It's inevitable: when opportunity pops up on the internet, there are plenty of snake oil salesmen waiting to take advantage of it.

The field of SEO provides the perfect example. While there are plenty of reputable guns for hire and firms providing SEO services, there are also plenty of snake oil salesmen promising the moon but delivering a bag full of sand.

Unfortunately, the rise of social media has created another internet opportunity that is ripe for snake oil salesmen. And boy have they taken advantage of it. There are more social media 'experts' hawking their wares than can be counted. While many of them are reputable, competent and interested in helping their clients, many aren't. These social media snake oil salesmen are interested in one thing: separating clients from their money. Here are some tips for spotting them.

A questionable background.

While being a capable social media consultant probably doesn't require a Ph.D., there are an awful lot of social media 'experts' whose backgrounds raise questions. The reason is obvious: right now anyone can present himself as a social media 'expert' and that makes social media an appealing target for snake oil salesmen.

To reduce your risk of hiring somebody who isn't qualified to deliver what they've promised, beware of social media consultants who previously worked in a profession that didn't require them to manage budgets, deal with basic marketing concepts on an ongoing basis, etc. Chances are if they aren't well-versed in the basics that you'd expect a consultant in a general marketing/PR role to have demonstrable experience with, they're not going to be able to deliver.

More talk than work.

While there are plenty of qualified social media consultants who are regulars on the conference circuit, there are also a lot of 'experts' who don't seem to be doing anything other than speaking on the conference circuit.

That's a huge red flag and you should avoid hiring a consultant based solely on how visible he is at conferences. While there are plenty of great conferences out there, you can't assume that people who are active speakers at these events are qualified to help your business.

Missing case studies.

Social media is new enough that there aren't a whole lot of tried and true cookie-cutter approaches to success. This is why it's so important to evaluate consultants on the basis of what they've been able to do for their other clients.

The snake oil salesman is more likely to show you his well-written blog posts on the social media 'revolution' and to boast about his relationships with other social media 'mavens' than he is to show you case studies demonstrating his ability to use social media in the real world to benefit clients.

Personal social media prolificacy as proof.

Here's something a social media snake oil salesman isn't likely to tell you: handling social media for a business is a lot different than tweeting in your spare time. This is precisely why you shouldn't read too much into a prospective consultant's personal accounts on popular social media websites. Obviously, you don't want to hire somebody who demonstrates no personal use or interest in social media, but personal use and interest don't necessarily a good consultant make.

Remember: it's real easy to make a name for yourself as a social media cheerleader. Write positive articles about Twitter on your blog, for instance, and with a little bit of effort you shouldn't have any problem building a choir you can preach to on a regular basis. Using social media to build a base of loyal followers for a company, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

An unrealistic approach.

Social media, when used appropriately in a coherent fashion alongside more traditional marketing and PR channels, has the potential to be of great benefit to many businesses. But that doesn't mean that social media is a panacea or the end all and be all of marketing in the digital age.

An 'expert' who doesn't discuss the risks and challenges of social media probably isn't an expert. And anyone who brushes aside the notion that social media needs to be a part of a larger strategy or pushes for social media to be your primary strategy is probably pulling a fast one on you.

A lack of professionalism.

It should go without saying, but a consultant who doesn't operate in a professional manner is to be avoided at all costs. Social media may be on the cutting edge but a social media consultant who doesn't do the basics (eg. detail the terms of engagement and specify tangible deliverables, milestones and timeframes, etc.) is probably conning you.

Scare tactics and insults.

Good consultants know that their job is to help clients make better decisions and assist them in building stronger businesses. These are positive undertakings. A social media snake oil salesman, on the other hand, will often scare you into making decisions (eg. "if you don't do social media you're going to go the way of the dinosaurs") or insult you ("any company that isn't on Twitter just doesn't get it").

Don't fall for it; a good consultant knows how to demonstrate the value of doing something without being negative.

A big bill and little visible ROI.

I've done consulting for the past decade so I'm the last person to suggest cutting a consultant's throat when it comes to compensation. That said, labeling yourself a 'consultant' doesn't mean that you're providing services worth thousands of dollars a day -- something many amateur consultants forget. In the case of social media, I think it's wise to cast a wary eye on any consultant charging hefty fees when the justification is lacking.

First, many social media consultants aren't really providing the type of high-value services that other types of consultants are paid well for; many are simply going through the motions setting up accounts on popular social media websites with no strategic overlay whatsoever. Placing an accurate value on the tasks being performed is always important.

Second, social media may be important to your business but if somebody can't relate what they're doing to your bottom line, opening your wallet wide probably doesn't make sense. Even though social media is 'new', anybody who is charging an arm and a leg for their services should be able to show you how you're going to eventually get your limbs back.

Photo credit: ☞Uh … Bob☜ via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 8 July, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (13)

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Not strictly a comment on the ariticle, but what is with the constant animation of tweets down the right hand side of the page?

So annoying. Too fast to read, not that any are worth reading, they seem totally unrelated to the article and MEGA distracting. Urgh. It's like the days of the marquee tag all over again, except worse.

about 9 years ago

Ben LaMothe

Ben LaMothe, Web & Social Media Strategist at Renaissance Creative

Patricio, this is a great post. I was thinking of writing on this for Econsultancy, but you beat me to it. For reference, here's another great post that I was going to reference on the same subject. It's by the Chief Executive Officer of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

about 9 years ago

Gaurav Gurbaxani

Gaurav Gurbaxani, CEO at Pragmites Consulting

Another tell tale sign of a snake oil salesman is that you have a fixed fee for Social Media. That certainly cannot be the case. 

The consultant must first understand what your end objectives really are, then sit back and strategize the different platforms which may be benefical, come up with the approach and then quote a price.

