7 ways to spot a social media snake oil salesperson
Technology has given you plentiful opportunities to better your life. Especially if you're looking for work, even amidst the economic slump of the omni-stated recession, there are knowledge worker jobs opening up that didn't exist but a decade ago. Unfortunately, that's not to say all of these jobs are actually useful: just like pyramid schemes attract the greedy and fad diets interest the desperate, many social media snake oil salespeople are out there, ready to sucker you.
Social media is about people being able to talk to each other easier through computers. Yes, Wikipedia has a much more extensive definition, but part of a slick sales strategy is dressing up what's old in new clothes. That's why even though there's an immense amount of value in word-of-mouth networks and empowering good causes through our machines, the tough thing is in distinguishing who's genuine from who's a quack.
If you take a quick look on, well, any social network — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, you name it — you may have run across packs (appropriately) of people who dub themselves social media consultants, gurus, strategists, etc. All claiming to help you improve your online presence. Other variants like "lifestyle designers/architects" (derived from the teachings of one Tim Ferriss who in turn repackaged the Pareto Principle) and other very trendy-sounding titles exist. They exist to sound impressive and sell to you, but as B.L. Ochman astutely declared:
How many of them have actually created a successful campaign for clients using social media tools? I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find half a dozen with real track records.
That's why, like sound science, it's important to do the research, be skeptical, and debunk fluffy claims before buying into the bull: substantiate who are you dealing with here?
Like so much self-help hogwash which obscures actual-but-not-so-fast solutions, the Kevin Trudeaus of the social media world are here to sell you a false dream. Those scammers hate to hear it, but it's true. And here's 7 ways you can spot them:
1. Buzzword-laden pig slop
If a hotheaded social media whatever comes to sell your company a "comprehensive transparency strategy" consisting of "Web 2.0" this and "personal branding" that and can't explain what they mean in simple English, they're full of it. And by "it", I mean lies. It's unfortunate that scammers make the good souls look bad — just as a lot of crackpot pseudoscience misuses the established formulations of quantum physics. Like pig slop, it's a mess. And you deserve better.
Always insist on substantiation — focusing on actions, disproving the fallacies behind the words, and showing there's followup to grand announcements. For example, if a social media usability firm (they really exist) is brought about because they say they can greatly enhance how your customers experience your product, don't just let them give you a feel-good keynote presentation and glossily-designed PDFs with "The Master Plan": work closely with them to carry out small, lightweight tests and assure whether it actually has an effect. This may seem obvious; not so much if they're baffling you with buzzwords.
2. Lack of diverse interests
Case in point: I believe in the power of personal branding. But like "social media", it gets thrown around a lot in an ironic attempt to camouflage lack of personality. There's now a cottage industry of of "personal branding consultants" who talk starchy like bad 80s cartoons; they try to sell "Brand You" packages on their websites and are shockingly one-dimensional. Specifically, they can't show what they've done for themselves outside of, well, elevating their profiles by trying to take your money. (It's like being famous for being famous.)
I'm not asking for a "I got rich and these are my beautiful women and houses"-type deal, although Donald Trump is a master of that — and what I'd consider a real personal branding "live by example". He trumps (heh) some of it up to make it look more glamorous than it really is, but he's definitely one of the strongest personal brands without using that buzzword. Like how repeatedly calling yourself "cool" negates itself. If you find Trump disagreeable, how about Richard Branson or Felix Dennis? (Wild hair seems to be a commonality.)
People who have interdisciplinary skill sets and unorthodox fields of interest are a great asset because they possess perspectives no one else does: there's no substitute for that variety of firsthand experience. There are legit personal branding helpers out there, but they don't sit around all day blogging about how to improve your personal brand. They involve other elements in the mix.
If you're interested in getting a personal branding expert to help you, find out what else they do. Outside of work, as well as odd jobs they've taken on. But don't just rely on their friends, because of…
3. Inbred testimonials
Strength in numbers, right? It's no secret that when social media yahoos are struggling to attain credibility, they'll vouch for each other. One will write a foreword for another's book they haven't really read, and yet another still will put forth glowing praise that can be inserted in the author's blog sidebar.
Again, like everything else I'm saying here, there are earnest examples of this being done, but they're rarities amidst all the soundalikes in the so-called echo chamber. Reverb gives a musical instrument space, but do you know what happens when there's too much of it? The signal becomes washed out and indistinct, and nothing stands out.
I'm all for friends helping each other succeed, but the problem with "imbred testimonials" is that they don't include any external perspective, such as that from satisfied customers (like resume references you can verify).
