Seven signs of the social media snake-oil salesman

Being on the internet doesn’t make you a social media expert any more than going for a jog makes you an Olympic athlete.

Yes, anyone who goes for a run is more qualified to talk about running than someone who sits on the sofa; but simply having a Twitter account doesn’t mean you know how to deliver real business outcomes using social channels.

Yet while it’s easy to tell the difference between a truly talented and experienced athlete like Mo Farrah — who is considerably faster than your average Joe — and someone (like me) who finishes a marathon in over five hours, it’s not so easy to quantify someone’s expertise in something as subjective as social media.

As organisations recognise that making a mark in the social space is essential, they’re looking to hire in expertise — but often they have no idea what they’re looking for. And this provides rich pickings for a growing army of social media charlatans, peddling bad advice to unsuspecting punters.

How can communicators, marketers and executives spot — and avoid — these types? I asked my network: what marks a social media ‘expert’ out as a chancer? Suffice to say, this generated some Strong Views, which can be grouped under seven themes. Here’s the seven sins of the social media snake-oil salesman — and how to spot them.

1) Robo-posting

There’s a host of web services which post to social media on your behalf. Used well, these can be valuable — but they can’t be a substitute for real two-way interaction. Buffer, for example, can be a useful service for sharing links to interesting blog posts, allowing users to schedule posts in to create a steady stream rather than spamming your followers.

But if someone’s just spending half an hour a week lining up a stream of links, only sharing headlines — quite possibly without even reading the posts themselves — they’re no more useful to the audience than a bot. The giveaway here is if they seem to post all day, every day, but rarely reply or engage in any real conversation.

“Thanks for the value add. At least follow web best practice 101 and make it easy for your reader to get the crux of the message.”
Marged Cother

But mark of the true amateur, however, is the use of spammy services such as Rebel Mouse — what Anne McCrossan called “robo-posting, content-aggregating, click-baiting waste-of-attention platforms.”

Stephen Waddington agreed, “Get out of my feed. You can’t automate a conversation.”

2) Quantity over quality

Social isn’t a numbers game — it’s about generating value for your brand or company. This means giving the audience something of value to them — insight, information, even just a laugh — in exchange for their attention. It’s a value exchange.

Steer well clear of anyone who advises generating huge volumes of low-quality content — think “ooh, it’s Friday” pictures — to post multiple times daily to grow reach. You’re almost always better off posting one good piece of content daily than ten bits of crap — and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Instead, look for people or firms who will help you develop and deliver content that your audience will find useful, engaging or interesting. The target here isn’t volume — of content, or engagements — but delivering outcomes such as conversion or brand awareness/consideration.

3) Self-describing as a guru

“People that write how to articles and guides that have plainly never actually worked in a crisis, managed trolls, planned a campaign or created a measurement framework.”
Stephen Waddington

“My feeling is that I/we will be the judge. It is not for them to declare themselves a guru.”
Jonathan Phillips

Like hotels called ‘Palace’ or countries with ‘Democratic’ in their name, it’s only necessary to mention this if it’s not immediately obvious from their reputation.

Look past the LinkedIn headline “Joe Bloggs — Social Media Marketing Expert” and keep an eye out for extensive, real-world experience managing social media — and showing tangible results from that.

Closely related this this are the constant ego-promoters:

“Resharing content that mentions you. Don’t get me wrong we all do it occasionally. But I’ve nothing but contempt for people who constantly reply to tweets with the RT comment function”
Stephen Waddington

4) Suspicious follower counts

There are two legitimate ways to get a big Twitter following: join in 2008, or be a celebrity. If someone’s not famous, and not a Twitter old-timer, yet has more than 10,000 followers, then often it’s because they follower-farmed or bought followers in order to inflate their influence to those who don’t have the nous to spot it.

Social media is not a numbers game: “reach” is meaningless. 10,000 followers gains you nothing if those followers aren’t real people who might spend real money.

Be sure to look at someone’s follower list. Are their followers real people with photos, descriptions and followers of their own? If they have a large number of followers with no profile picture, low follower numbers and/or little obvious reason to follow the person in question, it’s likely they tried to buy a following. And if they’re willing to do something so embarrassing with their personal brand, they shouldn’t be trusted with yours.

