Straight Talk on Social Media Gurus


By Stanford Smith, Contributing {grow} Columnist

I love experts.

These folks have invested their own time and money learning something so I don’t have to.  All I need to do is read their blog and get valuable insights for free (or at a  fraction of the true cost).    Some of these experts have become “huge” in their respective niches benefiting from years of consistent work and reaching critical mass.

I tip my hat to them.  I never disparage someone for working hard and taking risks.

My problem is with you.  Specifically, I think you are learning the wrong lessons from social media luminaries. Instead of carefully evaluating the advice you are getting, you are leaning too much on their experience.  I’m afraid that your over-reliance on the gurus might be causing more harm than good.

Here are three common “crutches” that tend to mess up “expert groupies”:

Thinking That “They Are Just Like Me!”

Most social media experts haven’t been “just like you” for years now.  They have huge email lists, social followings and a steady income from products and services.  They have benefitted from years of experimentation.  Although they may do similar things that you do,  they are doing it with superior resources and expertise.

What this means:  Realize that you are going to have to learn new lessons and make new mistakes.  You can’t compare your experience to the A-listers.  The best you can do is relate to them as fellow travelers on the same road.

Different Times – Different Strategies

I learned early on that starting a blog in 2010 was a lot different from starting one in 2006.  According to Nielsen, in 2006 there were approximately 34 million blogs, by the end of 2011 this number ballooned to over 174 million blogs.  Getting attention and attracting readers is exponentially harder today.

What this means: Be careful when a guru says that everyone starts out with nothing.  While that may be true, the first person to offer ice cream on a hot day does a hell of a lot better than the 100th guy.  You have to find, vet, and deploy techniques that match today’s market not yesterday’s.

Case Studies and Best Practices

I hate case studies.  They distort reality and offer false hope.  Simply because some other company saw great results doesn’t mean that they have created the only path to success.  In fact, blindly implementing someone else’s strategy can have devastating effects.  While case studies and best practices can help upper management get their head around a platform or technology, they shouldn’t be used as blueprints.

What this means: Don’t unfollow all of your Twitter followers.  Don’t abandon your blog to dedicate 100% of your time on Google+.  Don’t think that collecting social data like Dell will lead to Dell’s results.  Instead, experiment daily with your own product and customers.  You have to be your own case study.

How to Pick the Right Role Models:

I put my role models into two buckets: 1) Foxhole Cohorts and 2) Ivory Tower Generals.

The Foxhole Cohorts are wrestling with the exact same challenges that I face everyday.  They are building an audience, growing their lists, and hustling like hell to get new customers, leads, and readers.  Foxhole Cohorts are vigilant and are quick to warn me of danger.

Ivory Tower Generals won their stripes by successfully fighting yesterday’s wars.  They are wise and offer amazing perspective.  However these folks haven’t been in a back-alley knife fight in quite some time.  Although they tell me to blog less, promote less on Twitter, and “be epic,” I smile and talk it over with my foxhole cohorts first.

(Quick warning:  Ivory Tower Generals will often come down to the battlefield to show everyone that they still have “the stuff.”  Learn all you can from them when they do.  But remember that they have huge resources and ready-made fans waiting for their new ventures.  You don’t.)

I’m Not Mad At Ya

I have a sharp pen so I might sound that I’m being tough on the “experts.” That is not my intention. My goal is to be tough on you.  I want you to be sure that you are learning the right lessons.  80% of your tools will come from YOUR experience.  Make sure you pick the right role models for the other 20%

Talk to me.  Who are your “Foxhole Cohorts?”

Contributing Columnist Stanford Smith obsesses about how to get passionate people’s blogs noticed and promoted at Pushing Social, except when he’s chasing large mouth bass!

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  • Great article Stanford, I like how you point out that starting a blog today is different from 5 years ago, the same is true of starting on twitter now as opposed to 3 years ago, and so on.
    Also I think it is key for businesses not to try and copy paste others success, be inspired by it sure, and emulate certain actions even! But think first whether they are right for you and always add your own flavour!
    Love your term ‘foxhole cohort’ I have a few of those and I really appreciate their insights 🙂

  • You’re right Stanford – you should never take the advice of experts without question. Different platforms lend themselves to different projects – if you’re blindly following someone’s Twitter strategy simply because ‘it worked’ for them you’re bound to trip up.

    I also think that there’s a bigger lesson here, which no-one really talks about, and that is that for every amazing online success there are 100 failures. Expect that, anticipate that, and you might survive to have that success in the future.

  • Thanks Gemma.  You are right almost every social platform is changing dramatically.  I even think Pinterest first-movers have an advantage!

  • “..for every amazing online success there are 100 failures” – so true.

  • Stanford… Love this dude.

    I think the point you make that bloggers at say my level are just Not The Same as say ProBlogger is right on point.

    Like Derek Halpern… completely awesome, creates great content.  But he doesn’t use RSS. Does that mean that Ryan Hanley who only gets about 6,000 visitors a month should not be using RSS?  NO.

    We’re all looking for that Golden Goose and it’s found in our own effort… 


    Ryan H.

  • John Bottom

    Stanford – a great post (especially the part about the ice cream vendors, love it).

    I always think that one of the great things about this self-starting, meritoocratic, hyper-level, digital playing field is that traditional hierarchies count for less. It’s not just the guys with the printing presses who get heard – we can all go out and try things. So it stands to reason that we should follow your advice and not listen to guys just because they have more followers.

    But there I go again, trusting blindly in the experts just because they’re on the {grow} blog…



  • That is all:)

  • Thanks John.  You know what?  I’m just the guy that shouting “be careful!”  I spent tens of thousands of dollars following being a guru groupie.  In the end, I made the most progress by being my own case study. 

