Why Digital Marketing “Gurus” Give the Industry a Bad Name
What’s the threshold for being able to call yourself an expert?
Usually, experts have years of experience in their chosen profession. They’re at the top of their industry, and they shape the path of progress. We wouldn’t typically say that someone without leadership experience or an advanced educational background is an expert.
And yet, there’s no shortage of so-called “digital marketing experts” or “gurus” online whose only real experience seems to be an online certification course and a middling YouTube channel.
The rise of the so-called “digital marketing guru” (aka the “digital marketing ninja,” aka “digital marketing evangelist”) coincided with the practice of social media personal branding. While social media has undoubtedly created fantastic opportunities for real experts to connect and share their knowledge, it has also opened the floodgates for a tsunami of dubiously self-titled “gurus” just looking for a quick payday.
Digital marketing, being a relatively new profession, seems to attract this type of person like flies to honey, and that’s likely because they conflate posting to their own social channels or writing a blog with managing marketing for a major company (although it’s basically the difference between playing peewee soccer and competing in the World Cup).
That misconception isn’t helped by the fact that many companies, usually small-scale businesses or start-ups, choose to hand over their social media management or content creation to interns or inexperienced team members. I mean, how hard can it be, right? In reality, it takes a great deal of experience and deliberate effort (often including quite a bit of failed attempts) to become an expert at just one of the many skills that fall under the umbrella of “digital marketing.”
With that in mind, it’s become all the more important for business to become extra-vigilant when it comes to the vendors or individuals who they trust to manage their brand’s online presence. After all, a slip-up can be both financially and reputationally costly.
The Problem with Gurus
As more and more people label themselves as digital marketing experts with no real background in marketing or business development, it’s becoming more and more difficult to identify who’s the real deal.
I’ve talked with countless people who were initially skeptical because they’ve been burned once before (which is completely understandable), and it takes some time to build up that trust to the point where they can see that there are real people doing amazing work in the industry. After forking over hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on initiatives that go nowhere, anyone would be skeptical.
But, let’s make one thing absolutely clear: The people who do this are predators. They’re not just incompetent. They are actively trying to scam people and businesses into giving them something for nothing, usually through a combination of charm and a disregard for the people they hurt.
While they may hide behind vague titles like “guru” to mask their intentions and lack of experience, I want to see these people get called out for what they really are: scam artists.
How to Spot a Guru
Gurus talk a big game. They may even have a significant number of followers on one or more major social network. But remember, that doesn’t mean they’re an expert. After all, snake oil salesmen also knew how to draw a crowd.
Many online digital marketing courses promise to transform their students from absolute novices into experts in a matter of hours, but that’s far from the truth. In reality, these courses provide participants with scripts and roadmaps for providing very simple services to clients, encouraging them to use blanket statements and one-size-fits-all approaches to the task. They may know how to run an ad campaign, but they don’t know the “how” or the “why” behind the action. There’s no strategy, just blind execution.
That’s why the best way to spot a faker is to do your homework and ask questions. If you suspect that someone is feeding you a script, try to get them to talk more candidly. Tell them about the particular challenges that you business is facing and see if they’re able to explain the reasoning behind their recommendations. If you feel like your contributions to the discussion are being ignored, it’s time to move along.
It also never hurts to ask for case studies and examples of their previous work. Find out exactly what they were doing before they became a “social media guru” or an “seo ninja.” If their specialty is (supposedly) social media marketing, then you should be able to look to their own social channels as proof of their experience. Low engagement, low numbers of followers, and a general lack of content are all huge red flags that you shouldn’t just ignore if you’re going to trust someone to manage your business’s online social presence.
You should also be able to gather reviews and recommendations from the agency or individual you’re looking to hire. If you can’t find any, that’s another red flag.
Now, these tips may sound a bit obvious, but the tricky thing about digital marketing gurus is that they’re charismatic. A silver tongue and a convincing script is often all it takes to convince someone they know what they’re talking about. Often, the only way to get past the bluster is to ask for concrete, results-oriented examples of their work.
The Antidote to Guru Culture
The easiest way to spot a faker is when you see someone outright refer to themselves as a “guru” (or ninja, or evangelist, or any other cringy signifier). “Guru,” a word that’s rooted in Buddhist and Hinduist practices, originally referred to religious leaders of a community. These leaders are spiritual masters who have achieved self-realization and have dedicated themselves to removing ignorance.
To call oneself a guru just because you know how to run a Facebook ad is, needless to say, more than a little self-important.
To combat the scourge of digital marketing gurus, the industry has to get smarter. Those of us who can actually call ourselves experts need to put more work into providing value and demonstrating our knowledge upfront. We should promote transparency and be able to “show our work” when a client asks for our reasoning behind a decision.
Consumers also need to become savvier about who they choose to hire. Ask questions. Do your research. And always be wary of the people who call themselves “gurus.”