The other day, I was in a meeting with a group of very smart people and we were talking about how to discern a 'great' social media consultant from a 'mediocre' social media consultant. I've never really considered myself a social media consultant, though. I've always thought of myself in a more integrated way, since I've spent my marketing career working online AND offline and being part of product development as much as promotional campaigns. Even the term 'community marketing' that I usually use to describe my practice falls short. Even so, I believe the job of Social Media Consultant entails using the online social media tools available to spread the word - much like PR does for traditional media - to pick up steam for the brands they represent. This, of course, is a very smart business to get into, especially during these turbulent economic times. Social media tools are inexpensive and are quite easy to measure impact for. I particularly like tools like HubSpot and Google Analytics for measuring impact of social media campaigns, as well as tracking word of mouth through Twitter's search and Google Blogsearch. There are many other tools available, as outlined here by my colleague, Jeremiah. This makes a Social Media Consultant a sound investment as an adjunct to any other form of marketing you are embarking on. It's also a safe bet when budgets get cut back as it is more cost effective than many other types of marketing.

Still, how does one know who is a 'good' consultant and a 'mediocre' one? I think it all comes down to Whuffie.

Much like a PR person worth her weight in gold has many contacts and a good reputation in the traditional media circles, a social media consultant (SMC) worth her weight in gold has many contacts and a good reputation in online communities. This doesn't necessarily mean that the SMC has the MOST contacts, either. It's how people talk about her, how she interacts and how the things she posts are spread around. A good SMC will have high Whuffie on the web. People will trust her opinion. Other influential people will value her expertise. The reason that quality is as important as quantity is that her Whuffie will rub off on her clients. If she is trusted for what she talks about, her connections will be more likely to check out who she is representing.

Anyone can be a SMC, really. There are millions of people of all ages using the online tools and hundreds of thousands of them use them effectively. But to be a kickass SMC, you need to be an influencer yourself. This isn't much different from PR. And, in both cases, it matters who you represent.

Social media, just like any other type of marketing, is only as good as the response you get from customers. A good SMC knows her stuff and understands what the market will respond to. She will be honest with you in early meetings if she knows your product needs work to delight potential customers. You deserve that. You don't want to spend a bunch of money and energy on a campaign that goes nowhere. You should be spending that time and money on building a really awesome product. And, a good marketing professional, social media or not can help you in that realm as well. I've actually spent more of my career working on product development and innovation than I have on the promotion of it. The truth is, great products need less promotion and 'stick' when you do promote.

Lastly, an SMC you want to hire practices ethical marketing. Much related to the point about having influence in a community, ethical marketing practices maintain and build integrity within communities. Anything that smacks of lying or tricking people will be found out and both your company and your SMC will pay the price Whuffie-wise. Future campaigns will be looked upon as suspect and time and money spent will be for naught.

I take great care in working with clients - who I'm working with and how I'm promoting them. I make sure that what I'm delivering is of value and that my connections won't feel spammed or get tired of the type of media that I'm sharing with them. If my own quality slips, the interest from my connections slips and I become less useful to current and future clients who deserve the positive word of mouth. There are clients I have taken on who have potential, but were not ready for promotion - so we focused on product and getting to the point where we could both be proud of what we were sharing with our connections. Other potential clients who wanted the promotion, but wouldn't do the work to make sure people I introduced to their products would be delighted, had to be passed over. In today's competitive landscape, I was sorry to see them pass up the opportunity.

Thus, if you want to have your SM campaigns go further, assess your SMC on these three measurements:

  • How much influence does he/she have in online communities?
  • Does he/she understand market trends? What kind of feedback does he/she give on your product? Are there good ideas in there?
  • Does he/she practice ethical marketing? If he/she suggests that you can pay people to digg up an item, probably not.

Other than that list, an SMC has to understand how to use the tools, know how to measure impact and how to get creative to get through the noise that is the thousands of campaigns already inundating people in online communities. But it isn't necessarily getting through that counts. It is how that message is received on the other side. That outcome is going to mean results or rejection.