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We all know about social media 'gurus': the hired guns with thin track records who claim that they know all of the secrets to social media success and can boost your business on Facebook and Twitter for a sum.

In most cases, the social media 'guru' is thought of as an opportunistic type who overpromises and underdelivers. But a friend in the United States who works as a strategic marketing consultant relayed a story to me that hints there may be social media gurus who are really social media 'scammers.'

The story: my friend was brought in to assist a medium-sized business evaluate its marketing strategy. As part of this, he learned that six months before, the company's owners hired a social media consultant to help the company build a social media presence. This included creating a Twitter and Facebook account, and setting up a company blog.

In one of the early conversations with the company's owners, they expressed to my friend how excited they were about the company's burgeoning social media presence. Although they couldn't tell him how many sales the social media efforts had produced, they noted that the company blog was receiving over ten thousand monthly "hits" and that the company's Twitter account had several thousand followers.

At first, my friend says he didn't think much of the owner's comments, but as his engagement progressed and he actually took a look at the company's blog and Twitter account, he started to have some concerns. What he noticed: a lot of "suspicious" followers, most of which looked more like spam accounts than real people, and a lot of strange traffic sources and patterns in the company's Google Analytics account. The Twitter followers (and the rate at which the follower count had been growing) and the traffic didn't fit with the nature of the company, or its location.

After a little more digging, my friend came to a disturbing conclusion: the social media 'expert' his client had hired had been buying Twitter followers and traffic to make it look like he was actually succeeding in helping the company develop an effective social media presence. For six months, it worked. The owners, pleased with the raw numbers, kept the scammer on retainer. Until my friend brought it to their attention that something wasn't right. After further investigation of their own and a conversation with the accused, the owners came to the same conclusion: they had been duped.

Needless to say, my friend's story was of great interest to me, and while there's certainly no evidence that such behaviour is widespread, one has to believe that this isn't the first time something like this has happened. After all, there are few barriers to running such a scheme. Simply target owners of small to mid-sized businesses who aren't technically savvy, convince them that social media is the future and crucial to their business, and spend a modest amount of money buying Twitter followers and traffic to keep them believing that your non-existent 'expertise' is doing something wonderful.

Unfortunately, there's little that can be done to prevent individuals from acting in such a fashion. But my friend's story does highlight a few key points:

  • You always need to be careful about who you hire. This is especially true when it comes to freelancers. In the realm of social media, there seems to be less hesitancy on the part of business owners to hire individuals who have thin resumes and track records. While most of us would never hire, for instance, a web designer without seeing some samples of previous work, lines like "this is all really, really new" or "I have 5,000 friends on Facebook" seem to do the trick for some business owners when it comes to social media.
  • Metrics aren't meaningful without context and analysis. In the case of my friend's client, nobody was looking to see where "hits" (read: visitors) were coming from, or how those visitors were actually engaging with content on the company blog. Twitter followers? An end-all and be-all number that might as well have been pulled out of thin air. The takeaway: metrics don't matter if you don't know what they mean and are unable to relate them to your business and its goals.

Hopefully, my friend's story is an anomaly, but the reality is that there are always unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck, and certain fields seem to lure these kinds of individuals in.

The hype around social media has certainly made it a juicy target and business owners should be particularly vigilant and demanding when it comes to hiring someone to handle their social media presence.

Photo credit: Don Hankins via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 July, 2010 by Patricio Robles

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

2378 more posts from this author

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Lola

What a pity is to read this! I'm barely trained in this field and It's devastating to hear how people tarnish the image of real proffesionals. The collateral damages are always the worst for people who work honestly, how can we stop the scammers? Just being more who do theirs jobs well and being honest with their clients, and make them to get involved in theirs job.

almost 6 years ago

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Lisa Riemers

This raises a really valid point about setting KPIs for web and social media "success".

I've expressed my concerns about aspects of my performance being measured on "increase in number of followers/hits/traffic" to our sites. Like the above article suggests, if that's all that is really important to report back on, I could do nothing all year, and pull some black hat techniques out of the bag pre-bonus time to ensure everybody is happy.