Even though Seth Godin (whose tight style has been copycatted from here to Mars) said, "It's not about you. It's about them" — it's really about us, meaning you and them. After all, it's not a relationship, and definitely not "social", unless it goes both ways.
4. No failed experiments declared
Yes, no one likes to put their dirty laundry in the same place as a job pitch. But social media is unique, since being human (authentic, transparent, etc.) is at the heart of it. Since personality can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways, you don't know until you test: social media snakes like to proclaim case studies of how X company did a great thing while Y company sucked, but how many risks of their own have they taken, then trumpeted about it — even if it was a miserable failure? And how can you trust someone to help you or your company's reputation who won't put themselves under the microscope?
5. Long lists of stuff they haven't done
This one's a relevant tangent: ever see those blog posts that go "50 Must-Have Social Media Tools" or "100 Must-Do Tips to Improve Your Personal Brand"? Mostly, they're baloney. Lists are a popular blogging format to catch people's interests, but let's get to the core: ask the author if they're really tried all the tools/tips/etc. and can vouch for them directly. Probable confession: "Uh, no."
Understand it's great to compile info from different sources, and I grok flavor in headlines, but it shouldn't be sensationalist drama that gets you high on a social media sugar rush, then plunges you back down into despair. That's like those supermarket magazines that sell you a different diet every month. (If it was so good, why keep switching?)
There's much more usefulness in empirical context: someone who notes "I haven't tried this yet" or "I got great results but only after I stuck with it for awhile" while recounting how they're applying a tool or tip to their life.
If the social media "expert" you want to hire has been spotted making thoughtless lists, beware.
6. Stupid simplicity
Whenever a trend exists by name, you can bet unscrupulous folks will try to capitalize. Ever heard of Shaolin Kung Fu? Whether it's through Kill Bill or Wu-Tang Clan, it's been a hot martial art term. Problem is, if someone wants to learn "Shaolin Kung Fu", they first need to understand there is no single style. Any "teacher" who insists otherwise is being deceptive.
There is no single style to social media success. Some people can work it in a suit and tie, while others have to wear chicken suits. Some speak louder than Jim Cramer, others have a calming effect. And hey, it's okay to be low-key! Personal brands aren't for everyone, and personal brands are as diverse as the people behind them. This is why I hate seeing people forced to join social networks and mingling but getting no substantial benefit out of them.
A bona fide social media maven (always look beyond labels) must be able to teach you how they get results, and how this will be applied to you. How concepts, even simple ones, are expanded into day-by-day actions. A programmer who creates cleanly-commented code is more prized than one who arrogantly dismisses the value of showing others the path, and fails to make their peers better.
Mantras (and buzzwords) can boost confidence, but they're a mere hint of effective results. Like a map is not the destination, a word is not what it refers to. Don't rush into any communications plan without understanding Wiio's laws.
7. Unshared egos
Social media is all about exchanging resources, be it knowledge or tangible goods. And notice how I didn't say "big egos" — if you're going to be a social media rockstar, you may very well have a big ego! I've a fave saying:
If I'm good, it's because I've made you better.
Consider Rick Rubin, who recently produced Metallica's return to form, Death Magnetic. With his unkempt beard and piercing eyes, and stripped-down essentials approach to music, he's definitely got a distinctive personal brand. Yet he doesn't cast a shadow over the bands he works with: he channels them like a shaman so they are better! One specific way he does this is getting them to consider stylistically incongruous options. It may make the band temporarily uncomfortable, but as Rubin's landmark bridging of hip-hop and heavy metal has shown, he's a uniter, not a divider.
Someone may be blasting out dozens of tweets a day on Twitter, but if they're not sharing their ego to brighten other human beings' day — and this comes before selling their services — then their motives are in doubt, because they want to succeed at your expense. That is an opposite of social media.
Snakes on a web
Perhaps it was a "customer-centric research analyst" your company brought in, who blathered on (with empty buzzwords as mentioned above) but left you no richer in financial and happiness terms. Maybe it was a "pro blogger" who sold you training DVDs on how to sell yourself on the Internet, only for you to find out their steps were too convoluted and impractical to follow. These are the snakes among us.
One of the most beautiful things about social media is how it empowers you — if you choose to use it — with a voice you wouldn't have had in years previous. Just like the Wise Bread Team draws attention to consumer problems you should be aware of, the same awareness needs to be extended to those promising solutions, but are just full of… snake oil.
Have you ever had to deal with a social media snake oil salesperson? Do you have your own ways of spotting them? Let us know in the comments.