Why I will not hire another
“social media expert”

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:

  • Scoured Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for people who showed even a passing interest in presentation or PowerPoint and sent requests to friend or connect with me.
  • Scooped up my own editorials and pulled out snippets that were of the right size to make tweets and posts.
  • Weaved those in with generic “I sure am getting excited about the Presentation Summit” entries.
  • Powered these out the door at carefully-randomized time intervals so as not to evoke the spam controls of the various services.

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.

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