Social business consultants – the Emperor’s new clothes

Is social business the new badge for the social media expert?

Judging by some of the events I’ve attended and an increasing number of blog posts I’ve read recently it could well be.

Let’s start off with the fact that it’s yet another ‘social’ term that’s been stolen by those who appear to think the world started with the internet and that social media changes everything. If it existed before they did, then it can’t have been that important. Just like social marketing had a specific meaning before the advent of social media, so did social business. And neither has anything whatsoever to do with social media.

Social marketing has actually been around for at least 40 years and one of the earliest accepted definitions was by Kotler and Zaltman in 1971: Social marketing is ‘the design, implementation and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution and marketing research.’ The UK’s National Social Marketing Centre defines it as ‘the systematic application of marketing, alongside other concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals, for a social good.’

Social business also has a well established meaning:

‘Social business is a non-loss, non-dividend company designed to address a social objective.’

This one comes courtesy of Wikipedia, the social media gurus’ favourite font of all knowledge, so it must be right!

The new social business consultants want you to be astounded about how disruptive social media and social networks are and what gargantuan effects they are going to have on your business. They want you to think that only they have seen the light and that only they can take you by the hand and guide you into the future.

This is flawed thinking on two levels:

1) Social business isn’t actually that new or different. Business has always been about people. ‘People buy from people’ has been true since the dawn of time. What’s changed is the means of interaction between people and organisations. It’s now easier for people to talk to other people, and for you to listen and talk to them.

2) They don’t have the experience or expertise to provide worthwhile consultancy on everything.

Now that’s not to say that social business can’t also be defined as ‘a business designed around social tools, social media, and social networks’ (also courtesy of Wikipedia). It’s hardly rocket science to realise that businesses need to adapt to the changing world around them and that a huge part of that is the rise of the ‘social web’.

But the critical thing is that the last person you’d want helping you to change is a social business consultant.

Personally, I’d run a mile from anyone who claimed to be a social business consultant. What you’ll probably find is someone who has failed at something else and spotted a new niche where they hope to make a quick buck; or someone who iss actually very good at what they do, but isn’t satisfied with that and wants to be recognised for being bigger and cleverer than everyone else.

The people you actually need to help you build your social business are the actual real experts in their field.

You need a technology expert who ‘gets social’.

You need a human resources expert who ‘gets’ social’.

You need a research and development (R&D) expert who ‘gets social’.

You need a marketing communications expert who ‘gets social’.

You need a public relations expert who ‘gets social’.

You need a market research expert who ‘gets social’.

You even need a finance expert who ‘gets social’.

You ‘get’ the message?

What you don’t want is to hire any one of the above and let them be your social business consultant.

And what you definitely don’t want to do is hire a social media expert and let them be your social business consultant. By their own narrow definition of themselves they are going to be least able.

It’s ludicrous to think that a PR consultant or marketing consultant has enough experience and expertise across your whole business. But beware, they might be very good at persuading you they have. They’ll use phrases like ‘paradigm shift’, ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘social convergence’, ‘conversation cloud’… and so on. Mostly meaningless twaddle, but it impresses some people. The clients they attract are just like the Emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale who bought an invisible suit and didn’t want to admit he couldn’t see it for fear of being seen as unfit, stupid, or incompetent.

If you are going to hire a consultant to help you change your business to become a ‘social business’ then the consultant that is most likely to help you blend all of the appropriate experts together is the good old-fashioned management consultant.

So the only bit of ‘social business’ that I and my consultancy can help you with is public relations, corporate communications and how ‘social’ impacts on communications, behaviour and reputation management. It also means we’ll get involved with the communications and public relations elements of human resources, marketing, finance etc. But when it comes to providing advice on actual market research, or actual human resources then we’d prefer to introduce you to or help you find someone who actually is a real expert rather than someone who just knows about social media and social networks.

So if you come across a social business consultant then just remember the Emperor’s new clothes.

Related: An open letter on social media evangelism

About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
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  • http://renaissancechambara.jp Ged Carroll

    Stuart, I am not convinced. What we’re seeing now is companies moving from being marketing orientated to being PR orientated if you define PR as the relationships between an organisation and its publics. That means that whilst PR as a discipline hasn’t stepped up to the plate and PR as a ‘brand’ is broken, this movement has picked other names social business being one of them. Ultimately it isn’t about the label: there are many PR charlatans out there, but about the person being able to do the job. Judge them not by the title, but by their results.