Are Social Media Consultants Harming Social Media? | January 31, 2009

The logic goes like this. The traditional marketing funnel is broken. You can’t just throw a bunch of money at an advertising campaign and have that turn into customers. At least not to the levels you could when there were just three channels or four channels of communication. The web and social media has changed all that. So rather than waiting for customers to come to you, you have to go to them and engage with them in the same way they engage with each other. So that means blogs, that means Twitter streams and than means Facebook applications. Basically that means moving your marketing messages into the social media space . Most companies have little idea how the web works, let alone how people use it, so in order to reach this new generation of consumer, they hire the services of a Social Media Consultant.

Social Media Consultants are an interesting breed. They are usually individuals who have earned a modicum of success through their blogs or other social media activities and started wondering if they could make a living trying to replicate this successes for their clients. In fact there was a time when I briefly flirted with this idea myself. As such, social media consultants tend to be guns-for-hire, although there are a few agencies getting in on the act.

In the beginning these consultants would advise you to set up a company blog as that was a great way to engage with your customers. Sadly most company blogs are as dull as dish water and rarely generate enough traffic or good will to last for long. So consultants have started exploiting other fields, suggesting their clients create Facebook widgets, Youtube videos or presences in Secondlife. The problem with this is the same with all viral campaigns. For every one that takes off, there will be hundreds or thousands that don’t. I mean, how many corporate widgets have you installed on your Facebook account? Not many I guess?

I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I do wonder what value a lot of social media consultants bring to their clients, and how long that value will last. Is social media marketing the next big thing or merely a blip in the growth of the Internet? While there may be a need for specialist consultants now, I wonder if that will be the case in five years time when clients have got a bit more savvy?

The problem I have with social media consultants however is less about the value they bring to their clients and more to do with the affect it’s having on the web. Call me old fashioned, but I used to like it when the top 20 blogs were primarily from individuals with little or no agenda. Now the majority of highly trafficked blogs are commercial operations in their own right. Blogs have become just another marketing tool and it’s getting increasingly difficult to differentiate between genuine posts and cynical marketing ploys. Is this blogger recommending this product because they really like it or because they’ve been sent one for free?

Other social media platforms are also being affected. There was a time when Facebook or Twitter was simply a place to go and socialise with your friends. However now every company (including my own) has a Twitter account or Facebook group. We’ve even seen companies start spamming people on Twitter which really sucks. It seems there is literally nowhere you can hide from these marketing tricks.

Now I’m fairly pragmatic and realise that this descent into marketing is probably inevitable and if consultants weren’t doing it for them, companies would end up doing it themselves. However I think there is something a little seedy about people who purportedly love social media, yet end up helping companies pollute it with marketing drivel.

It reminds me of a guy I met while travelling many years ago. He was an ethnographic researcher employed by a big oil company to asses the impact oil pipelines would have on the indigenous population. He loved tribal culture so much he desperately wanted to work in the field, even if that meant being partly responsible for the destruction of the very thing he loved.

Posted at January 31, 2009 2:17 PM


Kev Mears said on January 31, 2009 3:22 PM

Good post. It strikes me that lots of organisations feel that they should be better representing themselves on the internet and turn to consultants to guide them in areas that they assume their staff are uneducated in. The outside voice is always given more status. Theses companies know that they want to be represented in Facebook, Twitter et al, but don’t define clearly why or how.

We had a guy in our work, who was internet savvy and well connected, but when it came to dragging our organisation to the spaces where our customers were he couldn’t do it. The change in culture was bigger than he could manage.

I guess it boils down to the motivation of the organisation. One that is genuinely seeking to help people and trusts it staff to use whatever medium can really establish good connections with people. One that believes it’s all about ‘getting our message’ out there is destined to be ignored and dismissed.

Alex said on January 31, 2009 3:54 PM

I think the problem often is that an outsider is called in to solve a marketing problem. But to simply set a company up with blogs, twitter accounts and all that is not likely to work.

