It’s a tough time to be a ‘social media guru‘. Despite the rise of social media in general, there’s a lot of skepticism when it comes to high-paid consultants who claim to have mastered it. From where I sit, that skepticism only seems to grow by the day.

That skepticism is reflected well in an amusing NSFW animation called ‘The Social Media Guru‘, which has racked up over 100,000 views on YouTube since being posted at the end of September. It portrays a ‘social media guru‘ as a snake oil salesman who claims to be more skilled than he is and who preys on foolish small businesses.

As you might expect, the responses to ‘The Social Media Guru‘ have been mixed. Depending on how you earn your living, it’s either “truthful” or a source of frustration. In my opinion, ‘The Social Media Guru‘ has taken some of the inconvenient truths about the cottage industry that has built up around social media and exaggerated them a bit to create a humorous and insightful piece of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that.

But for those who count on social media to pay the bills, I think ‘The Social Media Guru‘ is a sort of call to action, as suggested by ZDNet’s Jennifer Leggio. Social media isn’t going anywhere but as the hype gives way to reality, the jobs of those who can’t deliver results just might be.

So if you’re a social media consultant, here’s some advice that will help you avoid becoming ‘The Social Media Guru‘.

Don’t equate prolific use with prolific ability

Just because you have 10,000 followers on Twitter and were on MySpace before Tila Tequila doesn’t mean you’re a social media expert. Sure, it’s nice to see that someone doing social media consulting is an active user of popular services, but prolific use and personal success will rarely alone translate into prolific use and success for a client. If you sell your social media prolificacy, consider selling it as evidence of your passion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bring some experience to the table

Simple rule: if you have minimal relevant work experience, you should probably not be consulting. In most industries, individuals don’t jump right into ‘consulting‘. They build knowledge and skill through years of experience. At some point, that knowledge and skill makes them a valuable commodity and they can credibly strike out on their own as ‘hired guns‘.

It shouldn’t be any different with social media. In fact, given that social media usually sits at the intersection of so many crucial business functions (marketing, PR, customer service, etc.), the question becomes: why would anyone want to hire someone who hasn’t spent at least a few years working in the real world in one of these areas? If you wouldn’t hire a CRM consultant who had never touched a piece of CRM software, why would you pay a college student with a blog and no real world work experience to be the face of your company on Facebook?

Don’t make excuses

When presented with questions about tough subjects like ROI, a lot of social media consultants seem to respond with something to the effect of “This is such a new industry and a lot of people are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t…” This might be a convenient response but serious consultants will avoid it.

The reason: you’re not being hired to prove out the efficacy of social media itself. If you’re doing things right, you’re being hired to execute on a specific proposal that you’ve laid out for a prospective client. If a prospective client can’t figure out how your proposal is (potentially) going to deliver value for his business, the problem is not with social media — it’s with your proposal. Everybody knows that a consultant can’t guarantee ROI. What clients want to see is a plan that looks like it can realistically create value, and the means by which that value will be measured within an agreed-upon timeframe.

Avoid the abstract

Following on the above: ‘The Social Media Guru‘ almost always focuses on the abstract (e.g. “Twitter is becoming more and more important and over time you’ll gain a competitive advantage through your account“). When working with clients on social media, focus on specifics: goals, objectives, milestones, metrics. Example:

  • Goals: boost your company’s social media presence, build closer relationships with customers online.
  • Objectives: set up accounts on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and train your sales and marketing team on how to use them to interact with customers.
  • Milestones: have accounts set up by February 1, conduct five trainings with staff during February, hand off full responsibility to staff on April 1, hold follow-up meetings with staff twice a month through July.
  • Metrics: followers/friends/fans, interactions between staff and customers, traffic from Facebook, Twitter, MySpace.

No promising the client the world. Just tangibles (and deliverables) that the client can either see potential value in or not.

Execute, don’t pontificate

This is social media, not existential philosophy. Clients don’t want to hear about ‘paradigm shifts‘, the ‘death‘ of [insert industry name here], etc. They want to know what you’re going to do for them. Operative word: do. As Thomas Edison stated, “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration“. There’s a lot of inspiration in social media but if you’re a consultant, you’re not just being paid for the inspiration part.

Don’t sell fear

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: real consultants don’t sell fear (e.g. “If you’re not on Twitter you’re going to get left behind“). They sell real solutions and opportunity. So if you’re a consultant and a prospective client “just doesn’t get it“, figure out why the prospective client isn’t seeing a solution or opportunity in your proposal. Do not resort to scaremongering and don’t insult the prospective client. After all, the client is going to be writing you a check. You have to earn it.

Avoid appeal to authority

In my opinion, many social media consultants rely far too heavily on who they know, what conferences they’ve spoken at, the books they’ve published, etc. The problem with these things is that few truly speak to the capabilities of the consultant. While it may be great that you’ve headlined a social media conference and written a book about social media, does that really say anything more than “I can talk and write about social media“?

Bottom line: if you play up who you hang with, the conferences you’ve attended and the books you’ve written more than you play up the work you’ve done for real clients, you send the message that you haven’t done enough work for real clients or aren’t proud of the results.

Your compensation has to be aligned with the tasks you perform

A prospective client may not have accounts on Facebook, Twitter or MySpace but if your social media consulting consists of signing clients up for popular social media services, think carefully about what that’s worth. Hint: it’s not $10,000, or $125/hour.

As with anything, you can always find a few suckers, and there will always be opportunity take advantage of them. But the problem is that unjustifiable fees don’t just seem to be the domain of social media snake oil salesmen. Well-intentioned individuals who clearly seek professional credibility as social media consultants just don’t seem to be thinking about what the services they’re performing are really worth. In the process, they’re ignoring the long-term implications they’ll face when their clients finally discover that they’ve been paying big bucks for services that were far more mechanical than strategic.

Bottom line: think twice before charging what the most naive client will pay. That’s not pricing for sustainable success as a consultant.

Don’t call yourself a social media guru

Don’t call yourself a social media guru. Or expert. Or ‘thought leader‘. Instead, describe what it is you do. Examples:

  • I help train businesses on how to use social media tools.
  • I help companies incorporate social media into their marketing campaigns.

Note that a good description will implicitly define the skill level associated with your services. In the examples above, for instance, training businesses to use social media tools obviously requires a different skill set than working with companies to incorporate social media into their marketing campaigns. Needless to say, the former probably requires less skill, experience and strategic know-how than the latter, and the compensation sought for each should reflect that.

The Social Media Guru‘ may exaggerate the worst of social media consulting but it’s a good reminder that social media consulting is probably due for a shake-out. If you’re a social media consultant and want to be one of those left standing, making sure you’re not ‘The Social Media Guru‘ is the best investment you can make.

Photo credit: armandoalves via Flickr.