From the title of this post, you might think this will be a rant; it will not. You might also think I have something against those who offer services in social media; also not true. Finally, you might be led to believe that I had a recent unsuccessful experience when hiring a social media expert…and that would be true.

First, some context. Social media has become one of the most important marketing tools in the world. Over half of the readers of this column will have come to it via Facebook and the discussions over at LinkedIn are a wonderful way to showcase expertise and talent. Twitter’s value to the business world has barely been imagined yet, and the explosion of the iPad and other Internet-enabled tablets could play into all of this in a profound way. No self-respecting marketing professional would imagine not including social media support into a suite of services. We are going to return to that last statement later so it warrants elaboration: social media support is a critical component of a modern marketing plan.

I have reached two conclusions about my self now that I’m north of 50. The first is that I create pretty good content. The second is that I lack the resources, personal bandwidth, and/or patience to properly leverage that content through social media channels. So yes, last summer, I found a firm to help me with that, with the express goal of attracting potential patrons to the Presentation Summit, our annual conference. “We know social media,” claims the company’s website. “Businesses struggle to keep pace with this rapidly changing social media  landscape and many are challenged with finding the most effective way to integrate social media into their marketing strategy.”

That described my business, all right, so I hired this company, which I will fictitiously refer to as Social Media Inc., or SMI, to a six-month contract to help me market the Summit and brand myself as its leader.

SMI was as ambitious and energetic as you would expect from a company whose founder was half my age. Their reps wasted no time engaging me in interviews and discussing the multi-tiered approaches that they recommended we take. I was open to their ideas and provided them with access to my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. This was necessary, they said, in order to boost my presence and leverage my content. I agreed with this—if I didn’t have the wherewithal to leverage my own content, I needed someone else to do it for me.

What happened over the next three months was nothing short of a cacophony. Sophisticated software, buzzing 24×7, did the following things:

This all took place in front of two groups: 1) family members and friends who knew me well; and 2) about 550 new Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts who had never heard of me but who accepted the automated invitations sent out on my behalf. For all intent and purpose, I spammed these people with a loud brew of buzz, juice, and noise. Some of it was merely useless, like random quotes from Mark Twain about public speaking, but others were more troubling, like the one that spelled the software as “Power Point” or the one that used “me” instead of “I” in a sentence. Even my wife said to me “You’re sure sending out a lot of posts and they don’t really sound like you.”

SMI was very good at its core services, which it referred to as “social media growth tactics”—a phrase that showed up on every one of my bi-weekly status updates. But did all of this help me? Did this help my brand? It made me more visible, but I have no confidence that people thought better of me because I was in their face seven to 10 times per day. Did it result in an increase in attendance at the Presentation Summit? I ran a cross-check between new patrons, joining us for the first time in 2010 and all of my new social media contacts—there was one person in that intersection.

Did it make my life easier? Well, I certainly have a lot more virtual friends and connections now, but even that was not handled with much deftness. Among my new Facebook friends were a handful of 12-year-olds, a retired monk who lives in Uganda, and various other individuals far, far removed from the presentation landscape. Worse, SMI did not think to create a new Facebook account for me, so now my one personal FB account, containing all of my tried-and-true friends and family members, also plays host to several hundred people whom I have never met. I don’t want to risk insulting any of them — many of them will be reading this as a result of our new liaison and I value that highly. I just would have liked the opportunity to compartmentalize my relationships a bit.

Looking back, I hired a group with software skills, computer savvy, and high energy, but no practical experience or expertise in marketing. I made the mistake of thinking that a social media expert would be a marketing expert and I now see how naive that was of me. As social media has become such a hot commodity, it is now painfully obvious how many people have hung out shingles with only the technical aptitude, not the experience or vision about winning over hearts and minds.

I am not suggesting that all social media companies would be found similarly lacking; I’m sure there are many that blend a fuller complement of skills. And to those companies, I would offer the following advice: don’t call yourselves social media experts; call yourselves marketing and/or branding experts. Make it clear that you will weave an understanding of social media into an overall mastery of the craft. I have every right to expect that a competent, modern marketing firm will exhibit keen awareness of social media strategies. I have learned, however, not to expect that a social media firm will exhibit competence in the larger arena of marketing and branding.

