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.