One can try however, to bring individuals within a company towards an understanding on what people do on the internet - and more importantly the company to understand that their own people are very likely part of the social web already.

Like Kev said - at that point it is much more about loosening control and allowing people to experiment. It is about a change in corporate culture rather then a new marketing strategy.

Brandon Eley said on January 31, 2009 4:34 PM

Interesting look at social media consultants. I think there are a handful of consultants (the like’s of Chris Brogan and Jason Falls) that add a lot of value to the Internet by helping companies or individuals approach social media in the correct way, avoiding the social media disasters like some we’ve seen lately.

That said, it seems to me there are thousands of amateurs parading as “social media consultants” that remind me of the early days of web design, where any kid in his mom’s basement called himself an “expert web designer” and tried to land the big jobs.

It’s dangerous because, like with web design years ago, there’s no way for the average client to gauge the authenticity of a “social media consultant.” There are no certifications or degrees, and “followers” or “friends” certainly aren’t a metric to use… I see tons of spammers amass 20,000 followers on Twitter.

I think with time, the social web will filter out these people but it’s still a little annoying. Search twitter for “social media” or “expert” and you’ll see what I mean!

Benjamin Falk said on February 1, 2009 2:07 AM

I agree that everyone seems to have a Twitter account or a Facebook group, and I hate to see areas that used to be used for socializing just turn into yet another avenue for advertising.

The one reason I personally joined Twitter was because of the opportunities to meet others who are in a similar field of work as I am and to build relationships and socialize.

I would hope that the community as a whole would discourage blatant advertising on such social groups… but I imagine that process will take time.

Chris Wallace said on February 1, 2009 2:37 AM

I think the problem is this: people are lazy. Becoming a “social media consultant” means getting to wake up at 10 AM, chat with people on the internet and mess around on Facebook and Twitter. The hope is that someone will pay you to do the same for them.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing an opportunity in the market and taking advantage of it. This position existed before this new wave of social media, it was called a Product Evangelist. An evangelist seeks out the target market and promotes the product on a much deeper, more intimate level: via phone, email, conferences, organizations, etc.

I think a great comparison is to a friend that sells Tupperware or kitchen cutlery. The moment they call you to ask about having a party at your house, you start to question their motives for being your friend. Same problem here.

Kishore Nallan said on February 1, 2009 4:22 AM

I come from Chennai, India. And frankly, the Internet marketing is still in infant stages here in India, though the Internet population is growing pretty rapidly. So, recently many businesses have started projecting and marketing themselves on the web by these so called SEO based companies which have started diversifying into stuff like giving advice on blogging etc.

But, the reality is that social marketing is not a system which you can put in place, sit back and relax. One needs to keep pushing out quality stuff on it to keep the visitors. But sadly, not many companies seem to get this. They get the facebook, twitter accounts, and very soon they all go to rot.

Andrew Cairns said on February 1, 2009 11:24 AM

I have to agree. I also hate to see sites such as Twitter being used for advertising.

Another example: Tweetie

Gene said on February 1, 2009 3:03 PM

I think what you’re talking about is BAD marketing/marketers and not true usage of the social platform on the web… If a company truly decides to tie into the social networks out there and use the info they gain constructively to really engage and make their products or services better how is that bad?

Like you say a corporate blog usually ends up boring, but a good one can be quite engaging. If it takes a consultant to teach a company how to properly do that, then I say good for them both.

The flipside of that of course is what your concerned with, which I do agree there is waaaaay too much of these days.

Ian said on February 1, 2009 5:13 PM

Are social media consultants harming social media? Although it can be an annoyance it’s one to be expected and one we’ve grown used to on the web as a communications medium. From day one we got used to being bombarded with banners, pop-ups, and progressive advertising. Regardless of how communication mediums change the presence of advertising remains the same.

Each social media service started with a pure and purpose-driven service but inevitably the increase in popularity brings an increased opportunity for marketing and it doesn’t take long for product or service providers to jump on the social media bandwagon.

