how to hire a social media consultant“Social media is free.  Social media is easy.  Just hop on twitter and start tweetin'!” Hmmm… how many times have we heard that? I have honestly heard social media consultants at networking events state during their 60 second pitch “social media is free, come talk to me if you want to do free marketing!”  Ouch, not the case folks.

Several business leaders have asked me lately for tips on finding a good business or social media consultant. Many have been confused by the blog posts that seem to only complain versus helping business decision makers find someone who can really help them.

I actually did a few Google searches and found very little in regard to helpful tips and skills to look for.  What I did find was numerous posts complaining about social media consultants, gurus and how to spot a bad one.  I have to admit I too have posted a few blog posts that are on the humorous side of this topic while trying to offer helpful tips at the same time.

I wanted to provide some helpful tips when hiring a consultant.  Note, what is a good consultant for Tom doesn't mean it will be so for Betty and Jane.  Consultants, just as mentors and coaches should be selected based on personal fit with your business goals, life cycle, and culture. The most important thing is that you do your research and talk to a few.  Don't go with the first one you meet.

20 Tips to Selecting a Social Media Consultant

1. Walkin' the walk or just talkin' the talk? If they are making recommendations to you, have they too implemented them for their own business?  The best experience for social media is hands on, walking the walk and singin' the tweet song experience.  Social media is like a living, breathing organism.  Those that have been engaged in the trenches of social media can truly offer you more real life experience on day one of engagement than someone who has decided to make a few bucks off of what they think is the latest get rich quick fad.  What we want to see is presence and influence on social media, not just an account setup with little engagement and ROI.

2. Validate their claims. If they claim they are walkin' the walk then validate it such.  The great thing about social media is it's really easy to check out if they're walkin' or just talkin'! Simply hop on Facebook, Twitter, and any other platform they tell you they are an expert at.  Check out how they are engaging, how people respond to them, what their following looks like etc.  As a last and very important stop also check em' out on LinkedIn.  Any good social media consultant should know the power of LinkedIn.  If they're not using it at all I'd question their experience and point blank ask them to explain why they aren't.

3. Depth of experience in more than just social media? To see an ROI in social media you need to integrate it into the DNA of your business.  Aligning social media to your goals and objectives is key to success.  Does the consultant have real business and marketing experience?  Someone who has developed, implemented and sustained a business and marketing plan with measurable results will add value to your business.  Working as an events coordinator, advertising sales representative or car wash cashier does not usually constitute real business experience that will help you integrate social media into your business.  Yes, if you are simply looking to learn only the tools these folks can probably teach you the details of the tools.  However, learning the tools is the easy part and secondary to learning how to use the tools to drive real business results.

4. Broad and varied experience on social media platforms? This is one area where many business leaders get taken to the cleaners.  Just because someone has a Facebook page, blog and Twitter account does not mean they are qualified to consult with you on how to use social media in your business. A good consultant will have experience and success across multiple platforms.  At minimum I like to see them actively blogging, engaged on Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare as well as LinkedIn.  On LinkedIn I would look for recommendations as well as experience.  It's very easy to validate depth of experience on LinkedIn. Again here, I want to see presence, engagement and influence.  Not just an account setup.

5.  Can they offer you objective opinions? This also ties into number 4 above.  Chances are if they lack broad experience in social media you are not going to get objective recommendations.  If they have no presence on LinkedIn for example how are they going to be able to tell you if it makes sense for your business? Also, if the only way they grown their following on Twitter is via automated tools how are they going to help you engage authentically with your target audience?  As you engage in social media it is critical that you receive advice or do the research yourself to make decisions on what platforms are priority for investment in time and resource.  I help my clients develop a plan that may start with one or two social media platforms and will slowly or quickly expand to more as it makes sense for their markets, goals and objectives.

stand above the crowd6.  Are they doing anything unique to stand out from the crowd? If they are only using Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and a blog with basic funcitionality my guess is they'll probably do the same or less for you.  Are they inspiring their readers on their blog? Is there anything they are doing that makes you think they will do something worthy of mind share for your audiences? What are they doing if anything to stand out from the crowd?  How does their Facebook Fanpage look? Does it include a video? Do all the tabs work? Does it include an opt-in subscribe form that actually sends you a message with valuable content to confirm your subscription?

