Hiring Social Media Experts

In case you haven’t noticed, everyone that was a search engine expert a few months ago and a “Web 2.0” expert a year or two ago is now a “social media” expert. The transition has occurred so rapidly that the biggest beneficiaries are the business card printers and web designers who have to crank out new brands and identities for the scores of self-styled social media consultants minted every day.

What constitutes a “social media” expert these days? In most cases, not a whole heck of a lot. Most social media gurus are simply folks who are a few steps ahead of the technology curve and got on Twitter and Facebook long before you did. They realize – as does CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and pretty much the rest of the world at this point – that web-based social networks are ubiquitous and free. Whether or not social media offers any tangible benefit to your particular enterprise is often beside the point to these people – they want you promoting your business there, because, well, they’re promoting their business there, so it must be the right thing to do.

But, as I’ve discussed before, the benefits of social networking and media like Facebook and Twitter are minor for many businesses. That often doesn’t matter to social media experts, who tend to assume that you “must” participate in every possible venue in order to fully promote your business. What they won’t tell you is when that might actually be a waste of your time.

The problem is this: There really aren’t any established formulas or strategies for promoting most specialized businesses with social networking and media. Social media can be extremely effective for any type of brand that typically has “fans” – for instance, a movie, a restaurant, a club, or any kind of well-known personality. It tends to benefit and reinforce existing celebrity and, occasionally, make new things popular.

But, while Oprah may get a million followers on Twitter in a matter of weeks, you’ll be lucky to get thirty or forty of them over the course of a few months. Let’s face it – the latest eco-friendly polo just isn’t as sexy as whatever Ashton Kutcher happens to be doing at this particular moment in time. Further, when you realize that a lot of folks use social media to escape from the drudgery of the workplace – if you don’t believe me, go ask your IT department to block Facebook and Twitter and watch the reaction of your under-40 employees – you’ll understand why social media may not be the ideal platform for trumpeting your latest free setup special.

Nevertheless, should you find yourself looking to create or reinforce a “hip” brand, or touting your own expertise and personality as a selling point for your business, hiring someone with some experience in social media might make sense as part of an overall marketing strategy. Since social media is a relatively new phenomenon and most so-called “experts” don’t come with an extensive, years-long track record (if they claim they’ve been experts in social media for ten years, walk briskly in the other direction), here are some tips to help you evaluate them:

Ignore their stats: The quantities of a social media expert’s followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook are meaningless. Friends and followers can be gained through countless means and are no indication of someone’s suitability for any given task. If your candidate touts such numbers as an indication of expertise, that’s a mark against them.

Be wary of numbers games: Many social media experts will propose that gaining fans and followers is the most important thing you can do, and they’re the only ones that can help you get there. But acquiring fans and followers doesn’t guarantee any benefit for your business. If those fans and followers don’t actually care about what you have to say and never act on your updates or attend your events, their numbers don’t add up to much.

Ask about a bigger picture: If your expert truly understands social media strategy, they’ll explain how fans and followers do matter as part of bigger picture. For businesses looking to maximize exposure in search engines, good numbers of Twitter followers can translate into better search engine results provided that your Tweets are worded correctly. Twitter is rapidly becoming a huge source of instant inbound links, which is why so many businesses are turning to it. But again, numbers are meaningless if the formula for relevancy doesn’t add up (Facebook, unlike Twitter, is largely closed off to search engines, thereby severely limiting its SEO impact). If your social media expert doesn’t have a plan that explains and lays out the SEO impact of their strategy, you might want to look elsewhere.

Beware idle hands: The last time I checked, something like 85% of Twitter accounts have one Tweet (update) and then are never active again. Your candidate should present a solid plan for you to create regular updates and avoid the “one-and-done” problem that plagues so many social media endeavors. Acquiring numerous fans and followers and then dropping the whole effort might even be worse for your business than never getting involved in social media in the first place. Those people who do actually want to know what’s going on might wonder what the heck happened to you!

Establish some tangible goals: “More Twitter followers” might sound like a reasonable goal – and it probably is, if you’re a celebrity, a blogger or a personality that can benefit directly from simple exposure. But for most small and medium-sized businesses, you should expect something a little more tangible from a social media strategy. Maybe you want to gauge the impact to certain promotions and events, or you want to juice your audience for short-term specials that you might run. Or perhaps you want to see a measurable improvement in position for certain search terms. Ultimately, you want to make more money (I hope) and your strategy should point to that. At the end of the day, your candidate should have a plan that impacts your top line in some form or fashion. If your input and coordination are required to establish monetary goals, be prepared to discuss exactly what it is you’re looking for. A social media expert may not be able to speak directly to sales numbers, but they should be able to work with you toward establishing some targets.

Control the engagement: Social media experts, like many SEO/SEM companies, are looking for long-term engagements that provide consistent revenue. They often use the same formulas and tactics for most of their customers, and their primary sales objective is to sign you up for a monthly fee to manage your social media strategy (in fact, SEO/SEM companies now constitute a great deal of the social media expert landscape). You should pay for performance and avoid long-term agreements whenever possible. Work with your candidate to establish metrics for success and make those metrics part of the engagement. Since this is primarily a consulting arrangement, don’t push for discounts, refunds or bonuses based on performance, but do give yourself an out if the relationship isn’t working.