Are Social-Media Experts Snake-Oil Salesmen?

For his final story at Business WeekStephen Baker probed the world of social-media snake-oil salesmen.

"The self-proclaimed experts range from legions of wannabes, many of them refugees from the real estate bust, to industry superstars such as Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk. They produce best-selling books and dole out advice or lead workshops at companies for thousands of dollars a day. The consultants evangelize the transformative power of social media and often cast themselves as triumphant case studies of successful networking and self-branding."

I grow more skeptical of the social-media consulting business each day. Self-proclaimed expertise is running rampant. I especially question consultants whose reputations are built more on their ability to socialize and promote themselves versus exhibiting a clear history of brand accomplishments and client referrals.

I'm even skeptical of more legitimate and accomplished social-media practitioners. While they may have some experience and success, they are not necessarily experts. Consider Frank Eliason, Comcast's celebrity customer-service maven, who transformed the company's culture and reputation by integrating Twitter into customer service. He wisely pointed out during the recent WOMMA conference that despite the thousands of social-media books out there, not a single one is built on experience. "The book is still being written," he said. 



Eliason is right. The game is early. We all are students -- nothing more.

37 comments about "Are Social-Media Experts Snake-Oil Salesmen?".
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  1. Heather Foster from Harmelin Media, December 18, 2009 at 11:36 a.m.

    Thank you for writing this article! I agree, the book is still being written. It's hard to know for sure how things will pan out in the long run. I think that most social media articles or whitepapers I read online are fluff. I can't tell you how many times I've seen the headline "10 Best Practices for Social Media..." all from different authors. And they all say the same thing. And they all are best practices that one would use for ANY type of campaign. It can be very frustrating.

  2. Spider Graham from Trainingcraft, December 18, 2009 at 11:37 a.m.

    While I agree that the distinction of 'expert' seems premature for any marketers extolling the virtues of any new and continuously moving concept like social media marketing, I also think its worth acknowledging that these individuals are tuning their perception to better recognize when a tried and true social media marketing solution emerges.

    Back a decade ago, I postulated that digital media in general was only moving forward because of the efforts of a few 'experts' who were willing to pick up a machete and start hacking their way into the jungle of possibilities that could be used to define effective digital marketing. In many cases, these experts were only doing so to create discovery for themselves or their brands. However, that didn't stop the people who followed behind them from crying out 'Look a path! This must be the right way!'

    It takes time with any new technologies/methodologies to determine if the theories put forth will pan out. In short, we can't tell if the path we're hacking into the jungle will lead to a city of gold or over a steep cliff.

    However, what's most important is that the initial path is being made. From there, subsequent followers can start to discover divergent paths that do a much better job of defining and optimizing the best paths to take in the future.

  3. Adam Tuttle from _, December 18, 2009 at 11:38 a.m.

    Absolutely correct. From my view the only people making any real money from social media marketing are those selling the idea of social media marketing. The ads, placements, apps, pages are all loss leaders. They'll get you some awareness and maybe a few sales but will not perform in any real ROI.

  4. Simon Cohen from Bell Canada, December 18, 2009 at 11:42 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more.

  5. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, December 18, 2009 at 11:48 a.m.

    I would agree, but I would also say that those using the social media tools can claim a small level of expertise over a company that has no experience at all. I think web shops started in the same way, build a web site based on a logo or brochure, now they are much more then that, I think the same will be in store for the Social Media "experts". They will grow and start to either merge into an agency or they will mature and develop plans that are more then, getting face-time on the social media mediums.

  6. Bob Batchelor from Cultural Historian and Writer, December 18, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    "Snake-Oil Salesmen" is a bit harsh, but Baker exposes an aspect of social media consulting that many academics have raised in the recent past.

    Bill Sledzik, my colleague at Kent State, for example, is a refreshing voice of reason within the "echo chamber" of social media "gurus." (Check out this essay for more info:

    The downside to putting such a harsh label on social media consultants, though, is that many of them are providing quality services to clients. Perhaps the larger challenge is simply that anyone can label themselves a sm guru, just as anyone can label themself a communicator or public relations professional. There is no barrier to entering the field.

    Certainly, we are all still in a learning mode regarding social media, but someone has to provide clients with guidance. Some of the "students" must act as teachers, even if historical hindsight proves that they were a bit off.

  7. Roy Perry from Greater Media Philadelphia, December 18, 2009 at 11:56 a.m.

    back up a minute - I don't have data in hand, but do I need it to observe that Comcast has millions of customers impacted exactly zero per cent by the use of twitter to "transform the company's culture" (!!!!!) and "reputation" (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). seriously. this is the real problem - assumptions by the ultrawired that because they've learned something, it's real and/or important in any way.

