Bad Social Media Consultants Can Wreck Your Brand

by Steven E. Streight

There are a lot of “social media experts” around these days. They claim that they can perform miracles for a business using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other social network tools. You may feel bewildered by all the hype, unsure where or how to begin. Some professional help in this area is better than attempting to do it on your own.

Unfortunately, there are incompetent consultants who can steer you down the wrong path. They typically have little experience in sales and marketing, and have been active in social media for just a year or two. They may dazzle you with buzzwords and youthful enthusiasm, but they don't have any familiarity with your business or industry, nor do they ask enough of the right questions to gain a clear understanding. These so-called experts also tend to think that social media is full of gullible consumers who are easy to lure over to your brand.

A misguided company can make mistakes in social media that are not easy to correct. In fact, if your company uses the services of a bad social media consultant, the result can cause serious long-term damage to your brand, customer acquisition and public perception.

Exposing the Social Media Quack
My first advice to a company thinking about hiring a social media specialist is to ask the person what they generally suggest a company do. You'll probably hear a lot of great-sounding ideas and grandiose promises. But here's where you'll expose their errors—ask them what should never be done in social media. Chances are, they'll hem and haw, grope for a suitable reply, or, perhaps, be completely stumped.

Knowing what should never be done is one key aspect that distinguishes the legitimate, competent social media consultant from the herd of fake gurus who tend to use all manner of dubious methods.

Next, ask the alleged expert to explain some of the dangers of social media. Once again, this question may trip them up. Amateurs tend to think all social media activities are acceptable, even those that border upon spamming, black hat SEO or “fake it until you make it” fallacies.

Ask the consultant what specific social networks they recommend and why. Have them discuss the reasonable expectations a business can have regarding social media marketing, and how they plan to achieve your business objectives.

How will they evaluate the ROI (return on investment) of their social media work? Can they track sales to their strategies, or will they base their metrics on numbers of followers, fans and friends acquired? How will they determine if these numbers reflect qualified potential buyers or just random visitors who may never purchase your products? What is their strategy for converting engagement with social community members into increased sales?

Pose this question to the consultant: “What specific work have you done for your clients, and what were the tangible, measurable outcomes?” Tell them you want to see the blogs and social media pages they've created and managed for their various clients. Are they ugly, generic or boring?

Read some blog posts. Do they display the expertise of the client and present the client’s products in a compelling manner? Do the posts tie in with hot news items? Are they posting photos, video and audio content in a professional way? Do they copy and paste content from other blogs or news feeds, or are they taking the time to do their own research and create original content for you?

Look at their Twitter pages. Are they retweeting and replying to other Twitter users, and tweeting links to blog posts to promote them? Are their Facebook wall posts providing value, and are they interacting in meaningful ways with other users? Are people clicking Like on their posts and making comments? How do they deal with rogue applications, malware and phishing scams? Do they let spammy game invites remain on their clients’ Facebook walls? Do they respond swiftly to comments and private messages? How do they decide who to send friend requests to and which friend requests to accept or deny?

If they fail this series of tests, you're probably going to want to say, “Thanks for coming in, but I prefer to look elsewhere for the expertise I require.”

Social Media Pitfalls to Avoid
One of the worst things that can happen to your brand is to let an inept consultant set up a multitude of social media profiles for you, then pipe in content with automated feeds, that is, programs that pull content from other sites or news organizations. Google does not like duplicate content that is copied and pasted from other sites or is derived from RSS aggregators using key phrases and search terms.

You may hear the phrase “content curation.” That basically means setting up online newspapers or other web platforms that take content from other creators and branding them in your company's name. This is really just another form of automated, uneditable plagiarism and intellectual property theft. All these techniques can get you blacklisted by Google and removed from search results.

Another detrimental development that commonly occurs is abandoned profiles that appear near the top of search engine results pages for your brand. Your consultant set up the profiles, but did not keep them updated with fresh, original, relevant content. That makes it look like you were excited about social media, then cooled off. Or you died. Or you didn't know what you were doing, and didn't take the time to delete your untended accounts.

Some social media consultants will engage in “Black Hat SEO” strategies (illegal, unethical or counter-productive attempts to drive traffic to your site and trick search engines into ranking your site as an authority) such as setting up a large number of static websites that point to your main e-commerce or corporate website, or using various cloaking, keyword stuffing and invisible text gimmicks. These tactics can temporarily inflate your search engine results, but will eventually result in penalties or exclusion from search engine referrals.

There are many ways to go wrong and shoot yourself in the foot when attempting to use social media.

The purpose of this article is to give you a solid foundation in this field to help you avoid many of the negative outcomes that can accrue when the alleged expert is not adept or sufficiently experienced. Don't make the mistake of assuming that their passion and use of buzzwords means they really know what they're doing.

