Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

10 Oct

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Once upon a time a man called Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. It was 1876 and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. That’s not the interesting bit. What’s interesting is that Bell himself, despite predicting the immense social consequences, never owned one at home.

The reason was generational: having grown up with nothing more than telegraphs and morse code to communicate further afield than the next town, the need for these new forms of communications had not really touched his own life. He just didn’t feel the need.

In 1878, the first switchboard opened in Connecticut. It was staffed – as were many of the first exchanges by young men (average age 17, apparently). This was because they had the stereotypically “male” trait of being able to look at these complex devices and be able to work them without lengthy training. By 1880, there was one phone for every thousand American households. By the mid-1890s, that number had dropped to one in 70.

Most interesting to me was that, at this point in history, these expensive machines were not for fun – they were treated like a telegraph machine with a little more functionality. You didn’t chit chat, you didn’t top and tail your conversation with pleasantries, you just verbally expressed what you would have sent by telegraph. People would pick up the phone and say “Need 17 cases STOP Delivery by Wednesday STOP Price as previous order STOP.” And put the phone down.

By the 1920s, the machines were more ubiquitous and the companies that sold them were trying to get people to use them as more social devices. AT&T’s legendary “Reach Out & Touch Someone” came from a realisation that the families and friendships that had been scattered by America’s still-recent migration could be reconnected using the phone. This marked a change in direction, although it was one that businesses had already realised, as they networked a series of offices across the country and even the world. Using the phones was big business, but people just hadn’t grown up with them so they needed help.

An industry grew to help these businesses. This is a film from 1927 (it has no sound, sound hadn’t been invented then and I believe people mostly mimed to each other in the street [CITATION NEEDED]).

Around this time, the switchboards were getting rid of those young boys who had ruled that particular roost. With competition raging between Bell Telephone, AT&T and Western Union (the latter merging under the same president, Theodore Vail, who was related to the one of the people who developed the first telegraph and was such a stickler for centralised power that Vailism became a byword for monopoly practices) there was a move towards service as a feature rather than mere functionality. Owners found that the boys were often rude, made short answers and were unhelpful – another stereotypically male trait, unfortunately. This is why, by the time cameras got around to capturing them, most of these switchboards were operated by women – they were simply more pleasant to talk to than their spotty teenaged male counterparts.

If you look closely there's a smug guy saying "Plug it in there and say "Hello, sir.""

There must also have been a change in the employees that were taken on. By the mid-20s, many would have had experience in using a telephone at home and would have been more comfortable with the conventions surrounding its use. And training would have become less of a specialty – these operations would have become focused over time less on how to talk on the telephone and more about how to monetise operations off the back of them. Think of terms used in callcentres today and it’s all cross-sell and up-sell. You would imagine that the training around saying “Hello, welcome to Acme, my name is Allan, how may I help you today?” would be a short side note. The real meat of training is how to sell, how to serve, how to make sure the customer leaves happy and with a lighter wallet.

And so it is – and will be – with social media. It seems odd to me that this is even something worth mentioning in 2012, but I was reminded of the need by an idiotic spat with a “social media consultant” over their use of hashtags to hijack news items and conversations. I’ll save the details for now, but it occurred to me that these snake-oil salesmen are still out there relieving businesses of budgets for nothing more than, effectively, learning how to speak to people in these channels.

This was social media strategy for most of us in about 2005. Since then, it’s become more about how to integrate this new channel into business operations. With the advent of “social CRM” (yes, I know, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can really be distilled into listening to what your customer wants and then working out how your company can service their demands and needs), there is an even greater push to get brands and organisations engaging, listening and responding operationally.

But this is not where the social media consultant lives. They still think that their ability to chat on the phone sets them apart as specially talented, that brands haven’t yet caught on, that the need to impart wisdom gleaned from sometimes as much as two years’ experience as a self-appointed consultant qualifies them as a business requirement. But every year that passes, another generation of young employees comes to a company and for them social media is not something special – it just “is.” They’ve grown up with these things, it’s natural to them, they don’t need training in how to use it; they need training in how businesses work so they can work out how social media becomes as much a part of everyday company life as it is for the next generation of consumers coming through. Communication skills are easy to teach; how to run a business is not.

Snake Oil - check out that ROI!

The social media consultant should be dead by now, but they aren’t. They use each other to bolster their follower accounts, content farming like crazy to set out nets to catch each other with, giving the impression of huge networks that are bolstered by pointlessly-inflated Klout scores, but despite dropping phrases like ROI into their copy they offer very little of real worth to anyone that has learned to use their new version of the telephone. In an age when social media should be moving people towards transparency, they are skilled at setting up false impressions that easily impress the last few clients on the block not savvy enough to see through it. In this respect, they have another historical counterpart – the snake oil salesman, the guy that used to ride into wild west towns, sell everyone a magic cure based on miraculous results witnessed by the crowd when some poor miscreant (who also happened to be a stooge) would suddenly be “cured.” Then they’d ride off to the next town before the last one discovered this stuff had done nothing at all or, worse, poisoned them. Often, the placebo effect would make people believe they had actually gained relief, so those salesmen knew which towns they could visit again and which ones would lynch them if they ever set foot in the place.

A couple of years ago, I saw the video below. It made me laugh so much that I immediately removed from any of my copy any kind of terminology that seemed to imply social media guru credentials. I (honestly!) wasn’t in the same game but I knew plenty who were and it seemed like a red flag, a warning not to be lumped in with this kind of behaviour. I watched it again. And what made me laugh more than anything was the thought that with 2012 just around the corner, it’s still relevant – unbelievably so.

