Straight talk on being a social media consultant

social media consultant

By Mark Schaefer

Nearly every week I mentor some young person who wants to start a career as a social media marketing consultant. I’m happy to help but unfortunately find myself bursting a lot of bubbles of overly high expectations.

I have a rewarding career and I have fun every day, but it took a lot of work to get here and a sustained effort to stay relevant. I thought it might be useful to present some straight talk on what it takes to make it in this business.

It’s really not about social media

Having a deep love of animals does not qualify you to be a veterinarian. Likewise, having a deep love of social media does not make you a social media marketing professional.

This true career choice is about MARKETING not social media.

I had a young man ask me how to be a marketing consultant and he had never taken a marketing class or even read a book about marketing. Be humble and pay your dues. Work for a company for awhile. Get some real business experience before you hang your shingle and go out on your own.

Social media marketing is very hard work

I want you to think of the top people in the field you admire. I guarantee you they have this in common — they’ve worked their butts off to get there.

People are more likely to hire somebody with a reputation and a portfolio of success stories. It takes an enormous amount of work to become “known” and attract customers.

If you want to move beyond the local level and establish a national or international reputation, you have to build a reliable personal brand based on:

  • Defining a distinctive sustainable interest
  • Owning an under-served or uncontested space
  • Building a portfolio of meaningful and focused content
  • Creating a truly actionable audience

This scalable process is explained in detail in the book KNOWN: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age. On average, it takes 30 months of sustained work before a personal brand “tips.” Do you have a 30-month mindset?

Success for a social media consultant is elusive

I’ve worked in marketing for 30 years so this is the voice of experience coming at you — We are in the most difficult era to be a marketer … and social media has made the job harder, not easier.

People flock to social platforms to watch YouTube stars burn furniture or to see pictures of their sister’s new baby. They don’t want to see news about your new line of ball bearings or a photo of the employee of the month.

It was much easier to “buy” attention through advertising — our only option 20 years ago — than it is to earn it now. The problem is made immensely more difficult by the density of information on the web which is exploding. Creating success for your customer takes a keen strategy, insight, patience, and expert execution. Can you deliver that?

Be prepared to be broke for awhile

Nearly every newly-minted social media consultant dreams of helping small businesses with their marketing efforts. Here are some characteristics of a typical small business owner:

  • They are running on a shoe string and don’t have appropriate marketing funds
  • They have no experience in marketing and can’t articulate what they want
  • They are exhausted and don’t have time for social media
  • They demand immediate results from their marketing dollars

Trying to make a living with a portfolio of small business customers with that profile is difficult. Be prepared to grind it out for a couple years until you can work your way into larger, more profitable companies.

Set an example

Why would I hire a social media consultant who doesn’t blog? Isn’t active on Twitter? Doesn’t have a demonstrated knowledge of video content?

I know it sounds improbable but half the people I mentor are not actively creating content. I can’t take you seriously if you have 10 followers on Twitter or a blog that hasn’t been updated since 2013.

The only way to truly consult on marketing is to immerse yourself in marketing. Demonstrate expertise in a visible and effective way.

And the world is wide open

I don’t mean to be a downer about the business realities of becoming a marketing consultant but I do want you to have a realistic view. If you want to make it, you need to:

  1. Get real experience that creates a portfolio of success
  2. Read and learn about solid marketing fundamentals
  3. Patiently build your personal brand

… and I hope you do. Don’t be afraid of the competition. Don’t hesitate to do the work. I think marketing is the most fascinating aspect of business and a fantastic career choice. I hope you go for it.

Are you building a marketing consulting business? What would you add?

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Toothpaste for Dinner

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  • Mark,
    Absolutely on the money!!

  • Many thanks Allen.

  • RandyBowden

    Mark, as someone who shares with you the longevity in the field, this post is spot on. I have looked at the pop of social media marketing sprouts and for some reason kudzu comes to mind.

  • Jason Jue

    Agree and adding some standard career advice 1) get an internship 2) work for an organization/corporation. 3) If you are already working in a department, figure out a joint project that your department and your company’s social media team can do together.

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  • Where were you 3 years ago?? I came straight out of the coal mines (after an accident) and I thought I would travel to the world of blogging and social marketing. Everyone else was doing it, so why couldn’t I?

    8 months later I finally started making some money. You’re spot on with this speech and I find that it’s one that I’m personally giving to newbies every week as well. Now I don’t have to anymore 🙂 I’ll just send them here.

    I will tell you that being a “social marketer” has been one of the most rewarding jobs that I have ever had though.

