We Don’ Need No Stinkin’ Social Media Experts

A few days ago Peter Shankman wrote a provocative post about why one should never hire a “Social Media Expert”. His main point is that

“Social media is just another facet of marketing and customer service. Say it with me. Repeat it until you know it by heart. Bind it as a sign upon your hands and upon thy gates. Social media, by itself, will not help you.”

This was posted on ProgressivExchange and attracted a more than usual amount of attention. A fair number of “social media experts” are on that list. But it’s a fair debate: do we need social media experts in the nonprofit/organizing/campaign space? When? How?

Nonprofit and political communication staff can’t be assumed to know when or how to use social media, online ads, online video, a microsite, or any other kind of nontraditional, digital strategy. I’ve met them. Here are four typical responses from insufficiently skilled communicators:

  1. Hire a trusted consulting firm (who might be clueless as well) and pay them loads of money for advice one could have Googled and execution that a junior staffer could have done – for a whole lot less.
  2. Reject unfamiliar methodologies.
  3. Encourage staff to present digital strategies, but then reject them, so they can take credit for internal crowd-sourcing while still following (2) above.
  4. Read up on the literature and try their best, but since they only have 100 hours doing this ‘stuff’ they combine relative ignorance with alpha male self-confidence, wasting time and money as they themselves seek to master digital strategy on the fly, ensuring that the organization only advances as fast as they can acquire new skills and insights. (In other words, slowly and inefficiently!)

None of these four options are indefensible. They just aren’t as good as what real leaders do. Here are the alternatives:

  1. Look for a consulting firm or consultant who really has expertise in digital strategy, and learn how to tell the difference between those who get this field and those that don’t, between the traditional strategic PR and media consulting and the Fission/Rad Campaigns of the world. It ain’t the same thing, not by a long shot.
  2. Cultivate a digital strategist internally from your board or a staff member and cede power to them over their areas of expertise. Acquirethe skill of managing an expert, as you would with an attorney or accountant, instead of arrogantly deciding to become that kind of expert yourself. (Arrogant = because you aren’t actually doing to spend the time it takes.)
  3. Crowdsource questions about strategy only if you or someone else in the room has the expertise to evaluate them properly. Absent that element, why waste everyone’s time?
  4. By all means, build your own expertise in digital strategy. Just try and remember the 10,000 hours rule. Someone who has spent five years doing this will know more than you. And after five years, they will have ten years, so even if you changed your career to become a digital strategist, they still might have something to teach you. Be humble and aware of your core competencies, use experts – including social media consultants – judiciously. Don’t force your entire organization to be as slow as you might be.

After sending a version of this response to the list, a bunch of folks wrote to me appreciating how these approaches are laid out. What do you think?

Before you answer, consider viewing this oldie but a goodie about those damn social media experts:

Thank You Pittsburgh!

On May 10th we held our first ‘away game’ training in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t easy, but we did it! We’re grateful to some important people who stepped up to help with the training:

Kimberly Ellis, aka Dr. Goddess, who presented Social Media 101.

Jesse Mark from Action United, who participated in our session about integrating online tools into electoral work.

Jennifer England from Action United, who led the session on using the VAN (voter file database software) and on web design for non-techies.

Kenneth Miller from the Pittsburgh Anti-Sweatshop Community Alliance, who led a session on Salsa and using a CRM.

Celeste Taylor of B-PEP and REMP and Paul O’Hanlon of the Disability Rights Network presented together on issues impacting the 2011 elections.

Our hosts at the North Shore Community Alliance (Carol Washington and staff) were terrific. They have the best computer training lab I’ve ever seen. Our friends, attendees and community partners came together to allow for a great training event that served 25 participants from 13 organizations.

We’re talking about the best way to stay in touch with each other around nonprofit technology, online election tools, digital strategy and social media. One of the options on the table is forming a new 501 Tech Club, to be affiliated with the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). Are you willing to help organizing a Pittsburgh 501 Tech Club? Contact amy@nten.org. She’s expecting you!

Here’s what some of you said about the training:

  • The very best session experience I had was the exchanged between Jen England and Charles.  A great example of connecting digital possibilities stemming from the VAN.  A simple concept that can be taken into an amazing number of possibilities …. BOTTOM like – organizations need to develop this type of connected thinking
  • How could the opposition use facebook, twitter, online organizing against you… give examples
  • Very good intro, acknowledged that online organizing is not a substitute for grassroots organizing… how does online organizing/twitting/facebook supplement grassroots labor organizing?
  • Initial presentation was great
  • Great hands-on knowledge/connections
  • A long term solution to go into details would be good
  • The people were great
  • How can I get more involved with Organizing 2.0
  • Good examples of how these tools can be useful for campaigning
  • Our organizations need much better data management
  • Website development – learned enough basics to get going and have informed discussions, got me thinking
  • The list of online organizing tools given in the closing session was awesome and intimidating
  • Well organized, covered a lot of ground
  • Intros were too long

Once again, thank you all for helping, showing up, and being cooperative. This was a real team effort.

