Why SM Consultants are Coming in From the Cold

May 27, 2011 · 52 comments in Miscellaneous,Social Media,tech business


Wherever I turn, it seems one of my many friends who work as independent social media consultants  are either looking for fulltime jobs or have recently taken one. I’m not talking about superstars like Chris Brogan. Nor do I include the out-of-nowhere self-proclaimed social media “experts” who usually turn out to be  ” know-nothings.”

The people I’m talking about are the many mid-level professionals who have done quite well in the last couple of years, by helping a great many companies of diverse size and focus to find their way into social media.

When I ask consultants why they’ve chosen this time to leave consulting and seek employment, they usually start by saying, “it’s time.”

They’re absolutely right. It’s time because the times have fast-evolved.

A few short years ago, social media consultants were still evangelists, explaining that the new conversational tools were not a fad; that it is better to listen to angry customers than set barriers to communications, that once you knew what you wanted to do with social media, you could measure almost every aspect of the process and result.

More recently, the business conversation shifted from the fundamental question of “Why should we…” to “how can we,” and the consultants went from being lonely voices in the dark corners, to pragmatic educators of how new tools could be provide significant, scalable and sustainable improvements.

A decade of social media disruption is now coming to an end. To a very large number of mainstream enterprises, large and small, social media is just one more item to integrate into the workflow process. While a few years ago, there were just ideas, today there are processes. While a few years ago social media teams in large enterprises were relegated to skunkworks operations, now social media is being used by marketing, recruiting, communications, business development, sales, support and so much more.

While a few years ago, there was no such thing as a community manager, there are now thousands of them.

In short, social media’s disruption is pretty much over and now the longer, slower, duller process of integrating social media into enterprise fabric, where diverse workers use tools to get their jobs done the same way they use computers, search and email.

consultants are for new waves of change. In the years I have been in the workplace, I’ve seen consultants for IT, for ethernet connection, faxes, email, security and firewall issues. I even recall being trained on how to use the new IBM typewriters with the ball, instead of a striker. Likewise there were experts on each of these subjects, who not only consulted, but they wrote books and spoke and conferences where people who were either puzzled or passionate about the new technologies gathered to listen, learn and occasionally be inspired.

That’s the state of social media today. It is normalizing inside of business. It is becoming an integrated system in place. There are guidelines for ethics. The lawyers have stopped screeching about risk. Operations officers are comfortable measuring results.

If you are really good at social media, there are tons of jobs for companies who want to normalize social media practices. That is an in-house position. The specialist with hard-to-find expertise on the subject is a dime a dozen as more and more people get accustomed to social media.

This is a normal evolution. It is time for many consultants to join companies and spend a few years continuing the normalization process which bring us out of the decade of corruption and into this new Conversational Age.

It’s time.



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LornePike July 3, 2011 at 7:09 am

Very interesting post, Shel. Consistent with your describing it as an evolution though, I’ve seen it more as a change into different skill sets and opportunities, rather than the end of an era. True enough, the “visionaries” — the self-proclaimed as well as the widely-touted ones — will find it hard to find any major company that hasn’t caught the vision very clearly by now. At that corporate level, the strategists and tacticians have now taken the stage.

However, at the SME level, there are still many consulting and in-house positions just starting to open up. Companies do need a lot of strategic and tactical direction, and not all of them are ready or able to commit to an in-house top gun yet. So while the high-end field may be thinning out, I believe there will be a lot of solid consulting opportunities at that SME level for a long time to come yet.

chrisbrogan July 3, 2011 at 12:22 am

You’re spot on with the post, Shel. Most of our friends have gone back to finding “real” jobs. The revolution was not tweeted.

I agree that my exposure and popularity are quite anomalous with most people’s results. Quite a lot of that popularity isn’t even justified. There are many smarter, more capable, more awarded, more lauded professionals than me.

