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In this four-part series, we'll shed light on the world of IT training and whether a social media consultant is right for your business

Could there be any creature in the firmament less beloved than the social media 'expert?'

As social media has gone from novelty to ubiquity, from a curiosity to the stuff of everyday life and commerce, so too has a new class of experts emerging to offer their services to business owners hoping to take advantage.

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They can promise the moon: Droves of visitors to your website, a flashy new Facebook page, a beefed-up Twitter presence, laced with the subtle insinuation that those who do not hop on the social media bandwagon will be left behind.

Some organizations end up spending tens of thousands of dollars for work that needs to be redone; others turn to "experts" who promise to replicate their personal popularity on social networks, or, worse, employ shady practices like link-farming or poll-gaming that wind up backfiring.

"It's unlike any other industry," says Meghan Warby, a consultant who spent years preparing digital strategy for public relations firms, before moving to the Ontario government to help manage its social media outreach. "It's completely unregulated; there are no credentials yet."

Good and knowledgeable social media experts are out there (though most would probably be loathe to call themselves such). They come from many different disciplines: Web design, public relations and media.

For businesses that believe there's an opportunity to grow in the online world, they can provide a valuable service. But how to find the performers, and avoid consultants who are all buzzword, and no return?

Be prepared. The first step in finding the right social media consultant is approach from a position of knowledge. Have a working understanding of social media before hiring someone else to do it for you. The important thing is to level the playing field between yourself and the consultant, so you can work as partners.

"It's incumbent upon you to familiarize yourself with the basic concepts of social media," says Kim Fox, a Toronto based digital producer who spent 15 years in Web consulting, before joining "You're going to be at a disadvantage with a consultant who could be highly paid."

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It's also important to know the lay of the industry landscape. Get a sense of what your competitors are up to in the digital media space. And, most of all, be clear on what your own objectives are: If you don't define what success looks like, a consultant might do it for you.

Don't confuse brand with results. As with any industry, an expert's credibility is important. But in the topsy-turvy world of social networks, the value of carefully-researched references trumps a brand name.

It's not hard to develop a "personal brand" on social network, oftentimes with large numbers of friends or followers. It's also possible to build a brand by dispensing advice far and wide, without actually having successfully managed a business plan.

"It's not enough to have written a book," cautions Ms. Warby. Instead of gauging an expert by an online presence that is easily manipulated, go with their track record: References, references, references.

"It's not unreasonable to ask for at least three solid case studies where this expert has demonstrated value for the client," she says.

Watch out for number-mentality. Social media is not about numbers. Metrics are important in the online world, to be sure, but the most important one is your bottom line. And, more often than not, driving business with social media has a lot more to do with connecting with the right followers, than it does with simply gaining lots of them.

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"If you have a consultant on your hands who wants to talk about viral hits and follower counts, that's a problem," says Ian Capstick, principal at MediaStyle, an Ottawa communications firm.

"Sometimes, you've got a guy who happens to be very popular on a social network who claims he can replicate his success for you."

But there are plenty of ways to scoop up followers in bulk, and these aren't usually the tactics that will help a business grow. More often than not, they'll lead to large numbers of valueless followers, who don't know or care about your business.

Instead, look for consultants who want to understand your business from the bottom up, and are willing to play the long game. Social media success comes from patience and a willingness to find ways to push through the plateaus that come after periods of rapid expansion.

Finally, pay special attention to consultants who promise a quick fix for SEO - search engine optimization, or the art of boosting your results in Google. Unwary clients might find themselves paying for the creation of a link-farm - often a network of fraudulent blogs designed to trick search engines. Sooner or later, the Google will catch on, and your online reputation could earn itself a black eye.

Know when to stay in. As always, aim to have a clear vision of whether going outside your own firm for social-media advice is worth it in the first place.

Mr. Capstick suggests that businesses and organizations that are bringing in less than $1-million in annual returns are wasting their money by not doing social media themselves.

"If you're not DIYing your social media, you're an idiot," he says. "There's a lot of books." (Social-media how-to tomes by authors like Chris Brogan and Mitch Joel make his shortlist.) And finally, remember to question the truism that, just because social media is a part of everyday life, every business needs to focus on it - especially at the expense of a competent Web presence, which is a must.

"It's as important to know when to use social media," says Ms. Fox. "It's even more important to know when not to use social media."

"Sometimes," she adds, "it just doesn't make sense to make an enormous Facebook group."

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues with a new post every Thursday for the next week. Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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