Don't Be Social Media Shark Bait

I've been talking to several good industry friends, we are concerned about the social media feeding frenzy that has ensued of late.  Over the last few months, I've transitioned between disbelief to outrage several times over after seeing several self-proclaimed "experts" launch into initiatives like this.

So I feel compelled to get something off my chest that requires a brief personal retrospective.  I hope to honor your patience with something worth reading here, so let me know how I do:


I formally started my career while boogie boarding on the "interactive / new media" surf in 1992, while I was still in college and working as an interactive designer / sales associate for a "virtual concierge" kiosk company that failed, never paid me and closed its doors. After graduation, I helped establish what became the interactive services division of 1-800-FLOWERS. We had little funding, worked on a ridiculous shoestring budget and we often pulled all-nighters. Our first "cutting edge" store was comprised of text descriptions of product - found within folder hierarchies of CompuServe. We offered 800 number ordering that we later converted to secure online purchasing. As rudimentary as it was, we sold product - thereby catching and riding the "Proprietary Online Service"  or ISP Wave successfully.

Very soon, we had created stores on every available online service, including Prodigy and eWorld and others. I remember the day Steve Case and Ted Leonsis came in to meet with our team. They said "We need your brand to build our own brand!"  We inked a multi-year deal to become the first transactional merchant on America Online and the exclusive floral provider on AOL. I still have my "1994 AOL Roadshow" T-shirt from that visit in a drawer somewhere.

As we experimented with kiosks, ITV, CDI/CDRom and PDA trials -- we saw something brewing that we thought would produce some really ncie waves. So, we grabbed our boards and paddled out to catch the Internet Wave.

Frankly, our initial ride wasn't all we'd hoped. Our 4A's agency was clueless about the Internet, so we hired a company we met at a conference to build our first website. The "company" turned out to be two geeks who were college roommates -- operating out of their Manhattan dorm room. Shortly after our launch, had a fight: One principal took the hardware -- the other took the software and they left us holding the bag.  We were wiser for getting bitten -- and we rallied with a better site. As we'd hoped -- our profit grew with the momentum of these waves. Within two years, we did $10 Million in sales in online commerce (a LOT of money back then) - and the number quickly grew tenfold.

As I progressed in on in my career, I rode a number of other waves in the .com boom, serving blue chips and startups riding the digital marketplaces, B2C, B2B and B2E portals, "virtual communities" and other waves. One day, it was all about "community." The next day, it was all about online marketing or advertising. The day after that it was about search and SEO ... But it was all about waves and ripples -- ripples and waves.


While the tide may have shifted a bit -- we're still in the same water, we're still riding waves and trying to describe the experience with new words. Today, we find ourselves in the waters of Web 2.0, Social Media, Cloud Computing the "Social Enterprise" the "Conversation Age" which looks toward the "Next-Generation Web" or (heaven help me for using this horrid term) "Web 3.0". The only difference is we've matured, along with technology - and there are more of us paddling around in the surf.


Those who have ridden enough of these waves can attest that historically, with each new tide, a different congregation of "experts" and agencies will surface. Some individuals are less smarmy and bottom-dwelling than others. However, they all circle the water like sharks, making it hard to distinguish the intelligent, harmless beasts from their more sinister counterparts.

If you're in the water, you might start to encounter few various breeds of shark :
  • The One Trick Wonder is all show and no substance, claiming broad expertise but proving to be narrow and limited
  • The Outright Liar is crafty and deceptive. He lacks the practical experience and knowledge to teach you what you don't already know and will cost you plenty until you figure this out
  • The Lifetime Consultant who has never owned or managed a business - yet claims to know yours and how to fix it
  • The Schmooze Puppy is handsome, fascinating and fun - and will selll you tricky projects that are equally pretty -- but also costly, time consuming, expensive and which provide limited ROI
  • The "Strategerist" cannot build or execute but knows how to create great looking power point documents with broad, sweeping goals. Typically attacks and retreats
  • The Builder who likes to build stuff -- that may not work with other "stuff" or in concert with a strategy
  • The Delegator can't build anything or deliver anything, but can talk a good game and "knows people"
  • The Glossy Analyst makes way more money than you do -- by asking you questions and writing about your success
  • The Mental Mentor is highly esteemed -- in his/her own mind. This hype driven expert creates other experts, through paid seminars, webinars, extended courses and certification in just "x" days for "x" dollars.
  • The Career Acrobat has taken Mental Mentor's course and has shifted careers to focus on (pick a topic above) and is now an expert and authority in all things
Further, observation shows that many of these sharks also have Egregious Self Promotion Disease (ESPD). This renders individuals unable to stop talking about how wonderful they are - and how wonderful others think they are. I have noted that ESPD also produces an uncontrollable compulsion to self promote within every available online or offline channel - often to the exclusion of doing any real work (Note: Outsourcing to India doesn't count).

