By Jonathan Crossfield published April 15, 2014

How to Spot True Social Media Talent Amongst the ‘Experts’

graphic representation-light bulbHow many social media experts does it take to change a light bulb?

Never mind; we’ll come back to that. But first let’s look at what we mean by the term “social media expert” in the first place: 

“You’re a master of Farmville, know the best filters for sunset photos on Instagram, and Stephen Fry once replied to you on Twitter… so why not become a social media expert? All you need is a simple WordPress blog, an account in each of the major networks, and HootSuite installed on your laptop, and you too could be charging high hourly fees for generic advice gleaned from that morning’s Social Media Examiner newsletter.

Chris Brogan probably has a few more digital tools in his kit. But hey, he’s got a book deal, so he can afford to get all ‘enterprise-grade’ with his digital sizzle. Anyway, chances are your entry-level clients don’t even know who Brogan is, so dazzle them with the scheduling feature in TweetDeck instead.”

Maybe not.

These days, it appears almost anyone can declare him or herself an expert at social media content. Seems like every third Twitter profile claims to be some kind of consultant, entrepreneur, or (shudder) social media guru. But falling for the self-promoting hype can be costly to your campaign — and your business.

There is a massive difference between the ability to do something and a real talent for doing something well. Yet, the two are often confused.

So, how do you spot true social media talent?

Distinguishing features

Social media content marketers are skilled multitaskers, able to dip in and out of their networks throughout even the busiest of days. They don’t need to be reminded to check the various channels because it’s instinctual for them to do so — you’d have a harder time trying to stop these people from updating, replying, and interacting in real time.

Social media is a relaxed medium, so the best practitioners often have a sense of humor and a casual style that’s more “backyard barbecue” than “bank manager’s letter.” It can take great skill to balance professionalism with personality.

For that reason, style and tone of voice are extremely important. Do they have wit? Are they aware of topical events, both relevant and trivial, so they can join in the banter without ever sounding uninformed or disconnected from the real world? Can they convey complex issues in surprisingly simple ways to a broad audience? Are they respectful, but can still comment with a twinkle in the eye and the occasional bit of irreverence?

Great style also needs to be partnered with a mature head for business. That doesn’t mean your social media team also has to be adept in accounts and spreadsheets, but team members do need to understand the relationship between what happens online and the interests of the business.

This balancing act can require exceptional skills of diplomacy, such as assuaging customer issues and moderating hot-headed forum disputes, while keeping the various internal stakeholders satisfied. This is why some of the best social media marketers are almost bilingual. They can communicate with the brand’s audience on the audience’s terms, and can just as comfortably liaise with internal departments and upper management in the business language they expect, framed by corporate priorities.

And finally, the basics have to be there. Style and diplomacy don’t mean much if poor spelling and grammar detract from the message. Your social media content team represents your brand. Standards are still important. They have to be able to write, and write well.

Good social media talent is hard to define in any finite way, but you know it when you see it because people respond. Because you respond.

But does a talent for social media make someone an expert?

The myth of the social media expert

Personally, I hate the term “social media expert” because it implies an authority over something that refuses to stand still. And that’s just silly.

Social media marketing is like eating soup with a fork: With practice, and the right chunky soup, you might get more in your mouth than on your shirt. But you’ll never gain total supremacy (or should that be soup-remacy?) over your meal. It just moves too quickly.

This is why the best social media marketers focus far more on content, messaging and strategy than they do on technical details and gimmicks. Otherwise, every time Facebook updated its algorithm or LinkedIn changed its functionality, it would be like having your experience ripped up to start again.

The best practitioners understand their limitations and are continually learning, exploring, and experimenting as the social media and technology landscape constantly evolves around them.

So, back to the question I asked at the very beginning: How many social media experts does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Three. One to provide an overly detailed running commentary of the incident (#LightbulbOutage), one to crowdsource an electrician to actually change the bulb, and one to itemize and justify their high fee for doing very little to solve the problem.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine. 

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

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  • Maël Roth

    I couldn’t agree with you more Jonathan. I think all these Gurus and experts should remember one thing (actually my favorite quote): “Marketing takes a day to learn but a lifetime to master.” Which is why I NEVER EVER call myself an expert, a guru or whatever term which implies you’ve truly mastered something. Because the day you stop thinking of you as a marketing student, you’re set up for failure. 🙂

    • Kimota

      Absolutely. Every day I’m back in class, making mistakes and learning as I go. There’s just so much social media out there now that very few of us can genuinely have a handle on everything.

      For example, I’m still totally hopeless on Pinterest. Just haven’t had cause to use it for a client yet. Ditto Vine. I’ve played with them, read about them, know how others are using them. But until I’ve actually used them in a business context myself where they’ve generated the appropriate outcome, I’m no expert.