In terms of marketing effectiveness working services such as twitter and facebook to your advantage requires that you do more than simply spam as a quick block is all that is required to loose that marketing window. From this point of view the job of the social media consultant would need to be building online relationships with constant attention rather than cheap and quick links and pimps.

To entice users in marketing consultants need to give other users what they want with quality blog material, useful free services and applications or anything which will be of interest to the intended audience. To this end this could in fact serve both user and marketeer well. Although blogs can shamelessly promote products or services based on bias the cream will always rise to the top with the obvious marketing attempts not getting dugg, bookmarked, linked, or followed.

As for the social media consultant, they wouldn’t have it easy. When John Wanamaker was quoted as saying “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” It was almost 100 years ago with very little means of effective measurement. The internet has changed things by making them all highly measurable with statistics coming out of our ears. So time will tell if these stats prove that social media marketing is effective. If so then the consultant is worth their salt, if not then the employers may soon realise that the emperor really has no clothes after all.

Great post Andy.

Beth Harte said on February 1, 2009 7:58 PM

Hi Andy,

I am a marcom/social media consultant and I agree with the conversation here, thanks for bringing up an important topic. I am not a fan of the term ‘social media marketing’ because of the very situations you described. Social media isn’t a silver bullet to solve a company’s issues that they might be experiencing with bad marketing, lack of sales leads/revenues, or internal politics. Just like direct marketing, advertising, PR, etc. don’t ‘seem’ to work…either will social media in these situations. The problem isn’t always the tactics/strategy; it could possibly be that the product/service is ‘broken’ or there is no longer a market for it. It takes an agency/consultant who understands marketing to be able to work around those types of challenges.

As well, a blog, Twitter, Facebook account, etc. isn’t right for every company, but some ‘social media marketing’ consultants push them on every client because they think social media is just tools and they don’t necessarily understand marketing enough to be able to tell which tactics to use when or why…or how to build social media into an overall marketing plan. I agree with you that these types of consultants will harm social media because in the end, especially when the clients who don’t gain any measurable results from implementing social media will begin to say that “social media doesn’t work.”

Personally, I don’t look at social media as just the tools, but the conversations that they facilitate. And the bottom line is the community will determine how they want (or don’t) want those conversations to take place with a company. Some communities won’t mind companies promoting themselves (i.e. one way push, no conversations) and some will not tolerate it. A good social media consultant will be able to help a client understand the nuances.

Jachin Sheehy said on February 1, 2009 10:43 PM

It’s SEO fever all over again. Take a valid market/need and flog it as the solution to everything, even in the most inappropriate places.

I wonder how long before we see grey/black hat Social Marketing techniques hit the scene … oh wait! Spam has been around for a while.

John Pemble said on February 2, 2009 12:12 AM

What I’ve learned about social media is it only works when the cloud of friends / followers are comfortable and feel comfortable with the relationship. It may be the one way broadcast model or interaction back and forth with a company but ultimately the users stay unless they are not able to find the value of friending / following a company.

Leif Kendall said on February 2, 2009 11:10 AM

Interesting points Andy. I often wonder about the trade-off between effort/expense and ROI. Consultants and web developers are quick to recommend that their clients start blogging, but is it always worth the effort? As you point out, many corporate blogs are dry, dull and largely unread. While I think blogging is a great way for some businesses to connect with their audiences, for others it’s a time-hungry activity with little reward.

CJ - pcmcreative said on February 2, 2009 11:24 AM

Good article. I help arts organisations and creatives tap in to social media. I’m not an expert. I am not a guru. I just show them the first steps, the potential and how to begin engaging. It’s up to them and the passion of their audience to make it fly. You could say I’m a Social Media reconnaissance worker, a knowledge centre. I help them tune in and tune up their on line world. Its also a personal journey. I was a web designer and previously a Theatre Stage Manager now I mostly get asked about Social Media / Social Networks and Web 2.0 services. I know far more than is healthy I am coming to realise! And I can deliver real benefits and communication channels they hadn’t thought of.

