January 1, 2010

In Search of a Social Media Expert (Part 1)

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Productivity, Social Media Tools tagged , , , , , , , at 8:37 am by bizlawblog

I’ve touched on the area of social media “experts” in a couple of posts on this blog. I first mentioned the topic in When Thought Becomes Reality. Because of some interesting comments on that post, I followed up in slightly more depth in Is Everyone A Social Networking Expert? This post starts a series, which will explain why this is important to both me and my clients, and perhaps to you as well.

I’m no stranger to the duty and privilege of helping clients fulfill their desire to obtain outside assistance with emerging technologies and non-traditional expertise. Many of my clients rely upon me, from time-to-time, to assist them in the process of finding and engaging “experts” in various fields. Sometimes, they ask me to simply review an engagement letter submitted by a supposed expert or to draw up an agreement to retain an expert they have already found and determined to be “qualified” for their intended purposes. Sometimes, they ask me to assist in locating an expert they would deem “suitable” according to their specifications. Sometimes, they’re not even sure what they need, but they think they need some sort of “expert,” and ask me to assist in the process.

In each of these situations, I need some knowledge of the goals of my client in retaining the services of an expert. In drafting a contract, I need to know what my client wants to achieve and to avoid. If they have already located and qualified the expert, my task is relatively simple. I review the contract presented by the expert, or create one for my client, ensuring the usual suspects are accounted for, such as deliverables, “avoidables,” benchmarks, term, compensation, termination options, the normal independent contractor provisions, and a host of other contract provisions most transactional lawyers are accustomed to dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

Assisting my clients with the acquisition of software programmers, hardware developers, Web developers and so-called SEO experts has been a main stay of my law firm for many years. More recently, the request has been for those who can “fix” the problems left by some of the foregoing “experts.” In the last year or so, however, clients seem to be increasingly interested in hiring social media expertise. It is one thing to help a client engage a structural engineer and quite another to help vet and then wordsmith contract language for a social media expert. Thus came my research into just what qualifies one to be called a social media expert.

If I am involved in locating an expert in a particular field, presuming it is one of the “traditional” fields, such as engineering, the role I play is still relatively easy. In such traditional fields, the process of locating and qualifying an expert typically revolves around ensuring the education and experience of the candidates meet certain criteria, including relevance to the task at hand. Educational degrees, professional certifications, licenses, work experience, and references from satisfied customers, provide some of the basic metrics upon which the candidates may be graded, along with availability within the given time frame, compensation formula, etc. There is nothing new here.

Much has been written about what makes one an expert, generally, and the various factors deemed to constitute expertise in many specific fields. When looking at this issue in the context of social media, however, I found quite a few articles contemplating whether anyone could deserve title of “expert” in such a relatively new field, and particularly one without generally recognized accreditation standards at that.

I decided to approach the project of establishing my own set of social media expertise metrics from a few angles. The common joke in the legal field is that the definition of an expert is simply someone with a briefcase who lives more than a hundred miles away. The quotes on expertise from “notables” span the full range. Here are some samples.

  • “I am an expert of electricity. My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at the state prison.” (W. C. Fields)
  • “What’s an expert? I read somewhere, that the more a man knows, the more he knows, he doesn’t know. So I suppose one definition of an expert would be someone who doesn’t admit out loud that he knows enough about a subject to know he doesn’t really know how much.” (Malcolm Forbes)
  • “Make three correct guesses consecutively and you will establish a reputation as an expert.” (Laurence J. Peter)
  • “An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.” (Steven Weinberg)
  • “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions.” (Admiral Grace Hopper)

Not finding those pearls of wisdom particularly helpful, I wondered if the simplicity of graphical representations might be helpful. Folks say a picture is worth a thousand words. An old favorite in this medium is Indexed, which produced one of its typically perceptive virtual three by five card drawings, labeled “But it worked in the 90s!” That deserved a chuckle, but not a cigar, so the search continued.

Next up was The Visual Thesaurus® created by Thinkmap, Inc., a company which says it “develops and markets software that uses visualization to facilitate communication, learning, and discovery” and specializes in “user interfaces and visualization mechanisms that allow end-users to more effectively browse and understand complex information.”

