If social media consultants are doing their jobs, they should put themselves out of business. I speak as one of their kind. Before joining Fast Company last spring, I was the social media editor at the New York Daily News. So I'll say it even bolder: At some point, Fast Company should fire me. (Just not too soon, please!)
Your company will never be truly social if you silo social activity within a consultant or a staff manager. To facilitate proliferation, your consultant should learn how your company works, then create a strategy to spread social throughout your organization. But in the meantime, here's what you should be hearing from your consultant:
1 "What's your goal?" Some social media gurus think the big prize is community. That's a fine start, but for a business, it's also a means to an end—which is whatever your company's larger goals are, whether they be sales, brand awareness, or traffic. Your social strategy should not end with the creation of an online conversation.
2 "Here's the ROI." Consultants may tell you that social investments can't be justified in a quantifiable way. Wrong. The data is out there. If they want you to spend $75,000 on a Foursquare badge, they should explain how that investment will help you reach your goals.
3 "I don't care about follower counts." Companies obsess over how many followers they have, and consultants play to that. But Facebook ads and "Like this page" contests often don't boost consumer engagement. Rather, you should be courting influencers—trusted insiders with engaged followers (such as bloggers, niche celebrities, or active tweeters), who can help spread your message.
4 "Facebook and Twitter are only a start." Consultants should know which platforms are best for your businesses. For example, if you are a fashion designer and your consultant isn't talking about collage platform Polyvore, they're doing something wrong.
5 "Let's look at data." Your consultant should find smart ways to interpret data that platforms provide, and track down new data sources as well. She should also identify the best social measurement, management, and listening tools for your company's needs, so you can look up those data yourself after she's gone.
Follow Fast Company's roadmap to social media: surefire rules, data, and expert wisdom guaranteed to show why this market is completely unpredictable.
And when you're given data, double-check them. I once worked with an agency that presented steep graphs to convince me their engagement efforts had scaled. A close inspection revealed the numbers were actually low—but after repeated requests, the agency was unable (or unwilling) to provide me with specifics about the best times to post, best content to post, and who was most engaged with us. That shouldn't happen.
6 "Your website should be social." Don't just rely on other platforms. Your consultant should optimize your own site for sharing and data collection. To start, connect to Facebook's Open Graph and measure social activity—including "likes"—within your domain, in addition to measuring that activity within Facebook itself.
7 "I'm not a social media guru." Good. Because if she says she is, she probably isn't.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.