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The Real Social Media Expert is the Experimenter

13 Comments 07 October 2010

image courtesy of The|G|

If you are looking to hire a consultant, or an employee, you don’t want a self-appointed “social media expert” or “guru” or “kingmaker.” You want an Experimenter. Let’s explore a few reasons:

It is a problem of attitude.

Certainly many social media “experts” have special skills and knowledge in the field, but most self-titled experts mean “I am an authority.” The field of social media changes almost daily. There is just too much to know, too much new, and too much changing on a daily basis to be an authority in the overall sector. (For example: How many social media practitioners are still figuring out the best way to use location-based social media platforms for their organizations?)  As Beth Kanter, one of the most knowledgeable social media practitioners out there said Monday night at an event for the Networked Nonprofit, “social media changes all the time. I’m always experimenting.” An Authority must also decide to be an Experimenter.

It is also a problem of hierarchy.

The expert sets him/herself above others as an authority, which in social media is…problematic. You don’t want a self-appointed anything, as that person has already created hierarchical levels of expertise that no one else can match. Or feel equal to when talking with online!

Social media is about engagement – real interactions, creating trust, creating social capital, creating relationships, and using the social capital from those relationships to move stakeholders to action when needed. That could be voting for a nonprofit in an online contest, creating an event as part of a worldwide movement, or giving money online to a cause. You want a consultant or employee who is willing to sit down on the playground and listen, engage with people who aren’t also “experts” in the field, and create real and trusting relationships with all your stakeholders.

Experts often set themselves apart. Experimenters do not.

It is the problem of keeping one’s expertise.

How many “experts” are willing to fail? When working in social media, we often must first fail in order to understand the tools and platforms. I have created campaigns that have failed miserably, but offered a great deal of insight. A real expert is willing to try, fail, and if necessary, hold joyful funerals.

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I believe that anyone can acquire a very good grasp of how to use social media, create and apply strategic thinking, experiment and fail with the tools, and use it successfully. But to be an expert in this field is honestly, almost unbelievable. I don’t think that you want a “social media guru” for your organization, but rather someone who truly understands and has experimented with social media in real-life applications. Someone who is willing to continue to do so, knowing that every day another tool will come along to topple another expert.

Don’t hire an authority, hire a sharp experimenter who can apply theory in both innovative and practical ways to move the goals of your organization forward.

The real social media “expert” is the Experimenter.

Hat tip to Jessica Gottlieb for inspiring this blog post with her own, Doing More Good Than Harm.

  • I am not an expert, but I think that the following line is the most important part of social media.

    “Power in social media is derived from your ability to convince others to respond to a call to action.”


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with your point about power in social media is derived from the ability to convince others to respond to a call to action.

    Reminds me of a similar analogy: A great leader inspires others to act, but a leader without followers is no leader.

    p.s. I read your original post where you wrote those very true words and posted a similar comment there.


    Filippo Ciampini Reply:

    Hi Debra – You are totally right “a leader without followers is no leader” but I am concerned of the fact that nowadays there are ‘media’ services which offer 10,000 followers per $$$. Is this conception of media ‘social’?

    I check everyday the web, I read articles from online media, bloggers, comments on forums and it takes me a lot of time to do it. However, I am slowly growing my small (but highly relevant) number of followers and trying to nurture relationships.

    In regards to “call for action” which can be translated into audience engagement/participation – I find it very difficult especially with B2B at senior levels. What do you think?


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Hi Filippo, you’ve got it right by approaching social media in a “relationship-oriented” framework. Congrats on slowly growing your number of followers through relationship-building through this approach. Obviously, paying for followers does not develop relationships – and I am constantly astounded by those spammy offers as well.

    To try to answer your question about call to action, I don’t know enough about what you are asking senior B2B folks to do. What I do know is that if you continue to use the social media to develop and nurture relationships, then when you send them a direct message/private note asking them if they have a minute to speak with you…my bet is that they probably will :-)Anyone else have ideas for Filippo?

  • Debra – Right on with this one! To me, being an expert in social media is literally impossible for two reasons:

    1) There are as many ways to “do” social media as there are organizations. Sure, there are best practices, like “Listen first”, but when you get right down to it, what works for one org may hurt another. That’s because each org has it’s own culture and it’s own community.

    2) Technology is changing at an exponential rate. As the web enables better sharing, collaboration increases among those who are building social technology. And cloud computing makes it easier for people with very little tech skills to help build social websites and applications.

    You. Are. Awesome!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Two more fabulous points to add to the article – thanks for contributing these, John.

    I especially echo your first point. There really is no one way to “do” social media, and no “killer method” for success. The only “killer method” I know of is…experiment, build trust, engage, and (credit to @The JackB, below) build social capital to move people to action.


  • Debra, thanks so much for taking the time to write this post! It seems that not a day goes by where someone in my local community doesn’t wake up 1 day and deem himself/herself a social media expert. This makes it very challenging for people who aren’t imbued in social media to determine who the “real” experts are. I think you hit the nail on the head here. Social media is constantly changing…I’m still getting used to the new Twitter interface…and it really does require experimentation. The other important ingredient that you point out is willingness to walk a mile in your client’s shoes. I’m always bothered by consultants who have a predetermined formula for success that they apply to all clients regardless of circumstances. Thanks for taking the time to point out the importance of listening and understanding issues from your clients point of view! Blase


  • Yes! Yes! Yes!

    I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with friends, both in and outside the nonprofit sector, over the last few months about our distrust of self-appointed “social media experts.” Many of these conversations have been with people who’ve been doing twitter, youtube, facebook, etc., since the day they launched, and still don’t consider themselves “experts.”

    Recently I very reluctantly accepted my first social media consulting job and added it to my list of services I can offer my clients. This article helps me feel a little better about taking that step. I’m no expert; I’m just a guy who’s been experimenting with this stuff for as long as it’s been out there.


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Ken, when someone refers to me as a social media expert, I cringe inside, for the same reason. Keep experimenting; the real expert knows that is the way to find out more, right? I’m a lifelong learner, too, and pleased to meet you here in this space, Ken.


  • Awesome post Deb! John Haydon hit it the nail on the head about social media “experts.” I roll my eyes when someone claims to be such a character. It’s like saying “I’m a magical Leprechaun and I’ll lead you to a pot of gold.” We can only strive to be “experts and gurus” with respect and gratitude to those who achieve excellence. Thanks for posting!


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Magical Leprechans – that’s brilliant! Thanks for contributing that one!


  • Spot on, Debra. I always tell people who call me a ‘social media expert’ that there are no experts, just people who spend time getting to know how the different tools work. It’s still so new that we’re all figuring it out as we go along. If anyone is an expert, I’d say it’s Beth because she is such an experimenter and she publicly shares everything she learns herself.


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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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