  • Great example.  I wonder why Derek doesn’t use RSS…. 

  • Don’t make me come down there.

    -Ivory Tower General

  • I emailed him about that… He said that he wants everyone to subscribe by email. That gives him one audience in one space and control over what he sends them and when.

    Interesting idea.

  • Sanford,

    Exceptional post. My only comment and divergence with ‘gurus’ whether they be social media or otherwise is their almost unabashed pride in breaking the first rule of anyone who is ever any good at anything “The only thing I know – is that I know nothing.”

  • Sorry – Stanford my apologies for the typo on your name.

  • Damn good reason.  Derek is a whippersnapper.

  • No worries Dan. Thanks for your comment

  • Careful, I’m handy with a blade 😉

  • ‘Nuff said.

  • You nailed so many thoughts in my head about this stuff.  You can only pickup tidbits from others but you still have to apply your own testing, and be open to discoveries. The methods others use can be and should be tweaked to your own circumstance.

    And I love how you pointed out the “case studies” and how people switch their entire strategy and tactics because So and So are doing it that way and getting “so much engagement”.

    In the “best practices” arena though, I have to disagree a bit. Best practices are (at least in the technical world) pretty indisputable and people *should* follow them closely. Use strong passwords, don’t spam, be unique, be useful and ad value… those are all best practices I think and it’s hard to refute those.

    Thanks for a really great article on this.

  • Me too!

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  • Yeah a lot of great stuff here. The only thing I would disagree with is knocking best practices and case studies. To become a best practice, something has to be the right thing to do in all cases. It’s like a law in science. Just like scientific laws, there are very few things you can ever assign best practices too, and like the name states they’re “best practices” meaning better than the available alternatives.

    And Case studies, when done right will teach you a lot more than blog posts. It would be stupid to use a case study from 2006 or one from a multi-million company as a guide for what you’re doing in 2012 with 0$, but that’s what control variables are for. 

  • By “Best Practices” I mean social etiquette masquerading as “Best Practices”.  Stuff like “Don’t promote your posts on Twitter” and other such nonsense.  The technical world does have sound, tested, and proven best practices.  We’re much too early in the social experiment to reliably apply any here.

  • Good point Adam.  Based on your definitions, there are no best practices in the social discipline.  Case studies would be highly subjective, probably so subjective that they couldn’t be used reliably by anyone.    It seems like scientific accuracy is the benchmark – in that case, we are still far from it in Social.

  • now you’ve summed up your entire post!  .. BE YOUR OWN CASE STUDY!  Everyone’s needs are different. Every case is a new study. The people I admire most are the people who are building their own ivory towers but not so focused on their own success they don’t reach back to help others right behind them up to the next step.

  • Great post, Stanford!

  • Anonymous

    My trench is pretty empty at this time (for work). I’m in the knife fights everyday. The way I’m building up my cohort is by participating in a tweetup. It’s improving.

  • You get 6k a month Hanley? Dang bro, that’s great considering your time out in the field!!

  • Stanford, cool seeing you over here in Mark’s house. You may not have gone to WVU as Schaefer did, but you’re still pretty dang cool. 😉

    I like your style Stanford. You did play around with words. You say what you feel. And I love the analogy of the knife fight.

    For example, a few weeks ago Seth Godin was talking about how he didn’t follow a bunch of best blogging practices. I love Seth, but I hated that article, because it was very skewed because of when he got in the game (dude was selling ice cream a long time ago) and he is also a major author, entrepreneur on a national level, etc.

    My point being, if someone blogged exactly like Seth does, but started today, I doubt they’d get much traction for a long, long time.

    Not sure if that makes total sense but the bottom line, like you said, is that we’ve got to be willing to experience this stuff. We’ve got to be willing to jump in the ring and get out face kicked in…but also get a few licks in ourself.

    At least, that’s how I see it. 😉

    Good stuff bud…look forward to meeting IRL soon.


  • Nice use of stepping on the soapbox, totally agree. The ever changing on-line environment truly makes being a ‘guru’ an unrealistic feat, then take a look at how truly large the umbrella of social media is today and it just becomes impossible.  The biggest problem is social media of any kind is not a cookie cutter process.  Do they think that talking about social media is like selling a fast food franchise.  Every business category has different needs and will have a different cause and effect in social media.  Some businesses or subjects are more sexier and can build an audience quicker than other, doesn’t mean it a better audience, just that it’s larger… Every situation and the more that people try to make everyone act and behave the same way it going to be just that much more difficult for the ones that follow those rules..  So continue to express yourself, as that will always work best.. 

  • Thanks Marcus.  I steal most of my stuff from you  😉  I’ll see you at #SoSlam!

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  • Wow… sobering and enlightening all at once. I’d say you nailed
    it. I am now visualizing the Ivory Tower Generals that I have
    been following and also my Foxhole Cohorts colleagues and will adjust my
    efforts accordingly. Excellent insight! I agree, we all have our own unique life
    experiences and skills, both soft and hard to bring to the table and can complement the new web
    platforms and tools with our own uniqueness and deliverables. Well done Stanford!!

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  • Theresa Letman

    Stanford, thanks for your thoughts and especially the simplified role models of Foxhole Cohorts vs. Ivory Tower Generals. I’m inspired to create more tools from my own experiences. 

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  • I agree again, partially. We’d have to define “too early” — The social web has been around for at least 13 years, 7 if you look at social media, and all in between those two numbers depending on how you look at it. That’s a pretty good dataset to conclude from.

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