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Social Media Experts: Why Organizations Need Them

Summary: Many people are critical of the notion of social media experts, falsely claiming they don’t exist – and by extension implying they aren’t necessary. These criticisms, combined with the pervasiveness, low cost, and relative ease of use of social technologies, lead many people to assume (also falsely) that DIY and “give it to the intern” approaches are effective strategies for leveraging these new tools. This post counters some of the most frequent criticisms and articulates the need for social media expertise. (from the Denovati SMART Blog)

Note: The original version of this post was published on the SMinOrgs SMART Blog in May 2011. An updated version was published in May 2012. Most of the original issues and arguments remain true today, indicating more progress needs to be made.

The Case Against Social Media Experts

In the context of new social technologies, “expert” is often perceived as a four-letter word, and many people decry the label “social media expert.” Certain critics have decided there is no such thing as social media experts or social media expertise, offering arguments like the following to support their positions:

It’s too new. False. The underlying technologies have been around for about 20 years, longer if you consider some of their digital precursors. And the core characteristics – such as user-generated content and social sharing – date back to our earliest days on the planet.

Things change too much and too often. That’s true, but the truth isn’t unique to this set of technologies and/or related disciplines. Professionals in many areas will quickly attest to the dynamism in their own fields, companies, and industries.

Only a small elite can claim expert status. If we define expert in very narrow terms as a pinnacle achievement, then yes, only a few people can claim it. But if you look up the definition of the term and rely on its denotation, you’ll find it applies to a much broader group of people. Plus, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a relative, as well as absolute, label. I may know a lot about employment law, for example, but I would defer to a labor law attorney as an expert in the field.

It’s not just about the tools. Of course it’s not, but understanding how the technologies, tools, and platforms are used is critically important to success in using them. There are countless people who are “experts” in their core disciplines who would fail miserably in 2.0 spaces because of their lack of social media expertise. More on that in the next section.

Ironically, in an effort to minimize the importance of social media experts, these critics are effectively holding social media to a higher standard than other professions, functions, and disciplines – where expertise is not only respected, but sought out. But the criticism is understandable to some degree: too many people convey false impressions of their expert status, presenting their knowledge and skills as being more comprehensive and/or in-depth than they are. I regularly encounter people who are

  • Overly enthusiastic about new digital technologies;
  • Lacking depth of understanding of today’s technological changes and their implications;
  • Content to think in narrow, shallow and simplistic terms;
  • Too eager to follow fads and try/promote every new thing that comes along; and
  • More tactical than strategic.

More often than not, when people make sneering references to social media experts and/or disdain the use of the term, what they’re referring to is the proliferation of charlatans in response to the dramatic growth of digital social media in the past several years. This proliferation may be unfortunate, but it’s hardly surprising and hardly unique to the Digital Era. Charlatans, swindlers, hustlers, hucksters, quacks, frauds, snake oil salesmen, and mountebanks are endemic to the human condition.

It is wise to be wary of “false prophets,” but concerns about being misled shouldn’t cause organizational leaders to not seek out valuable guides to help them move forward in cyberspace…

The Need for Social Media Experts

Regardless of whether we use the “expert” label, there are many reasons why organizations should invest in people with social media expertise:

The road to social media hell is paved with ignorance. Cyberspace abounds with stories of social media missteps and outright failures, often by people who should have known better:

  • Experienced journalists and public relations professionals who “tweeted without thinking”
  • A CEO who set up a fake blog to disparage a competitor
  • A teacher who blogged disparagingly about her students and a principal who friended students on Facebook using a false identity
  • Community managers who fanned the flames of a Facebook attack
  • Marketers and advertisers who underestimated the social media backlash to their companies’ campaigns or actions, or who created fake social media-based commercials and/or endorsements
  • Human resources and legal professionals who developed overly-broad social media policies
  • Hiring managers who engaged in unethical practices using social media

I could go on, but the point is that contrary to many critics’ core argument, social media isn’t “just” anything. Yes, it’s a set of tools and technologies, but it’s a very powerful set that can cause significant harm if used incorrectly. As I repeatedly like to remind people:

Saying social media is “just” a communications tool is like saying
a nuclear power plant is “just” a way to turn on the lights

Simple doesn’t mean easy. It only takes a few minutes to set up a Twitter account, for example, and perhaps another few seconds to send the first “is this thing on?” tweet. But the simplicity of the user interface hardly ensures one’s effectiveness in using the channel. There’s a new language and norms to learn, as well as hazards and mistakes to avoid. The same is true for other public platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, and tools like blogging and wikis and videocasts and podcasts. Social media rookies regularly underestimate them, often to their own detriment.

Strategy trumps tactics. The ways in which an individual or organization can leverage social media are virtually limitless, but the ways in which they should leverage the technologies need to be driven by goals and objectives, industry and stakeholder characteristics, and a host of other factors, including a sophisticated understanding of whether and how social media would be more effective than traditional tools.

Change is hard. For most rookies – including organizational leaders – social media is threatening, intimidating and discomfiting. Bringing about the necessary changes to leverage social media successfully requires in-depth understanding of the technologies and their applications and implications, as well as the ability to translate that understanding into language lay people can understand and the ability to help them connect the dots.

Even when it’s your mountain to climb, having a Sherpa can help. I’ve been fully immersed in social media since 2009, not just as a practitioner, but as a student and teacher. I can say with confidence that it’s impossible for someone just getting started to quickly match the knowledge, skills, and understanding of someone who’s been intimately involved with new digital technologies for some time. More importantly, these “experts” can help rookies climb their learning curves more efficiently and effectively and provide guidance to increase the likelihood of success and minimize the risks of failure.

Degrees of Expertise

It’s important to recognize that there is no single definition of expertise and no “one-size-fits-all” approach to leveraging that expertise. The most appropriate expert for a given purpose in a particular organization will depend on factors like the organization’s

  • Strategic goals and objectives, both short term and longer term
  • Industry and client characteristics
  • Level of technological sophistication
  • Financial resources
  • Employee skill levels and capacity

In 2011, Rand Fishkin created a chart that offers a nice starting point for understanding different levels of social media expertise. I would argue that we can distinguish different levels of social media professionals the same way we might professionals in other functional areas: coordinators, analysts, managers, designers, planners, strategists, and advisors. Some organizations will need to acquire or develop individuals with expertise at all these levels, whereas others will only need some of them. For some the best solution will be to bring the expertise in house; for others it will be to use one or more service providers. And of course the right solution will change over time, as technology and an organization’s circumstances and needs continue to evolve.

In my next post, I’ll share updated hiring guidance for organizations that need to acquire social media experts. As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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