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.