5) Sucking at search

If you’re hiring anyone, or considering an agency to provide any digital service, the very first thing you should so is Google it/them. Firstly, do the first three to five results clearly relate to them? If someone can’t even get their SEO act together to clearly own the first page of results themselves, they won’t be able to do the same for you.

Next, look at the successive few pages. Any individual who claims to be a digital specialist but isn’t visible — positively — on Google is either bullshitting, or has something sufficiently awful to hide they’ve made the effort to have it removed. Either way, it’s a big red flag.

Finally, take a look at both the agency and any named individuals they offer you to work on your account to see how they manage their social presence. If they don’t have one at all, or they have a Twitter account they barely use, that’s a warning sign.

“An eyebrow is always raised when I hear ‘but I don’t use social in my personal life…’. Say whut?”
Tony Stewart

You wouldn’t hire a Head of Press who said they didn’t read the news. Likewise, it simply isn’t credible for someone with responsibility for social/digital media not to have an active social presence. To really succeed on social you need to really get it — and that means using it, gaining a deep understanding of the community you’re trying to engage with, and demonstrating that through your own and your agency/company’s digital footprint.

6) Offering second-hand expertise

Alarm bells ring when a supposed expert relies on case studies they weren’t involved in in their sales pitch or conference deck; it’s often a sure sign they lack hands-on experience of their own.

“My issue is with those where the main parts of the conference speaking and/or training isn’t delivered from first hand knowledge” said Stuart Bruce. “Some of it inevitably won’t be and can’t be… But they should at least offer some inside knowledge gained from speaking to the people involved.”

“The same is true with ‘bad’ case studies where the reality of what happened internally isn’t what the gurus on the outside are saying as they throw criticism without understanding of the realities of operating in challenging environments”.

If someone offers a case study that’s delivered second-hand, challenge them on what inside insights they’ve sought to add value for you.

7) Claiming there are hard and fast rules for social media

Social media is ultimately about people, and like anything that relates to human behaviour, there really are no hard and fast rules.

Take, for example, the one I made above about robo-posting. I detest it, so much so that I have and all Facebook quizzes muted. And yet there are real and powerful use cases for both of these things, in the right context.

But no one can tell you that your brand is best conveyed on social by, say, posting six times a day at these specific times, because every audience will be different.

“There are no blanket rules or guidance — best time to post, when to use images, frequency of posting, this network or that network. It’s always going to be different as it depends on what your objectives are and the make-up of your community/audience/stakeholders (delete as appropriate).”
Stuart Bruce

The only hard and fast rule is that you should listen, try, measure, learn and iterate. Post different types of content at different times, measure what works — and by works, I mean delivers actual outcomes, not just ‘reach’ — and keep on improving.

People who promise to deliver big social media results using shortcuts — like robo-posting, or follower-farming — could give you some good social media stats, but these are numbers which offer little real-world value for your brand and reputation. “We should be focusing on KPIs and measurement that relate back to business objectives, not to pathetic 0.5/2% engagement rates” said Julio Romo. “What about the 98% who don’t engage?”

Why do people fall for it?

“We should be calling out these snake-oil tradesmen. But then again, is all this their problem? Or is it a case that there is still a basic understanding of social within many organisations?” Julio added.

That’s a large part of the problem — if the people who are buying, commissioning or hiring in social media expertise don’t know their digital arse from their elbow, it’s no surprise there are chancers ready to cash in.

If you were to task me with buying a car, I’d make a crap job of it since I don’t drive and know nothing about cars. I’d have to bring in people who do know about cars to help me choose. But when people fall for these chancers they’re doing much the same — admitting they lack the expertise themselves and attempting to plug the gap. So the problem is perhaps that those buying don’t know what to look for.

Maybe that’s where organisations like CIPR, CIM and BCS can help — each of these organisations can offer accreditation in their respective areas. As social is changing every profession/discipline, they have a role to play in championing good practice; by evolving their certification and advisory offers they can help buyers navigate their way to worthwhile social media advice.

Meanwhile, snake-oil salesmen give true social media specialists a bad name. To protect our own reputations and that of social media as a practice, the rest of us should be braver and call poor practice out when we see it.

Many thanks to Stuart Bruce, Paul Clarke, Amanda Coban, Marged Cother, Carol Ferro, Anke Holst, Ingrid Kohler, Anne McCrossan, Julio Romo, Tony Stewart, Steve Waddington, Steve Way, Louise Woollam for their input on this post.