The insider’s guide to social media consulting success

social media consulting success

When I have been asked for a proposal to create a social media marketing strategy for a company, I have won the business 95 percent of the time. That may seem remarkable but I’ve found there is one simple secret of social media consulting success and connecting with companies at this early stage of engagement.

Competing agencies typically try to impress by piecing together glossy, elaborate plans spanning from Facebook promotions to blasting out a Pinterest campaign.

I do no such thing.  In fact, I put together no plan at all.  I simply, and truthfully, tell the client that I don’t know what they need. And neither do they. We need to start with a foundational strategy (not an action plan) that is aligned with the company’s goals, and even more important, aligned with the company’s CULTURE.

Social media consulting success secrets

This is the difference between creating a glimmering strategy that crashes and burns on take-off, and a realistic strategy that can actually be accomplished and change the company.

In every organization there are five common hurdles to social media success. A critical step in the strategy development process is to provide a painfully honest assessment of these factors and the company’s ability to execute and sustain a social media marketing initiative. That is where the consulting process should begin — not picking out the colors for the Facebook page!

Assessing the social media “engine”

Here are the five critical components I assess before even thinking about creating a social media plan:

Budget and resources — Is the company willing to commit the proper financial and human resources to execute the right way, or are they just checking a box to create an image?  Do they seem committed to adopting “digital” as a business philosophy? How will they make this transformation?

Technology — I look at this very broadly. Is this a tech-savvy company eager to embrace new platforms or are they stuck in the 1990s? Are they fast and flexible, or ponderous in their approach to development? Have they erected security firewalls that will jeopardize success? Is the IT department a fortress resisting change or an agent propelling progress?

ROI and measurement — Does the company have a realistic view of the social media opportunity, or are they looking for immediate gratification? Are they willing to consider qualitative, as well as quantitative, measures of success? Do they even have measurement processes in place that we can build upon? Are they looking at this as a band-aid or a long-term strategy?

Legal — Can the Legal Department adjust to the new demands of the social web? Are they willing to push accountability down through the organization or will they have to approve every tweet?  Are they also willing to make the cultural adjustment necessary or will they “review” an initiative into oblivion?

Corporate culture/leadership — I mention this last, but it is not the least. In fact, it is most important of all. A corporate culture is very complex but is largely determined by the leadership of the organization. If the leadership does not understand, embrace, and become actively involved in the change, a social media initiative will never move past checking a box.  There is no such thing as a grassroots cultural change in a company> The leader has to be actively on board. Is the company culture customer-centric? Conservative? Slow to change? Nimble?

Now what?

Once you do this analysis, what do you do with it?

Creating an actionable and sustainable social media initiative requires all five of these building blocks to be in place. Think of these elements as integral parts of an engine. If even one part is not working, the car may start quickly, limp along for awhile, but ultimately sputter and stop.

So the strategy must be created in the context of the political reality of the company.  Perhaps the first step toward social media success is not starting a blog or Facebook page, but hosting a series of social media workshops to get everybody on the same page. Or maybe it’s one-on-one counseling with a leader, or creating an internal social media council.

Social media consulting success doesn’t start with a Facebook page, it begins (and perhaps ends) with corporate culture.  Agree? Do you see these landmines and opportunities at your companies too?

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  • My experience over the past year confirms everything you wrote.
    I totally agree with you. An approach like this should be standard.
    (Want to co-author a book about it? 😉

  • Julie Musial

    Every client is different and there is no “one size fits all”. Experiment and try new things until you find what works. Too many consultants try to bang out the cookie cutter approach which doesn’t work. So many of my clients and acquaintances have been taken advantage of (including myself) from these types of consultants. One thing I have found is that if a client seems to be getting business based on a low rate of compensation, consider this a red flag.

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  • Mark,

    The only thing I would add to this list and to a certain extent it’s mixed in with five you have listed is a “Strong Understanding of Why the Company want to use Social Media.”