Giles Crouch (Webconomist) said on February 2, 2009 1:17 PM

I wish I was one of those social media consultants that got to wake up at 10AM and spend the day chatting with friends and such…

I like your post, and yes, like SEO there are many “snake oil” types out there. They develop a formula approach; blog, Twitter account, Facebook page…yawn.

Social Media is a communications effort more than marketing. The tools are varied and should be mixed based on the need…which means significant research on internal needs then the market. As Beth says, the product may not be working or undifferentiated to begin with, and playing in Social media as a marketing vehicle won’t help.

As for businesses engaging in Social Media at all…it’s just simple economics. The companies with Social Media tools must have a way to pay for the servers, network access, developers etc., so it’s necessary.

The trade-off we make as people for having access to the Web is accepting businesses and an economic system.

Paul Fabretti said on February 2, 2009 1:21 PM


I’ve got to say, that is a really well structured and considered article. Usually these things are random rants by publicity-seeking bloggers who think that their opinion is web policy - none of that here!

As (like Beth) one of the aforementioned “Social Media Specialists” I, perhaps not surprisingly, absolutely support the idea of the role.

Anyone who recommends a blog or a forum or building an app of some sort without knowing how or why is doing nothing but harm to the industry (whether that be the tech or pr industry!). I see the role of the SMS being largely two-fold and done properly can add serious value to a client:

1) Listen

IMHO, a genuine social media specialist will look at:

* where conversations are taking place
* what are the types of places conversations are taking place (forum, blog, wiki etc.)
* who are the biggest, most authoritative voices in these places
* what are the buggest topics of conversations taking place (are they the same as what you want to talk about?)
* what is the sentiment of those topics (is it good or bad? And how good or bad is it?)

Why would anyone, other than to line their pockets, advocate a blog if over 80% of conversations about your brand take place in forums for example? We/you can only understand what route to take once you understand what is going on out there. What happens if nothing is going on?!

2) Translate
So we have all these conversations about out brand/product, but what do with them? Can anyone client-side understand what sites, technologies, tone of voice and pr activity should be carried out and how? Yes? Great. But they are in the minority of clients who do. This is again, where a social media specialist can add significant value to a business.

Social Media in it most basic form is simply a bunch of technologies that allow us to share and connect to each other. We don’t use a blog because it is based on php or widgets because they happen to be using the Google Apps engine. This is another fundamental issue or problems that “rogue SMS’s” fall into - technology for technologies sake. I’m sure we can all remember the Facebook Application goldrush days…

Before long, if it isn’t already happening, clients will expect IT/Tech staff to have Wordpress, FBML and Google app engine skills under their belt in the same way that html and css are required now. What will be much harder to hire will be the skills of understanding how a networking site works, what are the useful/interesting features that make this network or site worthy of note. Understanding the social media landscape (i.e. participation in it, is a time-consuming thing to do). I believe that only the SMS who is immersed in these sites can add this kind of understanding and therefore bridge the gap between the technology on which this all sits and the actionable strategies and tactics that make it happen.

That said, again as you point out there remains the question of whether or not brands should even BE in social networks. To that point, I ask anyone this…if you were complaining to your friends (online), that your

1) Ring a hotline?
2) Send an email enquiry form through to “customer services”?
3) Ask a friend on a social network?
4) Visit the company pages on the same social network?
5) Ask the company representative on the same social network?

I couldn’t agree more with the argument that shoe-horning selling into social networks is inappropriate, but I am all for brands rtaking part in social networks for the right reasons such as getting to know customers better to understand their needs more or being a voice to sound problems. If you get to like a brand because I am there to help you or just talk to as a friend, you are likely to be much more receptive when I happen to mention a new product that you might like to try out or get something before anyone else gets access to it. As your friend too, I would know how, what and when to tell you something about a product I sell.

God, that started out as just a few small thoughts - hope the subsequent war & peace doesn’t put anyone off reading the rest of the post!

