7 ways to spot a social media snake oil salesperson

by Torley Wong on 14 March 2009 24 comments
Photo: Capture Queen

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?

This doesn't mean false modesty. It does mean acknowledging those mistakes as valuable data to be used towards future gains, as Jim Kukral and Rohit Bhargava have.

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.

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Guest's picture
margaret

I hate seeing people forced to join social networks and mingling but getting no substantial benefit out of them.

I think everyone is frantic to network right now, but this is so important to hear; some people have definitely been able to use social networks to their advantage, but I do think it is important to take it slow and understand what it is you want to accomplish, and whether what you are doing is logically going to accomlish that.

One professional social networking site that seems to have become very important is being used in very different ways by different people I know. Right now I am only using it as a rolodex, which is fine, but I feel uncomfortable going any further - that's just me. And I actually was contacted through it by someone who was looking for me to offer me work, so the public rolodex aspect of it did the trick.

So, yeah, don't let people push you around and force you to go all crazy with this stuff unless you want to.

Guest's picture

Nicely summed up! One great example of a social media role model is Melanie Notkin, better known as Savvy Auntie. One point in her favor is that she doesn't advertise herself as a social media guru. Rather, her accomplishments tell her story for her.

Guest's picture

Great job, Torley, on putting that all together! I had to read it twice -- it was so good! : )

Guest's picture

Very informative-- this is an area of the online universe I haven't fully navigated yet-- thanks for the heads up!

Guest's picture
Dana

Since social media marketing/networking is a pretty new phenomenon, I am pretty wary of people that claim to have it all figured out. There's no road map to success on the internet just yet, at least not in the way of following these steps and you can make it. This is a great post that brings this to attention. And kudos to #3, I see so many examples of this everywhere.

Torley Wong's picture

@margaret: Well-said! Use networks to your benefit, don't let them abuse you.

@Daniel: First time I've heard of Savvy Auntie. Thanks, going to check her out.

@Shanel: Thanks! Nice to see you here!

@DDFD: Glad you think so!

@Dana: I share your wariness — like so many technological developments, things die a quick death and are forgotten. What's "essential" one month is meaningless the next.

Julie Rains's picture

Great post -- even in you're not into social media, the general ideas apply to offline areas of life, particularly some forms of networking. When I first started my business, I went to some networking events and, from my experiences, the dominant form of interaction was snake oilsy. That's too bad because in order to be heard or noticed, it seemed that you have to make grand claims, which kind of left the good, honest but not perfect folks look shabby in comparison. Today, I'll be happy if I never hear personal brand ever again.

Guest's picture

Well said .. great post.. everyone does not benefit out of it. one needs to also separate the chaff from the wheat..

Guest's picture

I don't want to go into much detail. just this: a real thorough and straight forward article on the topic of marketing bozos and trying-to-rip-you-off-with-unfulfillable-promises-self-appointed-marketing-gurus.

There's one thing though I find amazing with these people: where the heck do they get all that wrong self-confidence and indifference towards their communication style? Sometimes I would love to have some of it...

It's rare though ;-)

Torley Wong's picture

@Julie: I'm glad you think these can be extended. I've known too many conferences and events where people get acquainted with each other, but aren't following up with powerful collaboration. Mingling isn't the end to the means!

@Tips: Thanx!

@Martin: Some of the sneakiest, cheatiest people I've ever known ran successful psychological tests tricking easy prey, and that boosted their confidence so they moved up to "bigger fish". Some of the most notorious social engineers and con artists have operated this way, growing in ways selfishly beneficial to them but not to other people. Also look up "emotional vampires" on a similar note.

Guest's picture
Guest

It is both sad and amusing to see the MLM marketers teaching online marketing via social networks. Sample posts from two distant friends:

- Joe is making money while having coffee this morning
- Mary thinks there is nothing better than working from home
- Joe updated his web site addresses (he does this at least weekly to draw attention to them)
- Mary can't wait for (insert personal care task here) in a can to arrive!

Note that both previously commented on their profiles how they are studying online marketing. The article hits on holding the "experts" accountable through results. Excellent idea.

Guest's picture

Hate it when I receive unsolicited invites to join social networks that actually are set up under the guise of 'networking and camaraderie,' when in fact it's just another ploy to lure you into products they sell or services they offer. The real decoys!