  8. Zibby Wilder from Z.Wilder Consulting, December 18, 2009 at noon

    Thanks for this article Max. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that an expert is someone with 10,000 hours of practice doing something - and very few people can claim they have been practicing social media for 10 years. I recently shared this with a potential client who was asking questions such as "what really is the point of social media" and "are you an expert in social media", only to find out it wasn't a potential client, but someone who had started a social media consulting business - yet apparently had no idea what social media was.

    It's frustrating that so many people are jumping on the bandwagon, treating it like some kind of gold rush, and damaging reputations for consultants who have been working in online marketing and communications since the early 90's. Sure, things have evolved from the days of chat rooms, newsgroups and e-newsletters but this evolution into social media is just the next logical step of online communications - so there are some social media consultants who have been in the general business for quite some time.

    Companies need to do their homework when hiring to make sure they are getting someone with tried-and-true experience - who is an expert at the game, not just someone that talks a good one.

  9. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., December 18, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.

    Thank you and totally can one be an EXPERT or GURU in a field/medium that's really only been around for about 3 years? People suspect that there's money to be made and the rush is on.

  10. Jeff Einstein from The Brothers Einstein, December 18, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    "Experts" are the high priests in what the late great media ecologist Neil Postman described as the age of Technopoly, an age when we sacrifice our cultures and freedoms to the brute tyranny of runaway technology.

    The exorbitant cost and relentless expanse of our intermediary "expertise" and technology is what strips any true value from the media ecology and drives media franchises of all sorts out of business by the boatload.

    By definition, snake oil only benefits the snake oil salesman. Everyone else gets fucked. Caveat emptor...

  11. Keith Gerr from KRG, December 18, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    The marketing world is full of snake-oilers - social, traditional, interactive, agency-side, client-side. Either you bring value, follow-through and results to the table or you don't. How much snake-oil have you sold lately?

  12. Michael Vangel from TMP Worldwide, December 18, 2009 at 12:18 p.m.

    Max, there is no doubt a cottage industry has sprouted up of "social media snake-oil" salesmen. It's too bad as there are some terrifically talented social marketers doing great work out there but as with your article, they get painted with the same broad brush.

    I commented on the exact same issue on an alleged social media discussion blog recently only to have my post removed very quickly. It wasn't an inflammatory post, I simply said, "No social media snake-oil salesmen need respond to my post, only actual practitioners." Having my post deleted for even suggesting that social media snake-oil salesmen were trolling the discussion blog was an eye-opening experience for me.

    As a result, I think you have to be equally skeptical of "social media" (and other) discussion groups, as well. Many have the appearance of being an open forum for the exchange of the best practice in social media when in reality, they merely serve as a shill to actually push for-fee webinars and products/services.

    It's open to debate as to the definition of "expert" in social media but as a 2009 Forrester Groundswell Award winner
    , and winner of the 2009 Global Mobile Marketing Association Awards for Best Campaign Overall (and Cross-Media Integration, North America),
    I do take issue with your extension of skepticism to more "more legitimate and accomplished social media practitioners."

    The work I (and other legitimate social media marketers)have done provides clear, tangible, and quantifiable business results directly attributable to social media efforts. From my point of view, that is the true litmus test of the ability to effectively leverage social media...and what separates the true practitioners from those "social media snake-oil pundits".

  13. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., December 18, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.


  14. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, December 18, 2009 at 1:20 p.m.

    Advertising your social media expertise is like advertising your services as a psychic. The fact that you have to advertise at all makes your claims somewhat dubious.

  15. Richard Tubman, December 18, 2009 at 2:31 p.m.

    An SEO company I worked for out of college hired a woman who would charge 3,000 dollars a month for a twitter/facebook account and "3 tweets a week." She was this self proclaimed guru/expert. I sat in the back of the room as she gave a very convincing presentation about The "Value of Social Media" while I sent about 15 updates from my iphone for my clients, free of charge. I can has 15,000 dollars plz?

  16. Bob Ledrew from Translucid Communications , December 18, 2009 at 5:15 p.m.

    I don't know that I share your utter cynicism about "social media experts," or the cynicism of commenters who don't see any ROI.

    Just this week Dell announced it had sold $6.5m using its Twitter channel. In June, its total was $3m, so that's $3.5m in less than six months.

    And as to whether those writing books need be experts -- there's a role for people who can be one step removed from the cut and thrust to interview those who are in the middle of it all and synthesize knowledge, isn't there?