The visual thesaurus search results for the term “expert” rendered a mindmap-like spider web featuring the words adept, good, practiced, proficient, skilful, skillful, and tangential association of the word or concept “technical.” That produced what most would consider a pretty good sampling of terms to describe someone we already considered to be an “expert,” but didn’t provide much help in the more granular aspects of selection criteria.

Since few professions are more “granular” than the law, I returned home to more familiar ground and found something I wasn’t expecting. That unexpected thing was that both legal and business principles warned of the dangers of placing too much confidence in the opinions of experts.

The American legal system has long been concerned that the opinion of “experts” will unduly prejudice a jury, causing it to rely upon whatever the experts says, rather than weighing all the evidence and making it’s own determination. This system relies on the judge, as gatekeeper, as well as on procedural and evidentiary rules. Article VII of the Federal Rules of Evidence, for instance, provide a framework for matters such as separating expert from lay opinions, the bases of opinion testimony by experts, and limitations on admission of the expert’s opinion on ultimate issues.

Likewise, further clarification of the use of experts in litigation came in 1993, when the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. Most lawyers need only view the Daubert decision as establishing a standard for dealing with admissibility of expert testimony in court. For our purposes in looking at experts, it also points out that when a legislative body (i.e. Congress, which was largely made up of lawyers) decided to adopt the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975, it created an opportunity for other lawyers to argue whether the rules impacted the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1923 case, Frye v. United States.

Although the issues may still not be entirely resolved, let’s say, for the sake of argument, it only took the legal system seventy years to clarify how it felt courts should deal with exposing juries to the opinions of experts. The “surprise” I mentioned earlier comes full circle, from the archives of the business world, namely Fortune magazine.

“Often companies will underestimate the abilities of their own people, opting instead for the supposed advantages–chiefly financial–touted by someone with a briefcase from 100 miles away.”

This sounds strangely like the business world’s version of what the legal system has long feared, which is that the opinion of someone denoted as an expert will cause normal folks to turn into jelly, forsaking the lessons they may have learned from their own education and experience. So if we can’t necessarily even agree upon whether we should listen to an expert opinion, how am I to deal with a client which insists on hiring one in an area which is still emerging and has no generally accepted standards? We will explore this in the next leg of this quest to determine who is or is not a social media expert.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.


November 23, 2009

Oh the Horror! Weighing Legal Fears Against the ROI of Social Media in Business (Part 1)

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Criminal activity, Employee issues, Facebook, LinkedIn, Productivity, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter tagged , , , , , , , at 1:15 am by bizlawblog

Social media use for individuals is becoming harder to ignore all the time. Some, like me, long avoided it, based on worries about spam and identity theft. In fact, the theft can actually exceed one’s identity. I feel concerned, when I see friends, neighbors, and clients posting online, telling the world they’re about to go on a trip for five days. Isn’t that like broadcasting to burglars? Some apparently think so. Rebecca Camber reports Facebook and Twitter users face pricier insurance as burglars ‘shop’ for victims’ personal details on networking sites.

The social media investment decision is much more complex for business strategists. So, when considering jumping into or increasing your business social media campaign, how do you weigh the potential return on investment against all those horror stories you hear about the bad things that can happen?

Less than a year ago, I received an e-mail from a business associate inviting me to “link” to him on LinkedIn. He is a client and also my associate in a “virtual” consulting business, so I “trusted” his invitation and clicked on the link in his e-mail. “Poof,” with a few clicks of the keyboard, inputting some relatively low-level contact information, I became a member of LinkedIn, my first real social networking experience. Less than a year later, I have started two LinkedIn groups, manage another one, have started a companion Facebook group, and am regularly recommending social networking strategies for my small business clients. I just had my flu shot, but sounds like I’ve caught at least one virus, doesn’t it?

We’ve all read those stories, like The Social Media Revolution is Changing the Way We Do Business, presumably leading us, as entrepreneurs, to the conclusion we should jump on the paradigm change and invest heavily in social media marketing for our company. After all, as the article says:

The number of texts sent and received every day exceeds the Earth’s population! It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million people, yet Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months! If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest country in the world, after the U.S.  Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more Twitter followers than the entire population of Ireland, Norway and Panama! These astounding facts were published recently in the YouTube video, “The Social Media Revolution”. The world of social media is exploding, bringing people to people and businesses to people in a way never before imagined; and it’s having a profound effect!

