BusinessWeek’s Stephen Baker has an excellent piece this morning warning businesses to beware social media snake oil.

Over the past five years, an entire industry of consultants has arisen to help companies navigate the world of social networks, blogs, and wikis. The self-proclaimed experts range from legions of wannabes, many of them refugees from the real estate bust, to industry superstars such as Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk. They produce best-selling books and dole out advice or lead workshops at companies for thousands of dollars a day. The consultants evangelize the transformative power of social media and often cast themselves as triumphant case studies of successful networking and self-branding.

There’s no shortage of social media ‘experts’ when it comes to the law. The hype from these marketing ‘experts’ promoting the value of blogs, Twitter, and social networking sites obscures the real potential of these online tools.

Many legal professionals, reporters, conference coordinators, and bloggers are letting these ‘experts’ get away with it. They’re defining social media expertise by the number of Twitter followers, blog mentions, LinkedIn connections, or website hits one has.

Bloggers, reporters, and conference coordinators are getting their social media expertise from people who practiced law briefly, if at all. The ‘experts’ often have never run a law firm or played any significant role in a law firm’s management. That’s nuts.

When looking for social media expertise as a lawyer or law firm, don’t leave your common sense behind. It’s not always about what social media ‘experts’ proclaim in regard to being transparent, engagement with everyone, buzz to get followers and hits, and breaking down the silos.

Using social media tools is about realizing a return on investment in your situation as a firm. What feels natural to your lawyers and your law firm is key. How does a social media and blogging strategy fit within how your law firm networks for reputation enhancement and client development? Where do we as a law firm begin to test blogging and social media to gain a comfort as to how these tools work? These are types of questions you should be asking as a law firm.

My fear is that law firms are going to pass judgment on social media based on the messengers preaching overnight success. Baker warns that just as companies swore off the Internet as a business tool with the fall of the dot-com hype, companies could reduce social media investments just as the industry takes off because of all the social media hype.

That would be a shame. As Baker says, companies shouldn’t ignore the harder-to-quantify dividends of social media, such as trust and commitment. “A Twittering employee, for example, might develop trust or goodwill among customers but have trouble putting a number on it.”

Social media for networking by lawyers and client development by law firms is real. Rather than look at social media as something new and techie, look at social media as traditional networking and engaging with your target audience. Go with what makes sense from someone who seems like a trusted and reliable source.

  • Great post, Kevin. This is a very good reminder, especially to lawyers who are embarking on new ventures (which is a large, and getting larger, segment of the industry). Social media numbers can be enticing and intoxicating, but it’s good to be reminded that what matters is actually connecting with real clients and referral sources.