Ask Mirna: What criteria do you suggest people use to select a social media expert?

Question: There are so many pseudo social media experts out there, each with his or her "solution," that it’s become overwhelming to identify the real McCoys. What criteria do you suggest people use? - Jim Taggart, LeadershipWorldConnect

Answer: Thank you for asking a very important question, and for trusting me to answer it for you. I am asked this same question at least once a week.  Unfortunately, the real social media experts are buried under all the hype of the fake experts because the real ones don’t have time to go calling themselves experts so they can pitch you on why you should have 100K Twitter followers, and why you should hire them to do the job. The true authorities in any industry are not hard-selling 24/7. They are too busy strategizing, sharing, learning, educating, creating, experimenting, executing, testing, growing, and helping others thrive.

It is difficult for me to answer this question without being too controversial or self-promotional.  However, my intent is to always educate and create awareness. Thus, the answer is not only based on my opinion, but also years of business experience and thousands of hours of research and execution to back it up.

So, how do you weed out the pundits from the fakes?

First, let’s define expert.  Here is how Wikipedia defines the word:

“An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain.”

Having extensive knowledge about a topic beyond the average person makes you an expert.  Your skills training and credentials make you an expert.  Your years of experience and education make you an expert.  However, given the above definition, the word expert should not be a self-proclaimed title. This title should be earned and given by peers after a person has logged tens of thousands of hours, and the results should speak for themselves.

Hence, your social media expert is NOT:

  • Someone who shows you how to use the latest feature on Facebook
  • An individual who tells you to just create pages on the major social networks
  • Your web designer or programmer
  • Your previous mortgage broker who has moved on to social media because it is the next hot industry
  • Your virtual assistant
  • Someone who is simply online
  • Someone who has five different types of businesses going at once to see which one makes the fastest buck

Am I an expert in social media because I live and breathe the Web every day? It’s possible. However, I wouldn't use that term.  I am a student of my work. I am constantly learning, experimenting, and educating.  My expertise and knowledge are put to the test every time I have a new challenge, a client, or a new project. If I can't prove that I have some expertise when the situation calls, it doesn't matter what I call or describe myself.

The criteria on how to select a social media expert will depend on the individual business and its goals.  However, below are a few other things to consider when selecting a professional to help you with your social media or online efforts.  Please note, these are not listed in any particular order, and this is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but only a guideline to be used along with some common sense.

