This post is a response to the criticisms Peter Shankman made in his recent diatribe against “social media experts.” It offers a different perspective on his arguments, articulates the need for social media expertise, and provides guidance for hiring individuals and organizations (consultants, contractors, and employees) to help with social media initiatives.
A couple of weeks ago, Peter Shankman (PS) wrote a dramatic post decrying what he considered misplaced emphasis on “social media experts.” His commentary generated lots of cyberheat, with high levels of sharing and prolific, passionate responses in the form of both amens and eyerolls. Here are links to the two primary copies of Peter’s post, along with a few key metrics as of May 29, 2011:
- I Will Never Hire a “Social Media Expert,” and Neither Should You (on Shankman.com)
- Shares: Almost 2,000
- Facebook likes: 2,000
- Comments: Over 300
- Why I Will Never, Ever Hire A "Social Media Expert" (on Business Insider)
- Reads: Over 200,000
- Shares: Almost 13,000
- Facebook likes: 11,000
- Comments: Almost 600
Obviously, he struck a nerve. Perhaps tiring of social media mania, the commensurate bandwagon effect, and the proliferation of hucksters selling “snake oil,” many people appreciated his speaking the “truth” as they saw it. But because the aspersions he cast seemed to disparage all social media professionals, many people took umbrage.
Shankman’s latest salvo wasn’t the first time the “social media expert” question has been raised. People have been engaged in the debate on-and-off for several years. Peter himself co-wrote a similar post back in 2009, and a month or so ago Paul Segreto started a comparable discussion in the Social Media Today LinkedIn (SMT LI) group (which, with its thoughtful commentary and useful resources, offers a reasoned, civil discourse that stands in stark contrast to Peter’s post and the comments it inspired/provoked).
Methinks They Doth Protest Too Much
It seems PS was trying to be deliberately provocative to make a point, but in his responses to the comments and questions on his own blog, he stuck by the tenor of his post and his dramatic declarations. Given that he chose to take such an extreme stand, I couldn’t help but notice several ironies in his harangue, as well as many of the supportive comments he received:
- Shankman himself is often referred to as a “social media expert,” and his professional success is due in large part to his social media expertise (see the bio page on his website for details, or search on his name).
- PS advocates transparency but didn’t practice it in this post. Because he’s a “rock star,” he may assume people know his social media history, but he probably should have offered some kind of disclosure to help readers put his comments in perspective.
- Many members of the “amen chorus” make their living by selling their social media expertise and/or by leveraging social media technologies. Few if any of them are buyers. In fact…
- The people most likely to need/hire a social media expert – the rookie majority – will never read these posts. Most will never even know they exist.
- PS demonstrates the limits of his own expertise by confounding the underlying technologies (social media) with one of their applications (marketing). He writes, “social media is just another facet of marketing and customer service.” In reality, social media is much more than that, and its potential applications go beyond not just marketing and customer service, but other external applications including public relations and sales (see Part 2 of the Social Media Primer, updated here, for details).
- Peter (implicitly) advocates humility, and listening and empathy, but the post demonstrates little of any of these.
Provocations and ironies not withstanding, PS is right that too many people convey false impressions of their social media expertise, presenting their knowledge and skills as being more comprehensive and/or in-depth than they are. I regularly encounter people who are
- Overly enthusiastic about new digital technologies;
- Lacking depth of understanding of today’s technological changes and their implications;
- Content to think in narrow, shallow and simplistic terms;
- Too eager to follow fads and try/promote every new thing that comes along; and
- More tactical than strategic.
But most of the advocates I’ve observed and interacted with do understand the rules of the game have changed and that social media is not about putting old wine in new bottles (see this post for more of my thoughts on that). Plus, I don’t know very many people who label themselves as experts and/or claim to ONLY be social media experts.
In fact, it’s the quite the opposite: many people who are deserving of the “expert” label demur and/or avoid it because of negative connotations. “Expert” has become a four-letter word, especially in the context of social media and other new digital technologies. The collective consciousness has decided that we need to hold social media to a higher standard than other professions, functions, and areas of expertise, offering arguments such as:
- It’s too new. False. The underlying technologies have been around for almost 20 years, longer if you consider some of their digital precursors. And the core characteristics – such as user-generated content and social sharing – date back to our earliest days on the planet.