  • Frederic Gonzalo

    Amen, Mark! I remember reading a similar post over two years ago, when I had been blogging for about a year by then. The post went along the same lines as your post, and added that if a social media consultant hasn’t been blogging for at least two years, you should run the other way. I thought it was rather harsh back then, but now that I’ve been blogging consistently for over three years now, I totally get it. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems…

    But the core point you make and that people should remember: it’s social media MARKETING, not just social media. I am often approached for help with a Facebook page or to prioritize with other social networks, and I have to tell the business owner to take a few steps back and look at their overall strategy. One example: they don’t even have a customer database, and don’t send out emails or newsletters. But they want a better Facebook page?

    Anyway, you get the gist…
    Thanks for the post. Have a great week!

  • Ha! That image is burned into my brain now Randy.

  • Right on. I actually gave this exact advice to a young man last week. I’m not sure how you can be a consultant if you have never worked in marketing before!

  • Thanks for the insight Wade. Glad to hear you’re in the money : )

  • Exactly right Frederic. Thanks for adding your wisdom to the community today!

  • I wouldn’t say that Mark 🙂 But if friendships and helping people are riches then yes, I’m definitely in the money. Have a good one my friend

  • SociaLEE Consulting

    THANK YOU!!!! As a social media MARKETING consultant, I agree with every word; though I know I am lacking in a few places-thanks to doing more management of social media networks than consulting. It’s great to have so many people who LOVE to use social media, but understanding how it works for business marketing is a totally different can of worms.

  • SocialSteve


  • Well hang in there and let me know if I can help you along the way.

  • First, congratulations on the World Cup win! A very exciting tournament.

    I found that doing the out-sourced social media work was hard too. High expectations, low budgets! Thanks for taking the time to add your comment.

  • Good to hear from you Steve.

  • Neil Patrick

    Thanks Mark for saying something that really needed voicing IMHO!

    I run into a lot of potential clients who’ve been burned by hiring self appointed SM experts…and the one thing they all have in common is no background in marketing.

    It worries me that this initial negative experience turns business owners off the whole idea and they become skeptical of the true value of SM marketing.

    PS I read Born to Blog and the Tao of Twitter over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed both! Thank you.

  • Michelle Kane

    A-to-the-MEN. Thanks for this post!

  • Sounds like a pretty great weekend to me : ) Thanks for buying my books Neil and for stopping by to comment.

  • You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to comment Michelle.

  • When I started my consulting business here in small-town Canada I spent years explaining what social media means. Today, every time I turn around there is another new provider of “cheap” services.
    What blows me away is the amount of people that have the audacity to expect they can “pick my brain” for free, skip all those years of blood, sweat and tears to “do what I do”….
    I especially love how you highlight that you have to show you know what you are talking about! Thanks Mark!
    PS: didn’t you write a post about “picking my brain” a while ago?

  • Amazingly truthful and needed post.
    I don’t think many people realize just how many hours you need to put into achieving success or how hard the work can be.
    In my opinion, just because someone spends hours on Facebook each day it doesn’t mean they can achieve marketing success for a business any more than I can call myself a graphic designer because I can use Canva.

  • Todd Davis

    Great post! It was always curious to me that a so called “branding, marketing, social media” consultant type person wasn’t on Google Plus! (Excellent cartoon, too!)

  • This is a much needed post Mark, thanks for sharing the reality of consulting. Agree with all your points around building your brand as well as building the business and doing the work for clients. Thanks again!

  • Well said Chad. Thanks!

  • That guy always seems to have a cartoon to fit my sentiment. : )

  • And thanks for doing the work Tracy! Hope your business continues to bloom in the UK!

  • Curious, what do you tell people you mentor about how to choose clients and what to do w/low paying / high teeth gritting work?

    High growth startups is a slightly different arena, but I’ve been thinking of starting to do some growth/marketing consulting there and part of me wants to just pay the bills with other freelance work and build out some solid work w/o worrying about making money off of it.

  • My advice starting out is to take EVERYTHING that comes your way — clients, speaking, guest posts, whatever. Each of them will be a learning experience and will lead to connections that will ultimately create business benefits. In this phase you are also learning how to be a business and sorting out what is really going to bring in the revenue and perhaps even point to a niche or vertical that you can move into.

    This is why you either need to start this as a “nights and weekends” endeavor or have the financial resources to withstand the building phase. Tragically this is a reality overlooked by many entrepreneurs. They are betting on an unrealistic timetable for success, which may lead to foolish and desperate decision-making just to “pay the bills.”

    It is unlikely that youre first business plan or concept is going to ber perfect out of the box. You need to give yourself a cushion of time to be able to pivot when the challenges and opportunities come your way.

  • That makes sense, thanks Mark.

  • You are right on the money Mark. I’ve been doing this over 3 years now and am just now at the point where the big stuff is coming in. I had to work my way to it – taking those hot messes – but if you want to be successful in this industry, you have to work your way up. It’s hard and it involves A LOT of time, but if they just stick those hot messes out and have some nice successes along the way, it will pay off in the end.