Social media is no longer a casual social interaction. Businesses nationwide are jumping into the arena, not merely to gain the ear and attention of their constituents and clients, but more importantly, to create one-on-one relationships with the public at large.

But what about The Social Media Fear Factor? Rachel Happe’s article points out that “there is plenty to be anxious about in considering using social media for business.” Among other things, there is:

  • knowing your legal and cultural boundaries and limitations;
  • being prepared to respond proactively to criticism;
  • being sure enough of your intellectual property assets to engage in sharing them, to some extent, with competitors;
  • having enough interesting content

Of course, like anything else, if you don’t know what you’re doing there is always the chance of making yourself look like an idiot. Unique, relevant content is always appreciated, as Joe Hall points out in his article, Cup of Joe: How Not To Go Viral and Look Like an Idiot.

There are, however, much worse things to fear. One of those was telegraphed by the title of Jordan McCollum’s article, Are You Breaking the Law with Social Media Marketing? Her article focused on what some consider to be new regulations or changes in existing regulations by the Federal Trade Commission with regard to self-advertising. In fact, these new guidelines, available from the FTC, really clarify existing law, which provides that if somebody is paying you to endorse a product, you must disclose it or face a substantial fine. Unless you’re trying to pull a fast one on your customers, this really shouldn’t be a problem and the “new” guidelines should be seen as assisting in preventing mistakes, rather than imposing new regulations. Nothing to fear there, so what’s the problem?

One issue is that once we publish on the Web or the social media equivalent, if we’ve made an error, it never goes away. As Eric Enge’s article points out, The Web is a Permanent Record. Once published digitally, our error is always there, lurking just below the surface (if we’re lucky and it is not on the surface) for some customer, competitor, or regulator to discover.

Years ago, I discovered the Wayback Machine, which I found very useful in litigating trademark and trade secret cases, using it to prove information posted on an adverse party’s Web site. The site’s FAQ says:

Visitors to the Wayback Machine can type in a URL, select a date range, and then begin surfing on an archived version of the Web. Imagine surfing circa 1999 and looking at all the Y2K hype, or revisiting an older version of your favorite Web site. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine can make all of this possible.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine contains almost 2 petabytes of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. This eclipses the amount of text contained in the world’s largest libraries, including the Library of Congress.

Which of us had not clicked “Send” on an e-mail we wished we’d checked more closely before sending? Likewise, what company Web site has not posted something it wished had never seen the light of day? Knowing it can always rise from the archives to haunt us, can cause a chilling effect among the prudent. You say you are prudent so it’s not a problem. Well, can you say the same of all your employees? What about your customers and competitors? You will likely be “engaging” them by simply putting up a Web site, let alone pursuing an interactive social networking strategy with your customers and prospects.

David Berkowitz tells us there are at least 100 Ways To Measure Social Media. Is that helpful? It has to be if you know what you’re doing, but this is hardly a case of black and white. As Berkowitz says:

Some entries here can be interpreted several ways. Depending on how you define them, some of these metrics may seem redundant, while others may seem so broad that they can be broken out further. Many of these can be combined with each other to create new metrics that can then be tracked over time. It’s a start, though, so dive in and consider which ones may apply to programs you’re working on.

Sounds like we may need an “expert” here to help us determine which metrics will tell us what we need. The search for such an expert, however, creates its own set of issues, to some of which I alluded in a previous post, Is Everyone A Social Networking Expert? Robert Strohmeyer came to similar conclusions in his article, Beware the Social Media Charlatans:

For anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand bucks, you can hire a social media consultant to come to your office and put on a training seminar for your staff. They’ll spend an hour or two pontificating about the power of social media to raise awareness of your brand and the magical benefits of building closer relationships with your customers in 140 characters or less. They’ll probably even offer you a few “insider tips” based on their “deep expertise” in the field. The only problem? It’s a load of bull.