    This is vital because there is a huge difference, first in whether you want the client or not, second in how you build a strategy based on why the company wants to be involved with social media.

    If the answer is “Because everyone else is there.” You need to start in a different place than, “We want to increase client retention and upsetting.”

    Great stuff.


  • Laura Toepfer

    This is why you are my go-to social media marketing blog.

  • Great article! It’s amazing how many clients of mine want to “win” at social media but don’t put the time in to learn strategies and planning how to use it successfully.

  • whatilearnedwednesday

    Hi Mark! I could not agree more — and #1 is something sometimes people don’t want to say or reveal up-front, but it has such major implications for what you then recommend/build together.

    The outcome of selling someone on an idea or a grandiose plan that they really can’t execute in the long-term, results in pure disappointment, and you can never really exceed expectations in that case. And, the outcome of only doing part of a social media plan, because budget was never really solidified in a foundational strategy, ALSO results in not meeting expectations.

    I think there is a lot to be said for new business that comes from referrals in this space, and so not only is the client then not satisfied in that situation, but the agency or consultant really isn’t getting ANYTHING from it, either!

  • I’m a bitch to work with. : )

  • Great advice Julie, thanks!

  • Well said, buddy. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Everything must start with strategy.

  • Awwwww. That is so nice of you to say. Thank you Laura!

  • Ugh. Feel your pain man,

  • Nice. You have to satisfy the customer. Only way to build the business. Delight the customer, exceed expectations. Thanks for the superb comment!

  • Amen! It’s so important for companies to understand what makes a good social media consultant too. If they have someone pushing them to get on certain channels instead of talking about the very things you discuss here, they should run!

    One of the things I also like to address is the “why.” Why do they want to step into social media? This question usually opens up a terrific fact-finding conversation in which you can learn much about the company, their motivations, their readiness, their expectations, their level of preparation, etc.

  • If you have a customer that can answer why, you are pretty lucky! I don’t know if I have had one : ) Usually takes some education. Thanks for the great comment Coreen.

  • Great post! Agree completely about the Goal & Culture aspect. Without those, all other efforts are futile.

    With goal I also like to remind my audience about Vision. Unless, the two are aligned, no amount of money will get you results.

  • That’s the beauty of it–they often don’t know why. The answer reveals all the points you need to address with them. Sometimes their answer is “because everyone else is doing it” or “because we have to…right?”–I find making them think about why really gets the conversation going and helps them see that there’s more to social media strategy than just “ok, let’s do this now.”

  • Well said Mr. Hanley. Couldn’t agree more about the company needing to clearly address the why. I’ve found without a strong why, companies often give up on doing the necessary day-to-day work and will chase one shiny object after another when they don’t get quick results. Defining a real why gives everyone a target, a purpose and increases the level of commitment to using social well.

    And Mark, you can see that you have “the heart of a teacher” and that is what wins over clients. You listen and you care about them and their business, not just selling them a service (the same way you care about your community). Which IMHO makes you super awesome 😉 Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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  • Louisa Reeve-Crook

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been taken on by many clients because of my ‘let’s figure this out together’ approach. They love to show me the beautifully-crafted, expertly-designed, 30-odd page plans that big fish social media companies have sent them. They don’t even entertain the idea of taking them on. It’s been reassuring to know I can compete as one of the ‘small fish’ 🙂

    Great post and great advice!

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  • Thanks, Don.

  • Great strategy!

  • Vision and strategy are very much aligned, aren’t they? Thanks for making that point Malhar.

  • Glad to hear this is working for you, too. Thanks for adding to the dialogue Louisa!

  • The approach you describe is exactly how I propose to go about it. Maybe it is due to the fact that both of us have had broader business experience than all too many so called social media experts! The old established marketing principle of tactics follow strategy also applies here but is often absent with a focus on the latest and brightest shiny tool. Not surprising then, that so many companies are “doing” social instead of “being” social. That requires to first of all answer the question of “WHY?” before the “what” and the “how”.