    I wouldn't debate that those looking to spend money should do so carefully with Web 2 or social media consultants. And I wonder if someone would have used the title "fax consultant" or "BBS consultant" in the past.

    But a wholesale discounting of the changes social media is wreaking on communications and on business is not wise.

  17. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 18, 2009 at 5:19 p.m.

    The postal service is a totally socially media venue. It may work slower, you may or may not open it or read it, but it is totally social. This twit thingy and FB, etc. is so misnomered like being the only religion it hurts the ears. Non-private media is better suited.

  18. Christi Pemberton from GC Style Magazine, December 18, 2009 at 6:57 p.m.

    Social Media expert? I am not so sure about that. With so many people using social media..especially those who practically live there..anyone can be an "expert" these days. A 10 year old kid can become a guru of social media. Social media is a communication tool, where everyone has an abundance of opportunities and freedom to use it anytime they want if they have a connection to it.

  19. Joe Favorito from Consultant, December 18, 2009 at 7:50 p.m.

    I wonder if those who say this is untrue are saying this because they themselves are self proclaimed 'experts." I can tell you one sports and entertainment, if you have a secret that works and drives sales in social media, last thing you are gonna do is share it with your competitors...and I have not heard one "expert" say how he has made one client a penny yet in this space...Gladwell in Outliers is right...10,000 hours.

  20. Katie Smillie from, December 18, 2009 at 8:29 p.m.

    Great conversation, clearly there is a lot of debate on the topic. I think the most important lesson for brands is that you must be careful about opening your pocketbook too quickly.

    I would suggest that if are starting to dabble in social media and can't hire a full time position, try getting started by creating internship position to a marketing undergrad who seems genuinely excited about social media and isn't out to just make money. The basics are easy and there is more than enough reputable information that can be found through an online search.

    Otherwise if you do have money to spend and you want to ensure you get the right strategy make sure you get solid recommendations and successful real-situation case studies before giving anyone your money. It's a no brainer. Good luck out there!

  21. Tish Grier from Tish Grier & Associates, December 19, 2009 at 1:49 a.m.

    Good one, Max! I was just talking about this with a marketing guy today who freely admits that he know something about social media but not a lot. We both agreed that yes, social media is a new thing, and like you, said the book is being written. And because I know how difficult it is to get success with social media for some companies, I'd never claim to be an "expert." I've been called a "guru," and I understand that. I do a whole lot of teaching on the esoteric nature of people in online communities--but that's a whole lot different from designing a social media plan and getting success with it. Which I've manage to do, only slightly, and not in a viral or big way. but it's sure nice to have a case study that's real, even if really small. Thanks for getting me to think about this and to better appreciate the small successes. :)

  22. Michelle Cubas from Positive Potentials LLC, December 19, 2009 at 4:35 p.m.

    Happy holidays, Max. Great topic. Here's my read:
    Social networking is a mystery to people younger than Boomers—my opinion. They were not raised with "social graces" and now are introduced to how to communicate with strangers (remember never talk to strangers?) in a social way. Often, these are the same folks who hate small talk.

    It's easy really. Just reach out and "touch someone," but I think that saying was already done! mc

  23. Lisa j Matthew from LJM Consultants, December 20, 2009 at 9:05 a.m.

    ABSOLUTELY! They're also genius to have created roles for themselves and con-vincing businesses large and small alike they possesss the special sauce of social media which will propell these businesses into on-line domination. Really?

  24. Rich Reader from WOMbuzz, December 21, 2009 at 2:30 a.m.

    While I empathize with Max’ objections to self-proclaimed expertise, I also fear that people who write undeserved referrals for each other ply their trade in the “Mad Men’s” universe.

    Let's be specific about which practices work, versus which practices do not work, rather than just broadly paint everyone in social media as a scheister or fool. Let’s get specific about why we think one way or another. Lumping all social media practices together into one basket persuades no one to change their opinion, but rather, doing so merely hardens unreasoned, impenetrable beliefs that no amount of logic or proof could ever reform. That is a losing proposition which clients smell coming at them from miles away.

    Have you looked at the case studies and survey results in The Tribalization of Business ? I'd be interested to hear what your objections to the value of this work might be, as would a large number of the 400 enterprises and organizations that participated in the study, and who continue to fund its’ continuing research.

    Would you attempt to dissuade enterprises whose customer retention and recovery rates have been boosted by curated content in their online communities, that their payoff was somehow less than what they had measured it to have been?