Mobile-ize, Organize & Unionize – June 3rd

Organizing 2.0 and Mobile Commons have teamed up to offer a special day-long training in using mobile phone technology for organizing. We have 25 spots open to staff at unions, labor organizations, and community organizing groups. An additional 5 spots are open to others working for progressive social change. REGISTER HERE


WHEN: Friday, June 3rd, 9-5
WHERE: The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Ave., New York City
REGISTRATION: $50. Discounts apply*

This training is meant for three kinds of attendees:

  • Experienced practitioners looking for case studies and examples of innovating organizing,
  • New users of mobile organizing software looking for basic and advanced training,
  • and prospective users looking for information about mobile organizing options before making the leap to a particular vendor.

Our trainers include some of the most experienced mobile organizers in the country:

Katrin Verclas has written widely on mobile phones in citizen participation and civil society organizations, mobile phones in health and for development. She is the co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org, a global network of practitioners using mobile phones for social impact. She was a 2009 TED Fellow, a 2010 fellow at the MIT Media Lab, and was named by Fast Company one of the most  “Influential Women in Tech” in 2011.

Rachel LaBruyere was responsible for growing one of the largest and most active mobile opt in lists while working with the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign. She took technology and integrated it into an existing movement, while managing the organization and organizers involved. She is currently the Director of Mobile Strategy at Mobile Commons.

Reshma Mehta is a Legislative Representative for AARP.  She has spent over 8 years in the government and non-profit arena.  At her current position, she works to advance AARP’s legislative agenda in Congress and in state legislatures throughout the nation, advocating on issues such as health care reform, home and community based services, Medicare, Social Security, consumer protection, housing and mobility, and more.

On a daily basis, Reshma helps with the recruitment, education, mobilization and retention of millions of activists in the growing AARP grassroots advocacy program.  This includes creating and executing highly targeted and segmented cross-channel campaigns that engage AARP members and the general public at both the national and state levels.

Lisa Grob is the Communications Manager for Online Activism in the Strategic Communications Department at the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). Since 2007, Lisa has focused on using communications tools to build political and organizing strength at LIUNA including integrating mobile technology into campaign efforts. As part of her work, Lisa trains Local Unions on the use of communications tools including mobile messaging, website development, and social media to reach their members and grow their activist base. Prior to her work at LIUNA, Lisa worked for at the environmental non-profit, Friends of the Earth, where she promoted online activism and served as editor of the newsmagazine.

Jess Kutch is the Director of Organizing for Economic Justice at Change.org, where she leads a team of organizers who identify, support and win user-generated campaigns on Change.org’s platform. Before joining Change.org this year, Jess spent five years directing online campaigns for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). During that time, she pioneered new media strategies for worksite organizing and issue campaigning within the labor movement. Her work includes the “I am not a pre-existing condition” campaign, the Privatization Beast campaign on privatization of public libraries, and WhyTheDMVSucks.org in response to DMV-related complaints on Twitter.

Additional trainers include: Michael Sabat, Ben Stein, Gloria Fong, Katie Saddlemire, & Charles Lenchner


  • Overview of the sector: progressive organizing with mobile phone technology today
  • Software training – using the Mobile Commons interface
  • Managing your mobile data in coordination with other databases/CRM’s
  • Integration with Salsa & Convio
  • Using Keywords, Opting In, Broadcasts, Groups, mConnects
  • Targeting, Pingbacks, Link Shortening, mobile web optimization
  • Opt-in forms, click to call, auto-population of fields
  • Advanced tips/tricks
  • Unions using mobile – case studies
  • Community organizing with mobile – case studies
  • List-building basics,  Call-in campaigns, Interactive campaigns, Rapid response, Crowd building, Day-of event plans
  • Low-cost alternatives to major mobile platform vendors
  • Group texting
  • Internal voting
  • Local vs. National
  • Advanced list-building strategies


* If you or your organization is a member of the New York Metro Labor Communications Council, you can attend for half price – $25.

Wanted: New Media Summer Intern

Our prestigious liberal organization is well connected in the high flying advocacy and lobbying world. If you spend time with us you will come to understand precisely how the DC swamp connecting money, politicians and influence actually works, and how liberal organizations like ours fit neatly into that world through our connections to funders and organizations representing special interests.

Our preference is for a college graduate from an Ivy League college confident they belong in the world of the power elite and with parents who can pay $800/month rent for two months, so you can be working for free with us instead of getting a real, but far lower status job. While officially we frown on nepotism, any family affiliations you might have to movement VIP’s will definitely be taken into account. That said, our goal is to make you work very hard, for free, on the kinds of tasks that require little training. Furthermore, as someone we say goodbye to at the end of the summer, we are unlikely to invest very much in your training. There are books in the self-help section at Amazon that will teach you to make the most of it with a positive mental attitude. You should probably read one of them now. [Read more...]