Marketing: Social media's hidden bubble

Dozens of opportunistic consultants have spent the past few years shopping their skills in "social media consulting." Now, with a recession tightening up the industry, it's reached a saturation point.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

As the recession rapidly sucks the momentum out of Web 2.0's heyday, with it may go one of the era's most defining terms: the job title "social media expert."

For the past few years, people who identify with that title--as well as social media consultants, social media strategists, and social media marketers, depending on what they want to call it--have been unavoidable in the Web 2.0 social scene. You'd meet them at the endless litany of industry cocktail parties, at Tech Meetup events on both coasts, and at the likes of the Web 2.0 Expo. A search for "social media expert" on business networking site LinkedIn yields 175 results. "Social media consultant" yields nearly 400, and "social media strategist" about 300.

These are the folks who work with client companies, many of whom didn't have much of an existing Web presence, to school them in how everything from Facebook apps to Digg badges to Twitter accounts can improve their marketing strategies. And as talk of social platforms and microblogging began to dominate the tech press, there certainly was demand.

social media

"They just come running in screaming, 'I need a Facebook page, I need a blog, I need Twitter!' without thinking about what (the company wants) to accomplish as a business and what's unique about these tools," said Laura Fitton of Boston-based Pistachio Consulting. A former marketing professional, Fitton began consulting on Twitter and other social-media tools when friends pointed out she was already giving advice about it for free and ought to think about charging.

Advertising and marketing agencies, not to mention public relations firms, put out job searches for in-house social media gurus, but this was one job description where you didn't even need an employer--just a lot of followers on Twitter. Industry cocktail parties on both coasts were packed full of avid networkers with pockets full of business cards ripe for distribution. In other words, if you could talk enough about monetization, conversational marketing, social capital, and viral distribution in order to land that first client, you were all set.

The problem? Much like the digital marketing craze that briefly swirled up around virtual world Second Life, which led to a nasty, well-publicized backlash, there was plenty of opportunism and bad advice.

"How you find expertise is a big problem," Fitton said. "You could go to a very established advertising or PR agency, and if they don't have that expertise they're going to say as much crap as a carpetbagger who's trying to be a 'social media expert.'"

One digital-strategies czar at a small media company told CNET News that a while back, before she was brought on board, her employer had enlisted a freelance "social media expert" to give the company a presence on Web 2.0's most buzzworthy communities. It was a disaster, she said. The consultant charged $200 an hour for what was effectively a bunch of Facebook fan pages and a Twitter account that most full-time staff wasn't particularly sure how to use. The final bill tallied almost $40,000.

"You could go to a very established advertising or PR agency, and if they don't have that expertise they're going to say as much crap as a carpetbagger who's trying to be a 'social media expert.'"
--Laura Fitton, Pistachio Consulting

Another marketer related that she once met with a media property in the health sector to discuss how it could have a presence on social-networking sites. The potential client was skeptical, since its marketing team had previously met with a social-media consultant who suggested the best strategy would be to create a Facebook app that let members give their friends virtual venereal diseases. The client, it seems, was left a bit horrified.

Jeff Carvalho, a consultant who specializes in working with street fashion brands and other youth-oriented companies, argues that the "social media expert" is not going to go away, but the ones who make it are going to be those who do the job right. "I'm more or less playing watchdog over the guy that (the company has) hired," he said. The role of a social media consultant, he said, should be to school the brand's community relations types in the likes of Twitter and YouTube, and then leave the ongoing strategy to the people who know the most about the company and its field.

"You need to find somebody (who) believes in the product, maybe somebody that's an evangelist, and really help that person get the job done online," Carvalho said. "You can't expect a person (who) knows the tools to also be able to genuinely go into a community and ignite people to start talking."

Research firm Gartner estimated last fall that a full half of companies' "social media campaigns" will be unsuccessful, pouring some cold water on the hype surrounding buzzwords like "app-vertising" and "engagement ads." The problem, analyst Adam Sarner said at the time, is that too many companies fail to keep the interests of the community in mind.

And even would-be successes are at the mercy of social-media sites, too. Fast-food chain Burger King got plenty of buzz for a "Whopper Sacrifice" app on Facebook that jokingly encouraged members to delete people from their friends lists in order to receive a coupon for a free hamburger, only to see the application pulled by Facebook, citing that it "ran counter to user privacy by notifying people when a user removes a friend."

"A lot of them will flop," Laura Fitton said in agreement. But "they say fully half of advertising money is wasted, we just don't know which half. The beauty of social media is that we know exactly which half." Not only do we know which half, but when a social media campaign goes the "epic fail" route, it's plastered all over the Web. The same Web 2.0 tools that marketers are so easy to use--Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums--can be turned against them in an instant when the community, or at least loquacious bloggers, decide to start ranting.

Given the financial climate, too, companies and brands are more likely to pursue a "handle with care" strategy rather than haphazardly putting themselves on Twitter and Facebook--or hiring someone to perform that task for them. There is, at this point, a blogosphere's worth of free advice and examples on what worked and what didn't. They can read about Dell's success offering promotional deals on Twitter, and the unpleasant results when environmental activists turned a video-remixing contest for the Chevy Tahoe into an anti-SUV public service announcement engine.

"I think things do need to fail because that's how we learn," Fitton said. And not only will many of these marketing campaigns fail, but so will a big chunk of the opportunistic consultants who've seized the chance to mint themselves into experts. For those who have established a solid reputation, a shakeup isn't necessarily bad.

"When the first Web bubble happened," Fitton mused, referring to how tough times can put a welcome damper on an industry gold rush, "we (marketers) kind of breathed a sigh of relief."