The Real Social Consulting Problem

The Real Social Consulting Problem - Brass Tack ThinkingIt isn’t what you think.

For all of the criticism about “all” the social media consultants, there are few truly good ones out there.

There may be lots of individual hacks with a Facebook account calling themselves social media advisers, or long-time opportunists who are trying to milk the early dollars out of a frantic market (and they will). But when it comes to professionals who can really strategize and execute on social within the context of larger business challenges, there is a distinct dearth of talent.

Solo consulting can be outstanding. Small shop consulting can be amazing. Before you throw rocks at me, this has nothing to do with whether or not an individual can be a valuable adviser to a business.

The issues come down to three things:

1. People want to consult, but they don’t want to own a business.

Businesses take immense amounts of work. They have an operational side as well as a project side, and that can get complex quickly, even if you’re on your own.

The hours can be brutal. Scaling is very difficult. And then there’s business development, marketing, finance, partnerships…all of which are critical, and either require a very diverse skill set (not likely) or help (which costs money and takes oversight).

There is a *distinct* difference between tossing out a bunch of ideas to someone and building a business that serves clients and is accountable for results.

2. Social needs context to succeed.

The other problem we have is that there are not nearly enough professionals that have experience in social at a strategy level and who have enough contextual business expertise to understand where it really fits.

Social is not just a “channel”. When the intent and philosophy behind social is adopted properly — as you’ll see happening more and more over the next few years — it pervades every aspect of a company, horizontally as well as vertically.

Understanding the risks, challenges, opportunities and long-term view of that takes more than a deft hand with a Twitter account or an analytics platform. It requires a breadth of experience and ambition to understand the complexities and realities of business that, frankly, many consultants don’t possess.

3. Clients need a certain amount of depth.

Unless you’re working with the few-and-far between company that can afford to hire and manage the most specialized of experts, you’re going to have trouble focusing on just social media and making a long-term living as a consultant.

That’s because when it comes to contracting services and finding advisers, companies want bench depth because they don’t want to have to hire, manage, and coordinate an entire slate of disparate firms that aren’t necessarily communicating with each other. If you’ve ever tried to do it, you know what a nightmare it can be.

The reason the agencies and the major management consultancies are making a play in the social space is simple: their clients need the expertise but don’t necessarily want to seek out another service provider. After all, finding a firm you can trust is no easy task.

The trick, of course, is always balancing breadth of ability in a firm with depth of knowledge, but this progression makes sense. Social should be looked at through the business lens, so naturally, companies are going to turn to the advisers that they’ve trusted so far to help them make business decisions.

If social is perceived as a communications and marketing function (and in large part, it still is), then looking to your communications agency to help with that is a natural evolution. If it’s perceived as a core business challenge, you’re going to look to your other business advisers to help.

So What’s the Problem?

My firm, SideraWorks, highlights our social business expertise. That’s very deliberate.

Frankly, that’s in large part because our clients are hearing that term, know they need to make shifts to bring social into their business beyond marketing, and don’t believe their existing advisers in either of the above capacities have made the leap to understanding it at depth. And of course, we have experience and knowledge in that arena. So it makes sense to call attention to that specialization.

Really though, we’re a management consulting company with a lot of relevant expertise that can put social into play as well as advise on its long -term implications. We understand things like change management, culture development, strategic planning, and have lots of functional experience among our team and partners that spans everything from non-profit management to IT to customer service and more. THAT is what helps set us apart, and where our clients find a lot of value. Because they need more than just someone to man their social accounts.

A lot of outstanding social talent is moving in-house to brand-side work because they can specialize, go deep, and have an infrastructure around them. That’s how the specialists create immense value and how companies capitalize on having their own in-house expertise.

There are also lots of great true consultants out there that understand business, but still few of them have the experience and understanding of social because that’s not what they’ve been working on.

And so we have a conundrum.

The social consultant problem is not the one that people are railing against.