    I can’t believe that half of the people you mentor are not blogging?!?!? That was the first thing I started out with!

  • Yes, yes, yes! I did a video blog on this about a year ago and said something similar. In addition to being good at marketing strategy, I suggested that people who want to get into social media must be good at writing/storytelling and analytics/measurement. Without those three things, you’ll have a tough time being successful.

    Great advice, Mark!

  • Adding this to my bookmarks, I’ve got a post held in drafts for a few years now, waiting for that time when I can’t take it anymore and must get my rant ON. I consider myself a communicator first, the branding and marketing come down the line as part of fulfilling overall business goals. That’s a tough sell to a small company that doesn’t really get SM, PR, communications and is all about ‘sales, now!’ so the biz owner can drive a nicer car and spend little money, do as little work as possible. ahem. Which is by way of typing that you’ve successfully described my life for the last decade or so – and why I’m looking to get away from small business.

    Last week I took a local biz to task for shouting tweet spam at me, how that it wasn’t social – just really crap marketing that will only get them blocked. Too many thinking they’re promoting their business ‘socially’ when really, they’re only promoting their bad marketing. Got me wondering .. what if they decided ‘hey, let’s do this right?’ and reached out to hire me? Would I want them as a client? IDK but they did reply a few hours later, and wished me good luck w/ my unique approach to PR and SM. FWIW.

  • I’ve been coaching/mentoring business owners for over 30 years now, and in some ways, the more things change the more they stay the same: I’m talking fundamentals here. Whether it’s social media, smoke signals, print, shouting from a rooftop or banners on a bus, it’s about marketing…getting your message to the right people, when they want to hear it and where they want to hear it. No doubt social media has made the job harder, because the online world if full of noise, so it becomes even more difficult to stand out, and even more difficult for the customer to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometime it all becomes white noise.

    What I know is that, like Robert Fulghum’s “All I ever wanted to know I learned in kindergarten”, the basics can still take you far. Listen twice as much as you speak. Pay your dues. You can’t fast track experience. Listen with the intention of understanding, not responding. Work hard…bloody hard. Cheers! Kaarina

  • You are a model in tenacity my friend! Way to go!

  • Excellent addition to the conversation Laura and I agree. Of course it would also be an excellent addition to the conversation if I didn’t agree but luckily we did not have to address that sort of thing today. : )

  • You have one of the posts ready too? In my head I have written “The Day I Retire Post” : ) Now that will get a lot of comments!

  • Right, right, she’s bloody well right. Kaarina’s bloody well right today …

    First time I am singing in the comment section to a Supertramp song. I hope you liked it. I may do it more often it gets me good SEO for keywords like Supertramp. 🙂

  • Now you know I’ll be singing that all day:)

  • Fungai Edeline Ndemera

    Yes, Yes.I couldn’t agree more with this article. Just today i was speaking to a colleague how there is a very wrong perception “get rich quick out there” which is leading people to a lot of frustrations. They want to start business today and get rich tomorrow. I always want to believe in the story of a farmer, who watches all the seasons, finds time to prepare for the sowing time. When that time comes, puts his seed in the ground ,then he waters that seed for a few days with the hope that it germinates. After that he starts to see the buds and continues until its fully grown then its gives him the fruit then it harvests. Nothing has changed!!!Simple business principles will remain the same.One just has to know how to apply them xxx

  • It’s sort of a letter to ‘hot mess’ businesses as you called them entitled “I can’t help you.” Not for retirement, just retirement from hot mess biz (I hope). 🙂

  • Then a hurricane comes and you start over : )

    Couldn’t help myself!

    Thanks for the geat comment!

  • drjrogers

    This is fantastic! Completely applicable to my students and those who reach out about a career in “social”– Its a career in MARKETING that comes first. Social is just a tool… Thanks for once again putting your thoughts out there!

  • Glad I could help Jessica! Great to see you in the comment section.

  • drjrogers

    Have a great weekend~

  • SociaLEE Consulting

    I definitely agree… although social/digital advertising is significantly cheaper than ‘traditional’ advertising, a social media manager is just like your marketing manager, only specializing in one aspect.

  • Dave Baldwin

    I think the other hurdle that any “social media consultant” will have to overcome is the fact that small business owners, especially ones that have been in business for a long time, are well accustomed to advertising the old way. These same business owners often don’t use social media at all, and have little to no understanding of how the platform works. As a result, they expect to spend money on social media the same way they would spend money on radio ads — to do nothing but cut a check and wait for the phone to ring. But the truth is that if the business’s internal staff does not become actively engaged in social media, the outside consultant will have a much harder time making it work. And when the customers don’t show up, it’s the consultant’s fault.

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