We all know that you call an incompetent medical professional a "quack." This epithet derives, according to Wikipedia, from the word "quacksalver," which itself comes from a Dutch word, kwakzalver, meaning "boaster who applies salve." In the medieval markets, the sellers of patent medicines would shout, or "quack," to get attention for their wares.
The same kind of phenomenon has developed with the rise of the social media field. As opportunities for communications practitioners to "quack" their salves have dwindled in other, more traditional markets like advertising, public relations, or marketing collateral materials, a coterie of counselors and consultants with reasonable skills in these areas have found it necessary to reinvent themselves to respond to the demand from clients for these new communications skill sets.
Some have taken the time to learn and understand this very different communications channel in order to help brands engage in conversations with social media participants. Unfortunately, others still think of social media tools as the newest megaphone through which they can shout out a one-way advertising message.
Because so many social media consultants come with impressive credentials in other communications arenas, how can you tell whether your consultant is social media savvy or just a quack?
Here are five things to consider when you are choosing a social media consultant.
Forget the wisdom that prevails among some senior executives -- that social media is only understood by 20-something interns. You need to look for consultants whose experience in communications and online technology extends well beyond the last business cycle.
Yes, older people actually might add some value to the discussion. I have blogged on this topic before, with some degree of passion. Here's why.
People who have long exposure to organizations and their management teams can help shape a social media initiative in a way that will be more palatable -- and consequently, more saleable -- to the C-suite.
Moreover, they frequently are not the dinosaurs we think they are. They are often people who have been early adopters/embracers of new technologies throughout their careers. They've just been at it a lot longer.
They also can help manage (not crush) the enthusiasm of younger team members for social media initiatives like contests on Facebook or street theater, while adding appropriate context that will convince senior management to greenlight the projects. Senior managements, as your consultants should know, give projects the go-ahead because they expect them to add to revenue in some way, not because someone with a pierced eyebrow or a sleeve tattoo says it's "awesome."
Experience in social media also counts
Your social media consultant needs to have some kind of track record in, well, social media. It's important that they are active users of the social media channels that they are trying to convince you to pay them to use for you. They also should be able to show you actual social media initiatives implemented for other clients. You don't want to be the alpha or beta test for the consultant's practice.
Don't pay too much attention to how many Twitter followers the consultant has. Pay more attention to the level of engagement the consultant has with followers and friends in these social networks.
Plenty of people are accumulating followers with automated tweeting tools or gimmicks on Facebook, but they really don't make a connection with those followers by having real conversations. Look at their Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds to see what kind of interaction is taking place. If there is none, your consultant is wielding a megaphone, not starting a conversation.
Does your consultant play well with others?
Long before the internet, the ethos of the computer hobbyist world was mutual aid. If you went to a computer show, you found someone who was a specialist in the programming language you used and told them about the problem you were having. They helped you fix it, for the sheer joy of fixing it (and the street cred they earned from you telling other people they fixed it).
So ask your consultant about how much of their expertise they share freely with their social networks, either online or in volunteer networking offline. Do they participate in the "unconference" movement by presenting workshops at BarCamps, PodCamps, or other -Camps?
Is your consultant a lemming, or do they occasionally take the road less traveled?
Does your consultant give you predictable counsel that just mimics the social media advice of others, or does he or she raise provocative, counter-intuitive questions about the social media strategies you are thinking about using? Sometimes the value a consultant adds is through the inappropriate costs or embarrassing social media gaffes they help you avoid.
For example, one particular pocket video camera has captured widespread enthusiasm (and purchasing dollars) from many social media people. There are even seminars and webinars you can pay to attend, where social media people will teach you about how to use this camera in corporate communications social media initiatives.
Wonderful! But look for a consultant who has actually considered the camera's limitations -- it has no removable storage, and you can't plug in an external microphone.
That might be OK for many people, but what if it's not right for you?
You want a consultant to be a devil's advocate and challenge assumptions about social media. If the way you want to use your Twitter feed isn't appropriate, or if you shouldn't be engaging on Facebook or YouTube, will your consultant tell you so, or will they encourage you to use these tools anyway?
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Social media tools are not magic. It's not Oz, and your consultants are not wizards. You are still in Kansas, no matter what dazzling images the consultants are showing you on their iPads.
These tools allow you to engage in what is, for most companies, a new and different form of communications -- one in which you actually talk to customers. And these are customers who frequently care passionately about your company and your product or service. They have strong opinions about your product and are very anxious to tell you those opinions.
For many companies, it's a real challenge to create a culture willing to listen to what customers say, but it really just requires common sense, and that's probably the best attribute your consultant can bring to your social media initiative, along with courage, a heart, and a brain.