15 False Statements Made by Bad Social Media Consultants

  1. You should follow the tech gurus and social media pundits as they hop from one trendy social media site to the next. TRUTH: These popular “experts” are not infallible guides in this realm. They often have hidden agendas for their praise and enthusiasm. Many of their endorsements are based on personal friendships and conference schmoozing with the start-up CEOs, and not a reflection of the actual merits of the trendy sites.
  2. Companies rightfully worry that some social media sites may not be around for long, thus it's not good to invest any time in them. TRUTH: Most of the popular sites have survived for quite a while and will probably continue, but even if they don't, they're good while they last and can achieve good SEO.
  3. You must decide what specific content your customers like best. TRUTH: Customers tend to like any type of content as long as it is presented well, not too long or difficult to consume, communicates product benefits well, or educates them about topics relevant to their interests.
  4. Basically, the same rules relevant to traditional media will apply to digital media. TRUTH: Many of the rules have changed dramatically.
  5. All the rules of marketing have changed for the new digital media realm. TRUTH: Then again, some of the rules have not changed.
  6. If you don't have anything to say in social media, remain silent. TRUTH: If you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your business, you should always have something valuable and interesting to say.
  7. Automated programs can provide you with huge numbers of followers and fans for your social media sites. TRUTH: Automated programs are generally spam machines that generate large quantities of unqualified persons who will never buy anything and may resent the fact that they were tricked into visiting your website—when they are really not relevant to them.
  8. By handing over responsibility for your social media campaign to a consultant or agency, you won't have to do anything but enjoy the results. TRUTH: You cannot delegate 100 percent of social media participation to others. As CEO, store manager or business owner, you must provide direction, monitor content and activities, and occasionally log in to your blog or social media sites and contribute remarks in your own voice. This includes clicking Like and Share, providing relevant links, announcing things only you know about, making comments on posts by people you follow, and interacting personally now and then, rather than always via a proxy. A totally hands-off approach to social media is not a good idea. Show yourself to be a sincere and helpful member of the online community you want to reach. Reply to messages and comments yourself sometimes. Don't rely completely on others to do it for you.
  9. Inspirational quotes are a good way to build a following on Twitter, Facebook and other sites. TRUTH: People prefer to hear your ideas in your own words. They seek expertise and practical tips, not rehashed thoughts of famous people. Relentless floods of inspirational quotes are a lazy, inauthentic way to pretend you have good content.
  10. Customer review sites like Yelp and Empire Avenue are great places to connect with customers and promote your brand. TRUTH: Such sites are easily gamed and manipulated, and can even have very detrimental effects, especially if you have enemies or vicious competitors. The worst-case scenario occurs when the site operators ask you to buy an ad on the site, and if you don't, may delete all positive reviews and replace them with a flurry of negative reviews.
  11. Social networks are populated with consumers just dying to do business with you and buy your products. TRUTH: Nobody joins a social network to receive sales hype. However, if you provide how-to tips and share your expertise, you can establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry and become the top-of-mind choice when they do need your products. 
  12. You can steer your marketing content in social media, but nowadays, customers ultimately control the message. TRUTH: You can control exactly how you present your company and products, and there are ways to negate any unfair criticism or troll accusations that come against you. While you should engage in conversations about your brand with social media participants, this does not mean that your message is difficult to manage. It just means that branding is different than it was in the days of one-way broadcast messaging to largely passive and mute consumers. 
  13. Social media interaction replaces focus groups and traditional marketing research. TRUTH: Social media interactions supplement, but do not necessarily supplant, conventional methods of demographics, competitive analysis, customer needs evaluations and product usage research.
  14. An all-text blog is a valid marketing platform. TRUTH: Blogs should incorporate photos, videos, podcasts, polls, and other features and functionalities to deliver a rich user experience and to more fully present your products, company and CEO.
  15. Infomercial videos and hard-sell podcasts are effective for providing an introduction to a product. TRUTH: People are turned off by such late-night drivel that pretends to be a news or interview program. Soft sell is the best approach in social media. Nowadays, people tend to prefer videos and audio podcasts that provide insight and tutorials, or present the CEO as a genuinely caring and altruistic person with a passion for the problems his or her products solve for customers.

With these basic insights, you are now equipped to cut through the inaccurate portrayals and deliberate deceptions that are rampant in the rapidly evolving realm of social media. Consultants with no real track record or dubious methodologies may say they know the secrets to success but cannot deliver the goods. Remember, certain activities online can remain in search results for a long time. They can be difficult to undo or bury. You need to do social media ethically and effectively—right from the start. iBi

Steven E. Streight is a web content developer, social media strategist and internet marketing specialist. Contact him at steven.streight@gmail.com.

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