It's something still up for negotiation, although I'm struggling to actually recommend a measurable (and achieveable) alternative!

almost 6 years ago

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Gerry

Twitter is a bizarre entity - whilst some accounts with thousands of followers are blowing wind to other robots accounts, all following each other with no one listening - other accounts (econsultancy is a good example) listens, responds and listened to). 

Everyday I get followed by accounts which just shout and don't listen, but they follow tens of thousands of people who are undoubtedly the same... There appears to be little correlation between volume of 'followers' and quality of traffic, it is a shame that engagement (from a Twitter POV) isn't really quantifiable.  

almost 6 years ago

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Claire Chapman

Interesting post.  Due diligence at employment is always important, and I think more so in what is a new field for many people.  At one of the conferences I went to I was struck by one of the speakers specifically saying that their goal wasn't a high number of Twitter followers, but ones which were important to them and their field.  This is where research and using monitoring tools can really make a difference. It is also as you say useful to look at exactly how social media recruits you are considering hiring are using social media themselves, and where they show up online.  If they don't or you see something you are uncomfortable with, it may throw up questions in your mind about the fit with your goals - true for both freelance and hired employees.

almost 6 years ago

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Mike McGrail, Owner, writer and speaker at The Social Penguin Blog at The Social Penguin Blog

Great read. This is something I have been writing about over the past week over at The Social Penguin. Too many people branding themselves experts and gurus and sadly people falling for it! If you want to hear my thoughts have a read here - http://bit.ly/cqVkK9

almost 6 years ago

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Brian

It is a shame that these individuals have given Social Media Companies a bad name. I think the most important thing to take from your post is to create clear metrics. Tie each campaign to metrics that have value and can be tracked. Quality of traffic and followers is more important then quantity.

almost 6 years ago

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Mike P

Patricio, You bring up an important point here, and I have a similar post drafted that I will post either today or tomorrow. But the point is concerning the management of these accounts. It is not just about having a presence and friending, liking and following everyone who follows you. You wonder why some many people complain about "noise", and weeding through it. Granted it is a legit concern, but you do not have to follow. like or friend everyone just because they do it to you. Managing these accounts and reviewing "if" you should friend, like, or follow others is a key component. Now also these self-appointed Guru's, Ninja's, Mavens.....whatever the new buzz word is are out there, and while it may be difficult to weed through the bad ones, it is very important to do your research and make sure that you are not being "taken" like in the above situation. Mike P @mikepascucci

almost 6 years ago

Richard Turrell

Richard Turrell, Group Digital Marketing Manager at The FiveTen Group

I think this post sums up the issues perfectly, there will always be unscrupulous types lurking in the shadows. However as an industry it is our responsibility to continue to raise awareness just like this blog post is doing and as we did with SEO gurus and email Guru’s before that.

As has already been touched upon the key is educating people that social media is about so much more than vanity figures and that setting a defined strategy that fits alongside the company’s main objectives is a necessity. If the client has done their homework then they will demand additional SLA’s such as increased customer interaction or geographical penetration, these are the sorts of phrases that will see any unscrupulous gurus pack their bags and find an easier target to work for.

Following on from Mike McGrails’ & Mike P's comments you both raise a very good discussion point. If someone is willing to employ gurus without requesting actual case studies and references then in my book they are as guilty as the guru. I cannot believe these same employers would hire a builder that cannot give them a reference so why should Social Media be any different? The obvious reason is that gurus will seduce them by claiming to be able to return instant results and quick ROI, something that a genuine social media professional is highly unlikely to do!!

almost 6 years ago

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40deuce

Thanks for sharing that story Patricio.

I've always been wary of how many people just showed up one day and claimed to be a social media guru, but have never heard a story like this.

I'm going to pass this along because I think a lot of companies would be interested in hearing it so that they can protect themselves in the future.

