Weeding Through Social Media Consultants

originally posted on Concept Hub

My friend Jim Stroud recently sent me a blog post, 12 Things That Suck About Social Media Consulting.

The first time I read through it I found myself thinking “yep, yep, yep.”

The second time I read through it I realized that many of the things on the list were traps I ALMOST fell in when I was learning to be a social media consultant, but through my past experiences, knowledge of business, and with the help of some great coaches, I have been able to avoid almost all of the traps, which include:

The pace can be overwhelming. Your social media knowledge, your connections, and your published content all quickly become obsolete – and constantly need upgrading. If you get slightly unplugged for even a month or two, by accident or by choice, you’ll have missed out on some fairly major developments… and you’ll have to scramble to keep up.

This is perhaps the easiest trap to fall in. You think you are in some sort of race. The best way to avoid this is to focus on a high-level understanding of what is possible, design a solution for your client and then select the right tools and the right communities to fit your client’s needs. You have to be well-versed in social media, but more importantly you have to be well-versed in the best way to meet you client’s objectives.

Social media friendships can be demanding. The larger you grow your network and the more online presence you have, the more well-meaning people will randomly request and demand things of you. You’re hit with more e-mails, more interview requests, more offers to get together pick your brain for the price of a coffee, more stories to vote on, more mindless chit chat to respond to – or else people will feel snubbed.

I learned to avoid this trap from my executive level clients. They don’t want more “friends”  they want to do good business. Your business time needs to be spent on business objectives, your friendship time on friendship, and yes occasionally the two will cross-over, but keep in mind what you are doing and why you are doing it. It is not good business to give away something for nothing. Sharing stories, tips, and tricks is wonderful. It is what makes business go around, but make sure it is a mutually beneficial exchange.

Success is ephemeral. You can be rocking the socks off of the social media world and cranking out the content and new connections like an Uzi – but the second you take your finger off the mouse trigger, people will forget about you pretty quickly. They’re all after the new guy, the new site and the new trend.

If you are a consultant your activities should not be all about you, but about the people who are paying you. I personally do not believe in the co-dependent model of business either. I focus on empowering my clients to rock their own world, and if done right, I can take my finger off the mouse trigger.

It’s very competitive and there’s no barrier to entry. Every man, woman, and child with a Facebook account is now a social media consultant. No matter how much time and effort you put into researching your technique, content and presentations – you will still be competing for gigs against the hot girl with 6 months experience or the “Senior Social Media Manager” at some big company with 39 friends. Even if you’re honest and straightforward about the extent of your knowledge (or lack thereof), you’ll still have to compete with sales hustlers and shameless self-promoters who might not be.

This is why social media consulting should not be about the latest tools or latest trends, but about meeting business objectives. Social media is also not an add-on, but an evolution of business process and communications. If you keep that in mind and focus on staying up-to-date on making your clients more efficient, then the REAL competitive landscape shrinks a bit.

It requires lots of unpaid overtime. Social media is really fun and glamorous when it’s just for kicks, but it can to feel a lot different when you’re “working it” on the other side of the bar. In addition to spending 30 to 40 hours a week on profit-producing business development and client contract tasks – I usually spend an additional 30 to 40 hours writing content, managing my blog and responding to comments, reading RSS feeds and commenting, building accounts, helping with my friends / connections, following links on Twitter. When you’re feeling it, it’s still fun, but when you’re not – it can feel like a grueling overtime burden that eats into your nights, weekends and your business workday.

I can not get away from this one, it is what it is. ANY new process and every small business requires lots of unpaid overtime. That is why it is so important to manage your time well.

Some people expect you to know everything. No matter how intensely you study and practice your social media skills, clients will need help or guidance in areas that you just don’t know anything about. If you are honest about what you don’t know – some clients will think less of you, and will look for an full-service “agency” who claims to know about “everything.”

I definitely fell down this rabbit hole more than once. The trick is simple sales 101. What do they NEED you to know, why do they need you to know that and what outcome is expected? Answer questions with questions and then propose how you will help them meet their core objectives, whether it is through research or partnering with someone who has the necessary industry experience.

Egotism is rampant. Independent social media consulting requires that you build up a strong “personal brand” – or professional superego. The emphasis on status, self-promotion and cult-of-personality brings out the ‘worst’ and most self-serving parts of some people. I’ve met some snobs, hob nobs, and megalomaniacs who would probably feel more at home at coke parties, socialite society balls, or on American Idol – had they not discovered social media.

Yep! But at the end of the day clients are paying for results. Make that your core focus!

Social media is unpredictable. No matter how good of advice you give, or how much time you put into content or a campaign – sometimes it just doesn’t catch on. This can leave you biting your nails and leave the client doubting your skills. A designer can guarantee they will deliver 3 design proofs within 30 days – but a social media consultant CANNOT guarantee even the best content or ideas will be well received by the community. The volatile nature and fickleness of the community cause a lot of stress and pressure to work overtime when something doesn’t “catch on.”

And again, this is why social media is an evolution of business process, not a one off campaign or the cherry on top of everything else a company is doing.

The pressure to “sell out” is intense. At the low end, there’s tons of cool companies and people who need help – with $500 budgets. But the ones willing to pay good money to consultants are usually huge corporations. Sometimes, but not always, they have uncool products and services that aren’t a natural fit for social media – but they’re hungry for a way to ‘leverage the new media trends for profit.’ Consultants need to get paid – and it can cause both parties to ‘fall in love’ based on incompatible needs – and end up in awkward, uncomfortable professional relationships.

For me the passion comes from empowering people. You can give me the most “uncool” company, but tell me that I can help get the teams to collaborate and innovate and I am THERE! Tell me that I can take a company and improve their customer service through social media tools and I will think that is cool. It really depends on your passion, and in social media if your are not passionate, you will find yourself in “awkward, uncomfortable professional relationships.”

The pressure to “have no life” is relentless. Working non-stop through evenings, weekends, holidays and the wee twilight hours are all fair game – if you want to even try to keep up with the rockstars on Twitter and the digerati on Digg. If you are determined to keep your work contained within a normal workday or workweek – you may find yourself at a huge competitive disadvantage because many of your peers are willing work much, much more.

Again, ANY new process and every small business suffers from this trap. The answer I have found is to set aside times that are sacred for you, your friends and your family.

Clients want results, not strategy. In theory, you can just offer people “consulting” or advice. But to keep clients paying each month, they usually have to see successful results. This often can’t be outsourced or whipped up – it often requires the client’s full, active participation and willingness to change their business culture. Many of them aren’t willing to actually follow the only strategy (involvement and active participation) that will likely provide them with the results they want. Catch-22.

This is very true and I do struggle with this. I have revamped my business model a few times to overcome this. I have created lots of self-paced training modules to help with guiding the client through the strategy. Also in the initial proposal I lay out what I will do and what I need from the client to do what I do. And I specifically ask to have multiple meetings with the people who are most against or skeptical about social media. You cannot just rely on your evangelist, you have to win over your skeptics too. Again, you have to be a good salesperson, more so than a great social media consultant.

You can never stop hustling. No matter what level you make it too, you can never kick back and coast along – earning passive income as a consultant. If you’re not hustling and making enough noise that people don’t forget about you – you’re not getting paid and you’re sinking. If you’re a natural-born power networker this can be exciting – but it can quickly get fatiguing for some personality types.

And this is different from other great careers in what way?

The good news is this is hard. It is very hard. Therefore  the people who were not cut out for this new career will burn out quickly.