Clearing Up Misperceptions

by Jason Falls |

An interesting conversation emerged on Olivier Blanchard’s blog this week around the subject of social media certification. He was rather critical of the International Social Media Association because they are offering certification training. The ensuing comments opened up a stream of ideas, complaints, agreements, disagreements, some brown-nosing, some barbs and more. The conversation was both entertaining and informative. For what I think is a more constructive discussion of certification, you should see Olivier’s fantastic follow-up post which focuses more on the issue of certification than the ISMA or its founders.

The unfortunate fall out of Blanchard’s initial criticisms, which I offered were too much about the people than the ideas much to his disagreement (see the comments), was a series of emails, direct messages and phone calls from people asking me why I would be involved with, “such an organization,” and be, “taking part in their certification training.” Unfortunately the intent of an author’s writing is often overshadowed by the tone the audience perceives. My hope was that Blanchard could see that his admitted snarkiness had repercussions. Forgive the indulgence. I need to clarify a few things here as the unfortunate (albeit unintended) misrepresentation of ISMA and me has overtaken enough of my inbound messages to justify the need.

M. C. Escher − Drawing Hands, 1948.
Image via Wikipedia

The ISMA is an organization founded by Mari Smith and Mark Eldridge. Michael Stelzner, a friend of mine and editor/author of the new and popular blog SocialMediaExaminer.com, is on their board of directors. I’ve met Mari once, briefly at Blog World & New Media Expo where she was a speaker on the Social Media Business Summit which I programmed for the conference. Stelzner was a Blog World speaker as well. Mari and I have both helped Michael’s efforts with content and interviews for SocialMediaExaminer.com but are otherwise unconnected. Still, she is a known and reputable social media thinker, speaker and consultant.

Two weeks ago, Mari’s assistant asked me to participate in a webinar for the ISMA. I agreed to do so. There was some discussion as to whether or not I would participate in a free webinar for all the association’s members or one for their paid certification program. I preferred to participate in the free one but, because I like Mari and know her to be a reputable social media professional, I agreed to do either.

That is the end of the story of my involvement in the ISMA. I support the overall intent of the organization, am confident in its president (Smith) in offering sound social media advice and education (free or otherwise) to people willing to join, learn, etc. I don’t plan on joining but wouldn’t tell people not to.

That said, I’d like to take the opportunity to offer a few thoughts on this apparent division/controversy/whatever around Olivier’s original post, organized by topic so as to not confuse or mix any points:

SOCIAL MEDIA CERTIFICATION

  • I believe social media certification to not be realistically feasible in such a young industry. However, if a group of qualified, experienced social media professionals got together to try it, someone has to be first. Yes, they’ll withstand a fair amount of criticism – and rightfully so – but it’s inevitable, so I don’t think it’s worth fighting or getting worked up over. In the end, the people who pay for it will ultimately judge its worth. If we don’t choose to participate and help shape that certification and criticize, we are just throwing stones.
  • If the first group to attempt a social media certification program were the Social Media Club or the International Blogging & New Media Association, someone else would have offered up similar criticisms. Even if the list of people Blanchard suggested as more qualified board members were involved, someone would have raised issues.
  • Certification and/or accreditation will be a hot-button issue regardless of who is involved in determining what makes a certified professional. If it’s not government mandated, accreditation is always second-guessed and controversial. Look at PRSA. Accreditation in public relations is dividing the organization to this day and PR accreditation has been around a long time.
  • I don’t endorse or think the certification badge or certificate from the ISMA is worth much, but the training probably is. I’ve suggested to Mari they consider changing the terminology, much like what some voices in Blanchard’s conversation did, to soften the blow and listen to that section of the social media community. I hope they give it some thought.

PROFIT AND SOCIAL MEDIA

  • A lot of the objection posed by Blanchard and others in the comments on the mentioned posts revolved around the $2800 (or so) price tag on the ISMA’s certification training. I offer that the training (assume the “certification” becomes “training” so we don’t get caught up in semantics) is as cost effective or efficient than spending money on some conferences offered up in the social media space. And I would argue that live webinar training is probably more effective and useful than learning provided at many conferences, too.
  • If Mari is paying her presenters, great. If she’s not, that’s okay, too. Use the conference example here, as well. Plenty of conferences feature speakers that aren’t being paid. If they see a benefit in participating anyway, what business is it of ours? They can say “no,” ya know?
  • The perception of the ISMA board as, in Blanchard’s words, “what appears to be a mix of affiliate marketers, entrepreneurs and motivational speakers?” was actually repeated to me by two people. The insinuation is that they’re not qualified to teach social media and they’re in it for a buck. If the teachers and trainers in this organization might include folks like me and/or Blanchard, who they reached out to for educational content, then the qualification argument is solved. There’s a good portion of ISMA’s content and community interaction that is free, including several webinars and extended learning opportunities. So what if they use this to drive some revenue? Chris Brogan sells consultancy services and his book. I assume Blanchard sells his consultant services. We all have ways of monetizing what we do. Why is this different?
  • Finally, it doesn’t matter who thinks they’re qualified to say what is right or wrong in social media, the world is a big place. There will always be an audience for anyone selling this expertise. What I offer (okay, sell) may not work for some brands or businesses. They may chose to pay a self-appointed social media guru. And you know what? That individual, who we may criticize for selling snake oil, may well fit their needs and make them happy. Or they’ll be disappointed with the outcomes and hire someone different the next time. Anyone can point a finger at the ISMA and say they’re “Bullshit” as Blanchard’s post image implies, but there will likely be a number of people who join, learn and even pay them. Some (probably most) will go home happy with the value they receive.

I’m happy to entertain your thoughts in the comments. Before I turn them over to you, I want to emphasize one point very seriously:

I think Olivier Blanchard is a smart cookie. I read his blog regularly. I have never met or worked with him but his background appears to be extremely strong and qualified in social media, marketing and business. He knows his stuff. But the perception some people took from his post (which I’m convinced he did not intend) and the ensuing comments (which he doesn’t necessarily control) produced some inaccuracies and misperceptions. I felt compelled to clarify.

Please … a penny for your thoughts? And thank you for the indulgence.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).