    The same should be said of sentiment trending and analysis. It is a class of social media methodologies that already has broad acceptance in traditional marketing and advertising agencies as an essential component of integrated brand monitoring.

    If we are all students, then does that make all students equal? We risk throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  25. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 21, 2009 at 4 a.m.

    Then again, some kids were able to give big corporations Twitter names that would have been lost or squatted on had the corporation not hired them. That gave tremendous value to the idiots in those corporations who were clueless without the kids knocking on the door. I gave a few friends, who had fair sized companies, their own Twitter name as a favor last year. One just sent me a check in appreciation for the near-miss - they would not have gotten their name if I hadn't said "Oh by the way, I used your email address to register this Twitter name for you".

  26. Rich Reader from WOMbuzz, December 21, 2009 at noon

    exploring Mr. Kalehoff's link "Stephen Baker probed"
    leads to his blog post, not to an article in Business Week.
    Parenthetically, the post can be read to tell a completely different outlook on social media than the one which Max has described for us.

    Can we please have the link to the BW article that Mr. Kalehoff is referring to?

    kind regards,

    Rich Reader (yup, that's my actual name!)

  27. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, December 21, 2009 at 5:44 p.m.

    they are far to often "smores" social media whores as I discuss in my blog

    Mark Allen Roberts

  28. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., December 21, 2009 at 7:24 p.m.

    Here's the link to the story. It was in the first line of the blogpost:

    I am reminded of Bob Hoffman's line ( practically every day: "There is no bigger sucker than a gullible marketer convinced he's missing the latest trend."

    Or maybe I would say, "Nobody expects the social media inquisition. Our chief weapon is fear, fear that you will look stupid in the eyes of your younger colleagues if you don't appear to be 'with it' on every new trend. Fear that if you don't get in now, the doors will be forever closed to you in the future and no matter how much money you have, no one will let you in. Fear that those around you will look pitifully down on you and say, 'Poor devil! He was just so tactical. He never could think strategically.'"

    There must have been a few people who saw Bernie Madoff for what he was. Imagine the disdain Bernie's suckers felt towards those who questioned his offerings. Imagine how much those who didn't go in with him feared they were missing the boat. Snake oil will always sell. And class will always tell.

  29. Jack a. Silverman from Bolin Marketing, December 22, 2009 at 1:24 p.m.

    Good article, thank you. Anyone can post to Face Book or other social media sites. I beleive you still need a great idea to launch a social media campaign around and that's not something just anyone can do.

  30. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, December 22, 2009 at 3:38 p.m.

    Our in-house social media person insists on being called an "enthusiast" rather than an "expert" or (god forbid) a "guru".

    I think that's wise, although in her case needlessly self-deprecating, since both she and the field are young. OTOH, what would it mean if, say, a heart surgeon was introduced as an "enthusiast"?

  31. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, December 22, 2009 at 8:32 p.m.

    While it is true that 'the book is still being written' in Social Media, enough chapters have been completed to allow us to see some of the possibilities. We've seen successes. And while we may not know all that lies ahead with SM, and there may not at this time be a replicable formula for success, one thing is for sure. Marketers have the choice of participating in the writing of that book, or standing on the sidelines and waiting for the paperback version.

  32. Dave Hale from DHI-Communications, December 23, 2009 at 8:35 a.m.

    Like anything new, it all starts somewhere and with baby steps. Whom ever is first to the starting line and learns as much as possible to not only stay in the race, but also stay out front, enjoys the spotlight, notoriety, and crowned "the expert." SM has not been around long enough for anyone to base their reputations on experience, unless they are doing it day in and day out for clients. If their clients have a positive ROI, hey, that's experience.

    There are so many great and high paying jobs out there now for social media managers in major corporations, that many will go unfilled because of the requirements. Companies obviously will put down "applicable education and proven industry experience." Right now, there is a hand full of colleges and universities offering Internet marketing or social media-related degree programs. Many are offering certificate program, but are shallow on content.

    I just finished developing three social media and Internet marketing-related certificate programs for a major college in Columbia, SC, which I'll be teaching starting in Feb. 2010. We are also going to have a big business new media conference in Dec. 2010. This is all in reference ot local businesses wanting to embrace social media, but not having the skilled employees. These programs will turn them from snake oil salesmen to superstars.

    Dr. Dave Hale, The Internet Marketing Professor

  33. John Edelson from, December 25, 2009 at 7:40 p.m.

    I think Max's point is timely and useful reinforcement to those of us struggling to hit our revenue targets and payroll every two weeks. I have a pretty solid understanding of my ROI on more customer support staff, on PPC, on SEO, on email marketing, and on investments in my website and technology. The ROI and analytical discussions deterioriate into all sorts of silliness as soon as I ask direct questions about why so much investment in facebook and twitter.