In fact, the people most angry at the flood of “social media experts” seem to be people who are trying to make a living doing that in their own right and are annoyed at how hard they have to work to differentiate themselves or compete with the hacks. (Hint: there have always been hacks, in every industry, since the beginning of time. This not a new problem.)

The problem with social consultants is not that there are too many. In reality, there are too few that are qualified to take on the real business challenges that are emerging as a result of the web.

Take out the “social” part, and you’re staring one of the oldest business challenges there is.

Finding the best guidance — advisers you can truly trust —  is not easy. It never has been. Quantity has never meant quality, and there has always been noise that drowns out signal. The web amplifies that a thousand fold.

But the reality is that we’re facing down a real talent gap and business need. One that isn’t currently being filled, not by a long shot.

And it isn’t going away anytime soon.

Special thanks to my book spouse and outstanding consultant in his own right, Jay Baer, for helping to inspire this post.

  • Grant Crowell

    So it sounds like there needs to be some established criteria for someone who calls themselves a social business “expert,” to separate the tested pros from the hacks. It’s the same thing as hiring a licensed contractor vs. someone off a truck. The other part is someone who’s just regurgitating what other people have said without any actual client or project experience, and the success metrics to show for it.

    • Amber Naslund

      Grant, I couldn’t disagree more. Certified on what basis? I know plenty of licensed/certified/whatever professionals of all stripes that are still hacks. Some standardized test isn’t going to prevent those people from existing or practicing. I had a “licensed” contractor steal things from my house.

      I’m so tired of the “expert” debate, and that’s not remotely what I wished to imply here, so apologies if I did. I don’t care what you call yourself if you can deliver the goods. And no amount of attempted standardization of “qualified” business experts of any kind will ever be the solution. You can’t certify ethics. And there is a place for people of all kinds of skill levels.

      The discussion I’m having here is about the talent gap vs. the perception, not some kind of endless debate about whether someone should be “allowed” to call themselves an expert.

      • Grant Crowell

        Oh I think it’s possible to disagree even more! ;-)

        I think you do have to advocate for some kind of standards, or at least be able to make a good argument for how you define your expertise as something people should hire you for, otherwise it becomes dismissed. (This is the same thing with earlier online marketing venues, such as the common “SEO Expert” tagline.) I personally believe the label of “expert” isn’t something one should give themselves; it’s something bestowed on you by others. And yes, influencers who have credible experience and insight, who are recognized by their peers, do also have a responsibility to help others with what they should look for when needing social business or social media consulting, or any other work.

        But I think we’re splitting hairs here. For me, “expert” equals proven talent, beyond just writing. You have that, I know many who don’t. Some of them just want a career change, and they start off with an image over substance. It happens a lot in the SEO world, and it’s creeping into social business. Just my tres pesos.

        • jaybaer

          It’s really not a talent issue or an expert issue at all. It’s that knowing your stuff in SOCIAL and being able to convey it to other people is TABLE STAKES. The operational filter is can you build and manage a business, and the delivery filter is whether you can successful tie social to what really matters….business success. Being “good” at social has no actual inherent value. It’s a means to an end, period.

  • Richard Bosworth

    Amber makes the best point, the gap between expectations and reality.

    What if you took some 16 and 17 year old street wise social media savvy kids to work in your business?

    One What If Forum member did just that with two kids on work experience and what an amazing difference they made to the thinking and outlook of everyone in the business and their impact on effectiveness of the social media investment was almost immediate.

  • AmyMccTobin

    The best post I’ve read about social consulting, ever.

  • Jennifer Kane

    Beautifully put. I’ve been doing consulting for 10 years now, only focusing on social the past four. It is not easy work, nor is it consistent (you’re right, there is a very narrow subset of companies that want/need what i provide) and, most of the time, the work i do has far little to do with actual social tools and more to do with change management.

    There are gobs of tactical, social media coordinators and service providers out there. Not only are they not my competition, they’re not really in the same field. Hard explaining that distinction to companies, though. Maybe I’ll just direct them to this post in the future. :)

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