How Social Media Consultants Dupe Their Corporate Clients

Anyone can call himself a social media expert and find clients willing to pay thousands of dollars for advice. Here are some things to consider before hiring a so-called expert, including whether you really need a social media consultant.

A friend of mine who works for a major grocery store chain mentioned to me that, during a PowerPoint slideshow presented at a meeting, up on the screen flashed a ReadWriteWeb story I wrote about Best Buy's social media failures. The presentation was delivered by a marketing consultant who was paid handsomely to get the company up to speed with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and the rest.

I asked my friend what she had learned. The answer was jaw-dropping in its simplicity. The consultant's tactics seemingly came from the book Social Media For idiots and basic SEO how-to websites. There was no discussion about leveraging Facebook's social graph or using promoted posts on Twitter. By and large, the strategy outlined in an all-day meeting would have done little to engage existing customers and even less to attract new customers.

(Both the chain and the consultant declined comment for this article, and because my friend is not authorized by her employer to speak to the media, I won't identify any of the three. Suffice it to say that I often have similar conversations with people who work in industries other than tech.)

My friend's employer is plagued by common issues: IT spending and hiring are an afterthought, and the in-house marketing staff is qualified to manage in-store displays and traditional advertising, including print, broadcast and outdoor. In other words, the company has little digital expertise. That leaves it open to exploitation by so-called social media experts who take a one-size-fits-all approach to every client. These consultants often bill tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars before anyone realizes there is little or no return on the investment.

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

The consultant included my ReadWriteWeb article in his presentation as a warning about what could happen to companies that don’t have a social media strategy: They risk going bankrupt, as Best Buy did (although, as ReadWriteWeb's Dan Frommer elegantly explained in April, the reasons behind Best Buy’s trouble were not so simple).

The rest of the presentation was part Social Media 101 (what's the difference between Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest?) and rudimentary lessons in using social media (what’s a hashtag?). The consultant concluded by describing his recommended strategy: tweet photos of your employees preparing food, update your Facebook page with daily specials, and always include a link to your Website in your tweets.

Note that he never suggested hiring someone so the in-house marketing team could execute a social media effort. Instead, he pushed the company to retrain traditionally schooled marketing people who tend to be reluctant and skeptical about digital media after years of doing things the old-media way. That, in my mind, also gave him ready-made fall guys to blame when his recommendations failed to move the needle.

Why My Friend’s Company Should Fire Its Social Media Consultant

There are, in fact, several reasons why my friend’s company should fire its consultant ASAP, but only one of them matters: The strategy he prescribed won’t work. Here’s why:

  • It’s too basic. It’s most likely the same strategy he offers to competitors and companies in completely different industries. It doesn’t take into account the needs of this particular chain.
  • It treats social media as another advertising platform. At best, his strategy treats social media as a brand-awareness tool. But the companies that have had the most success with social media are those that do all the things true experts recommend: engage with users, have conversations with customers and occasionally offer a targeted special to selected users.
  • It preaches to the converted. His strategy allocates all the marketing team's attention to people who already like the company on Facebook or follow it on Twitter. It does nothing to attract new followers (who can be seen as potential customers). The easiest way to do that is to explain promoted posts and tweets, but to do that would be to admit that a social media consultant’s advice only goes so far before a company has to pay for engagement.
  • It doesn’t consider that social media may not be right for every company. My friend's company doesn’t have a loyalty rewards program, which will become increasingly important as Facebook tries to link online advertising to offline purchases. There are other reasons why companies may want to just say no to social media, including the fact that spending too much time on a strategy with no proven return on investment will detract from what the company already does well.

I remain skeptical of the return on investment in social media. It works for some companies naturally, and others have figured out how to make it work. But for many companies, using social media is a me-too corporate effort that yields little effect.

The first step for most small- and mid-sized companies is figuring out if there is anyone in-house with the expertise to handle social media, as those people have a better understanding than any consultant of how the business works. 

Once the decision to hire an outside consultant is made, however, it's important to not only ask what they have done for other clients but how what they do will be tailored to your company's needs. Social media is advancing at a rapid clip. Social media experts need to keep up with the latest trends: sophisticated analytics, rapidly changing ways in which ads are targeted and displayed, and evolving thinking on ways to craft messages for maximum reach mean. A good consultant starts by assessing whether - or not - social media is right for the client. 

If it is, the company needs to take an all-or-nothing approach. If it isn't, most companies would be better off focusing on what they already do well.