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Social Media Snakeoil Salesmen Don’t Know They’re Selling Snakeoil

May 12, 2010

A few months ago at eTail West, I had lunch with Manish Mehta, VP of Social Media and Community for Dell, Inc. If you attend marketing conferences, then you know that many of the panelists and speakers talk about integrating social media into their marketing strategies and investing marketing dollars in the implementation of these strategies. If you’re like me, that sentiment scares you. “If Dell is investing in social media, how much am I going to have to invest?”

Social media exploded in 2009 for many reasons, but I imagine one of the most pertinent ones is that it is relatively free. Sign up for a Twitter or Facebook account, create a business page, and you’re in business. In the face of a crippling recession and budget cuts, many companies relied on social media to expand their audiences and push out messaging. Don’t have money for traditional media buys? Be your own media. Start a blog, establish credibility, and become a thought leader in your space. This is possible in any industry. Believe me, I never thought the Washington Post would be referring to me as a “window treatment trends blogger,” but that is what happened in 2009. I spoke of using black and white draperies to create contrast and depth in a room, and searches for black and white window treatments skyrocketed after the article ran.

So yes, this stuff works. That being said, hearing someone who designs social media strategies for a company like Dell say they are “investing” in social media can incite apprehension. The word “invest” has certain connotations. It connotes that you’re going to be paying a hefty chunk of money up front, and that you’ll have to wait a considerable amount of time to see the ROI from it. As far as social media is concerned, we don’t have a lot of solid metrics to track conversions from the first point of contact in a social media space to the actual sale, so in some ways you have to just trust that it works. If you’re a small business owner with a limited marketing budget, “trust that it works” doesn’t really help you sleep at night after you’ve spent the amount equal to a car down payment to hire an outside social media consultant.

Manish and I got to talking about the very meaning of social, and what the purpose of his job was. His answers surprised me, and echoed my own sentiments about what it means to “do” social media. We agreed that the tools through which you practice social media can be used by any 15 year-old kid. In fact, that kid can probably do a better job than some social media consultants can. That’s not to say there aren’t creative, talented people who design gorgeous and functional Facebook pages, but I posit that many “experts” have little graphic design expertise or knowledge of coding to design blogs.

I believe that a lot of social media consultants mean well. I believe they think they’re providing a great service. I believe they think they bring a lot of value to the table, and in their defenses, they usually bring some value. But I want to suggest to business owners who are looking to employ a social media consultant: determine if you need to spend thousands of dollars for this stuff. With a little trial and error, you might be able to accomplish the basics yourself.

There are a lot of PR, marketing, and advertising consultants who use social media as part of greater whole when designing a custom strategy for a potential client. Hire one of them instead. Someone with a more comprehensive background in marketing and/or graphic design field will be able to design you some beautiful pages (or outsource to someone who can) and help you measure your ROI.

Social media is not a fad, though calling it social media probably is. We’re moving towards a more social web, and eventually, everything we do online will be social. We’ll know what our friends are buying (Facebook Beacon was just a little ahead of its time), we won’t buy a single thing without reading a review first, and we’ll be merging and mashing channels in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

We DO marketing. We DO pr. We USE social media as a part of the plans we design, as a means to an end. If the ultimate goal is to build a bustling, thriving community of people who love your products and want to tell everyone about them, by all means, USE social media to help you do that. But remember, it’s not the only key to the castle.

When Manish says that Dell is investing in social, he means they’re building – from scratch – custom advocacy programs. Forums. Media buys that advertise that they use these social platforms. Think of Best Buy, who spends millions to advertise its Twelpforce through traditional mediums. If you’re Best Buy and you can afford to draw people to your social channels using tv and radio advertising, then do it. But I’m suggesting here that you don’t have to to make it work.

Manish and I agreed that we’re doing the things we’ve always done to build these communities, plus adding social media tools to the arsenal. But the next time someone tells you he’s a social media expert who will charge you $1000 an hour to design you a Facebook page, remember that he doesn’t know you already know you have all the tools you need.

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