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Brandstorming is a team blog written by Jim and Franki Durbin. We like to think of it as our idea playground.
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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Silence In Social Media? Are You Giving Content Away For Free?

I was reading through the Smart Page Rank blog, written by the estimable Mike Call, an SEO expert. He writes a post called, Silence Is The Key To SEO Success. I found it a fascinating read, because it really hits at the heart of blogging when you're a consultant. If you give away everything you know, who is going to pay for it?

For the SEO consultant, passing over SEO secrets is a real revenue killer. If clients read how to fix their SEO problems, why would they call you? And if competitors figure out what you're doing, why give them the leg up? It's a conundrum for all consultants, who crave the publicity of online fame (to bring in more clients), but who fear giving away for free what they formerly charged for.

When I first started blog consulting, my wife, who has a decade of interactive marketing experience, was concerned that I was giving away all of my experience. She came down on the side of silence is golden (as in it brings in the gold). I was of a different viewpoint. So little was known about social media (we were calling it new media when we started), the sales cycle was unbearably long because I had to educate first, and then sell.

More important, the things I do can be explained, but you can't really do social media unless you're in social media. Thus clients were paying me for the execution, not the idea. As I've matured in this business, and added over 40 clients big and small, my reluctance to share everything I know is beginning to show. It's not that I don't share my ideas with clients - but I'm not the open book I once was. Competitors have started to creep in and muddy the waters promising what they haven't yet delivered. Scam artists still abound, selling "blogs" that are little more than GoDaddy templates. And many companies are willing to listen to your ideas and even take a proposal, never planning on acting on it.

Them's the breaks in business. I understood that from the beginning, but the difference between Durbin Media today and Durbin Media two years ago is pedigree. I have one now. I don't have to give away my ideas for free.

In the last two years, social media consultants have popped up everywhere - or at least people who call themselves social media consultants. There is a glut of people who use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and podcasts, and who build up impressive online reputations with them, but there are very few people who can point to successful campaigns, satisfied clients, or to be honest, even paying clients.
Getting famous with social media is not the same as providing a service to paying clients with results that can be measured.
This is one of the hazards of any new technology. It's easier to be cutting edge than it is to be profitable. And there is always a multi-level marketing effect that takes place as the early adopters are hailed as gurus when it was the timing, and not the results of their campaigns, that made the difference. As new people enter the field, traffic, links, friends, and followers accrue to the early adopters in a process known as preferential attachment (the rich get richer effect).

I'm not trying to attack anyone here, at least not personally. And I'm certainly not saying that just because someone is popular that they are the Amway of Social Media. Many of the top bloggers got where they were with business acumen, social networking skills, and good old- fashioned decency. They seek to improve the social media space (I'm thinking chiefly of Jeremiah Owyang and Rohit Bhargava here, two of my favorite social media bloggers), and they are rightly rewarded with traffic and publicity.

But prospective buyers of social media, and those who seek to add social media to their resume, would be well-advised to look past the hype and ask questions about metrics, successes, and former clients. Social media in business is a vastly different beast than social media in your personal life. In business, SM is just a tool. To be considered a good tool, it has to bring results, and any competent social media consultant will be able to give you solid, concrete, profitable results for your social media campaign. These metrics may not be what you're looking for, but we can clearly define what social media brings to the table in both tangible and intangible ways.

At the same time - if you already have metrics, and know how to pitch them to clients, are you really better served giving those secrets up? The recent panel at SXSW, marked by a Twitter and Meebo revolt, was based in part on a panel of experts who were supposed to talk about measuring social media, but never really got to it in the panel. Some might say that the panelists were at fault, because they were empty suits, unmasked by the Twitter mobs. I find that hard to believe (mainly because Rohit was on the panel), but if I were on that panel, I wouldn't have given my secrets to selling social media away to a roomful of competitors, either.

It's not that my secrets are that super-confidential. Everything I've learned can be easily deduced - but only if you've done your own work in social media. My concern is the twisting of my words to sell products and services to clients by other firms who lack the experience to execute. There is a lot of that out there - and clients are all too often eager to find a silver bullet, and ready to listen to someone who can promise them social media nirvana.

Step 1:Start a blog (or a wiki, or join Facebook, or join Twitter)
Step 3: Profit!
There are right and wrong ways to sell social media. The more I do, the more I wonder at the paradox that the best thing for the industry, and my pocketbook, might be silence. Is it a sign of industry maturation, or the typical greedy caricature of all consultants?

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Anonymous Lea said...

This is a really interesting post to me because it's something all professionals have to consider. When I gave my Art of Self-Branding talk at SXSW, my main goal was to _provoke thinking_ and get people who hadn't been sold about branding before to take a look at it more seriously. However, it is a hard balance in trying to convey so much in a short amount of time on top of actually HELPING others, WHILE keeping the nitty gritty professional tidbits that works for me my secret weapon.

That being said, I prefer more transparency than to not, and as Kathy Sierra once wrote, it's better to out-teach than to out-spend. Sharing information has helped me and the community grow, but at the same time, we have to pretty much convey that we also have our own unique offerings or style or execution to a similar problem/solution.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Rohit said...

This is a GREAT post Jim, because it raises a really important question about social media ... namely, how much can you really share openly and still not be giving away all your secrets to your competition? It's a question I imagine many bloggers struggle with, myself included. My solution so far has been to focus on providing high level strategic advice which is hopefully useful, but would still need to be tailored to a particular situation. I suppose at the end of the day I believe that karma is going to bring the benefits back to me and my employer for being open. Congrats on reaching a point where you can start to think this way, though. It means you're doing something right.

On your other point about the panel, I think the issue was less one of people not wanting to reveal the "secret sauce" of measurement and more that the conversation of the panel started by focusing more on the way to sell social media to your boss. Somehow, I think people just wanted to hear one of us say that we use Radian6, or Nielson, or Collective Intellect so they could validate their own choices. When we opened up to audience questions and started to more directly answer those questions, I think the panel's usefulness went way higher.

6:53 PM  
Blogger James Durbin said...

Thanks for the comment lea and rohit. I was a a little worried that it would come across as a typical greedy consultant complaining about people giving away what he sells.

I give away what I feel is 10's of thousands of dollars of free information, advice, and even work, but I give it away to people I feel are working like I am. I refer business to them, and when they can, they refer business to me. Sometimes its roundabout - I refer A to B, who refers B to C, who comes to me for business, but that's just how friends work.

Where it breaks down is when when people start expecting you to help them just because the word social media is on your resume.

6:33 PM  

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