Guest's picture

Torley, this is a tremendous overview about how any buyer should be qualifying potential partners in the Social Media world. I've been selling (helping people buy) marketing systems and technology for 25 years and what you are saying is true in any industry. There has been a lot of discussion around how Social Media itself is in fact changing the "sales" process in all industries. To a certain degree, using our own SM technology will help weed out the "Snake oil sellers" from the really strong players in this space.

Tisha Tolar's picture

Thanks for all of the useful information in this post for people like me, making a living online. Thanks for all for all of the insight and explaination. Plan on linking this to my own blog to help people understand the scams that are out there that can ruin a good opportunity for people.

Torley Wong's picture

@Guest: Many of the snake oil salespersons I've seen are extremely crafty with their wording but don't have the simple results to back it up. It seems so obvious, but as I've alluded to, in the heat of a sales pitch, easy for the human mind to ignore. I agree it's sad and amusing, like some twisted game!

@Norilyn: Exactly. I welcome info about new tools but if I don't find them useful and say "no", I don't want to be continually spammed and sales-pitched to.

@Steve: That's a lot of experience! I always look forward to what new iterations of technology will both assist and cripple human voices amidst all the dataglut today — it's an arms race of the scam-catchers vs. the scammers.

@Tisha: You are most welcome! I'll check out your blog. :)

Guest's picture

Kudos Torley! As one of many who can vouch for Torley's brand-character-humaness, listen to his words. Torley is a success in his field... lol... I just hope his article doesn't make companies start second guessing on valuable approaches. ... my opinion is, if someone looks good on paper AND then carries out what they said about themselves, obviously that's a quality person. Hire THAT person. ( I also say let a person prove their worth and value in the beginning so there's never a question about effectiveness. )

Guest's picture

I get really annoyed when someone starts pushing me their hype. I can always sense if it's an inflated bunch of junk they're wanting me to get involved in...
my problem is telling the snakecharmers i've discovered their falsities. Do I tell them off and blast the facts in their face? or do I leave em on the hook by not responding to them again?

Guest's picture

Hi there, that article it is very interesting. I was thinking about write a review about the social network since here in portugal the Media are looking for that also. It is very important to most of the people know how to deal with it.

I believe that the world wide web it is bigger than the real world, and spam, scumm and bla bla bla from them (u know what I mean). Maybe the social network came to help us to leave the especulation on the market, and people really can learn more and more and find the real truth in all sense!!

Social network It is cool because give the power to the people.

And a note: I live part of my life on the internet (also a work) and there is no Manual "how to use it". U just learn with the internet behavour, one day after another.

Guest's picture
Ener Hax

lol, the nice thing on social marketing blah blah blah is that most anyone can make an impact on their own if they are truly interested. i agree that there are many people selling their services as gurus, ninjas, and other kewl sounding names. but the fact iof the matter is that diff bizzes need diff approaches. dell did an extra one million via twitter in 18 months, that's kewl

zappo's is really good with twitter and even use it for customer service. that's a great example of a home grown approach with the zappo CEO being keen on tweets

a little searching and reading can yield to some easy to implement strategies. i am HUGE on using analytics, like Google analytics as well as those that come with a lot of tools (like flickr has)

and leveraging your efforts is key, like taking a pic with your crackberry and uploading to flickr right away, blogging directly out of flickr to you wordpress which is then updated to your linkedIn and facebook. one pic gets leveraged until the edges are a little raggy

or like blip.tv and automatically pushing to your iTunes store

but it always boils down to providing meaningful or entertaining information to your users. all the cr@p in the world still smells no matter if you utterli it or whatever

doshdosh.com is a great read and Maki puts out great info for social marketing. and it does not have to all be serious, look at dooce.com, she makes like $40K a month on her blog, but she is also VERY entertaining

nice post Torley and thanks for leading by example on this! (you are the big reason i have 2,200 pics on flickr!)

namaste

Guest's picture
Tim

Enjoyed your article very much. You pop a few balloons that need popping. There is too much of the Emperor's New Clothes about social media marketing. Well done!

Guest's picture
Anthony

It's great to see someone bring balance to the "conversation." I've been leery of social media "experts" for quite some time and you hit the nail on the head.

Guest's picture
Paul Newman

Yes, His Name is Fred Williams... Stay away from this scum bag!

Guest's picture
Guest

Hello, has anybody heard about the company MaximizeSocialMedia.com with Chris McLaughlin and Craig Collin? What reputation does the company have?
Taiya

Guest's picture
Guest

This comment above is a typical plant type comment. Shameless!