  • If anything it has been a lesson in how flawed most agency approaches are. They need to create a strategy that supports what they have to sell and keep their people busy. So the tactics become the strategy. That is the wrong approach for their customer, but pretty typical!

  • As Louisa points out, I think we are finding “small fish” are the “big fish” when it comes to developing and executing social media strategy for organizations. Which confirm Seth Godin’s assumption — the new big is small.

  • Mark, you practice something that is true of the greatest businesspeople: Giving away your best “secrets.” And this is definitely one of them. Not only is it true, but it also has the benefit of weeding out clients for whom you won’t be able to be successful because they won’t be willing to admit that it’s a figuring-out process. And it ensures that your culture and the client’s are in harmony. And it selects for smart businesspeople who realize that “best practices” almost never apply exactly to new situations and that what they need to find isn’t people who promise “answers,” but people who have shown they know how to approach new and unique situations.

    This post is one of those that I have smile at, because if those just starting out in the field (or any field where strategy applies, really) would take it to heart, they’d be so far ahead of the game. But as is the way of the world, you’re almost always safe giving it away since so few people will execute on it since it takes great courage to admit in our expertized world. It’s their loss. Our gain. Thanks as always.

  • Love this post 1,000 times over. I love the look on people’s faces when they ask if I can help them and I respond “I have no idea”. There are plenty of consultants and agencies out there that will wax poetic, maybe win the business and then get inside and realize “holy crap. there’s no way I can do this” usually for one of the reasons you list above.

  • Andrea

    Excellent article, I agree with you. I notice this a lot here in Belize, just instant gratification and not much commitment as long as it appears that the accounts are ‘active’. Thanks!

  • Agree with Seth’s wisdom here. Thanks Rodger.

  • What a very kind and thoughtful post William. I’m at a great place in my life where I can teach and lead by example. Glad to give away my secrets. There’s enough business for everybody 🙂

  • Oh that is great. I think there is a great value in being real and honest. Who does have all the answers? Great comment Kristen!

  • Belize? I want to be you. ; ) Have always wanted to go there. Thanks for joining in the {grow} community Andrea!

  • What I’ve said for years: “If you don’t know the ‘why’ the ‘how’ doesn’t matter. Cheers! Kaarina

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  • Lori Witzel

    Why do I love this blog? You and your contributors keep it real.

    “So the strategy must be created in the context of the political reality of the company.”

    Heck yes. The work-before-the-work comes in sussing out those social politics, and (for those of us hiring consultants) trying to map the political landscape clearly enough to enable our consultants to do their best with and for us.

  • Well said, my friend.

  • Always glad to have you hear, Lori. Thanks!

  • :))))

  • MarketingMel

    Excellent and thought provoking post Mark. You are right about Corporate Culture ultimately being the foundation to any communications strategy.

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  • Unfortunately, I see many brands don’t align with the vision and devise strategies for short term gains.

  • Exactly what I think Ryan. I regularly see companies with band-aid strategies wrt Social Media and when they fail to realize RoI, the blame game starts.

  • Sarah hoss

    So true Mark, I am nodding as I read – echoes frustrating conversations I’ve had it is the Donald Rumsfeld ‘unknown unknowns’ and you have mentioned some strategies I have attempted (memo to self be confident lol). It can be difficult accepting where we are in reality when clients want immediate results.

  • Thanks! See you soon at Social Slam!

  • Immediate results are unlikely : ) Thanks for your comment!

  • Mitch Ballard

    Hey Mark, thanks for sharing so informative post on social media consulting and one definitely needs to follow all the above mentioned steps while implementing.

