Is Amateur Hour Over?

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Image by Graymalkn

Cluetrain Manifesto Co-Author Doc Searls recently observed that the Web has moved from personalized postings and unique micro-publications to an over-commercialized web. Perhaps Searls point is indicative of a larger trend of amateurs losing power online. In the professional Internet communications market, we see a similar movement away from amateurs, too. As someone who straddles both sides of the fence, this professional evolution is welcome.

For a good long period, the amateur has been able to bluff their way into the wallets of corporate clients. Large follower counts, content marketing expertise, social media trailblazing guidance, all yours for $9999.99! Desperate companies that wanted to take part in social media hired these people, many with mixed results. Consider that in 2011 most CMOs still don’t understand how social media fits into their communications mix.

The result has been a burned business and nonprofit marketplace that rightly questions the bejesus out of its independent online practitioners, and demands answers for measurement and ROI. The answers are not necessarily forthcoming either. It does indicate there may be a social media marketing extinction event.

Over the past five years, there have been many teaming opportunities with social media (or even more specialized) communicators. Some have been great while others struggled. Invariably, though great at making themselves famous, the strugglers lacked the communications fundamentals necessary to build online communities that actually want to do things with the company or nonprofit.

This is not an isolated talent management issue. The back channel is full of stories about big A-List names, New York Times bestselling authors (note the plural) that when hired crashed and burned. These personalities trade on what their microfame can bring to the engagement, and their ability to build follower counts and momentary attention. But the emperors have no clothes. What happens? The engagement ends, the client pays out tens of thousands of dollars, and real communicators are called in. Some of us jokingly call ourselves the plumbers that clean up the social media ninjas’ messes.

This brings up the Before Social Media (BSM) problem. What did these so called professionals do BSM? Were they journalists or marketers or PR pros or some other media-related professional? Did they have an understanding of the basic fundamentals necessary for communications success before hanging their social media shingle?

Zoetica recently posted a job description. Note the focus on writing as a primary skill set, and an ask for journalism and prior agency/consulting experience. Without an understanding of basic fundamentals in communications and business (for or non-profit), it is hard to imagine success. Communicating with people from an organizational standpoint requires deep understanding of motives, the media forms themselves, and an organization’s role as a media presence within larger Internet communities.

Doc’s point is a sad one. Strong amateur content from the Fifth Estate has and continues to play a great role holding traditional media and companies accountable, creating real social movements, and yes, forming fun, interesting content niches to dive into. However, let’s hope that amateur hour is over, and that unknowledgeable social media communicators go the way of the dodo bird. Unfortunately, while some will be forced to shutter their doors, the real answer lies in educating the marketplace and upcoming professionals about the basic fundamentals and ethics of communications.


  • Nice post Geoff. I don’t think that amateur hour is over yet; in fact, in many circles, it’s just beginning. Until the dust settles completely, I believe that we will continue to see and ‘out’ ninjas and rockstars; it’s human nature to want a piece of this particular pie as companies try to understand and dive into the SM sphere. However, as a communicator with a strong marketing foundation, what troubles me most is how easy it’s been for posers to succeed, at least initially. I think that this speaks to a larger problem about boundaries and attention spans and requires due diligence by decision makers at companies that are spending or wasting their dollars on unknown ‘talent.’

    • Guess we’ll have to suffer through more sizzling fajitas! Woo. Hoo. I do like your point about diligence by decision makers at companies that are wasting money. It’s about educating the larger marketplace.

  • Geoff, during my blogging and communications consulting days, when checking others communications’ experience, I often found none offered other than a client list. That usually led me to wonder what the consultant did prior to their current status. In the corporate world, I often outsourced work. A client list absent previous corporate experience never prompted me to consider the consultant/consultancy further. So, if companies were burned by hiring “amateurs,” might we also assume some of the blame for “a lack of success” lies with the hiring manager? As always, Geoff, that you for the timely and provocative post. You always make me wonder and think.

    • I do find a good perusal though a LinkedIn profile to be helpful from time to time. They tend to reveal a lot. Hope you are well, sir.

  • Geoff,
    If there’s been one thing that has constantly vexed me during my time on social media it is the so-called social media “A-Lister”. How did they get there? Why do people worship at their altars? One look at their credentials and/or prior work experience (most of them never worked a single day in a corporate environment, sales, marketing, or PR) should make you scratch your head, yes? Is a best-selling book all it takes today to be considered an expert worth paying thousands of dollars to improve a company’s precious communications via social media?

    My industry (video production) is also awash in amateurs who pick up an $800 DSLR camera and call themselves videographers. It has literally killed the industry and forced many established video pros out of business. However, over the past three years, I’ve seen my video production company continue to grow. Why? Because of a strong corporate network established over several years as a Director of Sales (before I launched my video production business), attending local business events, sitting on the Boards of several non-profit and business organizations. “Word on the street” – whatever happened to that?

    Moreover, after producing/directing/editing two documentary films (both of which have won major awards at film festivals) and establishing an affluent clientele through my existing network, I don’t worry about the amateurs. The companies with the big budgets aren’t looking for amateurs, they want pros. Their company’s image is at stake. I’ve got the credentials AND the “word on the street”. Why is that not the case when companies are looking for a social media professional?