Unless you define success by the sort of loosey-goosey standards that might make your horoscope appear to actually predict the future, the real measure of any business undertaking is that it increases your profits. But in the vast majority of use cases, neither Twitter nor Facebook stands any significant chance of doing that for business users. And if you’re a small business that depends on, say, actually selling real products and services to actual paying customers, wistfully tweeting about your daily specials is almost certainly a waste of resources.

Admittedly, I’ve probably raised more questions than I’ve answered in this initial post in a series. This is a complex, ever-changing subject, which is one reason for this blog and the LinkedIn group I started, Social Media Search and Forensics. We have just scratched the surface of trying to weigh social media fears against the Ashton Kutcher comlex. We’ll turn next to a more detailed examination of the validity of social media fears, before going on to methods to weigh those risks against the potential return on investment of employing worthy social media strategies in your business.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.

November 2, 2009

Is Everyone A Social Networking Expert?

Posted in Best practices, Productivity, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter, Web 2.0 tagged , at 2:54 pm by bizlawblog

This morning, I received some comments on articles I posted. Not an unusual thing, and something any blogger longs for, presuming it is constructive. In this case, I think the comment strings rise to the level of warranting a new post here. In the inimitable word of Yogi Berra, “It’s like deja-vu, all over again.”

I’m going to risk being placed in Google’s duplicate content sandbox by cutting and pasting some of the verbiage from the comment strings described above, because I think the topic is of relatively broad concern to those involved in the social media business and to those who are wavering on whether they should likewise become so engaged.

The initial issue relates to who is or is not a social media/networking “expert,” presuming there actually is such a thing at this point. The following is a string between me and a couple of readers who already knew each other. I have redacted the name in this post, but the whole string is available in the comments to the original post. The first comment related to my post here, When Thought Becomes Reality. In particular, the comment mentioned this passage, which seemed to “tickle” the reader:

One other side of the shift seems to be in the area of instant experts on use of social media as a business tool. I can’t recall any profession, including Web optimization experts, growing as quickly as the number of self-proclaimed social Web experts. Perhaps this is because of my own foray into this area. They say, “if you want to shoot a moose, you have to go where the moose are.”

Frankly, I seem to be surrounded by moose, but can’t remember how I got here. Social media experts seem to surround me wherever I go. No matter what I search for online, I run into “experts” in this area.

My response to the comments from the reader was:

Thanks Xxxx. If you liked finding a few moose, I wonder what the impact will be of incoming applications like Twitter’s new “Lists” feature and potential geotagging by default, mentioned in my latest post, Has Twitter Become Frightening for Halloween?

The next comment in the string was:

… I’m one of those self-anointed social media experts who just recently began offering to help organizations figure out their social media strategy. Within a couple of months, I’m nearly fully allocated to that pursuit even though I’m very open with my clients and prospects that I’m nothing more than an smart guy who knows enough about social media to steer them through the basics. I also just started setting up my first Twitter “list” right after getting my Google Voice set-up. In many ways, my life feels very much like I live it aboard the Star Trek Enterprise. Twit me up, Scotty!

My response:

Thanks for your comments.

Last Friday, I met with a new client who was starting a business (my “day job”). We went over the basics and then started to touch on the marketing plan. I asked if his plan included any “social networking” or other forms of viral marketing, either as a lead-in to the start-up, or to try to build market anticipation for his products.

When I mentioned social marketing, his eyes lit up and he said “do you know anything about that? I need that” He next asked if I knew any “experts” in that field, having just spent several weeks trying to find a real Web developer with the ability to develop a relatively large and sophisticated Web site. I went through some of what I described in this blog post.

There are certainly relatively huge opportunities for real “experts” in the social networking field and, at the same time, just as big an opportunity for business owners who are unsophisticated in their knowledge of social media but hungry for it to be taken in by scam artists who really don’t know what they are doing.

To me, this is largely an extension of the “everybody is a Web expert” era we’ve been going through for the last decade. Seems like every PR and marketing firm added SEO to their meta tags and declared themselves to be the leading Web optimization firm in the region, even if they really didn’t have a clue. I’m afraid the social networking “expert” era is just unfolding, but unfolding into a field which is continuously morphing into new forms at nearly the rate Captain Kirk’s tribbles grew in the storage areas of his “Enterprise.”