In my case, I can say that what I’ve always done was experiment with how the fundamentals of communications and marketing and business practice would/could/SHOULD change with the advent of social business technology. I’m that rare bird who can talk to CEOs *and* suspender-wearing linux engineers (telco linux engineers resemble this, complete with beards – even the ladies).

The super secret magic trick that I’ve pulled for several years running is that I skipped the prior 15-20 years of practice expertise that most marketers/PR types have. I learned from my customer service background, blended with books like Ogilvy on Advertising, and married to my belief that human business matters much more than transaction-minded business. For whatever reason, my methods worked.

Be helpful, be human, be entertaining, and solve a dollar-shifting problem. That’s how I accomplished everything I’ve done well. Every time I’ve failed? Well, there are thousands of reasons for the hundreds of times I’ve failed.

In parting, an integrated, results-driven, “sexy data” and marketing technologist-driven approach is what will keep you selling to the big players. Oh, and a strong understanding of how mobile shifts this all up even more. Oh, and a strong ability to create stories that use different media to build two-way community that results in conversions.

You know. Easy. : )

ajenkins June 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm

While I agree that there a signs of social media normalizing inside businesses, I don’t think that companies in Canada are as far down that path as companies in the US might be. It was the same in the late 90′s with e-commerce. I was working for a Toronto-based startup that was being deluged with inquiries from the US but couldn’t get arrested in its hometown.

The US was about three years ahead then and probably still is today. Most companies here don’t want to be first and want proof that another company, preferably Canadian, has done it before successfully.

Some companies, typically the larger ones, are staffing up in social media but, as a compromise, many other companies are simply expanding the roles of existing staff and bringing in consultants like me to ramp them up.

I will be sure to let you know if I come in from the cold but for now I will just wear a sweater and muddle my way through.

srdill June 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Finding a firm that wants to normalize social media has not been as easy as I thought it would be, Shel. After 8 years solo I am in the mindset you describe: it’s time to take these skills inside to best utilize them and affect the most change. After a year of looking, I am wondering what percentage of companies are truly ready.

Join me in seeing that happen soon, will you @shelisrael ? (And aaronstrout @dough bryanperson and @ScottMonty too!)

socialmedia2day June 6, 2011 at 9:35 am

I agree about there being a cycle. I’m an employee again after another 5- year stint as a consultant. There are things to be learned in both positions.

shelisrael June 5, 2011 at 9:04 am

@dough So Doug, do you consider me to be a though leader among idiotic posters? :)

dough June 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

So, people are figuring out this about execution? Or are corporations just opening more of these presumably well-paying positions? I agree with the premise that the “Explaining social media” age has shifted- at least for a segment of the business world.

Of course, the unfortunate side effect is that “gurus” are suddenly discovering that this is now an integration age. I blame you for the rash of idiotic posts that are sure to follow ;)

TylerwSewell May 31, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I could not agree more. I find more and more businesses wnat an actual solution not advice. What do you think the best social media tool for a comapny is?

KnealeMann May 31, 2011 at 3:50 am

Shel, great post and I’ve had a lot of many similar conversations. For many, it’s time because the evangelizing has begun to scale while being a solo consultant has limited scalability. However, I meet people every single day who still look at me like I have three heads when discussing what you and I would call the basics of digital engagement.

It’s time for some who have worked within large organizations and realized that small(er) business owners simply don’t have the budget or focus to continue hiring consultants. Small (less than $5M in annual revenue) business has limited funds, medium sized business may have an internal stakeholder who does or thinks they do know what they’re doing and larger companies have people, departments and perhaps an agency with their hands on the wheel.

It’s tough to scale a solo digital consulting career when there are coffee shops populated with “social media experts” on one side and growing internal corporate infrastructure on the other. My sights are set on social business.

jesseluna May 30, 2011 at 8:23 pm

@FFasoyinu @gerardcorbett @shelisrael I agree, seeing age as a barrier doesn’t serve us. There are a lot of niches in Web 2.0 and we just have to connect with the positions that resonate with our education, experience, and passions.With every challenge comes a benefit.

