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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.