Cheers,

Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

almost 6 years ago

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ChristieLea

The worst part is these charlatans inflate the expectations of clients to ridiculous levels. I had a client who had been promised by a "Guru" that he could get them a million Facebook Fans in one month. They were terribly disappointed when they "only" got a thousand in four weeks, even with metrics that proved they were getting a fantastic ROI. I'll be sharing this with my colleagues for sure!

almost 6 years ago

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terry Van horne

This isn't new it happens to every Interwebs marketing channel. Reputation always becomes an issue because there are no standards for service or the services themselves. Moreso in the case of SM which is still struggling with "real KPI and metrics". Some nip in the bud like affiliate marketing vendors others like SEO will be the online equivalent of the used car salesman in the real world.

almost 6 years ago

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Justin Results French

This kind of practice really gives us Social Media Strategists who truly produce a steeper climb BUT rightfully so, its all about the TRSUT, INTEGRITY, & Results you have delivered for your clients.  Measurement is CRUCIAL and case studies that show ROI & #'s speak for themselves.  We have an arsenal of case studies, testimonials & are always ready for anyone who comes at us J  great write up Patricio.  

Cheers, 

Justin

almost 6 years ago

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Jo-Anne Stayner Fresh PR

I come across this fear a lot (especially recently) when dealing with new clients. It is important to be weary of those that come into your office and make promises that social media will change your business overnight. It's really hard work that requires commitment, strategy and metrics. Your social media strategy should map back to your overall business goals, and your metrics should support that in order to be considered a success. It's not just about numbers - it's about engaging, having a conversation, and mapping back to what you define as success for your organization (sales, employees, customer satisfaction, etc.).

almost 6 years ago

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Rob Stanton

Interesting read. We talked to a social media ninga who had close to sixty thousand followers. His claim to fame was based on the fact that he pretty much spent his entire waking hours sending out Tweets. I spent a day watching his Twitter stream and looking into his background. We discovered he actually had very little real marketing experience other then posting a few really horrid videos to YouTube. We ended up hiring a digital marketing agency that was able to show us true integration of social media with other marketing programs. Lesson to be learned....lots of followers is a ridiculous metric in determining a person or a firm's capabilities.

almost 6 years ago

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Alexandra Gebhardt

This is a great article! People need to hear this again and again. Although I do make a pretty good living at helping companies with their social media strategy and plans, I do not feel comfortable being called a guru. My title is Chief Social Strategist (i do that mainly for SEO, lol) I prefer to be known as a marketing professional who is knowledgeable in traditional and new media tools and practices. I have been called in on several occasions to improve a company's position and direction with social media and have had to "clean up" the mess made by some of these charlatans. Many of whom were originally web development or SEO firms. It's not pretty, in fact it can take much longer to remove the SPAM following and reconnect to "real", potential client targets than it took for these bozo's to setup their "automated twitter followers" or any other kind of snake oil they applied to prove value to the companies who hired them. If you're not sure about who to hire or what to ask for, feel free to connect to me via LinkedIn and I'll do my best to assist. These folks give us all a really bad name :(.

almost 6 years ago

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Alex

Very interesting article as in all types of business areana's there always those that speak the talk but don't walk the walk.

I beleive first and foremost is creating the game plan; what is it a client needs, wants and expects from any campaign be it SEO, SEM or Social Media Networking.

Once this has been established you can now create the deliverables.

The 3 things anybody worth their salt should be able to deliver is ....

1.) Raise the revenue

2.) Lower the costs

3.) Increase customer satisfaction

If you can't produce any of the three you could be waisting your time.

almost 6 years ago

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Jerry

Over promising is terrible. I focus on training people how to use the tools available. It's the 'teach a man to fish' philosophy. 

I don't think you can ever be an expert in this field because of how fast things change. I don't know it all and will never claim to.

Want a guarantee about followers or like's? Then your buying the wrong thing.

We need to be teaching people to build relationships and the results will follow.

almost 6 years ago

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Susi Oneill, director at digital consultant

Sorry Econsultancy, I think this article is already a bit outdated.  These kind of Snake Oil consultants have already been pushed out of the water by professional marketers and strategists; there are no more social media charlatans than there are bad web developers, bad web marketers or bad designers.   Let those of us who are helping clients navigate the landscape strategically do a good job and say good riddance to them.