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  • johnbottom

    Mark, you know I agree with you. The harsh truth of the matter is that if I send back a proposal saying “I don’t know what the answer is but I know how to find out” I will not win 95% of the business. OK, I don’t have the Schaefer twinkle-in-the-eye sales banter, but that’s how it works for me :-). The plus side is that I’m more likely to win those clients willing to take a sensible, structured, long-term approach (but that’s not 95% of them). Many clients want to see assumptions made and early conclusions drawn so a picture of a whole social media plan can be painted. I can’t say I always blame them for that, because they often have to present any agency proposal ‘upstairs’ to the people who are going to authorise the budget, and that is perhaps most easily done when it is visualised with a final execution.

    As always, you balance the amount of effort you put in to the potential value of the client. And of course you try to work out if they need to see something all-singing and all-dancing, or whether they’re prepared to spend time working on the choreography…

  • Kevin Flanders

    “Perhaps the first step toward social media success is not starting a blog or Facebook page, but hosting a series of social media workshops to get everybody on the same page. Or maybe it’s one-on-one counseling with a leader, or creating an internal social media council.” Love these ideas Mark! I’m still trying to get ‘BUY IN” from the top on social media currently. Take care.

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  • An excellent approach. I can’t count the number of agencies who have approached us with “Magic Bullet” / “Here’s-one-I-made-before” solutions that don’t consider any elements of our business. I sincerely appreciate this customer-first approach.

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  • Company goals culled/addressed? check. Available/determined budget to proceed? check. Assigned/educated staff to fulfill/sustain efforts? check. Functioning timeline aligned with company goals? check. Peeps & software to measure results? check You may now proceed to appropriate social media platform and strike up a “conversation.” M, Thanks for the building blocks and engine assessment! Most clients still require a battery charger or jump starter permanently plugged in nearby because they haven’t taken the time to PRE-plan and waste energy simply socializing without a real purpose. Oooooo, look at my puppy dance…this should bring in new customers…

  • Fantastic comment. Thanks Kristy!

  • I think my head is going to explode at just the thought of all that needs to be taken into consideration.

  • I concur. The ‘Why?’ is so vital.

  • Lisa Du

    Great article! I’ve encountered so many of the points you’ve made and am currently in the process of revamping for the new year. Thanks for the insight and providing industry validation to the variety of situations I have experienced as well.

  • Good luck Lisa!

  • I definitely agree with you that you have to start with a blank slate, raw honesty and a grasp of the company culture before you can start to build any kind of social media plan. Like we all know, the reality is that what works very well for one company may not work at all for another. Great approach and thanks for the five pillars list!

  • Mike Hind

    I’ve made the mistake of overreaching on the social strategy at the start of a gig, rather than getting these basics right first. Really good advice from MS.

    Here’s another lesson I’ve recently learned, in my first social media consultancy project:

    Do NOT assume your client understands who their audience is/should be.

    This was revealed as a pitfall to me when my client, a wonderful family business, began to balk at doing regular social. We’d tripled the likes on their Facebook page in 3 weeks. We’d increased Twitter followers by 10% in the same time. We’d posted a video that achieved a reach on FB of 75,000 people. All our metrics, reported from Hootsuite and Agorapulse were phenomenal. Then they pulled back.

    I asked why and they said ‘people’ had been commenting on how suddenly active they were. Commenting in a not entirely positive way. They felt slightly embarrassed when this happened. They felt they were being too noisy and kind of spamming people.

    It took several conversations to reveal where they were actually coming from.

    They thought their ‘audience’ was just their friends & family. They just didn’t see any value in posting constant updates for those people. They simply hadn’t realised their audience was now a whole new opt-in group who had actively signed up to all their social updates. That these people were not rolling their eyes at them, in the way friends & family will react to a very obvious dynamic change. I had made the mistake of thinking they knew who their audience was. But they were still living in the days when sisters, parents, school friends, the local mother & toddlers group members, existing customers etc formed their social audience.

    The lesson I drew from that was – as Mark advises – peddle right back to the very basics of understanding before you get all clever and strategic.

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