Here Come the Social Media Carpetbaggers

Take one major global recession. Add slashed and gutted media and marketing budgets. Pour in a generous dose of traditional marketers groping for clients in a digital world. Finally, add social media marketing, for which both the cost and barrier-to-entry is near zero. Blend gently and presto — social media carpetbaggers, in all flavors and colors of the rainbow.

I just got to see one up close and personal. And boy, was it sobering.

Case in point: A dog-and-pony show this week thrown in New York by a traditional design and branding agency that seems to suddenly be trying to change its spots and re-market its services with a social media slant. Heck, lots of marketers, many of them non-digital natives, are piling on board the bandwagon by appending suffixes such as “expert,” “guru,” “specialist,” “diva,” “maven” and what-have-you to the term “social media.” They’re made all the more convincing when they display the trappings of success: an agency, a client roster (though not necessarily social media engagements), and a pitch delivered over cocktails at a very private club in New York’s trendy Meatpacking District.

Walk the Walk

This social media expert launched a blog in July 2008. She managed three entries last calendar year, and an equal number so far this year. Six entries in 13 months on a blog with no comments, no categories, and no keywords? No thank you. “Give to get” is her social media message, but on this blog, the author’s bio page is practically longer than all six entries combined.

OK, let’s check our social media maven’s Facebook profile. Oops. Scratch that. “[Redacted] only shares certain information with everyone. To learn more about [her name], add her as a friend.”

So much for that.

Oh wait — it seems this week’s event has a Facebook page, too. With two confirmed guests: one attendee…and the organizer herself. Hardly surprising, really, as there are no updates, topics for conversation or information on the page, really. Just a link to the event Web page.

Over to Twitter, then. Our social media workshop leader has been on Twitter for a scant five months! She’s following 19 people, and has 22 followers. She’s posted 26 times since joining (yes, counting tweets like “testing from my blackberry”). Some of those are references to articles she’s published online, but without links that would help you to actually find and read them.

Oh, and the event had its own Twitter handle. Twenty-four hours after the event, there were four (four!) tweets, all posted in the first person, ostensibly by the event organizer. The account, however, belongs to someone with an entirely different name. So much for the oft-repeated calls for authenticity and transparency. Moreover, one (a full 25 percent, statistically speaking) of the tweets referred to a point I made during the presentation. I responded via Twitter, but the response hasn’t been acknowledged more that 24 hours later by the speaker who spent the evening driving home the points that social media is about “listening” and “dialogue.”

Social Media Is Strategy, Not Just Tactics

We’ve got a problem here, and it’s not just that social media, and by extension, social media marketing, have a barrier to entry of near zero. This permits self-anointed pundits, swamis, and social media gurus to perform a sleight-of-hand that so confounds onlookers, they too easily confound the concepts of strategies and tactics.

We have to have a Facebook page! We need to blog! There must be a corporate Twitter account! All the cool kids are doing it; the Dells, the Zappos, the JetBlues, and even a bunch of start-up taco trucks that by now are probably turning over revenues approaching Google’s just because they know how to tweet and you don’t.

Once you’ve straightened out the difference between strategy and tactics, trust yourself. You’re now on your way to developing social media expertise yourself. Really. As my colleague Pablo Robles put it, “The real question is not ‘Are you an expert?‘; it’s ‘Have you walked the walk?'”

Before you run out and hire a social media expert, take a page from Nike and Just Do It. Blog. Tweet. Join social networks. And don’t just lurk — friend, follow, participate, and share. Encourage others in your organization to do the same. Because ultimately, the responsibility for your online social presence belongs not to your social media “expert,” but to the people within your organization — even if you do enlist competent and genuinely expert outside help.

One final point. It’s important to clarify that this by no means is intended as a diss of all social media practitioners. There are fantastic ones out there. But tough times often call for desperate measures. Sure there are always plenty of charlatans bottom feeding off of whatever new Web marketing trend is making headlines. But this rush toward social media “expertise” is something different: it’s reputable marketers who have built deservedly strong reputations in other digital disciplines: branding, creative, strategy, search, media, and a host of other specialties, who are suddenly labeling themselves “social.”

Are they or aren’t they? It’s not hard to find out. And don’t forget to ask them about their social media marketing credentials, too. Having launched a Web site or online marketing campaign does not a social marketer make.

Rebeccca is off today. This column was previously published on ClickZ.

Meet Rebecca at linkSES Chicago, December 7-9, 2009 at the Hilton Chicago.

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