Expert. Guru. Genius. As jobs dry up and self-promotional tools proliferate, more and more people are rebranding themselves as Social Media Gurus. What you should watch out for, and why.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You may say to yourself, “Self, isn’t this dufus a ‘social media guru’?” Hell, no. The tools, trends and the power of the consumer are changing at an astonishing rate. This social media “bus” is moving far too fast for anyone to have pulled it over and taken apart the engine. Beware those who say they have.)

If you’re like most marketers, you are a Very Busy Person. Chances are your budget has been slashed, your staff has been outsourced, and as sales dry up, you’re under the gun to produce leads, build awareness and convert fence-sitters. Most of the marketers I know are insanely busy, running from meeting to meeting, juggling project after project. In many cases, the reason we got into this business—the chance to apply creativity and strategy to the brand we built or fell in love with—has been diluted through quarterly goals, reduced budgets and increasingly unreasonable expectations. Our dream job, now a nightmare. What’s a marketer to do?

Because we’re the cheerleaders for the company, and because we love those shiny objects, we may look at social marketing tools and tactics as a hopefully inexpensive solution to the demands placed on us. We’ve heard a lot about Twitter, or we get conference mailers to new media events we can’t take the time to attend, espousing the green, green grass of branded Facebook pages and magically viral videos. Perhaps these are levers we can pull to generate success. But where to start?

Being overworked, often we turn to outsourced consultants, particularly in the case of trials. A quick Google search, or a trolling of LinkedIn, produces a glut of results, mostly saying the same thing: “social media guru.” “Marketing innnovator.” “Facebook expert.” In a hurry, we may reach out to one or two, to see how they approach engagements and brands like ours.

When money is tight and expectations are high, the last thing you need is a mistake to be held up to public scrutiny. You ask yourself, “should I go with a big agency? They’ve gotta be more buttoned up, right? Or should I find a best-of-breed consultant who specializes in this stuff?”

Part of the problem of a Google search for help is the level of noise. Social tools help extend brands like yours. They also help amplify the voices of self-named gurus. So sifting through the results can be daunting at best.

Here are six key traits I would recommend you look for, and watch out for.

  1. Look for a media-agnostic perspective. Many people are enamored with the tools, extolling their virtues to eager, curious audiences. The reality is just that: these are tools. Not strategies. Not programs. Ask the consultant how they perceive social marketing tools and their place within a marketing mix that includes traditional channels. If you get the standard Cluetrain Manifesto response or someone who is all about the amazing miracle that is Twitter/Facebook/etc., keep looking.
  2. Look for a marketer, not a technologist. Marketers often feel that these new tools are technical because they live on the Web, and therefore they are less qualified to investigate or even understand these tools. This could not be further from the truth. Marketers see tools in terms of brand, outreach, dialogue, and trust—the real levers in market engagement. Technologists-cum-marketers often feel they are equally creative, have a customer perspective and understand branding, but the reality is they don’t—not really. Look for marketers who have embraced and utilized social tools as part of overarching awareness, conversion or loyalty campaigns. They’ll be speaking your language and you’ll know they have felt your pain.
  3. Look for quality of thought, not quantity—clients, not followers. Many social media dilettantes will generate a cult following of people who are similarly enamored by the technology. The gurus will engage in endless and frequent conversations with their fans, exploring heady subjects like by replacing their homepage with a Twitter search, did Skittles do something forward-thinking, or lazy?” That’s all fine and dandy, but what have these experts done with actual client brands? There are plenty of armchair marketers out there—don’t mistake online popularity or digital verbosity with expertise. Food for thought: the people who are truly busy building digital programs for their clients don’t really have the time to create a daunting stream of social media run-off.
  4. Look for selflessness rather than self-interest. Everyone has a mortgage to pay—that’s to be expected. Yet what if a rocky relationship with a consultant turns ugly, and your brand (or even you personally) are paraded before a guru’s fanbase and the public as a Cautionary Tale, an idiot…or worse? What if an “expert” really doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and blames you for the results of a campaign? A successful consultant will act as a champion and advocate for their client brands AND their clients: helping you understand the new tools, and how to achieve your own goals. The best ones will place your goals over their own, even if it means passing up a possible long-term relationship to provide you with a short-term solution. Sharks don’t always need ramora fish to help keep them clean. Similarly, watch out for hangers-on who are more interested in a steady stream of work than doing the right thing for your brand.
  5. Look for evidence of commitment. This is the Age of Non-Commitment. There are examples everywhere. It’s hard to commit to a job when the management team may not be committed to you. It’s hard to commit to a vendor when you’ve been screwed in the past. And if you’re a consultant, it can be hard to commit to completing a project if 1) you have a propensity for overcommitment, usually out of fear, or 2) when finding and locking down executional resources can be challenging. I myself am ashamed to say that despite a huge desire to be completely responsible, I too have flaked on a project. Never intentionally, but the client was impacted nonetheless. Look for client testimonials and proof positive that this “guru” has come through for people like yourself.
  6. Look for final products, and ask them to fully disclose their role. “I’ve built a corporate blog for Client X.” Does that mean they threw a WordPress installation together? Anyone can do that. Is there evidence of executive coaching in blog protocol? Discussion of how a blog can integrate into publicity efforts? Talk of engagement guardrails—when to engage trolls and when to be silent? It’s not a blog implementation that’s important so much as a consultant’s understanding of how it fits into an overall engagement strategy, knowing the difference between fluff and true value, and how to create a content creation process within the enterprise. Same applies for podcasts, Facebook fan pages, or a custom YouTube channel.

I’d also encourage you to attend great conferences like the Forrester Marketing Summit to hear case studies of marketers who used consultants to great success, or inquiring at your local AMA luncheon to see if any local folks have utilized your prospective consultant.

It’s tough to find good help these days. Vetting the gurus with these six filters in mind should help you find a truly valuable resource, rather than a noisy “tool guy” who talks a good game but is totally cool learning how to “market” on your dime.

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