Since I was laid off almost exactly a year ago from my 12-year Marcom position, I’ve been working as an independent consultant. I help small businesses get their websites/marketing and SM strategies straightened out . I’m still looking for a full-time position. The consulting has kept me fresh, in the networking community, and has provided some great new opportunities. It’s just a matter of time before either the consulting takes off all the way or I land a job.

FFasoyinu May 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

@jesseluna @gerardcorbett @shelisrael

As a young PR student looking to enter the field, there seems to be a big gap in regards to mid level positions. You either have the startup positions for us “young and inexperienced” or the big company positions, as you mention jesseluna, which require 5+ years experience. However, I think it is important to play up my inherent inexperience factor and frame it as an asset, in terms such as being able to bring different creative approaches to the table. To be fearful of this reality is not beneficial in my view, because selling yourself as an asset to the organization is always necessary, regardless of your age.

mikekujawski May 30, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Hey Shel, nope, not “companies”, public sector only. My niche is working with public servants (federal, provincial and municipal). We identified a market gap and seized it. I too am seeing a ton of “social media consultants” applying for jobs. Many of them never chose a unique audience or niche but rather remained generalists. Most of my fellow colleagues that are doing quite well stuck to a specialty within the world of social media (i.e. crowdsourcing, open data, monitoring, internal collaboration, policy, etc….). That’s what’s allowed them to flourish and I still see a ton of unclaimed territory in these areas.@shelisrael @mikekujawski

TrafficServices May 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Hey Scott…any chance Ford is looking for anyone in say the Orlando, Phoenix or Cancun area’s?? @ScottMonty @gerardcorbett

shelisrael May 30, 2011 at 5:01 pm

@mikekujawski So you train hundreds of people who are employees of big companies. What do you think that does for the consulting business of other freelancers?

mikekujawski May 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Shel, while I agree where you’re going with this post I wouldn’t paint such a blanket picture just yet (i.e. “it’s the state of social media today. It is normalizing inside of business”). I’m a strategic marketing and digital engagement consultant, trainer and speaker that works only with the public sector. Every year , I train well over 1000 public servants around the globe as to how they can take a strategic approach towards engaging on these channels, or at the very least “how to listen” as part of business intelligence. For about 5% of them my team develops comprehensive strategic plans or other deliverables (audits, guidelines, governance structures, etc…).The challenges these people face have not changed all that much in the last 5 years. While a ton of inertia has finally been overcome, many champions within branches and departments still have a very hard time convincing the clay layer of middle management that engagement on these channels of any sort is a worthy undertaking. This is partly (but not entirely) due to the fact that true “strategic” thinking was never part of their job descriptions. Many government “communications” branches are comprised of people with absolutely no “communications” or “marketing” background / training of any kind. As a result, concepts such as setting goals and objectives, segmenting audiences, positioning, etc… are all foreign. Therefore help STILL is needed so that that final “clay layer” can be penetrated and true progress can be made. My prediction for the public sector (here in Canada especially), another 5 solid years of hand-holding during the transition in terms of truly integrating social media of some sort into everyday public servant workflow. That being said, I will likely always remain a consultant as I have purposely chosen to avoid pigeonholing myself as a “social media consultant”. I’m a marketing strategist (with a specific niche) at the end of the day and will remain so well past the current wave of buzzwords.

myerman May 30, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Ahhhhh, this takes me back to when content management was the watch word, and the pain of evangelizing that to companies…and before that, the knowledge management thing….and before that, trying to get companies to add email to their internal communications processes…..

leslieposton May 30, 2011 at 5:13 am

@ScottMonty @gerardcorbett Sometimes people have made up their mind before they make their argument, and I know a lot of people are convinced that they are being shuffled out for young interns. In my experience as a consultant in the space, only small companies that truly have no money and must DIY or firms that simply don’t “get” how social works hire “younger and cheaper”. The rest look for people with not only social chops, but business experience – two things “younger and cheaper” can’t bring to the table.

