Social media failures – are consultants to blame?

One of the staples of the ‘social media conversation’ is the social-media-consultant-as-snake-oil-salesman thing.  (See this most recent offering from Business Week)  A meme, in fact, is what I think it could be called.  This often goes hand-in-hand with the whole social-media-show-us-your-metrics-or-go-away meme.  The confluence of these two memes is the conclusion that unless a social media consultant can point to campaigns they have done and show you his or her  metrics – they must be snake oil salesmen.  And, by extension, all the social media car crashes out there (Toyota Matrix, Motrin Mums to name the two cited in the Business Week article) are therefore the fault of social media consultants.

Fair enough, there are a lot of people out there spouting nonsense at the moment, but is it really social media consultants who are to blame?  Are social media consultants “leading clients astray” as the Business Week article suggests?  I think not.  Lets see whose fingerprints are actually all over most social media failures.

I like case studies of social media failures. I use them a lot in workshops and presentations because they are often far more instructive that case studies of success.   Everyone can identify with failure whereas successes are often seen as one-offs.  What I have found is that the culprits behind most social media failures are very rarely social media consultants.   The guilty parties are inevitably advertising agencies (or the ‘digital creative specialists’ within advertising agencies), traditional digital agencies or media agencies.

The reason these disasters were happening was because the agencies concerned had no idea what social media was about.  They assumed it was  simply a new set of channels to reach consumers and that a conventional one-to-many mass message or interruption approach was therefore appropriate.  This assumption was probably aided and abetted by  traditional campaign thinking and a requirement (in terms of said metrics) to reach lots of people with a single message.  And, of course, it was driven by the fact that creating and distributing one-to-many mass messages is what ad, media and digital agencies do.  Its how they make their money.

The lesson.  It is not “the social media consultant wot done it”.  I suspect even a bad social media consultant would have spotted the stupidity inherent in most of social media’s car crashes.  The first step in avoiding trouble and getting good advice is (as I have said before) never take advice on social media from an advertising agency, a media agency or even a digital agency.  Simply economics will compel them to sell you an inappropriate solution.

The second step, of course, is to get an understanding of how social media operates.  In particular recognise that it is not about one-to-many mass message campaigns and actually about an approach.  A good way to do this is, surprise, surprise, talk to a consultant – i.e. someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in selling you a campaign or a product, but only sells advice.  When you understand social media, you will also understand that much of the ‘doing’ you will need to ‘do’ yourself.  It’s not like making an ad campaign –  you don’t need an agency to make it for you, rather you need someone to tell you how YOU should make it.

But there again, I am a social media consultant, so I would say that.  But think about it anyway.  Examine the failures, learn from them and look for the fingerprints.

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