I really like this article! It helps us understand how to outline our proposals in a better manner.

about 9 years ago


Bryan Smith

Great post, thanks.  Social media "consultants" are the bane of my life! If I get one more of them trying to sell me "facebook for the enterprise" or a "unique way of using video to engage stakeholders" I think I'm going to cry.

The one thing I'd also add, is watch the ROI calculations like a hawk. There's a whole load of completely unrealistic and unachievable returns that people talk about, and very little of it stands up to analysis. Don't be afraid to challenge - remember ROI may not be just increased sales, it may be reduced cost; or increased speed to market.

about 9 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Partner, PA Consulting Group at Econsultancy Guest Access TRAININGSmall Business Multi-user

Patricio, excellent post. Results and cases studies are key for seeing the proof in the pudding; as well as the willingness to link commercials into performance targets. Also, I'd be very wary of any "Social Media" experts who provide this as an isolated area of expertise. Social media, by its definition is people socialising online, conversations, idea sharing etc. For any success to be realised in this are it is essential for it to be fully integrated with other engagement channels including offline.

The challenge I have is helping businesses to identify the "snake oil salesmen". It is very easy for an organisation wishing to consider social media as part of their communication mix to be bamboozled by some smooth talking individual....most probably coming out of Brighton!! (Oops! Did I just say that out loud?!)

How about econsultancy running a bit of an assessment of the agencies and individuals claiming to operate within this space? That would help businesses with finding the "right" consultant/agency.

about 9 years ago


Ed Stivala

Patricio, not much to add really but did want to compliment you on the post. It sums up the problem perfectly. For me the biggest "give away" is the complete lack of reality that these buffoons (sorry Snake Oil Salemen) put forward. Leading naive clients into believing that social media somehow represents an inexpensive and immediate fix to all their marketing / communications woes. A replacement for every other form of marketing. 

My position is very simple; if you were not competent at marketing *before* then absolutely nothing has changed! 

As you rightly point out, without an overarching comms strategy then there is generally little point in fiddling about with social media. Great fun for personal use as a "user" but that is totally different to utilizing it as a marketing tool. 

My real pet hate are the "SEO Guru's" (many of course have now retrained to be global social media strategists). I recently wrote what I hope was a humorous post which I would like to share - - entitled "SEO Virus, how to spot the symptoms and what to do if you become infected". Hopefully entertain a few people whilst also getting the message across!

about 9 years ago


M Edwards

I agree with the lost comment, pretty much in its entirity.  I think too many think SEO and social marketing are easy, quick and cheap.  Not true.

about 9 years ago


Endaf Kerfoot

Great piece Patricio - I have heard tell of one particular case where a start-up in the tech space got pretty much ripped off for one such "consultant". The interesting thing is, in hearing the story, how many alarm bells each of your points should have raised. In the end, it was a lack of professionalism that swung the decision not to throw good money after bad and the decision was made to terminate the engagement, but there were early indicators on each of these. Well, a fool and his money and all that - great read!

about 9 years ago


Axel Schultze

Not sure I even have the right to comment - as per the above definition I wouldn't stand the test.

- I don't have the luxery to present any case studies as all projects I was involved in are under non disclosure.

- I also stated that companies ignoring social media run the risk to be left behind (scare tactics).

- And yes, I charge a lot (big bills).

I've seen a lot of lists recently telling you what to watch out for, who not to hire. I decided to actually create a list what to look for and what questions to ask:

But most importantly - excuse my language: Get your fricken bud in the social media driver seat yourself and learn what is going on.

ANY consultant who is promising to do the job for you has no clue. How on earth can you get social if you "delegate" your social engagement to somebody else.


Social Media Academy

about 9 years ago


susan rice-lincoln


I conducted a little exercise last week.  I surveyed dozens of the blogs or websites of many of social media'brightest lights.  And I was dumfounded by the results.  Over 80% of them were selling their expertise in the vaguest of ways--through their books, speaking engagements and 'consulting'.  As a company looking for help, I would find this uncleaer approach  most unsatisfactory.  The irony is that , despite all the thousands of social media voices out there, you can name on one hand those in the profession who offer solid methodolgoies and processes which will constructively help companies tackle the social media challenge.  The vast majority of the experts have no such methodologies.  They are not strategic. They do not understand what social media is not just a marketing tool but can be used throughout a company from human resources to sales to logistics.  Everyone complains abut there being too many social media experts.  I would argue that those who really understand social media and can tangibly help a company learn how to use social media are few and far between.

about 9 years ago


Jeffrey Summers

Sorry for coming to the party late Patricio but I just came across your post while reviewing an article on SM ROI. Agree 100% with you but I totally disagree with the comment by Gaurav Gurbaxani.

A flat fee is the surest sign of a professional. Hourly fees are 100% unethical and the sure sign of an amateur. If you can't assign a value to your outputs you shouldn't be consulting to begin with.

over 8 years ago



This post, its comments and others like it were the inspiration for starting the UK Twankers Awards 2010 ( ). So many "new" agencies and consultants have jumped on the bandwagon; other well established agencies have "morphed" into a social media consultancy; the vast majority of whom have wasted a lot of other people's time, effort and money. If you've an opinion of who these are and want to have your say, please take a look and cast your vote and add your comments. This will help others to be made aware of who the shysters are, and enable them not to be caught out.

over 8 years ago


Cameron Toth

Great post.  I am taking a swing at the Social Media Consultancy biz and this article is really very helpful.  I don't have a strict marketing background but I have dealt with budgets, events, and marketing projects for 13 years.  Now through a whole lot of personal and social research I have put my company together with a holistic approach that empowers my clients to basically do the job themselves or at least be informed enough to cast the right employees for the job.

Thank you for this very intuitive article!

over 8 years ago

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