A good social media consultant is familiar with gray- and black-hat techniques so she can protect your brand from falling for them.

I’ve been around the social media scene since Facebook started exploding in 2007. Compared to the half-life of most people in social media, that’s a long time. But even as far back as the 80s and 90s, there were people in bulletin boards, CompuServe chatrooms, list serves, LiveJournal, and more, doing the social media thing.
A lot has changed since then. But as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Any time a phenomenon takes society by storm, it’s inevitable that the marketers will come to see how they can profit from it. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the free market. But there’s a difference between finding a mutually beneficial system and exploiting people at all costs because one believes the ends justify the means.

used car salesman

Throughout the years, I’ve seen few shady tactics come and go, and many business owners fall into the traps. They are busy running their own businesses, not living in the social media marketing world enough to discern a slick-talking (but shady) huckster from someone who can genuinely help.

I’ll give an example of a popular gray-hat strategy you may have been sold. I’ve seen it at play several times throughout the years. Here’s how it works.

Step One: “Getting in the door”

I get calls, emails, tweets, and Facebook comments weekly from people who think they can help me do my job better. Some of them probably can. Some of them just think they can. But many of them are hoping I’ll let them in the door and won’t see through their deceptive tactics. Step one is accomplished when you meet with the consultant and let him take a peek under the hood.

Step Two: “There’s a much better way!”

This is when the consultant will try to convince you that you’re an idiot. You’ve been trying the best you can, bless your sweet little heart. But the consultant is thinking on a whole different plane of consciousness than you are. You could go about your provincial elementary business, or you could hire the real smart guy.

Step Three: Testing the Advice

The consultant has lots of advice that can catapult your reach and engagement to the stratosphere! Seriously, give him the reigns for a few days and you’ll immediately see. What can it hurt? (Not to mention the fact that reach and engagement are completely cosmetic metrics – they don’t actually bring any ROI value to your brand.)

Step Four: Manipulating the Results

What you may not know is that this consultant owns about 50-100 other Facebook pages centered around spammy content from general topics. In the craft world the pages could be entitled “I Love Glue Guns” or “Awesome Crochet Tricks.” In politics, “Republicans are Greedy Slimeballs.” or “Tax the 1 Percent.” These pages have tons of fans, often gained through nefarious means or by preying upon lesser-educated people who endlessly share those ridiculous memes. These pages often steal copyrighted content and repost as their own (recipes, anyone?).

As soon as your page employs the consultant’s advice, their other pages go to work sharing your posts with their huge followings. Your reach explodes, your engagement follows. As the consultants encourage you to share memes, and other “viral” content, their spammy pages give you a boost to try to trick Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook thinks your posts are very popular and starts showing them to more people. But what kind of people? You’re not really sure.

Step Five: Closing the Deal

See? It works! You need to hire the consultant long-term because they obviously have better strategy than you do. Seeing is believing, right? This is where my heart goes out to business owners. It’s hard to be skeptical of these “concrete results.” You’ll have the outward appearance of success while you’re working with the consultant. You’ll notice that your key performance indicators – actual sales, website conversions, donations, or signups aren’t seeing as big of a boost. But social media is about engagement and relationship! The return on investment will come later.

Step Six: The Aftermath

There comes a time when you can no longer afford the services of the consultant. Or you feel you have this viral technique down pat – enough to go it on your own. You’ll just follow the same advice you’ve been following for the past 6 months.

However, what you don’t realize is that the consultant pulled the behind-the-scenes support when you parted ways. The spammy pages are no longer sharing; reach and engagement goes down. You try to get the large following you’ve amassed to do something – anything – meaningful. But they don’t. Because they’ve been trained to respond to silly memes, cute photos, viral videos, and inspirational quotes. They weren’t your optimal audience in the first place.

And now you’re stuck with 500,000 Facebook fans who will never bring a meaningful ROI and viral “engagement” techniques that don’t actually work.

There are steps you can take to properly vet a social media expert. But remember the age old adage that still rings true today: “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.”