Social Media Consultant or Snake Oil Salesman?


social-media-graphicI’ve been seeing social media consultants pop up like dandelions, especially as the economy gets tough and people turn to consulting while they look for other work. I do some social media consulting myself. My focus is on helping companies build online communities, and social media usually plays some part in this strategy. However, I’ve started to avoid using the term social media consultant because of the negative connotations that seem to be building around the term. Some social media consultants are the real deal while others have very little to back up their claims, and it’s important to be able to filter out the snake oil salesmen to find the ones with real experience.

Jeremiah Owyang points out that you need to:

“recognize there’s a few different types of social media experts, those have have done it, and those that say they can … anyone who has been using social media tools for personal use could brand themselves as having social media skills and experiences for corporate –yet we know it’s often very different.”

So how do you tell who is the real deal and who is the snake oil salesman? If you’re planning on on adding social media consulting to the services you offer, what experience will you need?

First, it’s important to think about how personal use of social media technologies is different from corporate use of the same technologies.

  • Thousands of Twitter followers or Facebook friends on a consultant’s personal accounts doesn’t help your company unless there is significant overlap between those people and your company’s customers.
  • Having a Facebook profile is not the same as managing a company’s Facebook page and presence on Facebook.
  • Writing a personal blog is very different from corporate blogging where you need to manage groups of contributors, content roadmaps, calendars, and messaging, all while training the employees to communicate in a conversational, yet professional tone.
  • Monitoring, metrics, and responding to mentions across the web are part art form, part science, and many people don’t do robust monitoring or measurement of personal accounts.

Here are a few things that companies should look for in a good social media consultant:

  • Past experience managing social media programs as an employee of a company or years of consulting experience and a robust portfolio.
  • Get the URLs for corporate blogs where they contributed and ask them how they managed the content roadmap process.
  • Ask for the names of Twitter accounts they managed, and review the tweets to see if the style is a fit for your company.
  • Get an example of a monitoring dashboard they would use with a client and ask them what metrics they would measure to determine success for your company.
  • Have them provide URLs for their other social media accounts and community participation.

Companies should run away quickly if:

  • Their experience is based entirely on personal use.
  • You don’t see past job titles that are relevant to social media.
  • Their tweets and blog posts look like they were written by a four year old.

Think very carefully before adding social media consulting to your list of services if your experience doesn’t match these criteria.

What’s the worst example you have seen of a snake oil salesman posing as a social media consultant? What else can companies do to find people with the right experience?


Simon Mackie

I strongly agree with Dawn on this: consultants definitely shouldn’t write the client’s blog post for them. Given the right coaching, the people working in the trenches will produce better, more authentic posts.

Dawn Foster


I don’t advocate that consultants write for a client’s blog. In fact, I advocate strongly against it. The most authentic blog posts come from the people working in the trenches, not from consultants or PR agencies.

My focus is on educating the client’s employees on how to write effective blog posts and how to manage a content roadmap for their blog(s). I have found that best way to educate people is based on my own first hand experience with tips and tricks that worked for me when I was in their shoes as a corporate blogger working inside a company.


Good post. However, I think we are all learning together. Some of us have been doing it longer and have more of a knack for it. I’ve had a facebook page for only about a year now, tweeter for about two months and blogging for about two months as well. So, that doesn’t qualify me as a Social Media Consultant..However, I have been in media ad sales for 10 years now, both radio and television and learning about social media has helped me enrich my clients marketing campaigns. Out of five clients I have experienced adding social media to their traditional advertising, 3 had huge success and the other two got a 2 to 1 ROI..So, with the little experience I have in social media am I classified as a “Snake oil salesman?” Afterall, what good the title of social media consultant if you can’t get make your clients money? What comes first, the chicken or the egg?


Wow…heading toward 30 comments in a single day. Somebody touched a nerve. For what it’s worth, I just read it as buyer beware when you throw money at a consultant of any discipline: social media, business, financial, medical, technical, etc. And…make no mistake, when everybody becomes an uber consultant at something, it takes food out of the mouths of the people like Dawn, Owyang Chris Brogan, Scoble and others who’ve been in the trenches awhile and carved themselves out a lucrative niche. It’s about $ not @.

All this bickering on who’s smarter than whom and what makes them smarter is however starting to give me a Lexapro-ready case of Social Media Anxiety.

Please smarties don’t give me a Twedgie or flush my head in an iPhone FaceBowl app. Please don’t embark on a Twurf War. I value the free exchange of ideas.

Everybody breathe. Make Blips — not War The Internets are big enough for all of us.

Adios for now.

Danny Brown

Are you advocating that social media consultants write for client blogs? Since this seems to go against the transparency that is one of the key trust factors in social media.

I also don’t understand your point about a consultant’s Twitter followers or Facebook friends. They’re two separate entities – what has a consultant’s followers got to do with their client’s? Especially if they’re starting from scratch (the client).

I’m with Mack Collier, seems you’re taking the easy route here as opposed to truly educating, both companies and individuals.

Mack Collier

“Past experience managing social media programs as an employee of a company or years of consulting experience and a robust portfolio.”