The reply:

Very good points — I guess we need to develop Caveat Emptor 2.0! However, I believe it’s worth pointing out that this is just sort of how new fields of expertise work — an area of opportunity that previously didn’t exist emerges in an unproven arena sparking an influx of players into a market which sorts itself out over time. Let’s not lose sight that the folks who eventually become “proven experts” have to start somewhere. So long as a person says, “Listen, this is what I can help you do and this is what we’ll need to figure out together…” then I think that’s the right prescription. Also, “experts-in-training” are willing to step into these emerging fields using a much different compensation model than, let’s say, a standard billing rate of $X per hour. I’d say more than a few attorneys will take cases today in areas where they know little-to-nothing about the area of law applicable to the case. The question is all in how that conversation goes with the client. The client may very well trust the general competence and integrity of the attorney to move forward knowing the attorney isn’t an expert — but is willing to become enough of an expert to be an effective advocate for the client in this particular case. If so, that attorney emerges on the back-end of the process as something much closer to an “expert” than before and the market has gained another competent competitor. How expertise emerges in new fields is a rich study, for sure, and in an interesting way, faux experts are an unavoidable part of the process.

Finally, my last response (for now):

I think you are absolutely right. Lawyers like Abraham Lincoln became “expert” lawyers by “reading the law” and working in a law office. There was no certification program on the order of what we have in this country now, with a bar exam typically divided into one segment for national certification plus a state-based familiarity segment for local jurisdictional expertise.

I actually started, to some extent, on the reading the law program, when I was admitted to law school, but had to defer my enrollment due to a stint in the military. I went to Yale’s book store and bought a few Yale Law School books on torts, criminal law, and civil procedure, and read them during the period I was in the military, just so I could try to get my mind accustomed to thinking like a lawyer. When I entered law school, I took a job with the local prosecutor’s office, and got much of the rest of what I learned during my informal educational period leading up to the formal bar exam after graduating from law school.

The social media era has dropped in on us like some of the folks Captain Kirk dealt with on Star Trek. At the risk of over working that theme, the newer version of the series and the recent movie addition comes to mind, where the human race is really first starting to explore beyond their traditional earth-bound existence. There were no real experts. Essentially everything was an experiment and performing any mundane task had the risk of turning into an adventure.

Social networking expertise seems to be something like that. We have discovered we can navigate in and around some parts of it without getting hurt too badly. It is intriguing and we want to know more. We must start to figure out the boundaries of what it can do for us and to us, and we’re currently not too sure of either. We don’t have a handy supply of well-seasoned expert guides to call upon yet, but we do have some folks who are gaining experience day-by-day. Some have and will prove better than others, so much of what consumers must do is vet the experts based upon what they have done.

I feel another blog post coming on. [One reason for the Yogi Berra comment at the beginning of this post]

Thanks for your comments.

To come full circle, the very next thing which happens to me is that I run into Andrew Ballenthin’s recent article, 5 Criteria For Qualifying Social Media Consultants. OMG!

Ballenthin says:

Finding experts in this arena should be easy right?

Without a doubt there are some very talented people that have forged their way ahead and can deliver credible business results. It’s worth asking the question though, “how do you separate professionals from self-proclaimed experts or opportunist?”

Ballenthin then goes on to list five potential criteria for qualifying social media consultants, just as the title of his article suggests he will:

1.  How many years have you applied social media in business in a results oriented manner? Note: most industries consider a novice to have less than 3 years experience.

2.  Over your years of experience, how many years were focused on your needs versus clients? Note: personal experience is an asset but often not as rigorous as a business that expects ROI (Return On Investment).

3. What have you accomplished in monetization, PR, database building? Note: follow-up with how were these results accomplished and look for clear answers.

4. What is your past business experience in the communications industry? Note: a solid business background is a good indicator of business sense for your needs.

5. What is your specialism and how has that lead to your greatest achievement in social media?  Note: social media is a broad discipline and one size does not fit all or every business.

These criteria are certainly a good start and, hopefully, something we can build on in your comments to this blog, but one thing keeps sticking in my mind:

Frankly, I seem to be surrounded by moose, but can’t remember how I got here. Social media experts seem to surround me wherever I go. No matter what I search for online, I run into “experts” in this area.

It’s like deja-vu, all over again.”

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.