      • Maël Roth

        Same here @Kimota:disqus, I still want to experiment with Pinterest and Vine but who has that much time? 🙂

  • Jason Small

    Hey Jonathan, thought I’d share that in 2008 I used to go to the Business Development Insitute’s social media events in NYC, where brands like McDonald’s and JetBlue would present their social challenges. The event would always start with questions and they always asked the crowd (of approx 200) “How many social media experts do we have?” and inevitably, a few people would raise their hands. What was interesting, was that the rest of the crowd would always instinctively echo a supressed laugh and the leader would say “Well, then you are way ahead of the rest of us.” I’ve always shared that experience – I’ve been doing this for seven years, and have worked with major brands all over the place. I would never dare call myself a social media ‘expert.’ Great read, thanks for the piece.

    • Kimota

      Love it.

      Occasionally, someone will call me an expert, or even ‘guru’, and they think I’m just being self-deprecating or modest when I protest that I’m not and please don’t call me that. Sadly, these terms are too quick off the tongue for most people – until it comes back and bites them later.

  • Gareth Marshall

    I really agree with this, Jonathan. I’ve just started a new job recently (as well as attending a few interviews) where my employer and those potential ones were telling me horror stories about how they’d hired candidates claiming to be “experts with social media” when, in reality, they were just casual Facebookers and Twitter celeb stalkers.

    I’d never claim to be a social media expert. I’m a copywriter/content marketer and, although I know how social works with content/SEO/digital/inbound marketing and what you need to do for it all to be successful, I’d never claim to be an expert! It takes time to learn social (as I’m doing whilst sticking to my bread and butter), otherwise people are going into jobs and quickly realising that they are in way over their heads!

    • Kimota

      My article was cut down to fit word count otherwise it would have included a couple of the horror stories I’ve encountered very similar to what you describe.

      It’s like someone who’s passed their driving test and can now drive around town in their little automatic hatchback then applying for a job as a racing car driver. Te scry thing is because some employers are also novices, the hatchback drivers sometimes get the job!

      And don’t start me on certain digital agencies that offer SM services without the hands on experience to actually know what they’re doing. Being able to set up a client’s Facebook page or produce a nicely designed Twitter profile background is not nearly enough to warrant the thousands of dollars they charge!

      • Nicole Kohler

        Shame that it was cut. I would love to read those horror stories!

  • Randy Hilarski

    Social is how I engage my followers, it gains us customers and helps spread the word. Do I consider myself an expert, no way! There is way too much information and too many channels. Social is powerful, but it is only one part of the sales funnel. Social medias roll for us tends to be educational and great for branding. Great article Jonathan!

  • Bill Gibeault

    It’s amazing how many businesses look to techies who call themselves “Social Media Experts.” Steve Jobs said it best. ” “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. “(via Joe Pulizzi
    Good article. Thanks for the share.

    • Kimota

      Oooh, I like that Jobs quote. Very, very true.

  • Roger C. Parker

    “There is a massive difference between the ability to do something and a real talent for doing something well.”
    Masterful statement!

  • Rob Sampson

    So much of what I read focuses Social Media expertise on technical and planning abilities; how to use it, how to write a plan for it, etc……yawn.

    THANK YOU for putting creativity front and centre (no that is not a typo – I’m from Australia) in the Social Media story.

    • Kimota

      Always ‘-re’. Always! (I’m a Brit living in Australia so these things really matter to me!) And yes, it’s that constant focus on technical detail that I find leads people down the wrong path. You can outsource someone to build your LinkedIn campaign, but they probably can’t tell you how to use it or what it should say. The very same people who obsess over the workings of the Facebook algorithm, for example, are the same ones producing rubbish content designed simply to meet (or get around) those technical requirements.

  • Stephen Smith

    Jonathan I liked this one, but by far the “Distinguishing features” section was the most accurate part of your post for me. People ask me all the time what makes me qualified to manage their online presence and I always wish I could answer them with a simple, “Because I understand how and when to use what platform and what the socially acceptable norm is for interacting on those platforms, that’s why…. I don’t care how many Twitter followers your 17-year-old son has he’s not the right person to represent your brand online.”

    (And by the way, being someone who works in this field I hate the term social media guru.)

  • Georgia

    I agree- the term “social media expert” and “social media guru” are the two STUPIDEST sets of words I’ve heard regarding this field. I prefer “social media coordinator,” and I appreciated your point about good grammar and the ability to write well, because I hate seeing accounts with terrible spelling!

  • Darius Douglass

    Good article. Technology is a tool. Writing and branding are skills.

  • Deanna

    Really enjoyed this! Great insight!

  • BigcomDevloper

    Nice one Jonathan, The rise of the internet, and particularly the rapidly-growing
    popularity of social media, has transformed the way employers and job seekers communicate and more recently.

  • Lisa Marie Wark

    Social Media marketing is strategically victimization the large social sites to unfold your brand or drive traffic back to your net presence. Social Media marketing is adding key parts to your websites or content that build them simple to unfold across the large social sites.

  • Kev

    Basically – good writing skills + personality + humility?