of course, they’ll push you to do the thing that worked for their last client, and the client before that, and the one before that, it’s the only thing they know that produces a tangible, measurable, quick result…

iPad Giveaway

“Everyone look under your seat… that’s right YOU get an iPad, YOU get an iPad, YOU get an iPad…” ah, not quite, but honestly the more iPads you can afford to giveaway, the more followers or likes you’ll get. One iPad a month, one a week, one a day, the more the better. The usually mechanism is to run a competition on Facebook: “click the ‘like’ button on our page and sign up to our newsletter to go into the draw”.

The whole point of this is that it gets a measurable result. Even a modest Facebook iPad giveaway should bootstrap your online presence with a few hundred likes. Of course this is not a sustainable presence, it’s not a proper foundation for keeping those people interested, and they may not even be the right audience for you, at the end of the day you’ve not output any worthwhile content and you haven’t established a posting rhythm.

By the way, I’ve seen agencies charge $40-50k for this sort of exercise and it is very easy money. They’ll have you think that Facebook development is an impenetrable, black art but the tech reality with these things is always disturbingly simple. Often it is no more complex than one lone page of HTML & CSS, a trivial project. That’s not to say that the agency isn’t delivering value in other ways (such as great design, marketing reach, prize draw management etc…), but it is always a good idea to approach any engagement with service providers in this field with some caution. For the soulless Social Media consultants (remember – you formerly knew them as those SEO assholes), an engagement to carry out an ambitious campaign like a Facebook competition is the biggest payday of their relationship lifecycle, and they’ll make damn sure they cash in.

So they let the comp run it’s course and you are left with a tangible result: X number of followers. When they were pushing SEO, these guys used to hang their hat on advancement of your Google ranking for certain keywords, “your ranking improved from X to Y” again a tangible outcome. They love being able to point at a tangible outcome to demonstrate their value. But the logical fallacy in their ‘outcome’ is that those figures don’t necessarily correlate to a successful social media presence.

But it doesn’t matter, the wonderful thing about the internet from the perspective of these guys is that they are able to game it to produce a measurable result, it’s like giving a slimeball salesman something that looks like efficacy for his snake-oil. Flushed with this ‘success’ they will seek to parlay it into Step 4 of their engagement, unfortunately…

There is no Step 4

Unless you want to drop more thousands on another Facebook comp, there’s nothing more they care to do for you. They haven’t taken any time to understand your business, they aren’t interested in doing anything that is actually difficult, and don’t forget, they’ve already given you everything they know about Social Media in the original paid report.

But they are riding a wave of success from the iPad giveaway and they know from experience that they can use that to convince you of the benefits of their final ace in the hole:

Sell you on a monthly retainer.

It’s another trick straight from the SEO playbook. Outsource the management of a whole channel of communication to a consultant who doesn’t know anything about your business.

This is the easiest money of all, they lock you into a 1 year contract paying thousands of dollars a month to simply re-run the report they did for you at the start.

Sometimes they’ll attempt to justify the fee by offering to create content such as blog posts, or a daily tweet…

It’s at that point when the ridiculousness of the whole charade truly reaches it’s climax. They actually claim to be able to create content for you. It bears repeating: These wankers who know nothing about your business and have no intention of really taking an interest in your business, claim to be able to create content for you. It’s dishonest and unethical.

The problem is they have a team of copy writers left over from the SEO days who are adept at manufacturing banal blog posts (or scraping content from legitimate sites) purely for the purpose of gaming Google with precise keyword incidence and cross linking between fake sites. The content they create is never meant for a human to read, it’s only intended audience is googlebot. SEO remains a pretty hot buzzword so those guys are still quite busy, but now they’ve got another function – creating social media content for their retainer clients.

Don’t be fooled into doing it, there really is no Step 4.

So that’s it! End of engagement. Most business get to the end of their retainer contract and finally realise they haven’t received much value out of it and so they don’t renew.

Nobody Knows Anything

Let’s wind back to the start. This whole cottage industry of Social Media consultants is based on the false premise that there is some secret sauce to social media success.

Bullshit.

As screenwriter William Goldman said in reference to the film industry:

“Nobody Knows Anything”
William Goldman, Adventures in the Screentrade

There’s no rules for this stuff, Christopher Nolan can enter the movie scene virtually unheralded and create a cult hit with Memento, then build on that success with The Prestige, which leads onto a mainstream blockbuster with The Dark Knight and before you know it he’s making Inception. Meanwhile filmakers the likes of Stephen Spielberg can disappoint with Indiana Jones IV. Nobody knows anything.

In the online world, all anybody really knows is their own business and your best chance of making a splash in Social Media is to be true to what you know. Knowledge of Social Media alone is knowledge of nothing, but displaying passion for real subject matter, and creating high quality products or content relating to that subject is everything.

This is Natalie Tran, arguably Australia’s most influential video blogger on YouTube.

The thing to know about her is that she is prolific. Those videos she makes are really high quality and take a lot of effort and yet she’s made hundreds of them. I’m pretty sure she didn’t launch her video blog with an iPad campaign, in fact I’d speculate that her first few dozen videos met with only modest popularity.

Think about that, there’s maybe a hundred minutes of screen time in her first few dozen videos, I’d conservatively extrapolate that out to maybe two hundred hours of production effort – and she still hadn’t established herself, and yet she kept making videos with a regular rhythm and continued to improve the quality. Create -> Publish -> Iterate.

These days she reportedly makes a decent income from this gig, and you’ll notice towards the end of the above video she’s got a deal with Lonely Planet. And by the way, kudos to them for a classy Social Media play, there’s no gratuitous placement of a Lonely Planet guide in her video, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any noticeable editorial oversight by them on her content, they just let her talk around the subject and they simply sit back and feel the warmth from her reflected glory.

Tips

The point of all this is that you don’t need a consultant, you don’t even need a nerd to help you out with the technical stuff (there is almost no technical stuff), you just need to focus on being genuine and create really good content that you are passionate about and then get it out there by hitting the publish button. Most importantly you need to persist with it. Create -> Publish -> Iterate and so on…

Measurement

Once you’ve established a good publishing rhythm, you may want to start measuring your progress, there are lots of options, but my suggestion is to pick one and stick with it. This is where it’s important to be true to yourself – don’t try and game the system with dodgy practices that do nothing more than improve your metrics. I’m talking about meaningless retweeting, ‘follow friday’ (#FF), follow backs, banal status updates, self promotion and so on… you may as well be a spambot.

If your metrics don’t look good initially, just keep persisting, they’ll eventually come around if you keep putting out great content, and then you’ll have a sustainable presence.

Mark Pilgrim Quote

Finally I’d like to leave you with another quote, this time from Mark Pilgrim, an employee at Google and author of some fine books on various internet technologies. I originally came across this through Merlin Mann’s 43folders.com. I think of this quote often because it applies to many endeavours, to me it’s another form of “nobody knows anything”, it’s about doing the things you are passionate about without self-doubt. It’s about tapping away at the keyboard to make the cursor move to the right, then hitting the publish button.

“I’m a 3-time published author. When aspiring authors learn this, they invariably ask what word processor I use…
it doesn’t fucking matter!

Mark Pilgrim, via 43folders.com

Questions For the Win!

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