- Things change too much and too often. That’s true, but the truth isn’t unique to this set of technologies and/or related disciplines. Professionals in many areas will quickly attest to the dynamism in their own fields, companies, and industries.
- Only a small elite can claim expert status. If we define expert in very narrow terms as a pinnacle achievement, then yes, only a few people can claim it. But if you look up the definition of the term and rely on its denotation, you’ll find it applies to a much broader group of people. Plus, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a relative, as well as absolute, label. I may know a lot about employment law, for example, but I would defer to a labor law attorney as an expert in the field.
- It’s not just about the tools. Of course it’s not, but understanding how the technologies, tools, and platforms are used is critically important to success in using them. There are countless people who are “experts” in their core disciplines but would fail miserably in 2.0 spaces because of their lack of social media expertise. More on that in the next section.
More often than not, when people make sneering references to social media experts and/or disdain the use of the term, what they’re referring to is the proliferation of charlatans in response to the dramatic growth of digital social media in the past few years. This proliferation may be unfortunate, but it’s hardly surprising and hardly unique to the Digital Era. Charlatans, swindlers, hustlers, hucksters, quacks, frauds, snake oil salesmen, and mountebanks are endemic to the human condition.
But swindlers and fakes prevail because buyers are too eager to find a quick fix, a silver bullet, a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. In their efforts to delegate and/or outsource, they often end up abdicating their own responsibilities to themselves and their organization’s stakeholders. Both in Shankman’s post and in most of the comments I read, I saw very little discussion of the ways in which buyers and social media rookies have contributed to the problems they perceive. But I’ve noticed that as more organizations explore social media’s potential, there’s been an increase in attempts to (mis)apply 1.0 approaches in 2.0 spaces. I also regularly have discussions with prospects who politely listen to my best practices suggestions but are inclined to ignore them. I may be able to convince them I’m right, or I might choose not to work with them, but I can imagine many social media professionals who would accommodate their wishes due to a lack of confidence, lack of power, and/or financial pressures - not just lack of expertise.
The Need for Social Media Expertise
Regardless of whether we use the “expert” label, there are many reasons why organizations should invest in people with social media expertise:
- The road to social media hell is paved with ignorance. Cyberspace abounds with stories of social media failures, often by people who should have known better: experienced journalists and public relations professionals who “tweeted without thinking;” a CEO who set up a fake blog to disparage a competitor; a teacher who blogged disparagingly about her students; community managers who fanned the flames of a Facebook attack; marketers and advertisers who underestimated the social media backlash to their companies’ campaigns or actions, or who created fake social media-based commercials and/or endorsements; human resources and legal professionals who developed overly-broad social media policies; hiring managers who engaged in unethical practices using social media. I could go on, but the point is that contrary to Shankman’s core argument, social media isn’t “just” anything. Yes, it’s a set of tools and technologies, but it’s a very powerful set that can cause significant harm if used incorrectly! Rather than using a hammer to extend the tool analogy people often use, it’s much more accurate to refer to tools like chainsaws and tablesaws. Or to refer back to Peter’s analogy, it’s not about arrows or a quiver, it’s about flamethrowers and heat-seeking missiles.
- Simple doesn’t mean easy. It takes less than a minute to set up a Twitter account. And perhaps another few seconds to send the first “is this thing on?” tweet. But the simplicity of the user interface hardly ensures one’s effectiveness in using the channel. There’s a new language and norms to learn, as well as hazards and mistakes to avoid. The same is true for other public platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Flickr, and tools like blogging and wikis and videocasts and podcasts. Social media rookies regularly underestimate them, often to their own detriment.
- Strategy trumps tactics. The ways in which an individual or organization can leverage social media are virtually limitless, but the ways in which they should leverage the technologies need to be driven by goals and objectives, industry and stakeholder characteristics, and a host of other factors, including a sophisticated understanding of whether and how social media would be more effective than traditional tools.
- Change is hard. For most rookies – including organizational leaders – social media is threatening, intimidating and discomfiting. Bringing about the necessary changes to leverage social media successfully requires in-depth understanding of the technologies and their applications and implications, as well as the ability to translate that understanding into language lay people can understand and the ability to help them connect the dots.
- Even when it’s your mountain to climb, having a Sherpa can help. I’ve been immersed in social media for over two years, not just as a practitioner, but as a student and teacher. I can say with confidence that it’s impossible for someone just getting started to quickly match the knowledge, skills, and understanding of someone who’s been intimately involved with new digital technologies for some time. More importantly, these “experts” can help rookies climb their learning curves more efficiently and effectively and provide guidance to increase the likelihood of success and minimize the risks of failure.