    Many of these so-called pros are on their 14th minute of fame and as more and more companies get wise, these individuals will be exploited and ignored. The doors will then open up to the real professionals with not only the right credentials but the solid reputations they worked so hard to earn. Isn’t that the way it should be? The way it’s always been?

    • Thanks, Dan. We get our clients through word of mouth, too. Rare is the month when I have to make sales calls, and for that I am grateful.

      Unfortunately, we live in a time when credibility is achieved through fame. So expertise is perceived not attained, necessarily. And that is the crux of the matter. So until society changes its values (good luck with that), I think we are stuck.

      As to the A-List, they were the first ones, the folks who started dabbling with it and turned it into something. They are good at social media on a personal level, but it has not translated, necessarily.

  • I enjoyed that.

    I guess the answer to the question rests on whether or not “professional bullsh*tters” truly qualify as professionals. If history is any indicator, snake oil salesmen and hacks have been around for a while and won’t simply disappear because they are either a) full of crap or b) awful at doing what they claim to know how to do.

    There will always be awful doctors, awful lawyers, awful bureaucrats and awful teachers, meaning there will always be awful copywriters, marketing consultants, web designers and social media “experts.”


    • I see what you are saying. For the good to be good, we need the bad. It’s what sets us apart. Unfortunate, but true. General upward progress would be preferred. Thanks for the comment, Olivier!

  • Damn, I guess I better make the most of my last minute.

  • You really nailed it with this post. –>>> “Without an understanding of basic fundamentals in communications and business (for or non-profit), it is hard to imagine success.” — or even begin to implement a strategy for that matter…

    • If you don’t know what needs to be done, how can you possibly know what paths to take? It’s almost impossible, really. Some amateurs are naturals. They are few and far between. Thank you for the comment.

  • Awesome post, Geoff. I have witnessed some terrible results when a desperate company, already feeling behind the 8 ball because their competitors are having social success, hire somebody based on a follower count. A frank conversation about expectations and where SM fits in the business model should be a welcome addition to the hiring / contracting process.

    • It’s good to take action, but it’s best to respond rather than react. Reaction leads to the discussed problem as we have seen…

  • I think @geofflivingston raises an good point regarding “credibility achieved through fame”. This mindset filters throughout other industries, such as television and entertainment. There’s a general assumption that if you can gain the attention of a gazillion followers, fans and viewers, then you must be an expert at something. LOL! I believe that short attention spans and an unwillingness to perform due diligence are factors. Also, I believe that ‘the amateurs’ are catering to a different audience than ‘the professionals’ (i.e. the low hanging fruit).

    • Your final two points are extremely well said. I do believe due diligence will continue to increase by the big dollar spenders. There is WAY too much on the line.

  • Excellent piece! Sadly, I have seen this far too often, but also with social tools inside organizations based on the same thin thinking. But, rarely do I find much budget or interest left over after. It seems you have found a better spot. I often get contacted to help sort out what went wrong or have a half hour discussion asking what steps they should have taken.

    • External marketing must continue it seems. And I think companies, particularly consumer companies as well as nonprofits have little choice but to figure it out. Internal sounds more daunting in that sense… Thank you for the extra light on this topic!

    • LOL, well, I could only hope. I agree. It can be fun, but it’s serious, too. It’s a job, not play time. I don’t think many of these people get it.

  • Nicely done, Geoff. I think part of what we’re seeing is the focus on output rather than outcomes; looking for the things “doable” rather than the things “deliverable.” This is not new, it was Sun Tzu who wrote: “Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” This is being lived out in front of us today. I also think much of the turmoil stems from the fact, to which you alluded in your comment concerning what people did before they were social media professionals, that many don’t know their history. And for the uninitiated it is difficult to tell the difference between those who leveled the ground, placed the ties, and secured the rails from those who just got on at the last stop of the Cluetrain.

    • That is such a great quote. I actually cited it in the new book within the chapter on strategy. It’s an unfortunate time to see this, but I suppose this is life. Thanks for a great comment, Jack.

  • It is interesting. So, if I were to hire a social media expert, how would I tell the difference between a personally successful snake-oil salesman and someone who can deliver?

  • It’s interesting for me. Thanks.

  • SM: The newest (?) lure in the tackle box. Bad in/of itself? Not really. However, combine that with what @kishaurogers alluded to — popularity does not equal expertise. Much like saying reality shows have good content due to viewership.

    Again and again, the new tools outshine the core talent required. Remember when seemingly everyone could create a web page. And then later, the need for Design was rediscovered. There’s hope as some realize the need for deep research skills, communication, real collaborators… and so on.

    Great post and really all that I said leads me to a caveat: Careful who we dismiss. Some amateurs are really just going through an apprenticeship phase.

    Perhaps educating the marketplace and weeding out the naked emperors can stem from mentoring the authentic professionals-in-training.

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    […] the words of Geoff Livingston, whose blog posts are famous for applying timeless strategic principles to social media and Web 2.0 communications: “Let’s hope that amateur hour is over, and that unknowledgeable social media communicators […]

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