While Internet marketing strategist B.L. Ochman questions in Ad Age how 181,000 people have come to call themselves social media "gurus," "ninjas," "masters" and "mavens" on Twitter, there's one fact we have to face: if they weren't being hired, then they couldn't be making these claims.
You can call them "gurus" or "ninjas," but under the hood, they are good old fashioned "experts," an age-old fake form of currency that's practically counterfeiting.
You may say these titles are a bunch of baloney, but plenty of clients are eating them up, because in this economy, it's easy to be a risk-averse nervous Nelly who needs the comfort of hiring the equivalent of IBM (as in "no one ever got fired for hiring IBM").
But it's time to get the Gatorade bucket and dump some cold hard reality over these clients' heads. An "expert" is someone who has exhausted all available data on a topic. Clients who value this status are seeking comfort in strategies and tactics based in what has already happened -- not in what's going to happen. They're operating from behind other horses in the race.
Clients demand and deserve experience, indeed excellence, in their category. They don't want to risk their jobs on a learning curve. But they ought to consider another, less-used definition (the root, really) of the word "expert" that is more relevant for the fast-paced, always-changing, we-don't-know-what's-next space: "To try, test."
This is a subtle but important distinction. When we say "expert," it implies, "I've learned it all and my way is the best way." But what clients really need is someone with deep experience in their category, giving them the platform from which to try new things in a manner that can advance their brands, while managing risk.
And trying things has never been easier. Never before could hypotheses be tested in such a speedy and cost-effective way. Direct marketers understand this. Failing fast and cheap has never been easier.
Think of the exploding ad-tech space, now attracting talent from Wall Street. And the start-up/hacker culture that is giving birth to thousands of apps, add-ons, widgets, tools and analytics. Consider how competitive this space is and how many smart and talented people are hungry to apply their open-source approach to help you solve a communications, marketing, branding, connecting and engaging problem. Then consider the amount of data we're generating, capturing and analyzing on a daily basis.
Expert in social media? You're an expert? Maybe you are today, but tomorrow I'll show you a new approach, funded by a crazy rich guy, already proven in beta with a big brand that will turn your assumptions and "way of doing business" on its head. And it's not just in social, digital or mobile. Apps are changing how we watch TV, read news, cut coupons and experience events.
If you want to be an expert in something useful and lasting, it should be in two areas: 1) finding undiscovered insights and 2) testing theories at a tiny cost, without sinking the ship. And once they're proven, start growing them with amazing speed, adapting and adjusting constantly along the way. Then start over, standing on your own shoulders.
As an industry, we should embrace experimentation, like the inventors, tinkerers and disruptors who question the rules as a way to start solving the problem, not as a last resort. The results are exponentially better.
Both clients and agencies will benefit when they stop placing value on the modern definition of "expert" and create conditions where testing, experimenting, optimizing and speed are as valuable as any tool in our kit.