There are plenty of tools to measure engagement more than just followers - Tweet Level is just one that is a useful benchmark.  Measuring proper sales or lead targets back to a web presence are easy to track through analytics. 

almost 6 years ago

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Andy Smalley

As a newbie entering into the marketplace, I'm finding (or strategizing) how I can be different from all the wannabe's. Shoot, as it stands right now, I'm a wannabe myself, but want to do it right. The obvious answer would be to focus on the end results - money in the till as you pointed out. But, the manifestation of what's good & bad, what's legit and what's not doesn't occur until the end. A little problem for someone just starting with very little success stories. Because I'm new, I'm going to change the common and perceived value proposition (hoping that it works), and create the demand. From what I've seen and learned about social media, much can be gained by listening. I plan on showcasing my social worth by presenting what I've heard about a clients business, a clients competition, a clients industry, and then create ideas and learn from best practices in creating a social media strategy. Then we've got a benchmark to start from as opposed to the number of followers or friends. Of course I'll charge a nominal fee for that, but the client will have a clear direction, and if I've done my job right, I'll have a client that wants to further work with me. Not sure if this strategy will work, but to me, that's where I can change the perceived value, be viewed as a partner, and not a social media wannabe. What do you think? Am I on the right track, or am I missing something?

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Susi,

If my friend's story is any indication, it's pretty clear that scammers haven't been entirely "pushed out of the water by professional marketers and strategists." A lot of the people I see promoting themselves as social media consultants are not "professional marketers and strategists" in that they have no prior professional marketing or agency experience. And yes, many of them do have clients. Heck, some are probably doing better financially than the people who do have some relevant professional experience.

Now I'm certainly not saying that there's an epidemic of the behavior I described in this post. There's no way to know. But you overlook a key point when you try to dismiss that there's even a problem because there are bad web developers, bad web desginers, etc. too.

The problem with marketing scammers is that the client can be duped a lot easier, and for a lot longer. It's much easier to pay for Twitter followers and traffic than to try to win a web development gig and string the client along, getting milestone payments when you don't meet milestones, etc. If you hire a developer to build a website, for instance, you're going to know pretty quickly if the person is out of their league because there's a tangible deliverable (a functioning website) and there are usually deadlines.

Furthermore, I believe there's generally a lot more due diligence done when hiring a developers and designers. In my experience, clients are far more likely to ask for portfolios and references. For these reasons, it's far more difficult to succeed as a scam web developer than a scam social media expert, which is why you'll probably see far more scammers interested in social media than web development.

almost 6 years ago

Tommy Twanker

Tommy Twanker, Founder at Twankers

This makes my blood boil!!! I can't believe there are still so many scammers out there, but it sound like they are, which probably explains all the empty cider cans still spread all over Brighton beach. Quantitative metrics are very misleading and need to be put into context with qualitative ones. The Pied Piper had thousands of followers, but I wouldn't listen to any of them. However, I would listen to someone who can engage people via the social web....oh, and I do like the sound of my own voice. My day rate: 3 square meals, couple of pints of Goblin's Plums and a clean pair of underpants. As soon as any social media guru starts to say things like "I can get you more followers" the alarm bells should start ringing.

almost 6 years ago

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Lance Concannon

The snake oil merchants have not been pushed out, you can still see them operating everywhere. 

The best way for companies to avoid getting burned is to actually do some research - check references, look closely at the consultant's previous work and ask a lot of questions. 

>>> As soon as any social media guru starts to say things like "I can get you more followers" the alarm bells should start ringing

This is sound advice. 

almost 6 years ago

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steve olenski

Thanks for sharing this Patricio... As you will see (link below), I am with you... and like Tommy Twanker (what is that, Dutch Irish? Wanker)... This makes my blood boil, too! http://thesteveozone.blogspot.com/2010/07/social-snake-oil-still-readily.html

almost 6 years ago

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leon hardaway

Im glad to see this sight about scammers,people be trying to scam me every day.Ijust laugh it off,It has become so routing.But truly this is no laughing matter.I feel sorry for those on a fix income.And for people who lose all there life savings. I just pray that the law can keep up these slamming crooks,and give them the time they desrve.

over 5 years ago

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Aimey Cibo

That is true as one my friend has been mislead recently by this company.
There no smoke without fire so don't trust this company: CONTENT MEDIA GURU...

over 3 years ago

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