That was a valuable lesson learned.

23 Responses

  1. On no – I thought you had become this super effective person who could tweet 24/7 – there was always a tweet or update from you – we could hardly keep up – and now you’re telling us it was just some of those social media kids going at it! 😉

    Thanks for sharing – interesting lesson. I guess there are no short cuts in social media – your heart and soul have to be in it in order to connect for real.

  2. Absolutely agree with your conclusions, Rick, and thanks for being so open and honest with us.

    At the moment I’m re-thinking my Facebook position as I have as contacts:
    • a few people I really know
    • many acquaintances from the two distinct worlds I inhabit – presentation-related and telehealth/telecare (remote patient monitoring), and
    • loads of people from I don’t know where

    So far I’ve set up Facebook pages for the two ‘business’ areas (Best Free PowerPoint Resources and Telecare Aware) – it’s never to late to do that – and don’t be surprised if you soon get a message from me saying that if you want to keep in touch in either of those areas, to go and ‘Like’ the relevant page because after a while I’m going to remove your contact from my personal page if I do not really know you.

    That way, I hope to stay in touch with people who have an interest in the two subjects and reclaim my personal FB page for family and real friends.

  3. As someone that has been involved with your CorelWorld, Ventura Summit, Traveling Seminar, PowerPoint Live, and now The Presentation Summit events, I early on realized two things. One, that no one can advertise “you” better than you and two, each event evolves as a family of users, teachers, learners, collegues, contacts, and friends…and as such, I don’t believe that any outside firm could come close to advertising the aspects that make up the uniqueness that is our conference.

  4. To Johanna: I assure you that I am the same super-ineffective person that you have always known.

    To Sherri: I…I think I’m going to cry…

  5. Interesting. The company’s approach — to post on your behalf — is not a recommended practice. (Well, it’s actually a recommended ‘worst’ practice!) This undercuts the fundamentals of authenticity and transparency, which are key to building a strong brand.

    I advise clients to ‘run away fast’ from firms who advocate this approach. Instant karma’s gonna getcha!

    Rather, in discovery, an ethical firm would have found your strengths — great content and strong relationships — and would have helped you grow and strengthen this already firm foundation.

  6. The university where I teach has an FB page and my chair discussed putting up one for our department but I pointed out the amount of work to maintain it and that was the end of it. A colleague at another school had a graduate assistant create a FB page and invited all the students registered with their program to join. My friend now hesitates to invite non-university friends to sign on.

    Your experience reminds me of two companies who came to the print shop where I worked years ago. One had a fancy office, stationary that color coordinated with its decor, monogrammed shirts and fancy cars. The second had fancy stationary, worked out of one guy’s mom’s kitchen, drove a beat up pick-up truck and paid bills on time. Guess which one sold for millions? Yep, the guys who concentrated on the business and not the image. Sounds like your company was more the image and not the content guys.
    Pat Gibson

  7. You’d think these guys would at least have been smart enough to change the quote off their website so they couldn’t be easily identified from your article with a simple Google search. Maybe there’s a clue there too?

  8. This generation’s Social Media Experts would seem to be the children of last generation’s Web Site Experts.
    With similar results. 😉
    Good post, Rick. Now get back to being Rick. It’s what you do best.

  9. I’m glad to hear that the repetitive, near-spam, tweets about Presentation Summit that I received from you were not really from you. I nearly unfollowed you on Twitter and, more than once, felt the urge to lambast your incessant self-promotion.

    I’m glad I refrained for a while and it is really good to hear that all of that wasn’t really you. Thanks for the transparency.

  10. Social Media is about creating and spreading engaging, original content (whether that’s a blog post, tweet, Facebook Fan Page, iPhone game, video, etc.) while making real, honest connections with your audience.

    There’s no software that can EVER do this. There are agencies that can help you find your story, unearth opportunities for content and/or engagement, and utilize their manpower to spread this content. However when it comes down to it, automation rarely works.

    To be honest, I did notice during the months leading up to the Summit that your frequency went through the roof and your focus narrowed to pretty much all Summit related content. It definitely wasn’t what I was used to getting from you, and seemed disingenuine, which I never expected from you.