The bad news is this: There's nothing we can do about the sharks. Simply put, the chum is in the water and they're not going away soon.  The proliferation of so-called "experts," teachers, gurus, pipers, consultants, professionals, guides and mentors who want to help companies "DO" social media (or pick buzzword here) is growing proportionate to the rate of proliferation of apps, sites, services and tools. They are hungry to exploit the waves and make as much money doing it as possible.

The good news is this: They're only dangerous if you engage with them! Wise up, tuck in your arms and legs - and be careful to avoid them.  If you need help with digital or social media, find people or agencies that win a lot of work through word-of mouth, who measure their success based on what they've done for clients lately. Look for "seasoned surfers" from whom you can learn and engage the "young and talented" who are eager-to-learn and full of promise. 

Everyone you engage should be a smart, talented, passionate, excellence junky.  They should have some sort of proven track record in digital media (2 years of Facebook experience is not sufficient!). They shouldn't just be knowledgeable, but humble and teachable. Make sure they will roll up their sleeves to work for you and with you -- helping you understand how to balance and stand on your own two feet. Make sure they understand integrated strategy and can connect your online and offline experiences for success. These folks will help you surf with caution -- and when you get up on the board they'll enjoy the ride with you (and not just at your expense).


The waves are good. The proliferation of sites, apps and tools keeps things challenging, stimulating, fun and interesting.  The movement is opening up new ways to improve our businesses and relationships. The churn is fueled by cheap, accessible technology and the use of open source code.  The winds are blowing, and there's no signs of slowing soon.

So what's not to love?  Grab your board.  I'll see you in the water!

(Amazing photo (C) Copyright Kurt Jones 2003. And yes, I know it's a dolphin!  Check out his site at


Mack Collier said...

Leigh I think we ALL need to be careful of getting taken right now. Here's a couple of examples from the consultant's side of the fence.

Earlier this year I did a couple of webinars with Marketing Profs, and they ended up being very popular. A couple of weeks after I did them, I had a woman contact me that wanted me to do one of the webinars for her organization. She basically wanted me to do the exact same webinar, but via a conference call with her members. She told me that many of the same people that did webinars for Marketing Profs later did them with her organization, and told me what a great opportunity it would be to connect with 'hundreds of potential clients'.

I checked on the website, and found out that members would pay $150 each to access the webinar. So I emailed her back and told her what my price was for doing the webinar. She balked, said the organization could not pay, and again reminded me that I would have access to 'hundreds of potential clients'. I reminded HER that she would be profiting from my webinar, so it only made sense to pay me for my work. She said she could not, and reminded me again about access to 'hundreds of potential clients', and that 'many people that did webinars for Marketing Profs also did them with us'.

I reminded her a final time that I wasn't going to let her make money off my content, without paying me. She emailed me back FIVE times asking me to please do the webinar for free, before finally giving up.

Second example - I was recently contacted by a LARGE company to discuss a new social media initiative that they are considering launching. This company knows that I am a social media consultant, so I assumed they wanted to discuss the project with me to bring me in on helping them get it off the ground. They didn't, they wanted to pick my brain for free for an hour.

We ALL need to be wary of this space right now, as there's no shortage of scammers, and also people that want to take advantage of the people that DO know what they are doing.

Unknown said...


You are so right, and I've had the same approach from folks asking me to do the same.

One of the big problems is all the hype about social media being FREE! many clients seem to think that means that our work shouldn't cost much - or that we'll consult for free.

I tell those clients "you will reap from the social media soil proportionate to what you sew" Quality, planning, and smart execution are essential.

I'm not the cheapest in the industry because I have more than 20 years in digital media under my belt. I'm ALSO not the most expensive! I wouldn't garner the referrals I have if I gave penny advice for a premium -- and I got tired of apologizing about my rates a long time ago. Besides, they're very reasonable to begin with.

Marc Meyer said...

Per Mack's comment, I was thinking about checking to see where all of my content is being used w/o attribution. As you both know and have experienced it's always a lengthy list. I decided against it because all it does is bog me down and bother me in trying to reach out to them to no avail. In every industry, but more so in this one, people will try and cut corners and profit off of others' ignorance. But people also need to know that they have to pay for excellence-I refer to you both in that vein.

Anonymous said...

Mack, I've had the exact same things happen to me. It goes with the territory, I guess.

Earlier this year, I actually had newly minted Social Media managers and directors pester me for advice (yes, for free) on how to build social media practices for their new employers - basic questions like "how do I get followers on twitter?" and "Should we be on Facebook?" Seriously. So, in essence, these guys who were clearly not qualified for the jobs they had somehow managed to lie themselves into now wanted ME to help them cover up their lie by giving them a weekly cheat sheet... for free. On the DL. Riiiiiiight.

