Assessing the value of the Social Media Expert

I had the privilege of attending the annual Online News Association conference in Boston from Sept. 22-24 and I learned several things that I’ll put to use in my work on East20sEats.com and Dollars & Sense (both run by Baruch College’s Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions, where I am an adjunct). However, my biggest takeaway was that no one has any real, specific advice when it comes to building a fan or follower base on various social networks. Oh, they’ll tell you how great Google+ Circles are and how Twitter is where real news comes from nowadays, but when it comes to maximizing your outreach the advice gets vague in a hurry:

Be passionate about your subject matter. Be a part of the community. It’s a conversation not a lecture.

Aren’t those the same things that people in the know have been saying about journalism as a whole for at least 7 years?

That’s not to say there’s no value in hearing from those who have built huge “personal brands” — as much as I hate the term — on social media. There are lessons to be learned from sharing success stories. But, as I found in the social media and branding session, those who have made it work don’t sit around examining why it worked. They don’t have time to because they’re too busy doing it.

And that’s why it’s become clear to me that there’s no such thing as a social media expert, at least as it pertains to the analysis of its uses in the professional world. There are people doing great work who have built a large following around that work, but only the rare breed of self promoter can achieve social media celebrity simply by talking about the merits of existing social media over the medium of existing social media. Because at the end of the day, what’s the point?

To me, the beauty of Facebook, Twitter and others lies in three facets, all of which render the alleged social media expert useless.

First, they’re easy to use. It doesn’t take a specialist to set up a Facebook account and upload photos, or to write in under 140 characters at a time.

Second, and most important, the experience of social networking is different for every user. That’s why asking someone at Aviation Week for specific examples of how to build a follower base is useless when you run a foodie site.

Third, social media is inherently self-propagating. By their very nature, these platforms create huge networks of people who will keep you apprised of the latest trends in social media.

So if those three things are true, what’s the value of the social media expert? Is it to sing the gospel of Facebook, Google and Twitter? That seems unnecessary when each of these outlets boasts hundreds of millions of users. As Peter Shankman of HARO (Help a Reporter Out) wrote in May, “Being an expert in social media is like being an expert at taking the bread out of the refrigerator. You might be the best bread-taker-outer in the world, but you know what? The goal is to make an amazing sandwich, and you can’t do that if all you’ve done in your life is taken the bread out of the fridge.”

Shankman was writing from a marketing perspective, but the concept holds true in journalism (or any other field, for that matter). You still have to do good reporting for anyone to care.

Putting the “expert” label on social media work just discourages potential in-house users and encourages companies to seek out expensive consultants, when all they really need is the slightest bit of tech savvy and a willingness to play around in the medium to find out what works for them.

You don’t need a social media expert, and you certainly don’t need to become a social media expert. You need to become an expert in your field who actively uses social media and isn’t afraid to experiment in its new forms. As American University professor David Johnson said in a pitch for an “unconference” session that unfortunately didn’t get picked up: “It’s not the medium, it’s the message.”

Granted, you can’t ignore the power of Facebook or Twitter, both as a marketing vehicle and as a way to bring more voices to the reporting process. But it’s 2011. Hopefully you don’t need a self-anointed guru to explain that.

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