    Social media (twitter, facebook) consumes significant percentages of our marketing time (say 15%), yet it contributes only a percent to our sales or support. While trendy, there's room for many of us to lower our attention to it. Frankly, our support across our website, on the phone, and by email works fine. No need to tweet. And, if someone wants solid info from other parents about homeschool education, they'll probably go to a homeschool forum. I don't yet see any meaty discussions playing out in Twitter or Facebook. Not today, maybe not tomorrow. As a format, FB and Twitter lend themselves to short clever comments, not solid discussions with nuance and substance.

  34. Malcolm Rasala from Real Creatives Worldwide, December 28, 2009 at 7:56 a.m.

    Social media marketing is nonsense. Most people dislike advertising. Some intensely. It is intrusive. It is often - certainly on tv - banal. So the ad men are now trying to
    kid everyone that we will all buy something when recommended by / within a social network. Total tosh. 'Oooo I have just bought a Dell $500 laptop. You should too'. Who out there would act on such advice? Hands up?
    No one? Of course not. Snake oil salesmen pushing such nonsense are just pushing their own agenda to make a buck. Just like priests. Pure con men. Con men pretending they have a special knowledge for eternal happiness......please pass the collection plate!!
    Have a Happy Christmas America...! And in 2010 please kick these social media snake oilers into the long grass where they belong. A little intelligence maybe!

  35. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , December 28, 2009 at 5:22 p.m.

    I find two truths about social marketing . First, there are so many people out there with no skills selling services that it is hard to tell if there is or is not merit .Second , there is so l little analytical evidence of success that it is also difficult to assess.
    This leads to two obvious conclusions :
    Why should small businesses with low budgets gamble on social marketing .
    You really apprecaite Google and the ability to track cost per conversion .

  36. Francisco Villegas from Cohen & Gresser LLP, December 29, 2009 at 12:03 p.m.

    Snake-oil! And like many snake-oil remedies, can be more harmful than good, especially since many so called social network gurus tend to work autonomously and without proper oversight by marketing and legal.

  37. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 30, 2009 at 2:48 a.m.

    Much of this is from the perspective of marketing managers who 1) physically work at an office and 2) aren't themselves able to immediately spot a total fake so they're insecure about hiring an independent person to work from another location or whatever (possible envy added to the mix in that they themselves would love to make $7500 per month by charging 3 corporate clients $2500 per month each for services while living at Waikiki Beach).

    The bottom line is, if you know yourself what you want a person to accomplish (with metrics) you can easily decide that a given person actually is worth $2500 per month part time, and it makes no difference if they are living on Waikiki Beach (a motivated worker is a good worker).

    Now I believe that it is the responsibility of a marketing director to themselves run their company's main Twitter or Facebook account with posts. If you are going to farm this out to someone, it better be a professional with a proven track record (running great Twitter and Facebook accounts themselves) who has been to dinner with you and the CEO several you know their personality and that they will NOT accidentally make a religious, sexual or racial slur commenting on something from your account.

    You keep them informed on talking points. They should buttress these in posts with links to industry news and breaking news.

    You set a goal for them to maybe have 2000 followers in 2 months with 100 of those identifiable industry leaders. You set a goal that they have to have to be retweeted 50 times in that period. You can insist on 15 tweets per day and 2 Facebook entries per week. They must design and implement a good background maybe in the first week, etc.

    They must be able to properly flush non-followers and use cross-follow techniques to add relevant new followers from those who follow the competition and/or industry leaders and influencers.

    I could go on...but I'm busy now (I have to buy New Year's Eve dinner tickets). The point is that I could grill any "Social Media Expert" on what they would do for the $750 per week I would pay them and I would be happy to know they're living on the beach in Rio which shows they think outside the box and are probably winners (if they have a track record and a reputation they don't want to squander, you won't have to worry about being taken by a fake).

    The most important thing is to check the social media accounts they ran in 2009. How many followers and retweets did they get? This is easily measured and will separate the men from the boys (and women from the girls). If they did better than you think you can do, then they are probably worth a part time fee that they can augment working for others.

    For Heaven's sake: Don't be envious of people working from Waikiki Beach. Do that yourself if you're jealous.

    Important point: It will actually *help* them serve you better if they are also doing services for other companies and organizations. They will gain more outside the box perspective that they can reapply to your accounts with maximum effect.

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