Beware the social media charlatans

For anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand bucks, you can hire a social media consultant to come to your office and put on a training seminar for your staff

Lately it seems I can't go anywhere without running into a gaggle of social media consultants bloviating about the wonders of social network marketing. Sure, you've seen 'em, too. Slick shake-and-bake "experts" promising to help you leverage the power of Twitter and Facebook to raise your profile and, inexplicably, boost your profits. But scratch the surface on most of these claims and they instantly crumble. Meanwhile, it seems the only people making any money in social media are the consultants themselves.

For anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand bucks, you can hire a social media consultant to come to your office and put on a training seminar for your staff. They'll spend an hour or two pontificating about the power of social media to raise awareness of your brand and the magical benefits of building closer relationships with your customers in 140 characters or less. They'll probably even offer you a few "insider tips" based on their "deep expertise" in the field. The only problem? It's a load of bull.

Unless you define success by the sort of loosey-goosey standards that might make your horoscope appear to actually predict the future, the real measure of any business undertaking is that it increases your profits. But in the vast majority of use cases, neither Twitter nor Facebook stands any significant chance of doing that for business users. And if you're a small business that depends on, say, actually selling real products and services to actual paying customers, wistfully tweeting about your daily specials is almost certainly a waste of resources.

But time spent typing 140-character updates about your company is nowhere near as frivolous as time and money spent listening to a self-styled guru blather about how to do it.

Everyone's an Expert

Combine a rapidly growing trend of social media adoption with an economy that has forced hundreds of thousands of workers to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs, and you've got the perfect recipe for consultant overload. Since nobody seems to know what the hell's going on with Twitter anyway, nearly anyone can pass themselves off as an expert on the subject. So suddenly all those poseurs who might otherwise have bilked the hapless with offers of life coaching services or Feng Shui consulting have jumped on the social networking bandwagon. You can hardly swing a stick on the sidewalk nowadays without smacking one of these guys in the head.

In fact, shortly after I began typing this, I received a message from a fairly typical consultant offering to give me some expert insights in relation to another article I'd recently written. A quick look at this person's Web site revealed a career in a totally unrelated field followed by a sudden turn to social media consulting on the basis of being an "avid" social networker. Among this supposed expert's credentials: an admitted lack of technical savvy and a claim to be able to make businesses more productive through social networking.

The cognitive dissonance is enough to make one's head explode, but in the world of social media gurus this kind of thing is the rule rather than the exception.

A few weeks ago, a former colleague at another publication asked me my opinion of the "one-third rule" on Twitter. I had no idea what she was talking about.

The one-third rule, she explained, is that you should have about a third more followers than the number of people you yourself are following. The presumed benefit is that the imbalance would appear to be in your favor should anyone happen upon your profile, and folks just wouldn't be able to resist following such an obviously popular person. Where did my friend get this ridiculous rule? A high-priced social media guru speaking at a local business conference.

Do you know how many people are likely to be duped into following your company's Twitter account just because you have slightly more followers than followees? Pretty much zero. And if you did happen to trick someone with such a childish ruse, it's unlikely they'd stick around to add any value to your business.

The truth is that there are almost no rules in social networking that don't already apply in just about any other social environment. A great many smart people have already written worthy perspectives on how to be a good citizen on Facebook and Twitter, and I hardly need to reiterate here what amounts to general common sense. Just as in life, the only rule that really matters is the Golden Rule. All the rest is either derivative, or flat-out nonsense, and you really shouldn't be paying big bucks for either.

Get Real Or Get Out

Unfortunately, the dirty little secret about using social networks like Twitter and Facebook to promote your business is that, with the rarest exceptions, nobody wants to be buddies with a company. We live in a society that is absolutely sick of being advertised to and marketed to, and most of us turn to social networks to escape the forces of commercialism. We have a word for people who use social networks to send out unwanted offers and announcements about their business, and that word is "spam."

In a few unique cases, some companies have managed to create a Twitter presence that actually appears to have beneficial results. Comcast is a notable example.

With its ComcastCares team on Twitter, the cable giant monitors the Twitterverse for negative comments about the company and then reaches out to the commenters to try to resolve whatever issues have raised their hackles. It's a novel strategy that I experienced first-hand when I recently tweeted about the fact that I was switching cable providers. Within a couple of minutes, a Comcast representative tweeted back to me to ask if there was anything he could do to help me. There wasn't, but I can imagine that this approach might occasionally work with some customers, and probably justifies the relatively small expense of having a few people monitoring Twitter at that enormous company.

Another example is Starbucks, which has one staffer named Brad tweeting about daily life at the company's headquarters in Seattle. He doesn't sell any coffee or anything, but his casual updates and cordial chit-chat with customers put a human face on a company that is often perceived as a monolith. As with Comcast, it appears to be a fairly low-cost PR effort for a company with vast resources.

For a smaller business, the benefits of social media are far less clear, and the relative costs can be much higher. A company operating with fewer than 50 employees can hardly afford to dedicate any full-time staff to posting updates on Twitter and Facebook. While you could charge one or two staffers with the responsibility of posting updates once in a while, it's probably a good idea to make sure you pick workers who can strike the right balance between social media and their actual job. Resist the temptation to hand all of the social networking duties to that one young hipster in your office who appears to "get it." Otherwise you risk losing control of your brand message and turning a meager publicity effort into a public embarrassment.

If you're going to start a Facebook or Twitter account for your company, give the responsibility to someone with poise, maturity, and tact, and then give them the freedom to do it their own way and figure it out for themselves. Ignore the "rules," avoid the "gurus," and let common social courtesy be your guide.

More importantly, approach social media with reasonable expectations. Know in advance what you expect to get out of the effort. In most cases, all you can really hope for is a little bit of good will from potential customers. In some cases, if you do manage to attract a decent group of followers, you can reward them with special offers, but approach such offers with temperance and grace, or you'll be unceremoniously dumped.

Ultimately, it's wise to accept that time and treasure spent on social media is unlikely to reap measureable rewards for most businesses. But that hardly means it's not worth trying. Just approach it with a modicum of reservation and take the advice of so-called experts (yes, including me) with a very large grain of salt.

Robert Strohmeyer has been using social media since before that phrase was invented, and he has no patience for quick-buck schemers. You can follow him on Twitter if you want to, and he'll never try to sell you anything.

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Robert Strohmeyer

PC World (US online)
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