Nate Klaiber said on February 2, 2009 3:26 PM

Just as it’s hard to trust the blogs, It’s almost equally as hard to trust half of the comments from social media marketers. This is a great post, Andy.

Jason Grant said on February 3, 2009 10:46 AM

The main issue is that 90% of the world doesn’t know how to use the basic web (i.e. Web1.0) let alone the social stuff.

This means that by and large web is abused by everyone and especially companies.

There are right and wrong solutions for everything and the main issue I have with social media consultants is that by and large they believe that social tools are solution to everything, which in most cases is not true.

The way in which social media consultants abuse the web is by proposing social solutions to non-social problems.

This then creates a situation where users of those solutions are forced to push tasks which do not belong to social space into the social space, therefore polluting it and making it less valuable and relevant.

That’s my experience with social media consultancies.

Romouz said on February 4, 2009 9:18 AM

Love how you introduced the concept of “Social media pollution”.

i think the nature of social media is ever changing in a way that won’t allow anyone to become a true expert; blogging was popular for a while, then came micro blogs, then twitter ..etc. Plenty of things fade away while new trends emerge. Nothing stays popular for enough time to get really polluted; not with enough audience anyway…

Andy Budd said on February 4, 2009 12:48 PM

Thanks for all the comments folks. I’ve not had time to respond to them yet, but am definitely reading them all.

Leon said on February 7, 2009 12:11 PM

I’m trying to get our organisation to use social media. We’re a membership body, so it seems a pretty sensible thing to do for many reasons.

It is hard to get people to understand you can’t just publish advertorial: you have to provide a genuine service (whether it’s tweeting links to interesting info/news, or publishing blog posts that genuinely promote discussion.)

I also think some of us might find the idea of relinquishing some control of our online presence to our members difficult to get our heads around.

But the question is: How do we actually get it to work? I can see why we might be tempted to get a consultant in. So thanks for the warning!

Richard Flewitt said on March 2, 2009 4:36 PM

Interesting post - thanks. To my mind there’s not a lot of difference here to the situation in the ‘old school’ where someone did a marketing course or had some level of success with a company, got a bit bored or frustrated, and became a consultant. It’s one of those words in our vocabulary that turns people off - and can give genuine experts a bad name.

I adopted the title video communication consultant for a while, not knowing how better to describe the service I offer. A friend gave me a call on seeing this with some useful advice. He had been calling himself a consultant for a while before changing tack and labelling himself an expert. It made a huge difference ti his business and he hasn’t looked back - so now I’m an expert !!!:)

Social media for me is about ‘meeting’ like minded people and getting to know the world better. I rarely watch the news or read a newspaper - 20 yrs in the business taught me just how synical and sensational it all is. With Twitter & similar you get to hear about genuine events without a bias. Of course, like most people, I want to expand my visibility and grow my business - but not by abusing a social network to sell - and I don’t want to be marketed at or sold to. People who regularly use twitter to send marketing messages are rewarded with the big UNFOLLOW button.

Gillian Verga said on July 10, 2009 1:49 AM

Andy, I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s a blip. All of these things (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) are new forms of media, and consumers are reading and listening to them. So companies HAVE to participate to get their message out - if they don’t, their competitors will, and they’ll no longer be a player.

A good company, and a good social media consultant, will make it a priority to be authentic, truly engage their customers, listen as well as speak. I think you’ll see more and more of this happening.

Justin Parks said on September 21, 2009 12:29 PM

The points you make are definitely on form Andy but at little…well definitely, cynical and the unfortunate thing is I cant blame you one little bit.

I consult on social media and it isn’t easy.

Its not easy because yes, many businesses don’t understand the net and it isn’t easy because many businesses are resistant to change or possibly are held by rules of compliance or regulation as well and many “consultants” wont even bother investigating this or ensuring due diligence on the business behalf, I could go on for hours.

But there are good people out there who get it and wont necessarily be destroying their own environment by helping business integrate but rather will be protecting that very same landscape… if they do it right of course :)