It’s 2009. Social media use itself in the corporate environment has barely been around for years, and most companies still today have little to no experience in launching social media programs. Having ‘years’ of experience will be a good core criteria for a social media consultant in possibly 2014, but not in 2009.

Also, it fascinates me that we continue to rail against living in the ‘fishbowl’ and always posting on the same topics (want a link to my new Twitter post?), but somehow writing posts slamming the idea of hiring a ‘social media consultant’, or why no one should call themselves a ‘social media expert’ never seems to go out of style, does it?

Allen Weiss

The reason for this is that the barriers to entry for a social media expert is zero. Anybody can be one. The same is true of most marketing areas (especially branding). That’s why people need to be very, very careful, as your post suggests. Thanks.


Great guidance, Dawn/J.Owyang. I’m still in digital enthusiast mode, but if I ever lose my job, I may use this list to beef up my resume. If I’ve actually ghost-written blogs for corporate clients, does that make me fit a little more into your consultant criteria or have I crossed over into social media heretic/whore?

Best to you and keep it coming.

Darryl Parker

Thank God the kool-aid can didn’t make it around to you.

As someone on the front lines of small business EVERY day, social media has a place in some businesses, but not a place in every business. Time is money folks.

Martin Edic

Great input here. As one who has done social media marketing and spent the last year talking daily to hundreds of people in agencies and brand managers, I’d add a few other caveats. The first thing a social marketer needs to understand is the keywords related to the brand and its competitors. I’m not being glib, nor am I talking about SEO. I’m agreeing with Conrad- to understand the keywords you need to know the business intimately. However I have found that most traditional marketers don’t really understand what the essential keywords are around their brand, how to set them up and how to understand what people are saying around them. Keywords are critical because they lead you to the conversations you need to listen to and understand whether they take place on your own social platforms or out there in the vast social eco-system.

Conrad Buck

Like the article says, it’s one thing to know how to use social media yourself but another to know how to build and grow a community on behalf of a client.

Unless you believe in the clients company, understand their products, understand their mantra and support their cause, it’s very difficult to get excited and instigate an effective and worthwhile social media road map.

I would really pick and choose my social media projects. If I don’t have passion about the topic or the direction, how am I going to infuse some excitement into the strategy.

Having said that, good old traditional business skills are essential to understand how a company eases itself and it’s products onto the social media space. I couldn’t imagine how a “social media” consultant can work with companies when they have no real business skills under their belt and have spent their whole short career on faebook or myspace.

Dawn Foster

When measuring the success of a social media program, you really need to look at the client’s goals and objectives for the program. There aren’t any one size fits all measurements (I wish it was that easy)!

The metrics need to measure activities that show progress toward meeting the client’s goals. If the client wants awareness for a product, web site traffic might be one of the metrics. However, a client with a small community to get feedback on a new product might want to measure the number of ideas from the community that make it into the product roadmap for the next version as one of the primary metrics.

I also suggest picking the 2-3 things that really matter as the metrics that you use to measure success. You can drill down into other analytics to fine tune the programs or catch issues, but stay focused on the metrics that really matter.

Eileen Tuttle

Social media has built a reputation as something businesses cannot ignore, but do the business managers understand why?

I’ve learned as an accredited communications professional that in many small businesses, they barely understand that communications should have measurable objectives. Add to that a general misunderstanding about what social media should be able to do as part of an integrated communications plan.

What you get is a sea of companies looking for help they don’t completely understand and are not ready to define.

Social media in business is not a game. It’s a serious application of sound communications and marketing through a new and evolving channel. Are any of us experts? A handful, maybe. But it’s so new!

Anyone serious about a career advising businesses in social media needs to be serious about providing sound marketing and communications advice first.

Eileen Tuttle, ABC, APR

Aliza Sherman

Interesting discussion and points. I’d say, however, that anyone who has consulted corporations on Internet strategies for years and has been actively engaged in social media (more recently, of course) can certainly translate the former knowledge to work with the latter.

NONE of us really know the best ways to do things with social media yet on any massive level. We all have to admit we are still experimenting and yes, sometimes with our clients’ money. As long as we are all upfront about that (and with the client), it is just the way it is.

Too early in the social mediasphere to expect all of the qualifications you list. And to tell the truth, when I read them, they remind me of the techno-jargon & agency-speak that companies should worry about. IMHO, anyone hiring a consultant should look for:
1. Portfolio/Links – demonstrating past work and capabilities – and you’ve got to like what you see.
2. References – ask for both good and bad or dig deeper to find them.
3. Strong resume/bio and reputation – a Google search can speak volumes.
4. Referrals – if you see campaigns you like, find out who did them and get connected to them.
5. Measurement/Results – if they can’t provide some kind of measurement or dismiss it as unimportant, walk away.

Martin Edic

I’d add: Get specific measurable results from prior projects. Social media is very measurable and you can track efforts over time with tools like SM2 (Disclosure: I am former employee of Techrigy). Set specific goals- leads generated, positive mentions, appointments set, web site traffic increases, etc. Take your current situation as a baseline and track progress against this.
I know because I’ve spent the last nine months doing exclusively social media marketing and if someone tells you they can’t track activity head for the hills!

