Thursday, May 20, 2010

How do you choose a social media consultant?

The Beast.

In my office at Red River College, we have one of those amazing do-everything-but-make-coffee photocopiers, which also act as scanners and fax machines.

These days, I'd wager the fax is just "might as well throw it in" functionality, since the machine already has a printer, a scanner, and broadband access for emailing the documents we scan. The fax is rarely used; the only action it usually gets is the occasional transmission of a hand-signed contract, and a smattering of junk faxes (for the young'uns, that's what we called "spam" in the olden days).

Though we get far fewer faxed sales pitches now than business faxes used to, I'm always amazed to see there's anyone still marketing anything by fax; today's technology allows us to create communications that are so much more compelling and persuasive, and can be so much better-targeted, without spending much (if any) more money.

I saw one such generic sales pitch fax this week. It looked like an unfolded print brochure, and was addressed by the sender's fax machine to my predecessor here in the PR program at Red River College, who retired a couple of years ago.

The sender?

A consultant offering a $1000 one-day course in Strategic Communications.

The first rule of strategic communications is that you build your program around what your target audiences want, what they like, what they respond to; that's what's most likely to motivate their buy-in. While I could be wrong, in 2010 I think you'd be hard-pressed to find the audience that wants, likes, and responds to generic black-and-white unsolicited faxes.

If that audience does exist, it's not hanging out at the receiving end of my office's fax machine.

This particular consultant has been offering short workshops and seminars on topics like strategic communications and media relations in major Canadian cities for years. His course outlines appear to reflect our changing times: nowadays, his "Strategic Communications" course includes "Using Social Media and other online technologies to spread your message."

I agree wholeheartedly that any good course in strategic communications in 2010 should examine social media and how they can be used to help organizations build and nurture relationships with their audiences. But I'd question whether a businessperson marketing strategic communications courses in 2010 by fax is the right person to teach it to you.

How could a consultant use social media to sell PR workshops?

Success using social media is rooted in engaging in conversation, providing something of value, and building community -- not the hard sell. To be successful using social media for PR purposes, you have to make people want to listen to you, so they'll hear what you have to say.
  • For starters, a PR counselor could use Twitter to share his/her insights on PR issues and provide links to content of interest to PR people... building a following that could become a target audience for his/her courses.
  • (S)he could use a Facebook group to build a community among people who've attended his/her courses in the past, to keep the in-class conversation going... providing a platform for discussion about PR topics and a networking opportunity for past clients, as well as another vehicle for reaching new ones.
  • (S)he might participate in PR discussions on LinkedIn, adding valuable perspectives that could lead other participants to view his/her profile and learn about his/her courses.
  • (S)he could write a blog providing his/her perspectives on PR issues in the news (using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and his/her website to publicize it), creating a valuable resource to both past clients (whose online referrals could help with marketing) and new audiences (s)he may not even be aware of.
While it's a start, having a website and placeholder accounts on social media sites does not make someone an expert in social media.

Do your research

Before you turn over any money to a consultant offering to teach you how to use social media, do a bit of investigating. Luckily for us, experience with social media is relatively easy to research: quick looks at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a Google search are all you'll likely need. Even if your consultant has participated actively in social media on behalf of clients (i.e., not under his/her own name), chances are slim (s)he isn't also using social media to market his/her own business, too. That's where (s)he will have learned the ropes.

While the fundamentals of strategic communication haven't changed, the communication environment has; you want a consultant who can help you leverage social media to their greatest potential in this new environment.

Understanding them starts with using them. So if your online search doesn't show your social media expert to be an active participant, I'd suggest you keep looking.

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