ScottMonty May 29, 2011 at 5:41 pm

@gerardcorbett People of all ages are “shown the door” at Ford, Gerard. The Communications department has objectives for talent recruitment that have nothing to do with age.

gerardcorbett May 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm

@ScottMonty Scott, that’s great news as well. Although, I do know several older folks at Ford who were shown the door.

gerardcorbett May 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm

@susanbeebe @gerardcorbett Susan, that is terrific news. I am happy to send those with whom I coach your way.

ScottMonty May 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm

@gerardcorbett This certainly isn’t the case at Ford, where we’re looking to hire experienced and strategic.

ann_donnelly May 29, 2011 at 11:14 am

Yes social media is now becoming normalised, but I also thinking many find self employment less glamourous than expected. Also social media may be more efficiently and effectively done internally by someone with a long term investment with the company

Andrew_K_Kirk May 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

@shelisrael Thanks for the great write up. As a social media consultant, I agree that the mainstreaming of social media has created more significant positions within companies. The elevation of these positions has made it more attractive for consultants to take full time jobs.

susanbeebe May 29, 2011 at 10:15 am

@gerardcorbett I too disagree. I am not “young and cheaper”. I am 42 years young and I am certainly not cheap. :) The key is not age – it’s expertise, forward thinking, the art of persuasion, change management and communications skills. Young people do not have 15+ years of working with Fortune 100 companies, integrating processes and driving radical change. Plus maturity helps when you have to engage stakeholders and initiate considerable change management. Social media integration requires a lot of persuasion, hustling in an enterprise culture, and sheer business and political savviness – NOT something young people have learned yet.

susanbeebe Corp Comms/PR for dell

jesseluna May 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm

@gerardcorbett @shelisrael I’ve seen this trend towards hiring younger and cheaper at smaller online-focused companies and startups. For larger companies and major consulting firms, they are looking for deeply experienced folks with big company experience and/or several years of experience running their own shops, leading teams, and being major thought leaders.

gerardcorbett May 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm


Shel, I have coached no less than 150 people in the last 12 months and the age thing is alive and well. You, Brian and Steve may have been fortunate but there are hundreds who have not. Just saying,

shelisrael May 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm

@gerardcorbett As an older communications professional I disagree. The ComPro has had 5 years to meet the challenges for fundamental change. Folks like @ShelHoltz, @BrianSolis & @SteveRubel are among the many who have met the challenge. It’s not a payroll issue so much as a change in what’s relevant to a modern organization–or so it seems to me.

gerardcorbett May 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Shel, well said and true. But the deeper fact is this:

The proliferation of social media consultants reflects the steep cutback of communications pros on the corporate side. Companies are simply hiring younger and cheaper. So older communications pros have no alternative to gainful employment. It is either time to flip burgers or seek engagements in the “career soup de jour.”

leslieposton May 28, 2011 at 10:32 am

Great perspective :)

shelisrael May 28, 2011 at 9:29 am

@KathyChristieHernandez Thanks Kathy, I wrote this one when I was jammed for time. I’ve made several editing changes, including “scans.” I appreciate the crowd-sourced help on my blogs.

KathyChristieHernandez May 28, 2011 at 6:34 am

Great post! Please change “How scan we” to “How can we.”

shelisrael May 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I thought I made excessively clear that I was referring to real pros and not the “know mornings” as I called them. Did you read past the post or just do a quick scan?

Samjb May 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I think another reason so many of them are looking for jobs is because they claim to be “experts” and their clients are realizing they’re charlatans. Those same clients may also realize that social media is one tool in the complete strategic communications toolbox. You wouldn’t hire a “press release” consultant, would you? If you were a construction company, you wouldn’t hire a “hammer consultant” so why would you hire a tactitian when you need a strategist–and you may already have them in house.

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