imageSocial media experts have been under assault lately. I guess my previous post on the topic didn’t have much influence.

To start with, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. An expert is a person who has prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field. I’m not sure why that’s such an undesirable attribute for someone to have.

The objections fall in a couple categories. First, there are those who believe anybody who calls him or herself a social media "expert" (or "guru" or "ninja" or whatever) couldn’t possibly be one. Anyone with the temerity to so label themselves probably spent six months on Twitter and created a moderately effective Facebook page, then hung out a shingle.

If you hire someone like this, you have nobody but yourself to blame. You wouldn’t hire a structural engineer, a chemist or an auditor without checking their references and verifying that they have experience, that they’ve actually done the work and not just talked a good game. The same due diligence applies to hiring any other kind of expert, including one who focuses on social media.

The other objection was articulated in a recent post by Peter Shankman (all around nice guy, great speaker and successful serial entrepreneur). Here’s what Peter wrote:

Being an expert in Social Media is like being an expert at taking the bread out of the refrigerator. You might be the best bread-taker-outer in the world, but you know what? The goal is to make an amazing sandwich, and you can’t do that if all you’ve done in your life is taken the bread out of the fridge.

That makes for a nice sound bite, and of the 352 comments left to the post, most echo the “Amen, brother” from the very first comment. But it’s wrong. So, so wrong. What if you change “expert in social media” to “expert in “solid rocket boosters?” The goal is to launch the space shuttle, but if all you ever do is focus on solid rocket boosters, you can’t get the shuttle off the pad. Right?

Of course not. It takes experts in many dimensions of the shuttle to get it into orbit. The idea that everybody involved is a generalist who should know everything about the shuttle is ridiculous.

And while social media isn’t exactly rocket science, it’s not as stupifyingly simple as making a sandwich, either. (If you think it is, then you’re probably one of those who also believes it’s really, really cheap.)

Dismissing the experts means never getting the benefit of a Jason Falls, Brian Solis, Jeremiah Owyag, Jay Baer, Maggie Fox, Liz Strauss, C.C. Chapman, Beth Harte and a slew of others who know a ton and by sharing it can add value to your efforts. it means Ford Motor Company should never have hired Scott Monty and Dell was out of its freakin’ mind for putting someone like Manish Mehta in charge of social media, since the marketing staff should just internalize it into their other activities.

But what does an organization lose when everyone’s a generalist and nobody’s the go-to person on a specific area of subject matter expertise? A lot, says I. Pundits have made hay out of another sound bite that goes something like this: “It’s better for social media to be 1 percent of 100 employees’ jobs than 100% of 1 person’s job.” Again, it sounds great but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

At companies like Dell and Gatorade, they’ve hired people just to monitor social media. They’re trained to know what to look for, to process analytics at a glance and to know what they should do with the insights they glean. Should that be part of everybody’s job? Well, to a degree, yes. But it’s all these staffers do. They’re experts. Presumably, the marketers and PR practitioners and other communicators in the organization have marketing, PR and communications to do and can’t spend their entire day just focused on monitoring and analytics.

At BlogWorld last week in New York, I sat in on an excellent panel that looked at Facebook analytics and the EdgeRank system the social network employs. It was mind-boggling watching Dennis Yu go through the paces, from tapping into EdgeRank analytics to showing how he’d bang out a quick script to analyze the connections of any Facebook member (and then use the resulting information to improve a page’s ability to get into news feeds).

If this isn’t a skill you have in your organization—and even the largest companies don’t necessarily hire for something so granular—then Dennis or another expert may be just the ticket.

Together, we could probably list 20 or 30 social media specialties where a company could benefit from the expertise of someone who spends all their time focused on it, learning it, executing for multiple clients, talking about it with peers.

So here’s the deal. Never say never. If you need someone with a specific skill or capability you don’t have, find someone with the qualifications, the experience and the references to do the job, then hire them. I really don’t give a crap what this person calls himself, only whether he’s got the chops to do the job. If you get the results you were hoping for, it was a good move.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Mae Li.