7. What is their opinion on number of following versus quality of following? This is a tough one as there are many differing opinions out there.  I'll tell you mine, you can take it or leave it.  My belief is numbers do matter and if anyone tells you they don't ask them how you can get a positive ROI without some care for numbers.  My belief is it has to be a solid combination of quality with quantity.  Yes, I believe 1000 followers on Twitter who follows you, retweets you and loves you is better than 10,000 who don't know you doesn't care what you say and is filled with spam bots.  However, wouldn't the best of both worlds be to have 5,000 followers (or more) who also love you, retweet you and take the action you want them to take.  Social currency = action.  Therefore, your goal is to get your community to action.  Who can argue with the fact that the more people you can get to action, the higher the social currency and your return on investment in social media? Ask them if they have a policy for following on Twitter? Do they follow anyone with a Twitter pulse? What are they doing to ensure they are following real people vs. only spammers and bots?

8. How have they obtained their social media following? For example, has their Twitter following been obtained by primarily auto-follow tools? What is the ratio of the number of people they are following to the number of people following them.  If they are following more than 10% more than the number following them, ask why.  Do they seem to be obtaining a following organically? If yes, how? Is it blog content? Tweets? HOW do they engage? Ask them what type of engagement strategies they use in their business.  Ask them what type of engagement strategies as an example they would recommend for you. Do not be afraid to ask them these questions.  Any social media consultant walkin' the walk will love to share this information with you!

9.  Ask them what they think of social media influence? If they look at you with a confused face and raised eyebrow, you might want to look at additional options for consultation.  Influence in social media is your ability to get your community to action.  As mentioned in number 6 above, you want your community to take action.  You want your community to listen to you.  Any half educated social media consultant should at minimum be able to get back to you with a decent answer to this question. You can also check out their social media influence on tools like Klout and Tweet Reach.  Note, Tweet Reach only shows the reach of their most recent 50 tweets.  Klout on the other hand combines both Facebook and Twitter and provides a score based on who is following them, how often they are retweeted and by how many unique tweeters, the level of amplification and many more metrics.  Definitely worth a look.

facebook like10.  What's their community sayin' and doin'? Do they have a following? If yes, how is their community engaging with them? Do they seem to know their community? Are they receiving comments on their blog? Likes on Facebook? Retweets of their tweets? Retweets of their blog posts? Check out Social Mention and do a search for their business name, personal name and Twitter handle.  You can see the sentiment, reach and tone of their content and how it is being shared.

11.  If they claim to be an “expert” look for proof. Do they have a blog validating thought leadership? Do their blog posts follow the crowd or do they have the guts to offer a fresh opinion? Watch the popular social media news and content portals such as Social Media Today, Mashable, Social Media ExaminerAlltop, Social Net Daily and even PR Daily.  If a new topic arises check to see if they have an opinion early on.  Or do they wait to see what others say and then post a “safe blog post”?  A thought leader will have opinions.  They aren't afraid if someone comments negatively on their blog.  They often times expect it and enjoy an intelligent thought provoking conversation.

12.  If they are a thought leader, are they a thought leader of problems or solutions? If you are looking to hire a consultant you want someone who can take action on behalf of your business goals and objectives.  Therefore, when looking at their blog you want to see more than a list of blog posts with problems.  Solutions are what your business needs to see a postive ROI.  Yes, we know businesses have a difficult time in measuring ROI in social media.  I'd rather see one positive blog post on how to see a positive ROI than 10 showcasing how difficult it is.  Yes, we know you need to stand above the crowd in social media.  Look for posts and tips to differentiate your brand, put a social media plan together etc.  You want help with real business.