    Since we have slightly more than just a social media relationship, I gave you the benefit of the doubt, but I am sure that your social media efforts yielded no true, deep and honest relationships with your audience members, particularly those that you could leverage as evangelists.

    I commend your honesty, and because of it many people will learn. That’s what social media is all about.


  11. I appreciate the benefit of the doubt, Jon! Let’s talk about getting you out to the Summit this year. I’m certain that your perspective and messages would be well-received by our patrons…

  12. : ((( …dammit… you made me believe I was special… LOL

    About your comment “… but no practical experience or expertise in marketing.”,
    don’t you think you should have added: “…and few experience in life, real life…”?

  13. Hugely valuable, Rick. Thanks for being so honest, with your usual quick wit and good humor. You will save many from following the same path. I ignored Twitter for a while, so I missed all the hubbub and made it to the Summit blissfully unaware. Good validation that the psychology of connecting with people is more important that the tools used to do so, a process I’m learning right now.

  14. That is unprofessional social media activity. Social media strategists do not tweet automated spam on clients’ behalf–we show brands how to leverage social media in an integrated way, just like any other marketing channel. “Doing” social media by merely putting senseless, inauthenic posts out there like it’s a secret sauce says that they don’t want to understand the channel.

  15. Thanks for sharing and your honesty on the latest technology craze du jour. I, too, am embarking on learning and getting more involved in social media. I read a lot, attended webinars, seminars and quickly became OVERWHELMED with all of the things the experts said you had to do so much so I couldn’t do any of them. I just couldn’t see the benefit of having 500+ connections on Linkedin but not having a relationship with them. I decided to work with an ‘old school’ marketing person on branding and build from there.
    I’ll see you in Atlanta.

  16. Rick, you are in good company. Pushing direct marketing content, buzz juice, branding info through social media platforms is like showing up at a reception with a bag (stamped with your company logo) over your head where your only activity is handing out marketing brochures. The platform is social – meaning it works when you’re interested in others and develop relationships through that interest. Direct marketing defies the principles. It annoys people on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Who would sign up to be the recipient of a commercial?

    However, one new relationship developed is more valuable that 1000 unknown faces receiving marketing copy. The power in social media is in networking not selling.

    I’m a writer and do training on social media, but I never signed up for that. Since using social media platforms these last two years I’ve attracted a book contract and more paid writing assignments than I can handle.

    I can tell most people don’t know how to work it, so while I’ve got my competitive edge I’ll try to maximize the power of the social media platforms.

  17. I, too, am turned off by the social media blitz that is really direct marketing with your name attached. As a consumer, I don’t do well in that environment and tend to say, “no” immediately.

    I will look forward to seeing and meeting the real you in the future. I have been looking at similar marketing options and have stalled for the very reason you blogged so eloquently about: it doesn’t tell the whole story, and the result was less than desired.

  18. I’ve been out of the loop for a few months (new baby) and just stumbled on your post, Rick. As someone who’s attended your summit in the past, I would have to say that your genuineness and humor could definitely not be packaged and “sold” by a SM firm. I am a Social Media practitioner and honestly would have acted as advisor rather than “taken over” your personal brand and ran amok.

    Sorry for your experience but at least you know – you’re the real deal – can’t be duplicated or imitated!

  19. Debi, thanks for making my day — that’s one of the nicest posts ever! Are you Debi Adam, who represented one of our exhibitors in 2008?

  20. It’s great posts like these that will get you noticed – I just RT’d it! Forget the ‘social media experts’. I like the way you write and look forward to reading more! @jmtcz

  21. Thanks for the sensible critique. I was just preparing to do some research about this. We grabbed a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such magnificent information being shared freely out there..

  22. I loved your post because as a ‘social media’ person myself, I totally agree that the development of marketing campaigns, research and planning is a very separate skill set. I am in process now of enjoying a Master of Science program in Internet Marketing just to fill in the areas of true marketing development that goes along with using technology as a part of an overall strategy. I’ve had clients who have asked me for certain areas of the marketing landscape and I’ve had to give them a polite ‘no. Not yet.’ That’s not quite in my repertoire – but will be. Rather than trying to be all things – knowing limitations is crucial in hiring someone to help. It is a vast landscape of tools – but ever so delicate in terms of content.

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