Selling Snake Oil in the Age of Social Media

In large organizations, we hire outside consultants and contractors to carry out large projects and take advantage of their expertise.

In the age of Facebook and YouTube, experience in social media is a common prerequisite to bid on communications contracts. And while thick, glossy bids arrive with examples of creating YouTube videos and launching Facebook pages, more and more I’m seeing that some so-called “experts” have pushed buttons or written text, but don’t understand social media’s norms and best practices. Almost as if they read blogs and learned buzzwords for the proposal, but don’t know what any of them mean.

What’s especially frustrating is when consultants carry themselves with a certain swagger and panache (since they are the experts and I, the cog in the machine, couldn’t possibly know as much as they do) and senior managers opt to implement the consultants’ recommendations, despite the objections of others, since a lot of money was paid for those recommendations. After all, if the consultant charges so much he/she must be an expert.

Two recent examples of this come to mind. (I have changed specifics and won’t name names.)

Do You Understand That’s Impossible on Twitter?

The organization I work for—a very large and stoic one—recently launched a high-profile marketing campaign. Among the products delivered—print and online advertisements, website copy, flyers—were Twitter updates. The flavor of what we received took the form of:

We have GREAT prizes 4 U! Do U want 2 WIN tix to a CFL game? Check out our site for more info! #CFL #CanadianFootball #win

I’ve already railed against “check out” as the Twitter equivalent of “click here” and why using marketing-ese in social media is a bad idea. But what surprised me was that they embedded hyperlinked text within a tweet, which cannot be done. Other messages were over the 140 character limit. It’s almost like they randomly surfed Twitter and adopted the language of teenagers without researching Twitter’s best practices for organizations and what it can and cannot do as a medium.

Don’t Letterbox YouTube Videos

A second example is videos developed for YouTube. These videos were originally produced several years ago in 4:3 ratio for DVD. Management wanted these videos placed online, so they were converted to electronic files for our website and YouTube. However, since 16:9 is now the standard, the contractor delivered videos with black bars on the left and right side of the image to force it into a 16:9 format.

While I acknowledge they understood that YouTube now presents videos in 16:9, a quick search of YouTube Help for “aspect ratio” would have revealed http://www.google.com/support/youtube/bin/answer.py?answer=132461, which makes it clear you are not to letter box videos yourself—YouTube will add the black bars when the video is processed. The videos were distorted when uploaded, but fortunately the contractor agreed to deliver the files in 4:3 without much fuss.

Do Your Research

None of what I know about social media is the result of years of experience, endless trial-and-error or picking the brains of marketing geniuses. It comes from doing due diligence when working with a technology that is constantly changing and evolving. Most of what I know about sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube comes from questions being asked of me or unusual situations where I need to go find an answer or double-check what I suspect to be correct.

For consultants who sell themselves as experts, this same level of research is vital to deliver accurate answers and, more importantly, maintain the trust of your client. It’s not enough to talk about “engagement” and “digital natives” and Obama’s use of social media in his election. Theory is great (vital, even), but you also need to know the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing. Anyone can read blogs about how to use social media in theory. The real expertise being paid for are the details, like using annotations to link  YouTube videos, analyzing Facebook Insights or is Tumblr, WordPress or Blogger the best platform for someone’s needs.

When a very highly-paid consultant discusses a Facebook strategy and I have to point out that what they’re proposing is impossible, I will do everything I can what I am authorized to do to make sure we do not work with that consultant again. And, I’ll tell my colleagues to beware that snake oil salesman still exist, but now they are selling “social media expertise.”


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