social media roi13.  Are they the king or queen of price wars in a local or online market? If their website primarily focuses on price differences to beat out competition, proceed with caution.  Any social media consultant worth their paper the proposal is written on has a line of people waiting to work with them at top dollar.  If they are earning customers primarily by winning a price war there must be a reason.  If you are tight on budget it is better to pay for half the number of hours you can afford from an experienced consultant versus twice as many from someone who isn't qualified to help you integrate social media into your business to begin with. An example of this is a local non-profit who hired us a few weeks ago.  Their budget only supported two hours of our time.  They could have easily gotten half a day from some of the other local consultants.  However, we met with them for two hours and powered through our social media planning methodology. When we left they had priorities, plan for execution. They were thrilled with results.  I can guarantee the two hours with us provided them exponentially higher results than what they would have received in eight hours with the price war queen and kings.

14. Who are they hangin' with, mentoring and learning from in the broader social stratosphere? This may be hard to research if you are new to social media.  However, a quick search on the platforms which they are active will tell you who their tribe is if they have one?  Check to see who they are relying on for information? Who is mentoring them? Who are they mentoring online? Who is reading and commenting on their blogs?  Who has added them to Twitter lists? Do they have any influential leaders engaging in conversation with them? Or are they randomly trying to get the attention of thought leaders with random (spam) tweets? This is a red flag if you see this and a pet peeve of most in the industry.

15.  Are they doing any other real marketing in their business? This is an easy red or green flag for if the person can help you integrate across your business.  If they lack marketing and business experience, chances are they will not have many other marketing programs implemented.  A few examples of positive actions to look for include affiliate programs, an email nurturing campaign with real content, as well offline marketing that integrates with online. We for example use Infusionsoft to nurture our engaged audience and offer our subscribers content only available to subscribers.  Any social media consultant that knows their left hand from the right should have at minimum a basic email nurture program alive and kickin'!

integrate social media into dna of business16. Have they integrated social media across their business? This is another red or green flag.  If they haven't integrated social media across their different audiences, marketing mediums and platforms they will have a hard time doing it for you, guaranteed! At minimum you should be able to easily find their business with a Google search, see above the fold of their web page social media icons that link to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Does their email signature include social media links? If they have a nurturing email program as mentioned above does it include links to their social media sites?  Is it easy for you to find them online?

17.  Do the gut test. If your gut tells you something just isn't right do your research.  Ask for references.  Do a search for them on Google, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  Use the tools I reference in this post.  It won't take you but a few minutes to validate your gut feelin'!  Remember, this is your business and regardless of what you may hear or read online, social media is NOT FREE!  It will steal your greatest asset which is time if you let it.  The only way you will see a positive ROI in social media is if you integrate it across your business and execute with a plan.  Yes, you may see short term results.  However, I guarantee you will not see results over the medium and long term with a fly by the seat of your pants strategy and execution.

18.  Hire someone you feel comfortable talking to. Word of warning is that chances are if you find a good social media consultant you are going to be sharing with them more than you ever thought.  I have found myself in deep business counseling sessions for engagements that started out as a simple Twitter discussion for example.  If this happens, embrace it! This means you are doing what you should be doing.  Integrating social media into the DNA of your business will bring out the flowers as well as the skeletons of your business.  This is why hiring a social media consultant who you feel comfortable talking to is key.  It's also why social media consultants are not a once size fits all.  Every business is different and even as your business evolves you will need differing resources to help you.  The key is to stay positive and have fun!

social media crystal ball 19.  Ask them what they see on the horizon for social media. Any person worth hiring will have an ear full of information to share regarding their opinions of where social media is headed, what platform they think will win and where they think you should be to succeed 6 months or one year from now.  Obviously, none of us have a crystal ball and can tell you if Facebook will in fact solve world hunger with the like button.  However, if you get a blank stare on the question asking them for their opinion on the future of social media, run Forrest, run!

20.  Don't rush it. Your business will not die a slow, agonizing death if you wait one more week to research the right social media consultant for your business. You've waited this long to get on the social media train.  What is one more week going to do for you?  Do your research and make the right decision, not the fastest one unless you have a deadline that is justified.

Your Turn

Have you hired a social media consultant? What criteria did you use to do your research? Do you have any lessons learned you can share to benefit others?