I think it may have been what started me on this zero-tolerance for BS kick. More so than the ROI thing, even.

As Paul Barron told me this week, Social media is still the wild west. It's a dangerous place for unsuspecting companies.

Unknown said...

@ Marc - the feeling is mutual, my friend. If you spend that time trying to track down your content - you'll go crazy. Perhaps I'm naive, but I'm of the mindset that what comes around, goes around. The creeps will get theirs in the end.

@olivier - It's funny that you used the term wild west. I had it in this post but it seemed to fight the surfing analogy, so I whacked it. I totally agree with your assertions and this stuff does go both ways with clients.

Ann Handley said...

Good advice, Leigh.

I was around in the first dot-com craze, too... I rather enjoyed your descriptions of the landscape.

That said, to your point: I believe that's why it's useful for any individual or any organization to spend some time listening, observing and monitoring before they open their mouths to speak in the social space.

To extend your analogy, it helps to wade in the surf -- in water too shallow for sharks -- before you jump in and try to swim. Doing so allows some time to get acclimated, to see who is shark and who is snake and who is not.

Unknown said...

Good advice, Ann. i think a lot of companies are wading now -- I think I saw data yesterday that about 86% of companies are doing "some form" of social media. The toe in the water is a good thing. The trick is not running away in a panic at the sight of a fin on the horizon! :-O

Jason Keath said...

There is certainly nothing we can do about sharks. It is the nature of business, at least in our capitalist, survival of the fittest ecosystem. And nor should we. Everyone deserves their own right to hustle as long as they don't break any laws. Of course hopefully there are people out there holding the sharks to a few simple rules. You know:
- Be honest
- Produce results
- Give advice that is best for the client

But we all know that is not the case. If you hire someone, if you decide to do business with anyone in this world, the onus is on you to gain value. To vet your potential business partners.

All the honest brokers of the world can do is just that, continue to do good. Continue to provide value. That wins out every time. Although, I know I am preaching to the choir here.

Great post. And for the record, the "few various breeds of shark" was worth it alone.

Jason Keath said...

@Mack Shedding off people attempting to get free work is definitely not something new or specific to Social Media, as it is with most of the problems we discuss in this industry. It has all come before. But your two examples are great lessons for anyone coming up in a service industry. The one point I would make though, is I think you almost have to experience them to truly learn the lesson. Concept takes us only so far. Consequences and real experience is the most tangible and hearty of business lessons. Again, I know I am preaching to the choir.

Suzanna Stinnett said...

Thanks Leigh for adding to this vital conversation about credentials and credibility. Aliza's post got me going on my own digital history which I'll post this weekend and link to everyone in the conversation. For now, I love Ann's comment about wading in the shallows first.

I'm a writer who loves media and have found myself teaching it because people keep asking. One of the things I tell people about Twitter, for example, is to just use the search function at first. Many of my class participants are very hesitant about exposure and being overwhelmed, and not to be reassured. Wading in the shallows is a great way for them to discover how people are using these tools with no risky investment.

Mack's comments about being "had" from the other angle are also very important. I've been in several meetings now with folks of varying stature, helping them along the dim path without a contract for my services. Guess that's my own learning curve. I admit I do like that look on their face when they realize I'm talking about something real, something vital, and something they are seriously on the outside of. You know what I mean.

The funny thing is that there will always be way more I don't know than what I do.

More to come, and thank all for this juicy pow wow.

Suzanna Stinnett

Michael Benidt said...

Leigh, there are so many good points and hilarious handles (ESPD my favorite - I won't say what it sounds like) that I could go on for hours. But... two examples:

Just attended a panel discussion with four "social media experts." The word blog was never mentioned in two hours. One panelist said, "I tried Twitter, told people what I was doing, nothing happened, so I quit." Yup, social media experts.

My favorite of your breeds of sharks is The Liar. I interview a guy on Twitter - we'll call him TheJobsHoncho. It was clear that the guy is a doofus, but we report about doofusses, so I called him. He told me, "Michael, all I'm doing is sitting in here tweeting away. I don't care at all about the jobs market or if anyone gets a job or not. I'm just trying to get enough followers so I can sell my job board Twittering to some companies so I can make money." Almost verbatim direct quote.

Good work, wish there were more of you out there. Right now, it often seems that the only people making money on social media are those selling us on the idea of social media. What suckers we are.

Kami Huyse said...

Really love this post, and also learning a little more about you!

Unknown said...

@susan a much belated thanks for your comment.

@micheal I refuse to consider myself a sucker. Rather, I am reminded of the proverbial tortoise and the hare. In the end, the proof is in the delivery.

@kami thanks for your comment and I hope we get to connect again very soon. ;-)

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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