It’s important to recognize that there is no single definition of expertise and no “one-size-fits-all” model to leveraging that expertise. The most appropriate expert for a given purpose in a particular organization will depend on factors like the organization’s:
- Strategic goals and objectives, both short term and longer term
- Industry and client characteristics
- Level of technological sophistication
- Financial resources
- Employee skill levels and capacity
In his excellent response to Shankman’s post, Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz provides a chart that offers a nice starting point for understanding different levels of social media expertise. I would argue that we can distinguish different levels of social media professionals the same way we might professionals in other functional areas: coordinators, analysts, managers, designers, planners, strategists, and advisors.
Hiring Due Diligence
Generally speaking, an organization’s approach to hiring social media professionals should be the same as the approach it would use to hire professionals in other disciplines like accounting, finance, law, human resources – and yes, marketing too. Hiring best practices dictate that buyers should engage in the necessary due diligence to ensure:
- They avoid charlatans who claim to have expertise they don’t really possess.
- The people they hire have the social media know-how they need.
- Social media expertise is complemented by other relevant expertise, including
- Specific functional areas (i.e., marketing, human resources, knowledge management, project management)
- Skill sets (e.g., writing ability, community management)
- Industries (healthcare, non-profit, consumer products, manufacturing)
This due diligence is necessary whether an organization is hiring a consultant to provide advice and counsel, an individual or firm to outsource work to, or an employee.
Here are some questions buyers can ask during the interview process (and what to look for in their answers):
- Q: How would you define or describe social media to a novice?
- A: Can they describe the underlying technologies – not just the most popular platforms – in easy-to-understand terms?
- Q: What are the main public social media platforms and tools? What are some I may not have heard of?
- A: Can they name platforms besides LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube?
- A: Are they familiar with less well-known sites like those I include in the Social Media Quotient (SMQ) Quiz, and tools like HootSuite and NetVibes?
- Q: How would you describe (pick a platform) to me? Does that platform make sense for our organization to use? Why or why not? What platforms should we be using and why?
- A: Can they provide a cogent assessment of what tools are best for your organization and why
- Q: How long have you been using social media and in what capacities? What have you learned from your experiences?
- A: Have they been intimately involved in creating and/or managing a digital presence, either for themselves or an organization?
- A: Can they describe their own growth and development, recognize their increasing sophistication, and acknowledge they’re still learning?
- Q: Tell me about some social media failures and mistakes (either yours or others). What can we learn from them?
- A: Can they quickly provide examples?
- A: Can they explain what happened and how the mistake reflects the risks and hazards of social media?
- A: Can they identify the best ways to respond to and/or prevent these problems?
- Q: How would you measure social media success in our organization?
- A: Are they able to put common metrics (e.g., number of followers/fans, Klout scores) in proper perspective?
- A: Can they describe the differences between short- and long-term measures of success?
- A: Do they talk about alternative measures for evaluating success (e.g., relative improvements over time)
- Q: What are your go-to resources for social media? What books, bloggers, and/or websites do you like best?
- A: Do they recognize they’re still learning and that staying current via reading (not just doing) is critical?
- A: Can they quickly rattle off resources in each category?
The specific questions buyers should use will depend on the type and level of expertise they’re looking for. Buyers don’t need to know the answers to these questions themselves to judge the responses effectively. What they should look for is how the candidate responds, the same way they would for other technical jobs they may not completely understand. In addition to the tips above, here are a few general things to look for:
- Tempered rather than unabashed enthusiasm for new technologies
- Recognition of how different technologies can be used to meet goals and objectives and the importance of integrating them with other initiatives
- Respect rather than disdain for social media rookies
- Understanding of the challenges to social media success (e.g., resistance to change, political issues, resource constraints)
- Lessons learned from experience (theirs or others), as well as recognition of the need and a commitment to continuous learning.
Once again, a post I intended to be a brief treatment on a topic ends up as a treatise! But once again, believe it or not, I’ve only skimmed the surface. As always, I invite people to raise questions and offer additional insights and resources. More guidance on assessing and hiring social media experts would be particularly useful for social media rookies. Thanks!
- Courtney Hunt