Will Social Media Consultant Thought Leadership Wane?

The Harvest Moon Shines Like a Star

It’s been really awesome to see all of the conversations sparked by the End of the Social Media Adoption Road post. Since Jeremy Victor’s excellent follow-up where he did a study that confirmed we are nearing the end of organizational adoption, there was a great conversation by Dana VanDen Heuvel
about what this means to the industry.

Ironically, my PRSA International panel on Monday comprised of Deirdre Breakenridge, Mark Drapeau, Sarah Evans and Kami Huyse discussed the same issue (what’s next). My answer was the end of the thought leadership dominance by consultants.

What I mean by this is social media — and the conversation about its best practices — has largely been dominated by independent consultants (like me) and individuals within agencies. This has given rise to the dreaded social media expert meme. Now that businesses and nonprofits are adopting en masse and using these tools, expertise in corporations and nonprofits is catching up. Increasingly, these individuals are asking tough questions of consultants, and their own experiences are deservedly becoming highlighted as leading examples. The domain of thought leadership expands.

I read on GM Social Media Lead Christopher Barger‘s Facebook profile that his forthcoming book will be one of the few that is not being written by a consultant, but by someone who has been through adoption in large corporations. And that’s true. I think a lot of people forget that before Christopher joined GM, he helped IBM with its social media adoption.

As a consultant and author that has helped many companies and organizations successfully adapt, I know how hard the cultural issues can be. But the actual insider’s perspective is critical. And no matter how many times I have been through the wars (so to speak), other business leaders will always have a special affinity for Christopher and other internal voices’ experiences. Christopher has been there, just like them.

This migration towards organizational thought leadership is no different than the way communications was before social media. Then big companies (and great small successes) were the leaders that were discussed and sought out for marquee events. Agencies and consultants got kudos for being the folks that ASSISTED the organization to success. Some consultants like James Carville and Waggener Edstrom rose to the top for stellar performances, but they were the exception, not the norm.

In some ways, if I am even somewhat correct, I will be somewhat relieved. The over focus on consultants is disproportionate. It should be clients that get the majority of recognition and fame, not the consultant. After all, they paid for it.

What do you think about the future of thought leadership in online communications?

10 thoughts on “Will Social Media Consultant Thought Leadership Wane?

  1. As long as there are room for new thoughts, there is room for thought leadership.

    I agree that over time, you’ll see diminishing influence for the small tribe that has beat the drum for Organizational Utopia. They’re already being drowned out by saner voices who see new tools as tools, and not as technological saviors.

    Perhaps the best distinction we’ll see in future “thought leadership” is that it will focus on new applications that have actually worked in practice, and less on dreamy paeans about “how things should be.” And in that regard, the leadership will be more fluid, and more applicable to niches of industry and commerce.

    All positives, by the way, as we look at communications again and not the mechanism.

  2. This is a great article and I completely agree. At the end of the day, the client needs to execute in order to make the strategy a success. I think for many business owners, there still this unknown of what it takes to fully participate in social media. As SM consultants we can explain the benefits and best practices, but the client is left to figure out how to best execute, sustain, and evolve the strategy.

  3. Geoff, Good Morning
    I believe the the SM Echo Chamber will shrink, dissipate and be replaced by folks with combined business experience and SM experience. People who have practiced SM on/in their own businesses and that have actually done something, will have greater effect and influence. It will and should be more about what you have done, and what result you achieved.

    That is not to generalize that all SM Consultants haven’t done anything, just the the the barrier to entry will raise to more than just followers and blogging experience.

  4. Enjoyed this Geoff, but perhaps I’m getting too old. I started my career in “multi-media” in 91. Wow, that was cool and new and hip.

    Just as there were “basket weaving” consultants 100’s of years ago (joke of course) there were “eCommerce” consultants in the 90’s and FILL IN THE BLANK consultants around the NEXT BIG THING. I remember the snake oil sold in the 90’s as I was helping to run FedEx.com in Memphis, TN and all the big names (and small) beat their way to MEM to pitch us on the NEXT BIG THING.

    Guess what? We were DOING it at FedEx. Not talking about it.

    What business, organizations, government need are smart people that can move the ball forward, either in incremental steps that work within the existing culture (more likely) or with big innovative ideas (less likely).

    Produce results? You win.

    Don’t produce (and talk and write and tweet and blog). You don’t.


  5. As a former colleague of Christopher Barger’s, I can tell you that he didn’t “help” IBM with its adoption of social media guidelines and activities — he led it. And, he did a great job with it…. to the point where the biggest single corporate community on Facebook and LinkedIn are IBMers. His impact at IBM was sizable.

    Social media is just one tool (albeit an increasingly critical one) in the Communicator’s tool kit. Being early on the scene is nice, I guess. Being proactive and consistently good — and creative, too — is superior. If a consultant can help a client get to that point, they’ve done a good job.

    It just so happens that Christopher Barger was not just early to the party, but performed great once he got there. It’s an open community now. And that’s better for everyone.

  6. Ike, Ali, Eric and Shaun: It all comes back to what we’re doing, eventually, and I think for many of us that will be refreshing. I have to tell you, it’s been a hard road at times being a part of the sector, and in many cases, simply putting cotton in my ears and focusing on the business at hand. Worse, I’ve hired a couple of names in my time to do work and was not happy with what I received. Of course, I can be a perfectionist, too.

    Debbie: I think you’re a keeper ;)

    Ed: That is such a kind, nice comment. Rare and even more powerful for it. Thank you for sharing your experiences with Chris at IBM!

  7. Having spent time absorbing Christopher’s genius up close, I think I can safely say that he’s an exceptional thinker no matter where he is. If he were a consultant instead of working within a brand, he’d still be someone worth listening to.

    I’m just happy that there will soon be more of a balance between those working inside a company and those working outside of one. It’s well past time.

  8. Hi Geoff – first, thanks for a thought provoking post (again). And Ed & Lucretia, I’m flattered and honored by your very kind words.

    As several have said here, I think those the thinkers who provide not only value but actual results are going to be just fine. I do think, however, your basic premise is right-on — that the “thought leadership” focus will be increasingly on organizational practitioners. Like Lucretia says, it’s about time that we found some balance in the Force between inside and outside!

    The good thing about “social media” is that the playing field is leveled a bit, so you won’t have to work for a Fortune 500 company or one of the biggest, most well-known non-profits in order to achieve something noteworthy or be seen as a leader. Just as the social web means that every individual has access to an audience and can become a widely read and credible “media outlet” on their own, it also means that a small organization or business can achieve big notoriety and respect for doing something smart.

    As for the consultants and agency folks, like you said: before social media, a consultant’s reason for being (and being paid) was helping their clients achieve business goals and helping them get credit for innovative work. Any consultant remembering this and putting a track record together of having done it will keep getting hired and paid. Anyone who seems more into acquiring a list of big name “clients” without producing many tangible results is likely to be a lot less visible within a couple of years. That’s not “backlash,” it’s just smart business.

    Thanks for the great post!

  9. Good post. I will be glad when the consultant-yakers go back to where they came from. Esp. do not appreciate the tsk, tsk variety, which is too prevalent at conferences.

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