Simon Mackie

@Aoife I think it depends on the campaign’s goals in the first place :) Increases in web site traffic and revenue are a good starting point. But there are other benefits which are harder to quantify: customer engagement, “buzz”, etc.

Rick Palmer

I think it’s also being able to identify a few major customers for whom you developed a community plan that 1) identified what their site was trying to accomplish, who it was targeting, and how success would be measured – and 2) were able to demonstrate that success with tangible business results.

They should also be able to discuss any adjustments to the plan that were necessary to achieve that success (because communities are living, breathing, organic things and the ride you might have initially planned might not be the ride that community members wanted).

It’s one thing to get lucky in a booming category, but it’s more important to be able to show proven experience and a track record of intentional successes :)

Having a proven and repeatable process for planning, designing, launching, and managing an online community is critical, because the ingredients for the “secret sauce” are going to be different for each social media campaign.

Jim Durbin

In fairness, it’s not only consultants who have this problems, it’s a large number of agencies who have this same problem. The way I look at it – if you’ve never taken a decent-sized check for your work, it’s too early to call yourself a consultant. If you don’t have anyone on staff with experience, you can’t sell social media solutions.

Good social media is two-fold. There are the tools, and there is the public-facing phenomenon. Marketing, PR, and internal communications departments interface with successful Social Media campaigns. Standalone content usually fails. Thus, corporate social media requires someone who can work with the company, not someone who can simply promote themselves.

I tell candidates they may get hired for their social media skills, but they get paid for their background. There are only a handful of people who can point to a social media program that has tangible results. There are a lot of people with digital and interactive media experience who can use social media to improve their results. The second group is a lot easier to hire.

And I agree with Aoife that companies have a responsibility to know what they want from social media. If all they want is a blog or a Facebook page (and they expect that to yield value), they shouldn’t be surprised when all they get is a blog and a Facebook page.

I do think there are social media experts. They aren’t expert in the knowledge of every tool. They’re experts in delivering results through integrated marketing, of which social media is a part. And I’d be happy to argue that with Scoble any day of the week.

Barbara Ling

This statement:

“Their tweets and blog posts look like they were written by a four year old.”

made me laugh. It’s so true. Even worse are the professionals who use chatspeak in their tweets; I expect adults to have a decent command of the English language.

Aoife Murray

I feel that the company itself needs to understand the value of what a social media consultant can bring (or not). If the company is completely clueless about the tools, they could find if difficult to quantify the effect a consultant could have on their business.

Gordon Rae

There was a good example a few weeks ago of someone boasting about how he had attracted thousands on Twitter, then posted “Why I’m Leaving Twitter” and a big rant which showed he just didn’t get it. Can’t remember his name. From Yorkshire. Shaved head.


I agree that social media consultant resonates with social media douchebag. You make very good points in this article, but I think you forget audacity. The social media manager should have a heavy knowledge of social media logistics, agreed. The consultant should mostly have the creativity to scratch the rust off of the marketing team.

Brian Solis

Hi Dawn, thanks for bringing up the discussion!

I believe “social media expert” is not a profession. It should be relegated to how people describe you, not how you describe yourself. The true “guru” will now only understand how to help companies, but also convince executive management to support social programs through the demonstration of tangible, business-specific metrics and ROI. They will also demonstrate a new and untenable interpretation of the law as it relates to corporate marketing/liability.


Up until 3:30 today I was doing SM on the inside of a start-up that had to let me go because the VC’s don’t see the ROI.
This is my 2nd go at doing SM on the inside & it is just….difficult.
Next plan?
Hold hands w/companies & teach them how to swim in the SM pool.
I have been doing SM for 3.5 years & have a pretty good rep here in Boise, so I should be fine.
Hopefully I can pay the mortgage until the whole “lottery” thing works out.

Sam LaRoe

This discussion reminds me of many I’ve seen applied to SEO consultants – another area, that to clients, appears to be some mix of technology and voodoo. Obviously, the effectiveness of some social media tactics can be hard to quantify, but your consultant shouldn’t be afraid to identify those gray areas and provide discrete examples of those tools than can be quantified.

Rick Palmer

This is a great list of things to look for in a legitimate “social media consultant”, and reminds me of a tweet I posted a few weeks ago:

“Just because you have a popular blog, don’t go thinking that’s enough to qualify you as a social media expert. But it’s a start :-)”

There really is a lot more to it, and your post is a good challenge for those of us who have been successful with our personal blogs, to branch out and also blog at a corporate level where possible.

Eric Pratum

Good points. I like the fact that you are, unlike a lot of people, not slamming people that would like to get into to consulting, but rather are saying that there’s really a difference between having experience with social media and having success with social media in a business setting.

Jeremiah is definitely right that there are different types of social media consultants. I see myself as more of a creative consultant, better at engaging user groups, but I’m now and then asked to consult on technical aspects (still within the field of social media) that stretch my abilities.

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