Standing_out If you pay attention to what the marketing blogosphere buzzes about, you have probably noticed that a number of people have been debating what qualifies someone to be a social media 'expert.' Is it personal experience or a long list of client case studies? Is it the title on your business card or some vague blurb in your Twitter bio? Does simply being "born digital" (whatever that means) make you an expert? Or given that today's social tools are so new and the rate of change so fast, does it even make sense to call anyone a social media expert?

I've been following the debate and gritting my teeth, holding back on adding my two cents. But, generally speaking, my question is "who cares?" 

Seriously. 

Who cares what defines social media expertise? And why are we even devoting digital ink to answering that question?

Sure, there are a lot of charlatans. But there are also a lot of people who understand both social media and the changes happening in business well enough to dispense sound advice to corporate clients. They might work inside large corporations or at small agencies. They might work alone in their spare bedrooms or preach to the converted on conference stages around the world. Unlike the charlatans, these people "get it" and companies in need of advice may want to pay attention when they talk.  

I'd like to think that I fall into the latter camp, but I wouldn't say that this makes me an 'expert' in social media. Not by a long shot. What's more, I wouldn't really want to be...

What actually is a social media expert anyway?

Is it someone who is up to speed on all the latest Web 2.0 tools and platforms? It seems to me that this form of expertise is fleeting at best, akin to being an expert in shifting sands.

Is it someone who understands that companies and the people representing them need to be honest and personable, listen politely when other people talk, try to do nice things and be helpful when they can? By that definition, weren't we all taught the basics of social media expertise when we were little kids?  Congratulations, you are an expert human being. Next...

By one definition, almost nobody can be an expert. By the other, just about everybody is.

But to me the more important question is, does the world really need social media experts at all? Or do we really needs experts at whatever, who happen to understand how social media affects whatever they're expert in. 

That's a mouthful, I know - so let me explain.

I may not consider myself a social media expert, but I do consider myself a marketing expert. I may not know everything there is to know, but I've been gainfully employed as a marketer for close to 20 years. I've been trained in the fundamentals, learned some hard lessons, had some pretty impressive successes and some very painful failures. I know how to take what I've learned and apply it to other people's business challenges. I'm still learning, but I have plenty of my own expertise to offer.

Then again, while I don't consider myself a social media expert, I do think it is fair to say I know a good bit about both the technologies that power social and the human motivations and behaviors that make the technologies matter. 

Put everything together, and I'm a marketing expert who understands how social media affects the way I market. Marketing is my "whatever."  Social media is not.

Your whatever can be... well... literally... whatever. It's the thing you do that makes you unique and different. It's the thing you're really good at. It's the thing you want to be known for above all else.

Within our industry:

  • Doug Haslam is a PR guy who knows how to use social media to get the word out.  (I could have named 100 names, but this post was kinda, sorta inspired by something I read on his blog today.)
  • David Armano is expert in visual thinking (among other things) and knows how to use social media to spread his ideas.

Or looking beyond the marketosphere:

  • Gary Vaynerchuck is a wine expert who knows how to use social medi to sell more wine.
  • Scott Sigler is an author who knows how to use social media to build a community of rapid fans.
  • Suzi Finer is a damn good cake decorator who knows how to use social media to sell more cakes.
  • Natasha Westcoat is a talented artist who knows how to use social media to sell art and actually make a living doing what she loves.

All of these people have grown their businesses and/or achieved personal success by making good use of the same tools that 'social media experts' evangelize -- Twitter, Facebook, communities, blogs or podcasts -- but I'd be shocked if any of them introduce themselves as Twitter experts or Facebook consultants.  And if I were a corporate muckety muck, I'd pay closer attention to what people like Gary, Scott, Suzi or Natasha are doing than I'd pay to anyone who handed me a card reading "social media consultant."

If after reading this entire diatribe you still believe that the one thing that you do want to truly be known for is your expertise in social media, then by all means go for it.  Just be aware that so-called social media experts are a dime a dozen today, and given the speed of change you might be obsolete by tomorrow. Even if you're good, it will be pretty hard to stand out from the pack -- and the glory, fame and riches you will earn as an expert may be short-lived.

Besides, your clients or employers probably don't want to work with a "social media expert." And they almost certainly don't want to be social media experts themselves. They just want to figure out if, when, where and how they might be able to use social media to accomplish the things they set out to accomplish.

Be the guy (or gal) who solves that challenge. Make it your whatever, but keep in mind that the things your client needs to accomplish probably bear a greater resemblance to selling cakes than to writing the perfect tweet.

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