  • Successfully using the Internet for business a minimum of three to five years. Social media for business has not been around long; however, the Web has been around long enough for some people to have a decent amount of knowledge and visibility.  For example, I started placing banner advertising for brands online in 1997-98. While consulting and completing my master’s degree in 2005, I started doing extensive research on the search industry and social media, then started my own business in 2007. There are many people who have been online just as long, if not longer.  You just have to do your homework and find them. Remember, it is not possible for someone to know everything about the Internet.
  • Strong online presence. I don’t mean the number of followers they have on Twitter or likers on Facebook.  Google their name and see where they show up.  Where are they mentioned online?  Who is talking about them?  Are they published anywhere?  Who are they engaging with? How are they engaging?  How are they showcasing their expertise and sharing their knowledge? Are others praising them and referring to them as experts? Do they walk the talk?  Their online visibility does not have to be perfect, but it has to be strong. If someone’s online presence is virtually non-existent, do you think they can help you accomplish your online goals?
  • Does not preach social media. An expert does not preach or shove social media down your throat right off the bat.  Instead, they give sound business advice based on what they have learned about your business. An expert will explain how social media can complement or enhance current efforts, not replace it.  A true expert may even talk you out of using social media.  I have done this with many clients because I simply felt they were not ready.  So my role at that point was not to convince them to jump on the bandwagon, but to help make changes in their business that would prepare them for the online world so they leverage it properly.  Social media may not make sense for every single business out there.  In addition, not every tool is for every business.  If your so-called expert starts the conversation telling you that you need to be on Facebook before evaluating your business, then there is your first sign to look for someone else because the tools should not even be discussed up front.
  • Solid business background. It is not enough to just have online knowledge.  Being able to give someone effective advice about their business requires some form of business leadership.  An expert may have led a business and knows how every aspect of a business comes together.  That person should be able to walk into any business, analyze the current situation, learn about the products/service, research competition, understand the culture, review business objectives, and make a recommendation based on the needs and objectives of that business.
  • Understands strategy. It is essential for a social media expert to have an understanding of strategy.  Do they know the difference between goals vs. objectives or strategy vs. tactics?  Can they pinpoint the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a business? Do they explain a long-term program? Are they able to develop or recommend a sustainable and scalable plan? Can they answer your ROI and measurement questions?  All these questions and more are very essential.
  • Recognizes social media is not a campaign. It upsets me to still hear people call social media a campaign.  I come from the advertising world, and a campaign was something that had a start and an end date.  Guess what?  Social media does have a start date, but not an end date.  An expert identifies that social media is a process, a program, an ongoing never-ending conversation.  Although, you may be creating short campaigns within your entire strategy, an expert should help you brainstorm ideas that have sustainability and fluidity.
  • Explains integration. Social media is not meant to be used as a stand-alone.  As I mentioned above, social media should be integrated into the entire business strategy.  Is your expert able to discuss and integrate every aspect or department of a business, including the culture, marketing, advertising, public relations, customer service, business development, internal communications, etc.? An expert should be able to explain the how and why to any business. If the goal is marketing, they should be able to help you integrate social media with all your offline marketing efforts as well as explain how it impacts search engine optimization and other online techniques.
  • Marketing or corporate communications expertise. Although I don’t think it is an absolute requirement, I believe it is a major benefit to select an expert who has a marketing, corporate communications, or public relations background.  Experts from these industries have the knowledge about selected the right target audience, conducting surveys, understanding consumer behavior, creating effective messages as well as responding to a crisis situation.  I have seen many people succeed online without these skills; however, it is extremely helpful to hire a person with some knowledge or has the willingness to do the research.  If you do look at this as one of the criteria, please make sure they are open-minded and are aware of the communication shift.  It is not wise to choose someone that is still stuck on the traditional way of doing things.

I hope this helps you and others to identify the real McCoys from the fakes.  Of course, when hiring any professional, asking for results and references are always a must.  I can tell you upfront that consultants cannot always share who all their clients are or publicly share case study information.  For example, my work is all based on a client’s business strategy, and this information is generally kept confidential. Thus, don’t be surprised if others tell you the same thing.

The most important thing is to do your research and take your time before selecting the right person for the job.  It is only a matter of time before the fakes drop off.

As you may recall, at the beginning of the year I wrote the “7 Signs Your Social Media Consultant is Really an Expert” blog post, which was very popular. This was meant to be a fun and light post covering the basics, and all seven signs I listed are good basics to consider as well.

Was this helpful? What other criteria have you used to identify if someone is a true social media expert?

  • Thanks very much, Mirna, for your insightful answer to my question. You provided a lot of information for us to consider and on which to reflect. Two comments really resonated with me: first that one must earn the respect of peers to be considered an expert (in this case social media), and second that you see yourself as a student of social media. Although I've worked in and around the leadership field for 20 years and hold a Masters in leadership, I see myself less as an expert and more as a student. There's so much to learn in this field, and with respect to social media the same applies, especially with how rapid technological developments are occurring.

  • Mirna, this was extremely insightful. It's a question I've been trying to answer myself for some time.

  • Glad you found this insightful. Jim,it is great that you feel that same way. We should all be students of our work. I am a life-learner and enjoy sharing knowledge. Learning should never stop! Thanks again for submitting the question.

  • Many people gave their opinion on how to choose best social media expert and how to avoid shady ones, but not many answered how should newcomers increase their chance of gaining new customers and providing them value.

    Social Media is quite young and the demand is way higher than the supply... Especially for SME sector...

  • Bojan,

    Thanks for your comment. The only way newcomers can increase their chance is by showcasing their expertise and proving they can provide results. Remember, you will have to build trust and credibility before anyone will feel comfortable to do business with you. Blogging is certainly a great way to start!