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Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

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?

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

 

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