To anyone that might consider employing one of these chumps, I beg you – ask why you need them. Again, this feels like a five year old issue, but it clearly needs restating. Ask why you need “social media” and be clear what exactly your company can use it for. Treat it like any other channel and apply some meaningful metrics. Your telephone is connected to – potentially – billions of people, but just because it has that potential connection doesn’t mean you are actually connected.

That connection depends on whether or not your business has anything they want. Without that, your Twitter follower count means precisely dick-all. If you have the kind of business that needs it, there are specialist call centre companies which can help with outsourcing. They work because they are well-trained, understand your business requirements and deliver against them. Outsourcing social media should mean nothing less, but it often does.

Whilst “social media strategy” used to mean “how to talk to customers through social media” it is now about the more complex relationships involved between organisations and their customers, including collaboration and co-creation and how to integrate what is created into business operations that run a profit. Social strategy is a part of digital strategy is a part of business and marketing strategy. It’s all inextricably linked. Stop being impressed by surface impressions and ask more questions about what this stuff does for you. Stop drinking the snake oil.

Like the boys who once ruled the switchboard roost, or the maker of the instructional film, the social media consultant will one day be consigned to a minor footnote in history, notable only as a passing interest that “huh, we once used to need people to tell us how to use this stuff.”

Huh. How about that?


Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

  1. Jenni Davies

    October 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

    This is BANG ON.

  2. Carl Morris

    October 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Domestic use of the telephone is second nature to most people in 2011 but in a work and business context if you want to do something special there are a whole range of companies, nay industries, which add value by providing useful services and advice. So the point is not really the telephone itself, how to press the buttons and so on, but how to do communications well. And how a single phone call actually fits into the suite of tools and practices you need to adopt to achieve your aims. I don’t understand you 100% but maybe this is the point you are making anyway?

    I also think that in the short term, if you want to think of this as a transitionary period of sorts, there is a place for people and companies being trained in how to use social media – even stuff you and I might think is a bit basic. This purpose is fulfilled by some consultants. Why not? Obviously they will vary widely in quality and some will be charlatans like the guy above. But, for the better ones, if there is demand and therefore a market for those services and the client is satisfied then why not?

    Social strategy is a part of digital strategy is a part of business and marketing strategy.

    Only if that’s how you structure it. The potential and actual uses of social media can be completely outside of marketing, e.g. the work of mySociety and Sunlight Foundation and other people using open data in a social way, people using social media for internal collaboration in an organisation/company, people using social media in education, health, journalism, etc. etc.

  3. elliotryebread

    October 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I absolutely agree Carl – in the short term that’s the truth of it and in different regions and sectors the demand for those services will be different, too.

    But we are definitely coming to the end of the “short term” in social – mainly because the next generation of employees are coming through and they’ve already grown up with it all, it’s second nature. The need for external consultants on the simple “how to speak through it” end of things will decrease because there will be people in-house that are easier (and cheaper to ask).

    People use external consultants because they have skills they don’t own in-house. My point is that consultancy around social will start to move more towards becoming a part of the overall business strategy rather than limited to marketing / engagement. Business objectives can be delivered through multiple channels, of which social is but one – it doesn’t live in a box by itself any more.

    • Tom Beardshaw (@tombeardshaw)

      November 11, 2011 at 10:23 pm

      Heheh.. the snake oil social media consultant salesman guy is indeed real and out there.. watch out for those who just start talking about tools and numbers. There’s such potential for the new ways people can connect and interact, it can be bedwettingly exciting for people and there are regular outbreaks of shinynewtoyitis when people discover it. That initial enthusiasm is often about the tools, so it’s an easy sell to focus on them (the miracle cure! Learn how to Tweet!) We’ve had enquiries from companies basically because a budget holder/decision maker in the organisation has discovered an exciting new web tool or platform, like Twitter, Stumbleupon or Ning and their head has been spinning ever since.

      We try to work thoughtfully… to find a way of working that helps them to do useful and interesting things and meets their demand to get to grips with new tools… but to think through whys and the merits of that platform for actually doing what they want to do. There’s always an educating element in our work… helping them see possibilities, rethink priorities, consider the consequences of changes in technology for how they do things… and there’s also been a lot to learn from what people are asking us for too.

      A lot of these social web tools do have a complexity to them that goes far beyond a the operating technicalities of a telephone which is a lot easier to understand than, say, an analytics account or a social network admin system – so there is a role for basic software training – but often just at the start, and the more we’re able to get internal knowledge sharing networks and mentoring/collaboration happening in house, this is less of an issue. I completely agree that using social web based software will get more familiar for young people coming into work but just because someone can use Facebook socially, it doesn’t mean they’re going to know the ins and outs of every software system they’ll need to use. But more importantly, as you say, they need to understand what they’re using it for in a business context, and it’s a massive risk to put your most junior people in charge of your most public communications platforms. But as you say… using the tools is just the basics, and from then it’s all about how well they’re doing it, as it relates to why they’re using it.

      We still get people asking us to show their staff how to set up a Twitter account, but we’ll have a chat with them, help them understand how trivial that is but that there is still a lot we can show and discuss with them, and hopefully lead onto a more integrated understanding of how social media could help transform their business. A lot of people see shiny new toys, but that can be an opening into more significant conversations about how social media changes what’s possible.

      I think there’s still room for us Social Media types, but the field is maturing and shaking about – the snake oil salesmen won’t last long, and the ones who can really add value will be around for the long run. This is, still, only just getting started.


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